Category Archives: Children
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.
What you heard is true, this is a cliched story. A star crossed pair of teenagers, both of them terminally ill, wishes coming true, devoted parents, adoring sisters, video games of guns and gore, precocious dialogues, the story has all the ingredients of a block buster young adult movie. No surprises here, a movie is indeed slated for release.
Hazel Grace, or ‘Just’ Hazel as she calls herself, is terminally ill. Her cancer seem to be temporarily stalled by a new medication, but she knows her days are numbered. As expected, she meets the gorgeous, precocious, tongue in cheek Augustus Waters in a support group meeting. Once a talented basketball player, the dreaded illness has left him with a prosthetic leg in place of a real one. And he falls in love, not the least because she resembles his girl friend who, no surprises here again, died of cancer. Too much cancer, you think? Wait, there is Isaac, who is waiting to lose his eye so that he can be certified NEC – No Evidence of Cancer.
Ready to run off? Not so fast. If you are still wondering what the hype and hoopla is all about, open that copy of yours and read. We tend to dismiss such books saying the kids sound smart beyond their years, they speak words far suited to people much older, if not wiser and so on and so forth. Think for a minute, though. Aren’t our kids exactly the same? And we listen to them with a proud smile and an indulgent look. It is quite obvious as you read that the author knows young adults and ill ones at that. He seem to read their minds quite well and can really relate to the insecurities that rage their hearts. So it came as no surprise when I read somewhere that at twenty two, he worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital.
If the strength of the story is the realistic manner in which it is portrayed, its huge success among the young ones could very well be the ideal love that they long for at that very impressionable age. The growth hormones on overdrive, peer pressure on one side, parental do’s , don’ts and expectations on the other side, it is a period of conflict for them – of emotions, soul and body. It is only natural that they yearn for that one true love, who understands you inside out, who stands by you come what may and who is ready to lay down even his life for you. And that is the connect that the author is able to tap effortlessly. For, here is someone who is willing to give up his last wish for his love. What more could an idealistic teenage heart ask for?
The parents are mostly in the background, especially Gus’s. Both sets of parents seem to be similar, maybe because of the almost identical backgrounds all three characters seem to come from. Hazel’s parents are a little more deeply etched – the mother who stays strong and the father who breaks – again seem to follow an expected pattern. What I loved here is Hazel’s concerns for her parents. She has read up on how a kid’s death might affect the parents , ‘studies say more than 50% end up in divorce.’ She has overheard her mother ‘cannot be a mother’ anymore. We give kids far less credit than they actually deserve and Green has beautifully brought out this point. Their fears are as real as a grown up’s and it is much more similar to ours that we would actually admit.
I will leave the details of the wish, what happens in between and how it all ends for the reader in you to find out for yourself. As I moved the book into the ‘read’ folder, two thoughts refused to leave me. The first one was Hazel’s thoughts on how illness defines her life and the person that she is now. As parents and elders, we tend to treat children with kid’s gloves many a time, more so when they are ill. It might be fine with them when it is an occasional illness. But it could be shattering to them when the illness is something that they are forced to be reminded of whether they want to or not, like Hazel’s oxygen tank. The ultimate fear of a young girl or boy is to be different from their peers. It is so well brought out when Hazel’s father tries to force a curfew on her. The teenager in her wants to act like a typical one, but she is almost always restricted by the thought of how she might hurt them. For a typical girl her age, that might very well be the last of concerns. You can only try to imagine the emotional trauma she must be going through, understanding and acting accordingly would be an impossible task for a parent.
The second is something that has been in my mind ever since I read a Reader’s Digest article years ago. There was this story about a terminally ill guy who decides to celebrate his own wake. Along with his wife, he plans it elaborately, with his favorite food and drinks, all his close friends and family present and each one reading out their eulogy for him. What a beautiful way to go, isn’t it? I am all for this. Why are we so reluctant to say good things about people directly to them when they are alive and then eulogize about them when they are no more? A simple ‘I love you’ said with feeling fills our hearts with joy, imagine the abundance of happiness it would mean to us if our loved ones took time out to really say what we mean to them. Isn’t that what is so charming about kids? They live for the moment and tell us what they feel in that instant. So, why not eulogize someone each day, while they are still in your life?
Going back to the book, these lines from ‘Desiderata’ keeps playing in my mind,
“Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”
Verdict – If you are a parent to a teenager, read it. If you are a parent of a teenager who swears by this book, read it, now. If you are not a parent to a teenager, but is someone who believes in and tries to live by the above quoted lines, read it.
Off late, the reader in me has been veering more towards real life stories and memoirs than plain fiction. Life definitely seem to be more interesting and stranger than fiction. The third book of an author whom I have come to love immensely seem to confirm the fact. There is something that pulls you in , when stories contain an autobiographical taste to it. Maybe I’m wrong here, but Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’ sounds like the author’s own childhood. The details are so vivid, the emotions so raw that one feels she has to have gone through this, it sounds too honest to be fiction. But then , maybe that’s why she is a revered author.
Elaine Risley has returned to the city of her childhood, Toronto, for a retrospective of her paintings. As she wanders around the street, long suppressed memories and emotions burst out onto the surface. Everything about Elaine was different, her parents would have seemed strange to other children, her father an entomologist, making home wherever the bugs where, and a mother who was unusual compared to other ‘normal’ mothers.
After years of wandering around and no formal schooling, Elaine’s parents decide to settle in Toronto. The school is something that is quite unfamiliar for the new girl. For one who has been wandering aimlessly with her elder brother, the segregation between boys and girls is something that is hard to fathom as is her anxiety in dealing with girls her own age.
“I’m not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them, I don’t know what to say. I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.”
With the advent of Cordelia in the neighborhood, starts a series of events that leaves an indelible mark on Elaine. Bullying among boys is more physical and visible. Girls seem to be made of a different mettle as far as this is concerned, it is more by insinuations, shrewdly phrased words and more often than not, ignoring and belittling the victims. It is so ingenious, the bullied are made to believe they are lacking in something so essential, without which they just cannot be a part of the most sought after group. The effect of this is so far reaching that Cordelia is like a fearful shadow looming over Elaine all through her life. The angst and essence of a bullied one is brought out in the words
“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.”
Elaine grows up to be a famous painter, gets married twice, has two daughters, one with each husband. Her angst as a woman, daughter , wife and mother is brought out in a humorous manner that I love about the author. The author’s language is a delight, as always. Written from a woman’s angle – feminist is a much maligned phrase – you are left wondering where the author ends and Elaine begins, you cannot imagine anyone else as the protagonist.
A confrontation with Cordelia, so that she could come to terms with her life is what Elaine seem to be looking for. In that sense, the ending was very mild in my opinion. That is the only grouse I have against the author here.
Verdict – It is in and out a woman’s story. Those of who have grown up in a pre – FB and Harry Potter era would be able to relate to it totally, so if you are one, go get it. Others, who are interested in a story that abounds in acerbic wit and tongue in cheek sarcasm, all from a woman’s point of view, would love it as well.
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.