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I am a faithful infidel. In my relationship with books, that is. At any point in time, there are at least 4-5 books in various stages of reading. Some are left behind on the way, to be forgotten completely. Others are picked up depending on the time of the day and the level of lucidity or exhaustion of the mind, as the case maybe. Interesting fiction gathers pace while engrossing non fiction is taken one or two chapters a day. The list on my e-reader keeps expanding almost daily. And half of them recede into a place so far down that sometimes it is lost for ever. However, some others are dragged back to the top as another list appears and the said book have to be read, just then.
So it was with this one. Downloaded some time ago, picked up for reading after an appearance somewhere in December. One chapter at a time, over a couple of months.
The premise was interesting enough, a psychotherapist, four patients of hers, and her therapist. I didn’t have any expectations, honestly. Maybe because I was not sure what to expect. Lori Gottlieb is an American writer and psychotherapist who writes the Dear Therapist in The Atlantic, said Wikipedia. Whatever, I was ready to take a chance.
Her patients – a self absorbed Hollywood producer, a thirty five old, recently married terminally ill woman, an almost seventy year old who is planning to kill herself if something really good did not happen to her soon enough, and a twenty something girl who flits from one relationship to another. Then catastrophe strikes the therapist. Her boyfriend who she was planning to get married to, drops a bombshell that he wants to opt out. The reason? He doesn’t think he can bring up another kid, that too someone as young as the author’s son. Her whole world comes crashing down and her search for healing brings her to another therapist’s couch, that of the inimitable Wendell. Of course, it’s a pseudo name. But that’s besides the point.
Reading through the first few chapters was like browsing through some magazine articles at random. The author was slowly building the confidence of her patients in her, while she herself was struggling to face her issues. Under the age old guise of finding a therapist ‘for a friend,’ she lands up on Wendell’s couch. Literally and of course figuratively. She is no different from her patients, talking about everything under the sun except what needed to be talked about.
Slowly, each story grows on you. What seems obvious are not the real issues. The roots of each case go deep, planted long ago, watered by others and nourished by themselves. The insecurities, deep rooted fears and in almost all cases, the never ending guilt that makes them stop on their tracks, stunting their emotional growth and affecting their relationships.
Even in the Western world where you can find more therapists than pediatricians, it is still a stigma. One of Lori’s patients even pays her in cash, not to leave any trails. Going to therapy is equated with being crazy, having a mental illness, that needs ‘treatment.’ Lori’s stories bring out how therapy is much more than that, how it is more about emotional growth, crossing the deep chasm of guilt, taking responsibility for our selves even when we might be scared to death.
The meaning of the book took a turn for better for me somewhere midway when the author quoted Viktor Frankl. Something that I keep reminding myself from time to time, to live by. If you haven’t yet, read his ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning.’ It will stay with you, for life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
As the author starts confronting her demons, there is a marked change in her patient’s lives too. Slow, but sure. Yes, a young woman is inching closer to death, however in acceptance and thankful for the short and happy life she has had. With an obituary that could be the aim of all our lives,
“For every single day of her thirty-five years,” she wanted it to read, “Julie Callahan Blue was loved.”
The producer finds acceptance about a catastrophe that has turned his life upside down, the guilt laden old woman reaches out to the dear ones whom she had hurt deeply, the young woman learns to stand her ground in relationships and her smoking habit too. It’s miraculous how their attitudes and their lives itself change once acceptance is made.
“At some point, being a fulfilled adult means taking responsibility for the course of your own life and accepting the fact that now you’re in charge of your choices.”
As Lori and her patients cross their hurdles something unwinds in us too. So much dust and cobwebs swept under the carpet that our minds are. And the carpet growing mustier and thicker as years go by. How our behaviors are shaped by unresolved happenings and thoughts. How guilt overpowers us. That the uncertainties, the questions, the doubts, the angst is all necessary before we take that leap of faith.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and experience something before its meaning becomes apparent.”
So, here I am. Ready to leap.
Maybe I will find my own Wendell. And maybe I will talk to her.
It took me a couple of years to go past a few pages the first of Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. Once that threshold was crossed, there was no looking back. In two weeks, all four was done and I was totally blown away.
This one took a similar turn, if I may say so. The difference though was each sentence of the Neapolitan four were devoured in detail. The Abandonment was a fast forward in contrast. One fine day, Mario tells his wife Olga that he no longer wants to have a life with her. In the fifteen years they were together, he had given some hints of unusual behavior maybe twice and Olga had believed that all those were behind them. What goes through her and her life in the ensuing days is what Ferrante portrays in this very short book.
The various phases that Olga goes through, the total disbelief, the difficulty to accept, the sheer bewilderment as to what went wrong, the cycle of guilt, the all consuming anger, the feeling of losing her mind, the changing relationship with her children, and finally the acceptance is described in graphic detail.
There is no shying away from the honesty of the protagonist’s emotions. She hates everything and everyone including her children. However, she has no choice but to go ahead with taking care of the home. While the man walks away with a younger woman, without even a thought of how his family will manage, the woman is left to pick up the pieces.
Rooting for Olga right from the beginning, almost shouting at her to get on with her life, I skipped sentences and whole paragraphs even. Ferrante doesn’t disappoint with the depth of her character portrayals. You get angry and depressed in turns, at a point I was wondering why I was going through such torture in the first place. That is where Ferrante’s magic is. She has you in her spell and it cannot be broken until you have turned the last page.
Gayathri and Myshkin. Mother and son. Freedom and love. Letting go and lingering on. I am no longer surprised at how certain books happen to jump right out of the library shelf and land into my soul. Anuradha Roy’s ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ was the latest. At a time when memoirs and thoughts of vulnerable women holds a coveted place at my bedside, why a piece of fiction, I’d wondered. I should have known better by now.
Myshkin, a sixty something old man, reminisces about life before and after his mother. Nothing romantic or heartening as the death of a young mother that orphaned a nine year old boy. She ran away With a white man as people around him would never let him forget. The fact that the man was German never mattered, all that was important was the colour of his skin and that a young…
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Gosh! Almost two years since I reminisced on my reads? Sacrilege!
Not that I have not been reading. Or writing. Both became a lot more private, more of reflections than reviews. And I’ve not considered myself a reviewer, anyway. Over the past two years there have been some personal enlightenments, a few revelations that has forced me to open parts of my senses and close out more than a few sensibilities as well. All through, it has been books that provided a let out, that lent a shoulder to rest a head that my tired neck was finding difficult to hold. More about those books later.
More than the stories, it is the feeling of empathy and the style of writing that entices and keeps me hooked now. The flow of thoughts, of the feeling of the much cliched deja vu, and recognition of the kindred spirits in authors is what makes me alive these days. Why not write what I feel as I smile at a passage, as I wallow in self pity at times and then come alive as I absorb the positive vibes that the author sends ? So here goes the first one.
I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. There are signs everywhere, that connects you to kindred spirits. It could be someone you meet, a story that you love, an author who resonates your thoughts that you feel you’ve known them for ages.
The name Grace Paley came up in Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage,’ a compendium of her articles from various publications over a period of time. In the delightful ‘The Getaway Car’ from Byliner, September 2011, she talks about her writing experiences, right from when she was six years old. Patchett writes of Paley,
“She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist and artist was all the same person”
That tingling sense of finding a kindred soul…and Patchett exhorts,
“Interested in being a better writer? Go buy yourself a copy of ‘The Collected Stories’ by Grace Paley.”
So I did. Download a copy. And this is what welcomed me. Yes, I am close to being home 🙂
“It seems right to dedicate this collection to my friend Sybil Claiborne, my colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade. I visited her fifth-floor apartment on Barrow Street one day in 1957. There before my very eyes were her two husbands disappointed by the eggs. After that we talked and talked for nearly forty years. Then she died. Three days before that, she said slowly, with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, Grace, the real question is—how are we to live our lives?”
Excerpt From: Grace, Paley. “The Collected Stories.”
We like to believe that it is us who chose the books we read. If that is so, what draws us to certain books? The ones that we have never seen on bookstore shelves before, authors never heard of even in the most popular book review columns, how do they find their way to us? Among hundreds of others on the shelves, and within a few minutes, how do our eyes catch hold of those covers, our hands grab it as if our life depended on it and before we know, we are walking away with that satisfied smile in our eyes. Our soul sings, this is one of those. The kind you get lost in.
Five thirty in the morning, to catch a flight at fifteen minutes past six is not one of the best times to browse a book shelf. But then, the habit of a lifetime is hard to break. The choice was between this and Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Pleasures of Reading.’ Having met an interesting person from Lebanon a few months ago, the setting was a definite pull. However, it was the blurb that clinched it.
“Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage.’ Every year, she translates a new favorite work into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty seven books that she has translated over her lifetime has never been read or touched by anyone but her.”
Can there be a character more interesting than her? She is a creature of ritual as far as her translations are concerned. Every single translation of hers has started on a New Year’s Day. At seventy two, contemplating on the next work to be taken up, she is all alone. No friends to talk to, no family whom she feels close to, she has been staying in the same apartment since the day she was married, at sixteen. Four years later, her husband leaves her. Yet, remorse is not for her,
“I did not wait for the smell of him to dissipate on its own. I expunged it.”
Her friend gets her a job in a bookshop. The owner just wanted the prestige of owning a bookshop and she ruled the shop single handed till it closes down almost fifty years later. And that is how she built her own private collection – by ordering an extra copy here and there, not bothering to return a few borrowed ones and then laying claim to the ones that were left as the shop closed down. No regrets about that, either.
The story moves up and down between the present and past, the characters keep coming and going. The three witches who stay in the same building provide a constant background- Marie Therese and Joumana, both teaching at the American University and Fadia, her land lady. Her crazy mother and the elderly brother and his family is at a distance, though their ominous presence is felt throughout.
The story progresses through Aaliya’s thoughts on the books she has read. She has a literary reference for each character and every incident in her life. And that is exactly what makes this book such a pleasure to read. Talking about her impotent husband, she refers to Kant,
“In ‘The Science of Right,’ Kant wrote, ‘Marriage is the Union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of each other’s sexual organs.’
Kant obviously hadn’t met my husband.”
On the changing faces of her city , she quotes from ‘Sepharad’ by Antonio Munoz Molina,’
“Only those of us who,have left the city know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones that remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.”
The profusion of quotes doesn’t mean the authors has no words of his own. The subtle sense of humor is so delightful. Again, on her city, Aaliya comments,
“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”
Being a translator herself, even though a closet one, it is but natural that she lays bare her thoughts on the art of translation. One of the best books that she remembers reading is ‘Crime and Punishment,’ in French. She was so impressed by the book that she took up the English translation by Constance Garnett and was duly disappointed. Again, it is through another author that she speaks her mind,
“As Joseph Brodsky said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.’
The author Hits the nail right on the head. Literal translations have no soul. The original need to be transformed and renewed to have any meaning and to speak to the reader.
The pace slows down a bit when Aaliya goes to see her mother. Was it the dearth of references or the pace of life of an old woman, I wonder. The catastrophe at the end and its aftermath brought the story back to life again.
Off late, I’ve been veering towards books from others languages. The insights these stories provide to the culture, be it Chile, Spain, China or Beirut attracts me no end. The pleasure is almost sinful when you compare it to the characters who seem to be shallow and their drab background that is either English or American.
The picture of a war torn area that we tend to have in our mind, especially in the Middle East is that of destitution and hopelessness. As we read, realization dawns that people and what makes them tick are more less the same. Women, especially. The antidote to anything that goes wrong – a visit to the spa, a new shade of nail polish, gossip over a cup of tea. And the sexual adventures are matter of fact. Of women. And we think theirs is the permissive society.
What charmed me the most are the women characters. Men are incidental. It is the ladies who rule . They do judge, but in a time of crisis, the sisterhood never lets you down. At every juncture in her life, good are bad, it is the women in her life that supports or tortures her. Their thoughts , the ones which only a woman could think of, are so well brought out that I was literally shocked to learn the author is a man. At last, here is one who understands a woman.
Verdict – Must read, if you love books and strong women characters
(Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese-American painter and writer. He was born in Amman, Jordan to Lebanese Druze parents. He grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon, which he left at age 17 to live first in England and then in California.
– source , Wikipedia)
Lydia, the second child of Marilyn and James Lee is late for breakfast that day. It would be a couple of days before they find her body in the lake nearby. Whether it was a murder or a suicide is just incidental in the story that follows, or precedes, as you may look at it. Marilyn is the regular American girl, who was brought up by a single mom who pushed her to do well in studies and get into Harvard because, “You know, you’ll meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men.” James, on the other hand, is second generation Chinese, and the subject he teaches seem to be quite contrary to his nature and upbringing, ” The Cowboy in American Culture.” Whether they fall in love is a moot point. Rather, for James it is blending into the American culture and for Marilyn, maybe a matter of rebelling against her mother.
As the police conduct their routine enquiries and finally concludes it is not a murder, the family seem to unravel as the story goes back on forth from the present to past and back. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor and was doggedly pursuing her dreams when she gets married to James. As she gets pregnant with Nath, the dream is kept on the back burner. She doesn’t lose hope even as Lydia follows. Her mother’s death and her cookbook shakes her out of her reverie and makes her do something drastic. But she is forced to return to her life with James and the kids as their child, Hannah arrives.
For James, life had always been a struggle to fit into a society that saw him as an outsider. By virtue of his parents being a janitor and a kitchen helper in an exclusive private school, he gets a free education of the best kind. He never feels accepted though, because of his looks and totally different background. And that tunes out to be his bane throughout his life.
Lydia, who was always ready to please, naturally gets burdened by the unfulfilled dreams of her parents. She dare not disagree to their expectations in fear of disappointing or even losing them. The brilliant Nath and the quiet Hannah gets sidelined in their parent’s lives as Lydia is bombarded with medical books right from her childhood. For James, she is the chosen one who can blend in an otherwise all American school, for hasn’t she inherited her mother’s blue eyes?
Nath is the only one who understands Lydia’s helplessness. She grows despondent as Nath prepares to leave for college. Hannah seems to blend into the background, even as she is the one who absorbs everything. They are on the periphery of their parent’s attention almost always. Yet, there is no ran our in their behavior towards Lydia. In fact, they seem to be the only ones who can really understand her feeling of hopelessness.
The story is a reminder of what parents inadvertently do to their kids by superimposing their dreams on to them, taking them for granted, without even caring to think for a moment what the kids themselves want or are capable of. We transfer our frustrations to them, unknowingly. The poor things continue to try to please us, till one day, they reach a breaking point. Even the gifts we get for them, isn’t it guided by our notion of what is good rather than what they would enjoy?
It is also about adult relationships. Over the years, couples tend to take each other for granted, their focus getting diverted into careers, children and other routine matters. Certain remarks could stay with you for life and affect your relationship so deeply, that it can impact the existence of your family, even. There is hope as well, that it may never be too late to mend broken hearts. What is heartening is the fact that many a time it is those very kids who were taken for granted, who holds the family together, in the end. What I really loved is how none of the characters are black or white. Everyone is human, with their share of flaws and imperfections.
Celeste Ng has brought out the thoughts and emotions of her characters so well. It is wonderful how she gets into the mind of young adults, each fighting a battle of their own. Especially touching was Jack. The ones that we label as rebels, if only someone took out some time to get to know the real them.
Being parents is no trivial matter, the story reminded me yet again.
Verdict – If you love family stories with shadows of psychological analysis , you will love it. Well written with a gripping narration.
Warning – Proceed with caution. A few spoilers ahead
This has to be the most awaited book of the year, probably one of the most discussed too. An author and the one book that she had written. Much has been said, analyzed and admired about Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Jem was the quintessential elder brother, an annoying, teasing teenager, but always there for his tom boyish imp of a sister , Scout. She was what many an adventurous young girl wanted to be. Mischievous and endearng, she brought a smile on your face every time you thought of her. And Atticus, who hasn’t yearned for a father like him, even if you had a perfect one at home? The epitome of righteousness, a true free spirit who believed even children had the right to know everything. He had an answer to all the questions. And you were confident that he would stand by what was right. Always.
The news spread like wildfire. There was another book. An older Scout, a dead Jim and an Atticus who had fallen off the pedestal. No, never, Atticus cannot be anything but perfect, was my first reaction. And it was the same for many others, the social media told me. I didn’t want to touch the book, even with a barge pole. A friend of mine was braver. He went ahead, bought the book and read it. As if that wasn’t enough, he had the gall to write a review as well. Atticus is fine, he said. Ok, I might make an attempt, I thought. And then I meet another dear friend, who gifted me the book. Some things in life are like Jean Louis Finch. They meet you head on. There is just no escape.
Curiosity and a brief illness, pages started turning as if almost by itself. A twenty six year old Scout is on her way back home to Maycombe for her yearly holiday. Jem is no more, we realize. Atticus is old and arthritic, Calpurnia has retired, Henry has stepped in for Jem in Atticus’ work and life and aunt Alexndria is tending the hearth at Scout’s childhood home. And cranky old Dr. Finch, with whom Scout has grown closer to, over the years is in the neighborhood as well. Some childhood reminiscences, a scandal inducing midnight dip with Henry in the village pond and then Scout realizes all is not as she thought it to be. That there are colours in this world which she had never noticed. Because she was never taught to do so.
There is a killing, of a white man, by a black. The killer is Calpurnia’s grandson. Atticus wants to defend him. For a different reason this time. As Scout realizes the reason, she is rightfully indignant and as is her character, flares up at everyone . She feels totally alienated , as she seems to be the only one who thinks differently. For everyone else, there is white and then black. Nothing in between.
Now, the burning question. Has Atticus turned into a bigot? Were we living in a bubble and about to find out that even Gods have feet of clay? As is the case with everything in life, there is no clear and straight answer. He has his own reasons and he is convinced that is the right path. So do most others , along with him. The white people of the South are scared the ‘niggers’ might overcome them, by sheer numbers, if not anything else. People like Atticus has a seemingly logical reasoning for opposing this. These others do not know what is good for the town and the country. They are not educated enough, they can’t think in a logical manner.
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run’em? “
Aren’t those thoughts so similar the world over? How the oppressed gather strength over a period of time, protests start in feeble voices and then gain momentum. The rich think the poor will be clueless, left to themselves, and that the society will be in anarchy soon. As for the down trodden, it is a matter of ‘my sweat , my wealth.’ There is no middle path, unfortunately. Revolutions simmer for a while and then lights up with a bang, burning down many a belief and system in its wake. It takes more than a generation before some sort of balance is restored. And each one does what he or she thinks is right.
Coming back to the story, Scout, as is her true nature, decides to take the bull by its horns. It is to her uncle that she turns to, first. And when the expected ally is not found in him, she confronts her father, head on. I would say the soul of the book lies in this conversation between father and daughter. You see the old, beloved Atticus. Never shutting her down, at the same time standing his own ground, convinced that he is doing what is right. To her accusations, all he says is , “Well, I love you.” And then as to his six year old, “That’ll do, Jean Louise.” In spite of all the rants of Atticus lovers, I feel he remains the same soul that he was twenty six years ago. His actions and reactions might have changed , which had to, according to the times. But, the person that he was, remains the same at the core. He lets his daughter be, in spite of what anyone else, including his sister has to say. He doesn’t care about where someone has come from, what is valued is where and what he has made of himself. Henry might be considered ‘trash’ by all when it comes to things that matter, for Atticus he is the dependable young man who has made a mark by himself and whom he now considers his son and heir. And he shows who he is and what he believes in as he says,
“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”
Isn’t that what he was all about and what we really admired in him? The book is not about Atticus, in my opinion. It is Scout all the way. Her coming of age and learning to accept people and things as they are. Her coming down to ground. She echoes many a girl who has hit her head against the wall at some point in her life,
“Why in the name of God didn’t you marry again? Marry some nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right? Turned me into a simpering mealy-mouthed magnolia type who bats her eyelashes and crosses her hands and lives for nothing but her lil’ole hus-band. At least I would have been blissful.”
I did laugh out at that. Loud.
Verdict – If you have read and loved the mocking bird, definitely a must read. Not too sure whether I’d have enjoyed it as much without the background story in mind. Thinking of it as a standalone book, the story does not seem to have a context. I could be biased, though. I loved Atticus. Still do. And there is more than a little of Scout in me, you see. Hence, 4/5
…..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?
I fell in love with Julian Barnes with his ‘The Sense of an Ending.’ Each sentence was a gem, each thought a treasure. Even though I prefer novels to short stories, the name Barnes was enough for me to pick up this collection of his short stories. And what a pick up it was!
With the humungous list of ‘to be read’ books on the shelves – physical and virtual – if the story doesn’t hold my attention after the first few pages, it normally goes on to a forgotten shelf these days. The pile keeps increasing almost in proportion to the ones that wait impatiently to get into my hands. Following that vein, the first story was fine, a real estate agent trying to fall in love with a waitress of East European origin. As always, irrespective of the subject, it is Barnes’ verses that hooks you and then keep you dangling from that hook,
“His professional eye took in the dimensions, furnishings, and probable rental cost; his lover’s eye took in a small dressing table with photos in plastic frames and a picture of the Virgin.”
‘At Phil & Joanna’s’ is a series of conversations rather than short stories. A few couples meeting for dinner at Phil &Joanna’s and the general banter that normally happens around the dinner table. There are four of these ‘stories,’ each more interesting than the other. The easy camaraderie, the instant repartee’s and witty observations, how people who are close to each other move quickly from one topic to another, relate each to the other and then come back to the original topic, in a warm, friendly banter….I just loved the series. It was as if I was sitting at that table and listening to some of my close and like minded friends.
The book is in two parts. I have nothing against the stories in part one, in fact the last one there, ‘Marriage Lines’ is what touched me the most. There I was, seated in a crowded bus, not able to control my laughter reading one of the conversations at the by now familiar table, when the next story caught me by the throat and tears started rolling down my cheeks. The protagonist comes back to an island where he had visited with his wife before they were married, for their honeymoon and for many years after that. This time, he is alone. As he goes through his memories, we see a life as many of us know: one that starts with a fool hardy optimism that ours is going to be the most perfect ever married life, then reality creeping in and finally how you find a rhythm that flows in tandem between the two of you. When vthat special one in your life leaves you alone all of a sudden, you are at a loss as to how to grieve and you go back to places that were familiar to both of you, where you made beautiful memories together.
“He had thought he could recapture, and begin to say farewell. He had thought grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little, by going back to a place where they had been happy. But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach him many other things as well. This was just the first of them.”
The sheer brilliance of the master story teller comes out in the five stories of part Two. ‘The Limner’ is the poignant story of Wadsworth, the mute Limner who sees, hears and perceives far beyond what his clients think. ‘Complicity’ is about what makes two people get attracted to each other, how do we know what the other person is all about, what do we search for in another, the unrelated thoughts that go through our mind as we assess a potential partner and finally how everything comes to together in a moment and gives us a go ahead signal.
A blind prodigy and an unconventional doctor who tries to cure her are the central characters in ‘Harmony.’ As the doctor probes into the reason behind the girl’s blindness, we come face to face with the different characters that are at loggerheads with each other and oppose each step for their own selfish reasons. Is it that many of us consciously do not want things or people to improve so that the harmony of our lives are not upset? Do we really care about even our near and dear ones or are we more concerned about our own comforts? The girl’s first vision of a starlit sky stays with you,
“she did not want words to interfere with her sense of wonder, and continued to look until her neck hurt. From that evening on, visual phenomena of any distinction were automatically compared to a starry sky – and found wanting.”
‘Carcassone’ is about Garibaldi and his wife Anita Riberas and also about love at first sight and how our language is incapable of representing that ‘lightning strike and thunderclap of love.’ How do we know at that moment that this is ‘the’ person? Do we even need to experience that flashlight of recognition? And then he says in that exquisite manner that is his trademark,
“even the deepest and the longest love relationships rarely start with full recognition, with ‘you must be mine’ pronounced in a foreign tongue. The moment itself may be disguised as something else: admiration, pity, office camaraderie, shared danger, a common sense of justice.”
Isn’t this what has happened and happens to so many of us?
And finally, the title story, ‘Pulse’. What can I write about it? A husband who is losing his sense of smell, a wife who gets clumsier by the day and a son who is unable to form lasting relationships. The son’s affinity and attachment to his parents are total and mostly unequivocal. Is it why he is unable to sustain his attention with anyone? Is it because his ideal is so perfect that he loses his life in his pursuit of a similar life? If so, does children of such parents always have bad marriages? As for the husband and wife, their closeness to each other is so subtle. It is so heartrendingly described in the son’s words as he come to know that his mother doesn’t have too many days to live.
“I kept thinking: Mum’s dying, but Dad’s losing her”
There’s only one word I can use to describe his stories, ‘Brilliant!’ The sheer elegance of his language has to be read by yourself, it can never be described by another.
I have fallen head over heels in love, again!
Verdict – Go, read it! At least the stories in Part Two
4/5 (5/5 for Part Two and ‘Marriage Lines’)
“Your kids read?” I can almost see the skeptical wonder in some people’s eyes as they ask me. The next question comes almost automatically, “But how do you make them read? Mine is so addicted to TV and games.“ And I am reminded of what Anne Fadiman mentioned in her book, ‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader’
Parentous is a meeting place for all who are interested in sharing their thoughts, experiences and opinions on anything and everything related to kids, parents and family. Whether you are a parent or not doesn’t matter. Articles on varied topics are posted every day, contributed by selected writers. You can find my posts there twice a month, starting yesterday and yes, I am super excited 😀