Monthly Archives: August 2015
We like to believe that it is us who chose the books we read. If that is so, what draws us to certain books? The ones that we have never seen on bookstore shelves before, authors never heard of even in the most popular book review columns, how do they find their way to us? Among hundreds of others on the shelves, and within a few minutes, how do our eyes catch hold of those covers, our hands grab it as if our life depended on it and before we know, we are walking away with that satisfied smile in our eyes. Our soul sings, this is one of those. The kind you get lost in.
Five thirty in the morning, to catch a flight at fifteen minutes past six is not one of the best times to browse a book shelf. But then, the habit of a lifetime is hard to break. The choice was between this and Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Pleasures of Reading.’ Having met an interesting person from Lebanon a few months ago, the setting was a definite pull. However, it was the blurb that clinched it.
“Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage.’ Every year, she translates a new favorite work into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty seven books that she has translated over her lifetime has never been read or touched by anyone but her.”
Can there be a character more interesting than her? She is a creature of ritual as far as her translations are concerned. Every single translation of hers has started on a New Year’s Day. At seventy two, contemplating on the next work to be taken up, she is all alone. No friends to talk to, no family whom she feels close to, she has been staying in the same apartment since the day she was married, at sixteen. Four years later, her husband leaves her. Yet, remorse is not for her,
“I did not wait for the smell of him to dissipate on its own. I expunged it.”
Her friend gets her a job in a bookshop. The owner just wanted the prestige of owning a bookshop and she ruled the shop single handed till it closes down almost fifty years later. And that is how she built her own private collection – by ordering an extra copy here and there, not bothering to return a few borrowed ones and then laying claim to the ones that were left as the shop closed down. No regrets about that, either.
The story moves up and down between the present and past, the characters keep coming and going. The three witches who stay in the same building provide a constant background- Marie Therese and Joumana, both teaching at the American University and Fadia, her land lady. Her crazy mother and the elderly brother and his family is at a distance, though their ominous presence is felt throughout.
The story progresses through Aaliya’s thoughts on the books she has read. She has a literary reference for each character and every incident in her life. And that is exactly what makes this book such a pleasure to read. Talking about her impotent husband, she refers to Kant,
“In ‘The Science of Right,’ Kant wrote, ‘Marriage is the Union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of each other’s sexual organs.’
Kant obviously hadn’t met my husband.”
On the changing faces of her city , she quotes from ‘Sepharad’ by Antonio Munoz Molina,’
“Only those of us who,have left the city know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones that remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.”
The profusion of quotes doesn’t mean the authors has no words of his own. The subtle sense of humor is so delightful. Again, on her city, Aaliya comments,
“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”
Being a translator herself, even though a closet one, it is but natural that she lays bare her thoughts on the art of translation. One of the best books that she remembers reading is ‘Crime and Punishment,’ in French. She was so impressed by the book that she took up the English translation by Constance Garnett and was duly disappointed. Again, it is through another author that she speaks her mind,
“As Joseph Brodsky said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.’
The author Hits the nail right on the head. Literal translations have no soul. The original need to be transformed and renewed to have any meaning and to speak to the reader.
The pace slows down a bit when Aaliya goes to see her mother. Was it the dearth of references or the pace of life of an old woman, I wonder. The catastrophe at the end and its aftermath brought the story back to life again.
Off late, I’ve been veering towards books from others languages. The insights these stories provide to the culture, be it Chile, Spain, China or Beirut attracts me no end. The pleasure is almost sinful when you compare it to the characters who seem to be shallow and their drab background that is either English or American.
The picture of a war torn area that we tend to have in our mind, especially in the Middle East is that of destitution and hopelessness. As we read, realization dawns that people and what makes them tick are more less the same. Women, especially. The antidote to anything that goes wrong – a visit to the spa, a new shade of nail polish, gossip over a cup of tea. And the sexual adventures are matter of fact. Of women. And we think theirs is the permissive society.
What charmed me the most are the women characters. Men are incidental. It is the ladies who rule . They do judge, but in a time of crisis, the sisterhood never lets you down. At every juncture in her life, good are bad, it is the women in her life that supports or tortures her. Their thoughts , the ones which only a woman could think of, are so well brought out that I was literally shocked to learn the author is a man. At last, here is one who understands a woman.
Verdict – Must read, if you love books and strong women characters
(Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese-American painter and writer. He was born in Amman, Jordan to Lebanese Druze parents. He grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon, which he left at age 17 to live first in England and then in California.
– source , Wikipedia)
Lydia, the second child of Marilyn and James Lee is late for breakfast that day. It would be a couple of days before they find her body in the lake nearby. Whether it was a murder or a suicide is just incidental in the story that follows, or precedes, as you may look at it. Marilyn is the regular American girl, who was brought up by a single mom who pushed her to do well in studies and get into Harvard because, “You know, you’ll meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men.” James, on the other hand, is second generation Chinese, and the subject he teaches seem to be quite contrary to his nature and upbringing, ” The Cowboy in American Culture.” Whether they fall in love is a moot point. Rather, for James it is blending into the American culture and for Marilyn, maybe a matter of rebelling against her mother.
As the police conduct their routine enquiries and finally concludes it is not a murder, the family seem to unravel as the story goes back on forth from the present to past and back. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor and was doggedly pursuing her dreams when she gets married to James. As she gets pregnant with Nath, the dream is kept on the back burner. She doesn’t lose hope even as Lydia follows. Her mother’s death and her cookbook shakes her out of her reverie and makes her do something drastic. But she is forced to return to her life with James and the kids as their child, Hannah arrives.
For James, life had always been a struggle to fit into a society that saw him as an outsider. By virtue of his parents being a janitor and a kitchen helper in an exclusive private school, he gets a free education of the best kind. He never feels accepted though, because of his looks and totally different background. And that tunes out to be his bane throughout his life.
Lydia, who was always ready to please, naturally gets burdened by the unfulfilled dreams of her parents. She dare not disagree to their expectations in fear of disappointing or even losing them. The brilliant Nath and the quiet Hannah gets sidelined in their parent’s lives as Lydia is bombarded with medical books right from her childhood. For James, she is the chosen one who can blend in an otherwise all American school, for hasn’t she inherited her mother’s blue eyes?
Nath is the only one who understands Lydia’s helplessness. She grows despondent as Nath prepares to leave for college. Hannah seems to blend into the background, even as she is the one who absorbs everything. They are on the periphery of their parent’s attention almost always. Yet, there is no ran our in their behavior towards Lydia. In fact, they seem to be the only ones who can really understand her feeling of hopelessness.
The story is a reminder of what parents inadvertently do to their kids by superimposing their dreams on to them, taking them for granted, without even caring to think for a moment what the kids themselves want or are capable of. We transfer our frustrations to them, unknowingly. The poor things continue to try to please us, till one day, they reach a breaking point. Even the gifts we get for them, isn’t it guided by our notion of what is good rather than what they would enjoy?
It is also about adult relationships. Over the years, couples tend to take each other for granted, their focus getting diverted into careers, children and other routine matters. Certain remarks could stay with you for life and affect your relationship so deeply, that it can impact the existence of your family, even. There is hope as well, that it may never be too late to mend broken hearts. What is heartening is the fact that many a time it is those very kids who were taken for granted, who holds the family together, in the end. What I really loved is how none of the characters are black or white. Everyone is human, with their share of flaws and imperfections.
Celeste Ng has brought out the thoughts and emotions of her characters so well. It is wonderful how she gets into the mind of young adults, each fighting a battle of their own. Especially touching was Jack. The ones that we label as rebels, if only someone took out some time to get to know the real them.
Being parents is no trivial matter, the story reminded me yet again.
Verdict – If you love family stories with shadows of psychological analysis , you will love it. Well written with a gripping narration.
Warning – Proceed with caution. A few spoilers ahead
This has to be the most awaited book of the year, probably one of the most discussed too. An author and the one book that she had written. Much has been said, analyzed and admired about Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Jem was the quintessential elder brother, an annoying, teasing teenager, but always there for his tom boyish imp of a sister , Scout. She was what many an adventurous young girl wanted to be. Mischievous and endearng, she brought a smile on your face every time you thought of her. And Atticus, who hasn’t yearned for a father like him, even if you had a perfect one at home? The epitome of righteousness, a true free spirit who believed even children had the right to know everything. He had an answer to all the questions. And you were confident that he would stand by what was right. Always.
The news spread like wildfire. There was another book. An older Scout, a dead Jim and an Atticus who had fallen off the pedestal. No, never, Atticus cannot be anything but perfect, was my first reaction. And it was the same for many others, the social media told me. I didn’t want to touch the book, even with a barge pole. A friend of mine was braver. He went ahead, bought the book and read it. As if that wasn’t enough, he had the gall to write a review as well. Atticus is fine, he said. Ok, I might make an attempt, I thought. And then I meet another dear friend, who gifted me the book. Some things in life are like Jean Louis Finch. They meet you head on. There is just no escape.
Curiosity and a brief illness, pages started turning as if almost by itself. A twenty six year old Scout is on her way back home to Maycombe for her yearly holiday. Jem is no more, we realize. Atticus is old and arthritic, Calpurnia has retired, Henry has stepped in for Jem in Atticus’ work and life and aunt Alexndria is tending the hearth at Scout’s childhood home. And cranky old Dr. Finch, with whom Scout has grown closer to, over the years is in the neighborhood as well. Some childhood reminiscences, a scandal inducing midnight dip with Henry in the village pond and then Scout realizes all is not as she thought it to be. That there are colours in this world which she had never noticed. Because she was never taught to do so.
There is a killing, of a white man, by a black. The killer is Calpurnia’s grandson. Atticus wants to defend him. For a different reason this time. As Scout realizes the reason, she is rightfully indignant and as is her character, flares up at everyone . She feels totally alienated , as she seems to be the only one who thinks differently. For everyone else, there is white and then black. Nothing in between.
Now, the burning question. Has Atticus turned into a bigot? Were we living in a bubble and about to find out that even Gods have feet of clay? As is the case with everything in life, there is no clear and straight answer. He has his own reasons and he is convinced that is the right path. So do most others , along with him. The white people of the South are scared the ‘niggers’ might overcome them, by sheer numbers, if not anything else. People like Atticus has a seemingly logical reasoning for opposing this. These others do not know what is good for the town and the country. They are not educated enough, they can’t think in a logical manner.
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run’em? “
Aren’t those thoughts so similar the world over? How the oppressed gather strength over a period of time, protests start in feeble voices and then gain momentum. The rich think the poor will be clueless, left to themselves, and that the society will be in anarchy soon. As for the down trodden, it is a matter of ‘my sweat , my wealth.’ There is no middle path, unfortunately. Revolutions simmer for a while and then lights up with a bang, burning down many a belief and system in its wake. It takes more than a generation before some sort of balance is restored. And each one does what he or she thinks is right.
Coming back to the story, Scout, as is her true nature, decides to take the bull by its horns. It is to her uncle that she turns to, first. And when the expected ally is not found in him, she confronts her father, head on. I would say the soul of the book lies in this conversation between father and daughter. You see the old, beloved Atticus. Never shutting her down, at the same time standing his own ground, convinced that he is doing what is right. To her accusations, all he says is , “Well, I love you.” And then as to his six year old, “That’ll do, Jean Louise.” In spite of all the rants of Atticus lovers, I feel he remains the same soul that he was twenty six years ago. His actions and reactions might have changed , which had to, according to the times. But, the person that he was, remains the same at the core. He lets his daughter be, in spite of what anyone else, including his sister has to say. He doesn’t care about where someone has come from, what is valued is where and what he has made of himself. Henry might be considered ‘trash’ by all when it comes to things that matter, for Atticus he is the dependable young man who has made a mark by himself and whom he now considers his son and heir. And he shows who he is and what he believes in as he says,
“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”
Isn’t that what he was all about and what we really admired in him? The book is not about Atticus, in my opinion. It is Scout all the way. Her coming of age and learning to accept people and things as they are. Her coming down to ground. She echoes many a girl who has hit her head against the wall at some point in her life,
“Why in the name of God didn’t you marry again? Marry some nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right? Turned me into a simpering mealy-mouthed magnolia type who bats her eyelashes and crosses her hands and lives for nothing but her lil’ole hus-band. At least I would have been blissful.”
I did laugh out at that. Loud.
Verdict – If you have read and loved the mocking bird, definitely a must read. Not too sure whether I’d have enjoyed it as much without the background story in mind. Thinking of it as a standalone book, the story does not seem to have a context. I could be biased, though. I loved Atticus. Still do. And there is more than a little of Scout in me, you see. Hence, 4/5