Category Archives: Fiction
When I was carrying our first born, husband used to see pregnant women everywhere. It happens all the time doesn’t it? When the mind is focused on something, consciously or sub consciously, it seem to attract relevant experiences, thoughts and people. Or is it that we become more mindful and aware that we actually start making sense of what is around us? Stories, real life and made up, discussions, real and virtual, all tend to rekindle those once burning embers. As if that was not enough, this book found its way and added fuel to the already smouldering ashes.
The questions are what every woman would have asked herself at least once in her life. Unless of course, she is single and childless. Is it worth it? What about me? My dreams? Do I even have a choice? Are child bearing and rearing my responsibilities alone? What if I reset my priorities? And family and children no longer held a place there, or they were far down on the ladder? More than ten years into the twenty first century, such thoughts are rarely heeded, then imagine the furor that it might have caused when a woman dared to think aloud on similar lines towards the end of the nineteenth century, even if she was fictional?
Edna Pontellier had no right to be unhappy. Rich husband, tastefully furnished house in the suburbs, holidays to sea side every year, happy kids, customary maids and servants – she seemed to have it all, everything that women like her where supposed to want. Reticent by nature, she seem to further withdraw into herself, the holiday crowd and their shenanigans doesn’t charm her anymore and she seem to search for that sense of freedom that she has experienced once, while running through the fields in her childhood. There is this restlessness that seem to settle over her and refuses to let go. She had always thought of herself different from other women in her social circle, the mother-women,
“who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels“
Edna is at first slightly disturbed by the fawning ways of young Robert, the land lady’s son. No one sees anything amiss in it as he is known for his flirting ways with the rich ladies who come down from the city year after year. Yet, for Edna, that might have been the spark that the fire in her was waiting for. The questions start taking complete shapes as she overcomes her fear of swimming. And that could very well have been a metaphor for getting over her inhibitions. And her friendship with the musician Mademoiselle Reisz, who is not too welcome in her group of friends, helps in showing her a way out to her dreams.
Back in the city, taking up the role of a dutiful wife is something Edna finds difficult to come back to terms with. To give due credit, Mr.Pontellier is not a cruel husband, just an ordinary guy,
“a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife,”
and hence could not understand the changes and the increasingly insolent behavior of his wife. He tries, in his own way, to make her comfortable and to make her see sense. Edna realizes that her relationship with her husband was just that and love was something else entirely that she has just begun to understand. Kids away on a holiday with their grandmother, and husband on a business tour, Edna finally seem to find herself in her art and affairs of heart. It takes her friend Madame Ratignolle’s words to bring her back to earth from the colorful skies that her spirit was roaming around,
“Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!”
The mother in her takes over, but the consequences are rather contrary to what we might expect.
The questions continue. I remember a conversation that I once had with a male friend. We were talking about a macho movie actor who was quite well known for his roving eye and abject disregard for his wife and mother of his children. My friend’s response was, “well, he is a great artist. His wife should understand that and respect his life. After all, she is his wife.” There was no clear answer to my counter of what if it was the wife who was a great artist and the husband was just that, her husband. A mumble was the only answer, if that was one.
Society has conditioned us to expect mothers to be the be all and end all of everything related to family with scant respect to what they themselves may really want. She is expected to give up all her comforts and aspirations for the overall happiness of her husband, parents and children whereas men, well, continue to be men. Mr. Pontellier could not have put it better and here he speaks for scores of men and even many women,
“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”
Edna Pontellier, for me is the sound of many a woman that I see and listen to these days. They know their priorities clearly and perched right on top of the list are their children. They nurture their offspring with single minded passion, protect them like a tiger mom and is ready to give anything that it takes to give them the best. Yet, they know where they will stop, even if it is with a regret or two.
“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.”
Normally, I am more of a casual reader who might have read about the author somewhere and is satisfied with the bits and pieces of information that might float in with the wind. This time around, I really wanted to know this brave soul who had shocked many an orthodox soul right out of their shoes and even stockings. How could a woman talk about her sexual desires, and so openly? How could she leave her husband, and God forbid, even her children, just like that?
Kate Chopin is now considered a forerunner of the feminist authors of the twentieth century. She has written two novels and about a hundred short stories. ‘The Awakening’ is her second novel and as expected, was a quite a sensation when it was published in 1899. It was condemned, critics gave it all the choicest labels and the publication of her third collection of short stories was cancelled. The novel started getting recognized for what it was, almost sixty years after her death in 1904.
Verdict – The easy going manner of writing belies the brevity of thoughts. You can finish the book in a day or even less, but it is sure to disturb your thoughts for a few days, especially if you are a woman and a mother, who had and still have some dreams, and whose life is an eternal list of priorities that keeps changing by the minute. 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.
The 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
So, I’ve been busy
boozing baking, like it was going to be deemed illegal. Oh don’t raise your eyebrows, the rate at which things are being judged immoral, illegal , illegitimate and what not, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Supreme Court judge finds baking soda to be against the tenets of some now obscure religion, baking could indeed be banned, you know 🙂
Anyway, December was one of most hectic months that I’d seen in a long time. Baked almost fifty cakes, sold half of them and played Santa to many a friend. Kids fell ill, one after another, thankfully. Office was crazy as usual, the change over from one legal entity to another did nothing to lessen the daily madness. None of these was a deterrent to my life mantra, “Come what may, I will read.” A few that I managed to devour in the odd moments out of life as usual..
‘Open : An Autobiography’ by Andre Agassi
His fate was sealed even before he was born. Andre’s father had decided his youngest , whether boy or girl, would be the world number one in Tennis. From the day he was born, tennis was all he was allowed to even think of. Hard as it is to believe, the boy grew up to hate tennis, but he didn’t or was not allowed to know any other way of life. After a spate of local wins, he was sent to the boot camp style tennis academy in Florida where he turns into a total rebel.
The book is less about tennis and more about life, in general. How parents can build or break their kids. The terrible sense of meaninglessness and bewilderment is what young Andre seem to plod on with during his teenage and youth years. It is as if he is searching for something all along, not knowing what exactly it is that he is searching for. This is the story of how he finds the answer finally.
It is also about the guardian angels in his life – the elder brother, the friend for life, the coach and last but never the least, his trainer Gil – they are the ones that need to be mentioned above all. Andre’s life and success as we know it, were built on these pillars. But for them, the story would have had a totally different end. This was my take away from the book – that a single person believing in you, unwavering, can alter your life for ever. And yes, the story also covers his first marriage to Brooke Shields and then the calmer and stable one with Stefanie Graf. What is most heartening about the couple is the seamless understanding that they seem to have about each other and the way in which they bring up their kids. Both of them would rather not have their kids playing tennis.
True respect for the man comes when we read about his philanthropic activities, especially the ‘Andre Agassi College Preparatory School’ The school is located in one of the most economically challenged areas of Western Las Vegas. Having not completed his education, Agassi started the school with the belief that “the best way to change a child’s life is through education.” Rated as ‘High Achieving’ within eight years, I am sure this is going to be his lasting legacy,what he would be known for in future.
Verdict – Go get it, doesn’t matter whether you like tennis or not
‘Revolutionary Road ‘ by Richard Yates
One of those classic cases where too much expectation leads you to a deep disappointment. The book is touted as a classic and was on my reading list for quite some time. The story revolves around Frank and April Wheeler, the quitessential all American couple – Frank with a job that he is complacent about but that pays him well enough for a home in the suburbs, a wife who can afford to stay at home and the customary two kids. The characters, their behavior, what they want to and what they actually do, their conversations, everything sounded artificial. Maybe that was the point of the story, anyway, found that this was a tea that I would have thrown out half way down, but for that masochistic streak that refuses to let me close a ‘classic’ half way through 🙂
Verdict – Will not recommend to anyone…..at least until I find some hidden meaning in there
3/5 – for the style, loved that
‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ by Paul Torday
The best antidote to an exhausting month, this was a Christmas gift from a fellow book lover. Like a hot cup of sulaimani chai after a heavy lunch, this book kept me company and solace on Christmas day and the next. Simple life of ordinary people, told in a straight from the heart language have always enamored me, and this wasn’t any different.
Dr. Alfred Jones, a timid fisheries scientist, who leads life in the shadows of his intimidating investment banker wife , would never have thought how his life would change after he gets a request to head a project that sounds not just foolish, but insane. A sheikh from the arid deserts of Yemen wants to start Salmon fishing in his country. And his only back up is his belief that Allah will perform a miracle if He so wills.
The story is also a satire on English politics, or rather politics everywhere. People who have no clue about ground realities are in charge of projects, their only concern is the image that would be presented to the world. I loved the way the story was told and how Dr. Jones’ life is transformed along with the Salmon project.
Verdict – A pleasant sunny read. If you look for goodness in people, stories splashed with subtle humor, go for it.
December must have been the only month last year where I read less than a book per week. I had taken up a challenge to read 70 books and completed about 80. On that high, have set a bar of 100 for 2014, and have also promised myself to review all 100. Wish me luck folks!
I had brought back a long list of books to read from our vacation at Capella, Goa. Ayesha, our lovely hostess is mad about books and I had the time of my life combing through her bookshelves, finding new authors and discovering some titles that I had never heard of, from my favorite authors. One author that was present in almost all her shelves was Isabel Allende and during our chat one evening, she recommended ‘The House of the Spirits’ as a must read. I finally got hold of a copy from the library last week.
A few pages in, the wonder started creeping in. What is it about Latin America and its authors that enchants us so much, it is as if the word magical realism was invented by them. Maybe it is indeed.
The del Valle women has something different about them. Nivea , the mother comes from a madcap family, while her daughters have their own peculiarities. Rosa, the eldest, is so beautiful and perfect, men are even scared of talking to her. Clara, the clairvoyant and the youngest in the family is the true heroine of the story. The spirits that are around her all the time, helps her predict the future of her loved ones, not that it is sufficient to help them when it is needed. Rosa is betrothed to Esteban Trueba, whose father squandered the family wealth and who is now working day and night in the mines so that he can provide his love Rosa, a life that is truly worth her. However, Rosa’s untimely and accidental death, sends him to his family estate that is in ruins. And this is where I feel the real story begins.
Within a year, Esteban has not only revived his estate, but also established himself as a true lord and master of the people who work for him. What we see next is the rise of the classic feudal land lord, ruling with an iron fist, squeezing out the last bit from the land and his tenants, his eyes and arms never missing a young girl and leaving behind him a spew of progeny that he choses to first ignore and then forget. In the background is his dying mother and sister Ferula with whom he has a volatile relationship. He goes onto marry Clara who, even with her spirit wandering in another world, ensnares him so much that he doesn’t feel like even looking at another woman.
In the true passionate manner that we attribute to people from that continent, Blanca, Esteban and Clara’s daughter, befriends their plebian manager’s son, who turns out to be a revolutionary and people’s musician. Esteban’s twin sons are as different as chalk and cheese – Jaime, the altruistic and empathetic one and Nicolas , whose only interest is in making money without any effort. The author takes us through the turbulent lives of these characters , shuttling between Esteban’s hacienda, Tres Marias in the village and the ‘big house in the corner’ in the city, both of which are ruled by Clara and her spirits.
The narration is from the eyes of Esteban and his granddaughter Alba, Blanca’s daughter. The story is a true epic, it is as much about the tale of a country as it is about four generations of women, who influence and support each other, whether dead or alive. As the spirits wander around the houses, the country goes through the natural cycle of the rich land owners and the submissive , dirt poor workers who depend on their masters for their existence. The second generation turns against their fathers in both classes, one against the injustices and the other fighting for justice. The third generation tries to settle scores. The government moves from the hands of the rich and elite, to the socialists who comes into power with the intangible support of communists. In their blind scramble to get power back by hook or by brook, the rich hands over the country in a platter to a set of dictators.
There are a lot many other characters, each having their own place and space in the story. The multitude does not confuse you but adds to the intrigue and strength of the story. The narrative style is so vivid, you feel as though you are actually living in that era, as a part of the Trueba family in a house that is enchanting and intimidating at the same time. The scope of the story is so vast, however hard I try, it is impossible to do justice and summarize it in a brief review.
Though set in Chile, a country that is far off,the similarities are many. The rich land lords, the sons and daughters who rebel against the iron fists, revolution that is spread through songs, the illicit and torrid affairs between the haves and have nots, the very settings itself, reminded me of Kerala a few decades ago. Even the life cycle of Esteban, is so similar to the many patriarchs that we see even today in some of the hamlets. Like lions in their heydays, terrorizing whole villages, they slowly turn into indulgent and placid grandfathers as they grow old. The metamorphosis of land and man are intertwined with each other, one cannot exist without the other.
Verdict – Must read, specially if you are one who loves passion, intrigue, revenge, affairs and love coupled with the history of a nation.
Trivia – This is Isabel Allende’s debut novel. Rejected by several Spanish publishers , this was finally published in Barcelona in 1982.
A few relationships, marriages , two kids , books and an artistic life aside, Kate finds herself at a sort of cross roads in life. She loves Yolo, who she lives with currently, but the nagging feeling of something not being there, haunts her. The recurrent dreams of a dry river only helps to aggravate her longing. And she decides to go on a journey, searching for the river that is missing from her life.
First is a rafting trip down the Colorado with a group of women and then another one down the deep jungles of Amazon in search of a mystical medicine, known as the ‘grandmother’. The first journey helps her in slaying some of the past dragons that had deeply entrenched themselves into her self. As she throws up, it is as if her painful experiences are being ejected out along with the vomit. The conversations with the other women in the group brings out some moments only a group of ladies who has really lived their life can enjoy.
The journey for the mystical medicine is with a group of people, all of whom has some deep hurt that they want to heal. While it is a brutal rape and murder for one, for another it is the injustice that his forefathers brought down on the native Indians , for yet another, it is the cry of the colored people who were systematically dragged into a world of drugs.
Kate’s lover, Yolo, goes on a trip to Hawaii at the same time. Though the intentions of the journey are different, the outcome is similar. The message that the author wants to convey is the same, whether it is down the rushing white waters of the Colorado, or the pristine Hawaiian beaches or the scary jungles of the Amazon. That illness, discontent and pain begins when the nature is forced to be out of balance. How the commercialism of the US of A has forced the natives away from the nature that gave them recluse and relief for generations, how even the food that they eat have turned so alien to their bodies and in turn spoilt their souls as well.
One of Kate’s co-traveler’s story was particularly touching for me. His forefathers had snatched land from native Indians and turned it into a ranch. Every year as the family would gather for Thanksgiving, and Indian would come to his house and wait patiently outside. He would be taken to a remote place in the ranch where there is a small spring that never went dry even in the most severe droughts. Once he brings his grandson along with him , at the spring he can be heard talking to his grandson or the spring itself in a language that the ranch owner could not understand but that the hills and trees and water around could very well do. The area is then sold out for mining and they discover a huge underground lake where the spring once was. The lake dries out soon and they find a grave yard of bones below the lake. I loved the way the author narrated how the old Indian was guided by the spirits of his forefathers to the place where they were buried, how the sheet of water lay hidden as a layer to protect them from the vandals outside.
The book is not an easy read that you can finish at one go. It is more of a journey that you need to take along with Kate and Yolo as they understand their inner serpents and learn to release them and finally find the real happiness they were searching for, with each other. It also makes you aware of and feel the pain of the brutalities that we force on Mother Nature and how the Grandmother is always there to welcome us into her bosom, to nurture us and gently show us the right way.
Verdict – Not for everyone, you will either love or hate it, passionately. If you are the kind who searches for life’s meaning in the shine of the dew drop or the ripples on a silent lake, you should read this one.
More often than not, as your expectation levels increase, the chances of getting disappointed also rise exponentially. Sad to say, the rule has been proved yet again. I could not put down the first two parts of her Taj trilogy and had jumped at the chance of getting a review copy of Indu Sundaresan’s latest novel, based on the mysterious and controversial Kohinoor – The Mountain of Light.
The story starts with Shah Shuja and his wife Wafa Begum imprisoned by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The only thing that can gain them their freedom is the mighty Kohinoor that Wafa Begum has hidden cleverly. The story is supposed to be about how the precious diamond passes on to Ranjit Singh and finally ends up in the hands of the Queen of England. Yes, there is the Maharaja’s heir Dalip Singh, though his character’ growth happened when we are left looking elsewhere. One moment he is an eight year old, next he is old and dying in Paris.
Maybe it was me and the time, I found the story disjointed, and was not able to understand why certain characters like Lord Auckland’s Emily and Fanny Eden, Roshni, Victoria Gouramma and similar others appeared at all. Even the Kohinoor was like a fleeting presence rather than a connecting thread. I think what was missing was a central character that carried the story through.
Verdict – Suffice to say I was sorely disappointed. Have seen some reviews where the readers loved it. So, I guess will leave it to you whether to pick this up or not.
Certain books have a way of coming to you when the moment is just right. There I was on a holiday, in a home stay where books were in plenty, many of them dog eared, the edges turning brown and some of them even crumbling. Finding the right book to read from this profusion was a true dilemma. Picked up and even tried reading a few, but then, my heart refused to be drawn into any of those. Browsing through yet another book shelf as the kids were running around the living room, I could almost hear the hum of bees as this book called out to me, the one that I’ve been searching for, for sometime.
Fourteen year old Lily Owens has grown up with a sense of terrible guilt and an insatiable longing for her dead mother. The only memory that she has of her mother is a beautiful lady urging her to hurry up, throwing clothes into a suitcase and the sound of a gun shot. Rosaleen , the black lady is the only mother figure that she has known as she grew up with her authoritative and abusive father. A racist incident finds Rosaleen in jail and Lily decides to break her free , finding freedom from her father along with that.
A picture of a ‘Black Mary’ with a note ‘Tiburon, South Carolina‘ leads her to the three Boatwright sisters named after the months they were born in and their enchanting and somewhat eccentric world of bees, honey, Black Madonna and Daughters of Mary. Lily’s longing for the love of a mother, the tiniest hope for a sign that her father loves her in some way and moreover, her determination to break free from the shackles of a moralistic society that decides where a woman’s place should be, is what the story is all about. It is also about the coming of age of a teenage girl in an an obviously racist community and her bewilderment at how the color of your skin decides who you are and how you would be treated.
August Boatwright comes across as a mature paerson, who has learnt what life is at a young age and has decided to live life on her own terms. As for June, she is the stubborn mule and it takes a sad and shocking tragedy to make her come to her senses. May and her wailing wall tugs at your heart’s strings. Through these ladies, their mad cap sisterhood, the tough Rosaleen and the handsome Zach, Lily comes to terms with who her mother was and in the process finds herself and the courage to face her father.
This is as much a coming of age story of a young white girl as it is about life lessons. This is also about mothers and daughters and the beautiful truth that you need not give birth to a baby to be a mother.
I loved the allegories to the world of bees in each chapter.
“The world was really one big bee yard, and the same rules worked fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates, while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little being wants to be loved.”
Just what I needed to complete my nostalgic holiday,
“Actually, you can be bad at something, Lily, but if you love doing it, that will be enough.”
Verdict : A simple story , told charmingly. Nothing earth shattering, but it sure does make you think and smile, what more do you need?