Category Archives: 3.5*

‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman’ by Alice Steinbach

aliceDo you remember that exhilarating feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel connected? Your thoughts seem to be similar, you react to things the same way, you even seem to complete each other’s sentences and you decide, at last, I’ve found someone who totally gets me. Then, you get to know more of each other and a sense of foreboding starts creeping up, the sixth sense that seldom goes wrong tries to warn you that what you see may not be what you get. And ultimately, a sense of resignation, a foreboding feeling of being fooled does you in. That’s exactly what happened to me with this book.

Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist had always dreamed about chucking it all and seeking out an unencumbered life free of plans and schedules, at least temporarily. And she does just that, her sons having moved out and she herself having reached a phase in life where she could afford to do it. The book is a chronicle of her journey through Paris, London, Oxford and Italy over a period of six to seven months.

The connect was instant. The yearnings and the apprehensions were very familiar. On one side were the years of longing to go out on one’s own, be just who you are sans any limiting definitions of being a daughter, wife, sister, mother, professional and all hundreds of labels by which one is defined. On the other side, the thoughts of whether one could actually do it, that nagging feeling of what would the family and friends say, however sure you are they would encourage you. These were the exact thoughts that seemed to have gone through the author’s mind as well. The beginning was quite exciting. The flutter in your heart as you anticipate the unknown, interspersed with the excitement of finally doing something that you have always wanted to. Adding to the lure was the thought that here is a woman who seemed to have transcended the need for a man in her life, one who could stand on her own and enjoy  life on her own terms.

The fascination started waning even before Paris was done. It was probably a mismatch in expectations. Here I was on one side, with an audacity to think that a prize winning Baltimore Sun columnist’s journey would be similar to a nobody’s week long solo trip to an unknown place. The fault is entirely mine. Instead of on a shoe string budget sojourn across Europe that was expected, what I got was exquisitely beautiful people, exotic shopping and dining in gourmet restaurants. And of course, an adoring and understanding, rich Japanese man who falls in love with you at first sight. Yes, the fault is entirely mine, what right did I have to expect anything different?

Paris is detailed and charming as expected, London a little less so, Oxford is fine and Italy is a rush. More than the places, it is the people and the author’s reminiscences that stayed with me and that is what I loved about the book. I was amazed at the manner in which she strikes conversations people and how she is able to get their stories out so easily. But then, that’s what she’s been doing for a living is a consoling thought. The one thread that runs through is the bonding between women, wherever you go and whatever you do. After a certain age, the rivalry for men is long gone, women gets to know and is comfortable in their own space and they realize that other women are their best allies. The liberated feeling is so well brought out in Jeanne Moreau‘s words as narrated by the author,

She told me that at twenty she was considered ‘unphotogenic’ and that it hurt her to read such a description. But as a woman in her fifties, she had stopped – and this is the way she put it – “looking into the mirror that others hold up to me”

What I found quite unsettling is the fact that in spite of portraying herself as the quintessential woman of today, she still seemed to feel incomplete without a man in her life. Even while writing about the places she traveled to and the people she met on the way, it was as if her mind was revolving around her Japanese love. Everything else felt incidental.

 

Verdict – Loved the language and her insights on places, relationships and life in general. Passing through a similar phase of trying to seek and find who I really am, I could relate to her thoughts. She failed to impress  as an independent woman, though. As mentioned earlier, could be a mismatch of what I wanted and what I got 🙂
An easy read, for a lazy afternoon. You will love it , if you love Danielle Steele novels.

3.5/5

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‘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

‘Enduring Love’ by Ian McEwan

ianThe author’s name sounded familiar, the word ‘Atonement’ struck a chord somewhere and the book found its way home with me from the library. The first few pages reminded me of Julian Barnes. No wonder, considering that both are British was my first thought.

Joe Rose has a planned a picnic on the way back from picking up his partner Clarissa after a few week’s long visit away from home. As they are finding a comfortable place, a balloon comes crashing nearby with a 10 year old boy inside it and his grandfather hanging on to the ropes. Life is never the same for any of them after that. Five men come together and one gets killed in an attempt to save the boy. One of the survivor meets the eye of another and their worlds turn upside down.

Joe is disturbed by the look in Jed Parry’s eyes as well as by his words that sound ominous. Thus start a cat and mouse game that gets more and more sinister as Jed stalks Joe through calls and in person. Joe knows he is being harassed by  someone who has a mental illness but no one is ready to believe him, even Clarissa. What follows is a slow falling apart of  life as he knows it.

In parallel is the widow of John Logan , who died in the attempt to save the boy. Joe’s and Logan’s lives seem to run in a parallel course even though one is alive and the other is dead. Both their wives come to their own conclusions regarding certain incidents in their respective partner’s lives. The story comes to an unpredictable end that sounded a bit convoluted to me.

What I loved about the book is the powerful and poetic language. Many a time, how the author has described the thoughts of his characters bears strong resemblance to Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’, or at least that is what I thought. But, Barnes’ book and prose is something else altogether. The story is paced like a psychological thriller and your interest is kept piqued throughout. The precarious nature of relationships and how certain insecurities remain in spite of the long years that a couple might have spent together is brought out really well. The story also talks about the perils of coming to conclusions based on circumstantial evidences as also how not to give up on one’s intuitions in spite of everyone turning against you.

Verdict – If you like beautiful prose, well thought out plots with a psychological twist, you will love this one. Not for those who like fast paced stories with more action than thought

3.5/5

‘To Hell in High Heels’ by Helena Frith Powell

heelsThe book blurb gave all indications of a chick lit story, the cover picture even more so. In the rush to grab as many books as I could on the last day of the epic 80% off sale at Reliance Time-Out a few months back, I failed to notice that the heroin’s name was the same as that of the author. Not that I am complaining. It took a few pages before it dawned that this is a true story – of Helena’s research to find a cure for the wrinkle on her forehead , the thin lips, small chest, a microscopically large tummy, limp hair and what not.

Her journey starts from the perfectly round, full and pert bottom of her hairdresser. The first stop is at the world renowned Clinique La Prairie in Switzerland, supposedly the best and naturally one of the costliest anti ageing clinics in the world. An experiemnt in 1931 to save the life of a patient who was suffering from the after effects of a thyroid removal surgeries led Dr. Paul Niehans, the fouder of the clinic into some more research on cell therapy. A successful treatment on similar lines for Pope Pius XII in 1953, firmly established the clinic as one of the pioneers and leaders in ‘ cell regenaration’ therapy. And the main ingedient in the ‘CLP Cell Extract’, a revitalising agent the clinic is most famous for? Hold your breath – the liver of unborn lambs. Are you wondering how on earth they extract it? Simple, kill the mother when the foetus is almost fully grown. Yes, the clinic has its own sheep farm as well.

In the course of her research, Helena meets a yogi Frenchman, gets herself treated at  the spa in The Ritz Paris (whose clientele boasts of Liz Hurley, Sharon Stone and Jodi Foster),  visits the small village of Limone in northern Italy where the people have a genetic abnormality that causes them to live longer, spends a relaxing week of stress releievng treatments at ‘Golden Eye’, Ian Fleming’s old house on the Jamaican Coast, gets younger and younger in New York, meets some typical LA women and even spends a few mornings in Laughter on Laguna Beach.

The book provides an overwhelming amount of data on the deep ocean that the search for eternal youth is. When you remember that she has covered only a small part of this business, and that too the legitimate side, your eyes and mouth might open wide  at the billions that women and more increasingly men spend in search for an elixir of life. What did not really surprise me was something that most of us alerady know in our heart of hearts. Acording to one of well known doctors in this business,

“What cream you use doesn’t really make a difference, the main thing is that you moisturize.”

And you thought, the higher the cost, better the product? Here is one for you,

“the only difference between, for example, Nivea and La Prairie is in the packaging. They are even made in the same laboratory. Just like Lancome and L’Oreal.”

Intesesting, isn’t it?

Helena’s experience is an example of how one gets pulled into this maze from which one may never come out. You start with a basic spa treatment, the ‘consultant’ there talks you into that ‘wonderful’ treatment that can oh so subtly change the look of the tiny wrinkle at the corner of your eyes, then another one tells you about the miraculous tummy tuck that can be done during your lunch hour and you get sucked into the cess pool. There is no end, and that is the brilliance of this business. No treatment promises permanent results. You do a lip filling, it needs to be refilled every 3 months, you get a botox done, that has to be redone every 6-9 months, you get a hair infusion, that has to be redone every 6 months, it goes on and on. Once you get into a new look, it is  as if you can never be your old self again.

Her narration of the ‘lollipop’ girls with anoerxic figures that are so disproportinately thin as compared to the seemingly large heads, restuarnts with faces that are all lips and the 1661 women – who looks 16 from behind and 61 from the front – are hilarious at first, and patehtically sad once you actually start thinking about it. It is as of you have enetered a mass production factory that churns out women of the same size and features and all of them endowed with luscious hair. By the way, your loved one may never run his fingers lovingly through your tressses anymore, it is all glue in there.

The most ironic fact is what almost each of these specialists recommend for a permanent change – good diet, no sugars, lots of water and sun screen, exercise, stress free life and minimizing enviornmental factors. Now, you tell me who is  having the last laugh all the way to their Swiss banks.

The author quotes the palstic surgeon Mr. Ghengis in Fay Weldon’s ‘The Life and Loves of a She Devil’  and this one sentences summarizes it all,

“I can stop you looking old, but you will be old”

Verdict – I would still categorize this as a chick lit, a very interesting one at that.

3.5 /5