Category Archives: Books
The name of the movie came up time and again as I flipped through Netflix. A lazy Sunday evening seemed the perfect time to watch it, finally. I had found the book quite underwhelming, so did not expect much from the movie. It was a pleasant surprise to have been absolutely delighted. Meryl Streep, as phenomenal as always. The movie, you ask? Well, ‘Julia & Julie’ 🙂
The reminiscing mode switched on afterwards. If I had to take up a project for a year, what would it be? Not ready to kill myself by experimenting with a new recipe everyday when these days cooking is done in between the short intervals from work, what would be the next best option, I wondered. Maybe a recipe a week, from books I’ve read or that I will? Patting my back, I told myself, “brilliant idea!” Try it out, it’s easy. Patting yourself on the back 😉
‘Swimming Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor was a book I was looking for, but was not willing enough to buy. The library messaged, “we’ve put in hold for you, come get it.” Two birds in one shot and I was off. With Tharoor’s book in hand, I started typing the key words on the library computer – ‘food books,’ ‘books with food theme,’ ‘books on food’ and so on. Trust it to come up with this, ‘Browsings – A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books,’ by Michael Dirda. The cover said, ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.’ How could I not grab it?
While at the shelf, my hands went to the othe nearby, but of course! Books on books, can any book lover resist them, ever? So jumped the next one winking at me, ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’ in large print and ‘and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts,’ in small print. That went right into the bag, no prizes for guessing that.
No, I was not done yet. The ‘food’ had to be taken care of. The name M.F.K Fisher caught my eyes. I had read about her sometime ago, she was said to be a legendary food writer. Her books had eluded me and it continues to be so even now. The next best thing , I hope. ‘The Arrangemnt’ by Ashley Warlick, a novel based on Fisher’s life.
Finally, a challenge to myself for the Thanksgiving weekend, at least a couple of recipes from ‘Appetites, A Coobook,’ by none other than the Anthony Bourdain. Ambitious, aren’t I? Who knows, where it might lead me to? 😉
How do your books find you, my friends?
I paid a fortune for this set, 12 years ago. In fact, it was in about fifteen months of installments that the payment was done. By far, the best investment in money till date.
There was a set of 10 step by step ‘ learning to read ‘ books that came long with this. Both the kids started their affair with the written word with those. Have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it out to both of them. The first word that they could read, the wonder filled joy on their faces, is still the most priceless feeling in the world.
People ask how do you make kids read? The only way I know, read out to them, day after day, the same pages again and again. With the first born, there was more time, I have to admit with a twinge of guilt. We would read diligently, morning after morning. That was the easiest way to wake him up, “get up, let’s read.” We would lean on the temple wall, waiting for the school bus, reading whatever he picked up for the day. At random, continued from the previous day, or something that piqued his interest. There was no method, nor any plan, we just read.
He was on to serious reading by the time he turned eight. Enid Blyton never interested him, to my chagrin. Thank God, I was sensible enough to stop pushing after a couple of Famous Fives. Hardy Boys met with the same fate, he couldn’t complete even one. A pattern emerged slowly and surely. Biorgraphies and sports. Don’t take me wrong, he was still a boy, thankfully. Greg Heffley* was his constant companion. That ‘Wimpy Kid’ was with him as he ate meal after meal was devoured with that skinny kid by his side, the boy even fed the kid. The almost adult still devours the series. As I shout at him for bringing it to the dining table the fiftieth time, he retaliates, “but it was you bought me the first one. I never asked for it.”
Then came life. He took to Lance Armstrong like a Kuttanadan to duck. Between school and play, he finished the autobiography in two days flat. Barely a week later, the news broke. Of cheating, there is no other word to describe it. I will never forget the disbelief in my boy’s eyes and the catch in his throats as he said, “it wouldn’t be true, alle Amma?”
The next round belonged to a contraption I hate with all my heart – the X-box. The day it came into our lives, sounded like the death knell of books. The silly thing never knew the power of a miffed mother, though. As the addiction grew, so did my resolve to fight back. We reached a compromise , Monday to Thursday turned to no screen days. Voila, the lovers were back together, again. Life is like the tides now. It ebbs and flows, when the son’s eyes turn red, the mother’s decibel levels rise. But we’ve learned to live together, the books, a few screens, the son and his mother. For, now I know he has a friend for life. When he seems lost, I can see his hands stretching out to his bedside table and a light shining under the door long after the midnight clock has struck twelve. He is in safe hands.
Now, the daughter is another story by herself. She lives in another universe altogether. Of elves and fairies and all things bright and shiny. Having escaped the world of making night into a work day, I started reading to her while making her sleep. “One more page” was like music except on some days that was particularly exhausting. But again, read we did. Whenever and wherever we could. To my utter horror again, she followed her brother’s footsteps. No Enid Blyton! How could my very own turn traitors? By then, I was too old and weary to fight losing battles. I should have known where she was headed the moment she started picking up fairy tales. The Pottermaniac is growing up I know when I see her stacking up Archie’s during our monthly ritual of visiting Blossoms. Her books are filled with colours, just like her soul – Thea Stilton, Tinkle, Archie’s, Fairy Tales and of course, Harry Potter.
That first set of English reading books went to my nephew an year ago. While on a cleaning spree today, I realize it’s time. For the next set to find a new home. To entice another little one to the magical world that words are.
Dear Ouseph, it’s not mere books that are coming your way. It’s the keys to magical kingdom, that was guarded lovingly by your chettan and Chechi , protected fiercely by your ammai and looked upon with indulgence by your uncle. Drink from it, satiate your hunger for knowledge and guard it with your life. Until you pass it on to your little brother.
And I send you this wish, “May the word be your legacy!”
But then I know it cannot be otherwise, for it is your grandfather that took a young girl by her hands and led her to the bright and enticing world that was hiding behind the dark shelves of the long forgotten ‘The English Bookhouse’ .
“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning,”
Acknowledging that you are vulnerable, asking for help when you need it. Most of the time, it takes something that shocks you out of life as you knew it, to bring you to your knees. We wonder why certain things happen to us. The reasons may not always seem clear in the beginning. And it is revealed only to those who search for it, with all their heart.
I’ve always respected this woman, though ‘Lean In’ was not something that I fully subscribed to. Then came her husband’s death. How she reacted to it was beyond belief. She opened herself up, completely. In the process she has inspired millions to open themselves up, to have the courage to accept their vulnerabilities, and say it out loud. Coming from one of the ‘strongest’ women in the professional world today, this must have let out a huge sigh and more than few tears from men and women alike. The myth of ‘having it all toegether,’ come what may, has been busted. This is what true inspiration is all about.
Two books that I read and re read in the past few months reiterates this.
Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’
“had I neever stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times.”
Read and then tell your story. It will make you free and make some others open up as well. For, healing happens when you share yourself.
Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.
Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.
“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”
In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,
“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.
‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.
‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “
Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.
The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.
Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.
“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”
I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.
The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,
“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”
The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,
“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “
You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?
To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.
Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.
…..continued from here
The year saw few books on food. Quite a surprise, considering the ardent foodie that I am. Maybe it has to do with the amount of baking that I did last year. It might have been an overkill. But, read I did, a few. The aroma of bread baking in your oven must be one of the most heavenly ones that you could ever experience. No wonder then that Barbara O’Neal’s ‘How to Bake a Perfect Life‘ found a place on the list. A simple, heart warming story of a single mother, this is an easy and pleasant read. Perfect for a winter afternoon or a rainy evening.
‘A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table‘ by Molly Wizenberg was the next on the list. Another one that I would recommend only if you are a foodie. I loved it, by the way.
I’ve always been envious of restaurant reviewers and critics. The amount of free and scrumptious dishes that they get to taste and the way they write about it so authoritatively leaves me wondering at the kind of life they lead. The fact that many of them still look fit and lean in spite of all the gourmet food confounds me no end. Frank Bruni’s ‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater‘ was an eye opener in many aspects. This was a four star one on my scale.
As each book of 2014 flashes by in my thoughts, I realize this was an year I turned a book infidel. Margaret Atwood is the only author who was lucky enough to pass through the hands more than once. The year also showed me that an author being a favorite is no guarantee for your liking their books. Sue Monk Kidd turned a favourite last year after ‘The Secret Life of Bees‘. Less than 4 months after reading her ‘The Mermaid Chair‘ , I don’t remember a thing about the story. Never take anyone for granted, authors including. Even Atwood let me down, ‘Wilderness Tips‘ left me bewildered. Markus Zusak was the next one in line. While his ‘Book Thief‘ stole my heart the year before, there was no message for me in his ‘I Am the Messenger.‘
The best part of having book lovers for friends are the new authors and genres that you get introduced to. And when they come in a group, that’s the biggest blessing a wannabe bibliophile could ask for. Some of the best reads of the year reached me through these kindred souls. It was from Maya that I first heard of ‘Infidel.‘ Promptly bought, the book stayed in the shelf staring at me for more than a few months. But, there was no stopping once it was opened. Some say half of it is made up. Even if the the other half is true, it’s too gruesome a tale to believe, it has to have happened. And I respect the spirit of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to have not only escaped a prison but also to fight for women like her.
Call me a cynic or even an old hag, books with the tag of ‘Young Adult’ are one of the few things that I run miles away from. And I have to thank my business consultant friend who made me pick up ‘The Fault In Our Stars.‘ Yes, it is a typical teenage love story with a Bollywood type illness thrown in for good measure. It also taught me not to be prejudiced, that young does not mean immature. It was again the same friend who prodded me towards another gentle and enchanting story, ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor.‘ A brilliant maths professor with a short memory span of eighty minutes, a single mother who is trying hard to make both ends meet and her bright 10 year old boy, this is one read that will leave you with a feeling of ‘all’s well with the world.’
History and war were anathema to me until I got to know this oil man. Carlotta Gall has written in detail about the war in Afganistan, the origin of Taliban and how Pakistan has abetted it silently and otherwise in her ‘The Wrong Enemy : America in Afghanistan, 2001 – 2014.‘ The war stories continued with Samanth Subramanian’s ‘ This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.‘ An unbiased view of what happens to normal human beings in a war that may or may not be theirs is written in a down to earth manner. Hope seems too far away as the author leaves you with these words,
“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”
Some of the much touted ones left the reader in me disappointed. Neither the story nor the style could hold my interest whether it was Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants‘ or Sidin Vadukut’s ‘The Sceptical Patriot‘.
As in food, I turn adventurous with books also. Sometimes, it is the title that calls out to me, while at other times it could be the blurb. This habit has led me to some treasures and to some disappointments as well. The one that I loved in this group is Jonas Jonasson’s ‘ The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared‘. The story is as outrageous as the title. A sprightly centenarian who was instrumental in inventing the atom bomb, was friends with Truman, Franco, Mao and Nixon, not to mention some higher ups in KGB, and then decides to run away from the old age home on his hundredth birthday. What follows is equally hilarious. A suitcase full of money, a dead body and an elephant. This one was a riot. One that totally disappointed in spite of a promising start was ‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman‘ by Denis Theriault.
I finally read an Anees Salim book in the last month of the year, ‘Vanity Bagh‘. Maybe the expectation was so high, that it had to be a disappointment. Loved the language and the images, especially of Vanity Bagh which in itself is a character, but there was this nagging feeling of missing that special something. Shashi Tharoor did not disappoint with his short essays on reading, writing, books and authors with his ‘Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writings and Writers‘, though I have to admit a few chapters were beyond my comprehension.
And now, for the book of the year. If I were asked to choose one from the eighty plus that were covered during the year, without a second thought it has to be ‘Aarachar‘ by K.R.Meera. Set in Kolkata, this is the story of Chetna Mallick, last in the line of a family of hangmen, with a lineage of more than 400 years. Meera’s women were always a class apart. Chetna is no different. Courageously moving into a role that was till then reserved for men who were strong in character and build, she is fearless and practical. Interspersed with history, Kolkata comes to life in front of your eyes as does its characters. The story also brings out the shallow world of media, of which the author herself was a part of. Meera is easily one of the best writers in India today. It is indeed a pity that she and her works are rarely known out of Kerala. ‘Hang Woman,’ an English translation by J. Devika is now available.
2014 has also been an year in which the reader in me slowly started shifting focus to non-fiction. The New Year has also started with the same genre. As I wander through Psyche Abraham’s ‘From Kippers to Karimeen‘ I realize again, life is indeed far more interesting than fiction. But then, doesn’t fiction grow out of life?
Resolutions and promises are alike. The intention is always good, unless it is to kill someone . The year started with a resolve that in hindsight sounds lofty. To write a review on each book that I read. That reminds me of another challenge that I took up on myself. To read 100 books against 80 last year. If you get the drift of how most things in my life turn out, suffice to say the well begun things still remain half done. In fact, that was one proverb that has confused me no end as a kid. If you begin things well, would it always remain incomplete, my young brain used to wonder. Not that it has got better with age. The brain, that is. Anyway, if not all, let me make an attempt to run through some books that I enjoyed, a few that I loved and certain others that started well, and well, lay somewhere between the beginning and the end.
The year started slow. Work was low key, books were aplenty and I had all the time in the world. Chin propped on a few pillows, body spread languidly on my bed, I would read a few paragraphs and then gaze out into the horizon, lost in a world that was far away, yet so familiar. A dilapidated stone villa somewhere in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, pathways covered with bright bougainvilleas, olive trees all around and an ancient kitchen, it was as if the writer had got into mind and stolen my dreams. It took me almost a week to finish the book, it was like drinking vintage wine, sip, swirl and savour, at leisure. Her memories of restoring a run down Tuscan villa, Frances Mayes’ ‘Under the Tuscan Sun‘ is definitely one of my favorites this year.
The next one couldn’t have been a wilder contrast. Life is not just stranger, it is much more starker than fiction. This was one story that proved it, yet again. A much talked about one, this was on the reading list for quite sometime. The Middle East is a land of honey and gold, for those who have never been there. To each who has made his millions there, there are hundreds who have burnt themselves, caught in a life that you could never even imagine. Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham‘ (translated as ‘Goat Days’) leaves you disturbed for days after you have finished reading it. The taste that it leaves behind in your mouth is something that you would find difficult to swallow.
Authors are a breed that I normally know through their books and they inspire awe more than love and affection. This was a year that I learned the reverse could be true as well. When someone whom you love like a little sister publishes her first novella, one doesn’t need another reason to celebrate. When the story turns out to be as lyrical as a poem, it is like the proverbial cherry on the cake. Intermingling myth and love, Neelima Vinod has woven a story that is as beautiful as the yakshi in the old palace. ‘Unsettled: The Search for Love and Meaning‘ was a short and delightful read.
The year also saw a passionate book lover turn into an e reader. It is a blessing to have someone in your life who notices what you do and then tries to ease your burdens that extra bit. The husband must have been noticing the weight of books that I lug around wherever I go, that he decided to gift me an iPad for my birthday. The transition was not easy, I admit. And I have to admire his optimism, a Kindle that was gifted two years ago lay long forgotten in the dark recesses of a cupboard. What they say about first impressions must be true about first reads as well. ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tart, which had won more than a few awards was the first e book of the year. To say that I was hooked would not be an exaggeration, by the book as well as the device.
Given a choice, travelling is something that I would do for a living, second only to reading. The motto is, if not in real life, vicarious at least. No surprise then that stories of travel turn favorites. I have to admit women travelling alone is something that fascinates me no end. And this was an year that I got to do a much longed for solo trip. Let me not digress. So, it was with great expectations that I started with ‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman‘ by Alice Steinbach. It didn’t take long to realize that what each of us expects out of travel and life could be as varied as chalk and cheese.
It was not all bad for travel, though. I first heard of P.G. Tenzing through his obituary. Someone who went before his time, to borrow a clichéd phrase, he might have had a foreboding as to what was waiting for him. For, he chucked his Civil Services job and went on a ride of his life on his Enfield Bullet. ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions‘ is a celebration of friends and life.
Husband says he is thankful I don’t ride a bike. He knows me well, I should say. Else, who knows where I would have taken off to. Having resigned to the fact that there are some things in life that you may not get to do, this book has rekindled my hopes. ‘The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle‘ by Diana Bletter may not be great literature, but it did remind me again that you are never too old for anything, even to get on a bike and ride all the way across to Alaska.
‘Things that your heart yearns for come searching for you’ is something that I live by. Life has proved it to me time and again, especially in the case of books. Serendipity it is then, when you find one of the best travel books of the year while travelling. The first thing that the eyes search for in a new place are the books that adorn the shelves. I have to be honest here and admit the expectation level was pretty low as I picked this book up from one of the old wooden shelves of a home stay in Himachal Pradesh. Alone, but not feeling lonely at all in the mountains, I was prepared to read through a documentary kind of book. The evidently Malayali name of the author had also piqued my interest. To say that Vivek Menon had me by hook right from page one would be an understatement. Tales about nine animals that were on the verge of disappearing from the face of the earth, in a style that has no parallels, the book had me in splits several times. Sparing no one including himself, he regales us with tales of rogues as well as honest to the core forest officers thanks to whom we still have semblance of forests across the country and animals in them. From Eravikulam to Ranthambore to lesser known national parks like Laokhawa in Assam, the author takes us to places we may never get to see otherwise. The sad part is that we may also never get to see the animals that he talks about, thanks to the roaring underground trade in exotic animals and birds. ‘On the Brink: Travels in the Wilds of India‘ is one of those rare finds for me this year. Especially because it has kindled my interest in a genre that I rarely venture into. A must read, for wildlife enthusiasts and those who love a good read.
“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet,” observed Jhumpa Lahiri in ‘The Namesake.’ If not for books, how could you traverse the paths followed by those famed travellers of the past? Marco Polo was just a name in school history text books and some passing references on travel. Until I read ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu‘ by Laurence Bergreen. An expedition that ran over twenty four years, from Venice through Constantinople, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China , Tibet, India and back to Venice. It is a treasure trove of customs that sound strange to us, of people whom we consider barbarians yet seem to have been far more progressive than us and of lands and paths that the wanderlust in our souls yearns for. Marco spent seventeen of the twenty four years serving the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, son of the great Genghis Khan. This is again another book that a lover of history and travel should not miss.
It would have been no coincidence that two of the best books of the year were on travel and I got to read it during one of the best travels in my life. I cannot but mention another one that I read before my travel. It was a few quotes from his ‘On Love’ that made me go exploring the books of Alain de Botton. However,the first book of his that caught my attention was ‘The Art of Travel‘. The title was misleading, I was expecting to get some glimpses of the author’s thoughts on how to take travel as an art. Sometimes, not meeting your expectations can be a huge blessing. The last chapter of the book was the best and will stay with me for life. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ as it is called, talks about John Ruskin, an artist whom I’d never heard of before. According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. And he says, the only way to possess it is by understanding it. And the most effective way to understand, you ask?
“by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”
This had set the tone to how I experienced the places and people on that trip. Look and observe, think of the minutest details, listen to the leaves rustling around you, feel the wind and its myriad forms on your face, in the water, see how the mountains change colours, in short be still and know the nature. When the hustle and bustle of daily life frays my nerves too much, I go back to Botton and Ruskin. Absolute serenity, it is.
The Ducal Palace, Venice by John Ruskin
“With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”
Some people and certain experiences come right out of the blue , gives a kick on your backside and shock you out of your lazy complacence. You are left bewildered for a while before the light slowly starts shining down through the clouds. Certain books are like that. You start reading like you usually do, turning page after page, stopping to catch a phrase or a sentence now and then, skipping a page here and there, expecting to like, love, hate and ignore certain characters and to bring that satisfied smile on your face at the end. You think it would be another affair coming to an end. And then it transforms into a love that would last a lifetime.
To be honest, I was expecting the experience to be a little different from the usual, two of my book group friends just could not stop praising it. A precocious young girl who had decided to burn her apartment and kill herself on her 12th birthday because she was disillusioned with life , a 50 something extra intelligent concierge of a high end apartment complex somewhere in the frequented-by-ultra rich lanes of Paris, and their profound thoughts – sounds quite pretentious, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what my thoughts were as I started with it.
The invasion of senses was slow, but sure and steady. I had to stop after almost each paragraph, sometimes to smile, sometimes to think and sometimes just to have a stupid grin of pure bliss on my face. A book, or should I say an author was doing this to me after a long time. ‘The Garden of Evening Mists‘ made me dream and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was like seeing my dream come to life. ‘The Book Thief‘ had enchanted me and ‘The Forty Rules of Love‘ was a mystic experience. But this was something else.
At 12, Paloma already knows the futile nature of life. Or so she thinks. And when we consider how most of our lives turn out, you cannot actually blame her,
“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”
Renee`, commonly known as the bland Madame Michel, the concierge of the apartment where Paloma lives, is a connoisseur of art and literature. Unfortunately, she believes that people are expected to behave in a certain manner according to which section of the society one belongs to. So, she takes great pains to act like a typical concierge, hiding her true self.
Both have a penchant for things Zen and Japanese. And to their secret world comes in an old and charming Japanese guy, to shake them out. As the three go through their meetings and discoveries about each other, I was wondering what is it about the Japanese that brings out the sublime in us? Is it because they are constricted for space that they make it an art of silence and emptiness? No, to call it an emptiness would be sacrilege, it’s more like creating space and calm from emptiness.
Even an attempt at doing a review would be pointless. For, this is not about stories and plots, maybe a little bit about characters. The first and only word that I can think of is ‘profound,’ if someone asked me to describe it in one word. More than what the characters say or do, the book is about what the characters think. And their thoughts are what enamors and encompasses you and your whole mind. Among a lot other things, it made me think about a never ending discussion, questions to which there is no right answers, “What the characters speak for, or in this case, think for, is it how the author would be in real life? Do we or should we judge books by their authors and vice versa ?”
The book talks about life , art , beauty and such sublime matters. Weaving its way through all these is the thread that connects one human being to another, irrespective of where they come from , what they do and where they are going. You might be successful in hiding your true self to most, but kindred souls will always find you out, as Paloma says about Renee`,
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”
Paloma’s ruminations tells us how children are not much different from us, the so called adults. You are left wondering how we lose the sense of wonder and the ability to see things as they are , as we grow up or pretend to do so. Most of us knew how to find joy in the simplest of things as kids, each experience was as exciting as the earlier one and we welcomed it with open hands. As adults, many of us find solace in music and art. Have we ever thought the feeling can exactly be the same for a child as well?
“Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck — it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.”
I have always found answers to many a question on life in books that I love. This one made me wonder whether they are true answers or merely what my mind and soul seek for. It reinstated my belief that the most profound truths comes from the mouths of children. It also made me realize that the questions that pop up in my mind from time to time are merely an attempt at re asserting what I already knew, that this is exactly what life is about,
“Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.
Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”
To put it short and blunt, the Hedgehog made me think, after a long time…for a long time…
Verdict – You will either love it to death or purely hate it. If well developed plots, action and the art of beautiful story telling is what turns you on, this may not be for you. But, if you are someone like me who goes into a trance after reading something profound and which touches the core your soul, this is a must read.
Imagine having a brilliant father who allows you to experiment with anything, lets you run around in the wild, explain the moon, the stars and the universe, tells you how things work, brings you hoards of books, and encourages you again and again that you are the best in this whole world and there is nothing you cannot do. And then a mother who paints all day, is a book worm and is of the belief that children should be independent and learn their way about the world as early as possible. Sounds like paragons of parenthood, isn’t it?
Now imagine living in the worst possible dump, where the very same parents do not seem to care whether water is dripping on to you as you sleep on a makeshift bed in freezing winter, steals the hard earned money that you saved for college to get drunk and are not just willing to take responsibility for even putting food in their children’s mouth? Well, that is how shocking this story is. Mind you , it is a real life story.
Born to a brilliant father who dreams big and a free spirited mother, Jeannette and her siblings find their childhood to be a long adventure, moving from one place to another, living out in the wild and doing things other kids cannot even imagine. But as you read about a three year old frying sausages by herself and getting burnt, you know instinctively that something is amiss. The flights from one job to another, the running out of money, the grand dreams and the like brings out the gruesome reality that their irresponsible parenting is.
Rex Walls is in eternal search for gold and his grandiose plans to build a glass castle is something that he shares with his second daughter Jeannette, while his wife is in search for success as an artist and believes it is just around the corner. In between, what both of them seem to conveniently forget is that they are parents to four kids. Once they are forced to settle in one place finally, is when the kids start realizing that they are parenting their father and mother instead of the natural way around.
The tale is deeply disturbing, you often wonder how could such a well read , intelligent couple be so irresponsible. It could be the sense of security that they somehow imbibed in their childhood or the effect of all kinds of books they have been lucky enough to read right from when they were two and three year olds, that sustain the kids through all kind of trials and tribulations. It is heartening to read about how the siblings fight to protect each other from common enemies, how they refuse to give up and how they are willing to go to any length to help themselves. The father seem to be a callous addict whereas the mother comes across as an insensitive and outright selfish woman. it is nothing short of a miracle that the kids feel any love for them at all.
What catches you by the throat is the sheer grit and determination of the elder three kids, how they fight for each other and their thankless parents and their perseverance to get out of the hellhole. The younger two pushes the eldest one Lori out to New York first and she in turn pulls them out. That they could not rescue the youngest one Maureen, remains a constant cause of sadness for the author.
Apart from reiterating as to how resilient and steadfast in their dreams children can be, it was also an eye opener for me to the fact that the ragged, crazy looking guy that I turn my face away from, on the street, could be one of the most brilliant persons I could ever meet in my life.
Last but definitely not the least, the story underlines the immense power that books can have on your life and your outlook to it. That, in fact they could be your salvation.
Verdict : A must read, especially for young adults and those who crib about how their childhood affected them so much that they couldn’t help but being failures. And kids who complain their parents do not buy them the latest gadget that comes out into the market, should be made to read this book at least once a week.