Books we love

We have shared books to read before we turn 10, 20, 30 and every decade that a human possible could think of being alive. And we talk about books that we liked, hated and loved. And then there were a few that we just could not stop talking about. Isn’t it only fair that we have a list of our own? The BE – must read list. A compilation of what we discussed over the past month and a half…starting with the latest.

1. Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik  

Aswathi:

The very title of the book seems to be an invitation to enter a room filled to the brim with stories.. we are familiar with most of them, it could be even in a scattered kind of way, at some level, we all know the story of the Pandavas, our Gods and goddesses… If not grandparents and parents, we had our B R Chopra with his tales on national television and the like..in the 90s

Read her full review here – https://bookendersblog.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/devdutt-pattnaiks-shikhandi-and-other-tales-they-dont-tell-you-2014/

2. Night Film by  Marisha Pessl

Amit:

It is about this journalist who is investigating the suicide of the daughter of a movie director. Now this director is famous in night film circles for his gory and chilling movies, never appeared in public and has is ultra clandestine life. I don’t want to go in more details. The book plays with your mind.

3. Where the Rain is Born: Writing About Kerala by Anita Nair

Vinay:

Reading this, I can feel the drops of that October drizzle, trickling down my cheek, like I am standing on the threshold of my own ancestral home in Kerala seeing the hues.

Reading is bliss. Heaven.

4. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Venu:

Best opening line in a long time.
“The world is what it is. Men who are nothing…have no place in it”

5. How to be Good by Nick Hornby

Kiran:

How to Be Good is this very modern day English tale of a certain class of Brits- liberal, professional, upright citizens in an upper middle class locality. wife is a doctor, husband is a minor columnist cum author in the making. two small kids. The story starts with the wife announcing she wants a divorce. on the phone. while she has started her first extra marital dalliance And then the story goes into their lives the questions troubling them, and the underlying dynamics. simply, engagingly, direct dil se. A great example of how to tackle difficult toics in a simplisitc yet profound way.

6. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Kiran:

a little older tale of an older couple. again, frayed, ageing lives, whats been the good, the not so good and then startling new twists. A more intense and involved language n style than Nick hornby, with a lot more range of coverage. and yet, within the realms of the simple tale told sweetly.

7. In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman

Kiran:

PROFOUND. LITERARY. INTENSE. SUPER INTELLIGENT. All that needs to be said out loud. Because it is a book that is not subtle or gentle in the least. Grabs you from the start and makes you work hard. and takes you such a journey. One of the most brilliant books ever i have read . And incredibly, it is the first novel ever by the author. Full of the big themes of identity, class, love, loss, knowledge, knowing, memory and its shaping, and even global geo-politics.

8. Love among the Bookshelves by  Ruskin Bond

Bindu:

Absolutely loving this short and delightful read

9. Seahorse by Janice Pariat

Joseph:

Call it surreal, but many a times I felt like that I was being sat by Pariat under the shade of a massive tree and told the story. And it does not matter whether Nehemiah will find his lover at the end, you will want the book to never end or so I felt.

I became a fan of Pariat after reading her collection of short stories “Boats on Land”, which is her first book and “Seahorse” is her first novel. With “Seahorse” I have become her disciple now and will be waxing eloquence about her art with all the book lovers there.

Read his full review here – http://evann-joseph.blogspot.in/2015/02/seahorse-review-lyrical-and-musical.html

10. The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone

Priya:

I just started this book – just 3 pages into it, in fact – and it is delicious! I have a feeling I am going to like this book very, very much.

11. The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp by Marin Katusa

Venu:

At the BE meet in Matteo last Dec, I managed only a short five minutes down time with the man from E&Y, in which I reiterated my two points: that a centennial power shift was happening from west to east [colloquially, from NATO to SCO], and that the manifestation of such a shift would be in the oil price change in 2015. Well guess what? Someone’s gone and written a book saying precisely this. Naturally, the author still views India as a penniless beggar [which in energy terms we are], but he also says we are building enough clout to engage in long-term discounted crude trade deals with Iran entirely to America’s chagrin…and India’s benefit [which I touched upon in Sept 2014, and is supported by MoPNG Pradhan’s visit to Islamabad a fortnight ago]. Also ties in well with the J-man’s fears of a new cold war brewing. And finally, here’s a tip: If I were in the E&Y M&A div, I’d look at North American service companies in the oil patch [currently facing mass extinction!]

12. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Rashmee:

It is story of strength of women, the stuff we go through and still keep our humanity in tact. It is about love, love of family, love of mother, of lovers. I love a good love story and this has that typical in the teens love that has an innocence mixed with ambition for the future.

Read the full review here – https://bookendersblog.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/178/

13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Gigi:

A beautiful hard bound book complete with silk tassel bookmark and illustrations sat on the table and I must admit that it was love at first sight!!

The writing has me spell bound and I have to agree that there is an undeniable class and sophistication in the writing , that somehow seems to be lacking in many of the contemporary books that I have read.

Here is one of my favorite scenes so far in the book for its imagery .

14. Aarachar by  K R Meera

Godan:

really good up and coming writer in Malayalam. Forgot who inBookends suggested this, it really is a good read.

15. Lucknow Boy: A Memoir by Vinod Mehta

Bindu:

Much more than I bargained for – Sharad Pawar and Dawood Ibrahim, Morarji Desai and CIA, steamy scene – writer Narasimha Rao and now a moderately drinking, non-veg eating, naughty Vajpayee

16. Editor Unplugged: Media, Magnates, Netas and Me by Vinod Mehta

Bindu:

He has written about almost everyone with at least one irreverent anecdote about each, but one was missing, that too very obviously. The Madam. And he finally agrees, that she could do no wrong. At least in his eyes. That was the Lucknow Boy in him talking. Now let me go see what the Editor has to say, Unplugged.
I love memoirs. Especially when they are as juicy

17. A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present by  David Davidar

Bindu:

A surname caught my attention, in fact, his is the last story in the book. I had read an article by him sometime ago and loved it. Studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with BAs in History and Literature and at Columbia, where he was a FLAS fellow in Persian and South Asian studies. Loved his writing and tongue in cheek humour, surely a name to be reckoned with in future…a chip off the old bloke

18. The Passion of Artemisia: A Novel by Susan Vreeland

Bindu:

Ladies, and gentlemen who at least try to understand their ladies, if you have ever loved, been betrayed, longed for something with your whole heart and soul, have felt the sweet and aching tug of love for a mother figure, yearned for beauty, things that were beyond your reach, have admired women who were headstrong and passionate, this is one book that you absolutely MUST read. What a woman! And mind you, she is no mere figment of imagination..

19. And Then One Day: A Memoir by Naseeruddin Shah

Bindu:

Never had work consumed me so badly that for a few weeks I could not get past even two pages of a book. People who know me would understand when I say it was like I’d stopped breathing. Only a book and a man like this could redeem me. The smile is now back on my face and the breath is back to being yogic.
What a man, what a story!

20. To Kill a Mockingbird by  Harper Lee

Devaky:

I was 10 when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I distinctly remember the stern look from the librarian at Corpus Christie High School in Kottayam as she admonished me for borrowing a “grown-up’s” book (yes, it wasn’t under the section for children’s books, I’d already finished the entire section).

I clasped the book tighter with my small fingers, didn’t budge from her desk… I sat through the night to finish the book. The next day I climbed back up on my favourite guava tree behind our dormitory & spent my afternoon reading it again.

Of course I got detention for missing my dance class & PT, but my head was filled with the agony, emotions, wit & beauty of Harper Lee’s tale. Nothing else mattered.

Can’t wait to read the sequel 30 years later.

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‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence

(posted on behalf of Pooja – A die hard dreamer who fell in love with literature and poetry after being introduced to the enchanting world of Kubla Khan around 5 years ago, she claims to be drop dead envious of every person who, with a light touch can make the 26 alphabets of the English language hum and throb with passion and life. That magic hidden in the written word is what makes her tick. After 3 years as a literature student she joined up for MCJ out of the laziness to study any heavy subjects and so as to escape the confines of home. Fresh from college, she is now on her first job at a small firm in Trivandrum, Kerala.)

A Book I Read for Christmas

poojaAn obscene book banned from society! The most controversial book of his times!

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence always had a way with piquing up my curiosity during my degree days as a student of Literature. It was this Christmas, 4 years later that I could lay my hands on it.

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position. The war had brought the roof down over her head. And she had realized that one must live and learn.

She married Clifford Chatterley in 1917, when he was home for a month on leave. They had a month’s honeymoon. Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits. Constance, his wife, was then twenty-three years old, and he was twenty-nine.”

Frank & straightforward, the opening paragraphs of the novel plunges right into the heart of things. It puts the characters, their mindsets and the times in perspective.

Books are to me, like the people I meet in life.

There are those whom I don’t even try to make friends with (aka. those with an overdose of science, math etc.) Then there are others whose looks I don’t like but then, often owing to a complete lack of options, I give them a try anyway. And some of them come recommended via acquaintances. But some of them are rare treasures. They are much like those outgoing, jolly people you meet in life. The ones who make friends easily and put you at ease the moment you start a conversation.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was to me, one from the last category. It put me at ease immediately.

There is immense depth and innumerous layers to this book.

It throws light on the social conditions and mindsets of the post WW1 times, gives an insight into the psyche of each of the characters it portrays and ofcourse, there is an in depth study of sex- how relevant it is, the different phases of passion and so on.

I will here touch upon aspects of the book that I am sure will remain with me for a very long time to come.

The outline is, thus- Lady Chatterley is married to Sir Clifford who returns home from the war in a battered state. Treatment doesn’t help and he is paralysed from the waist below.  They come down to Wrangby to settle down to the life they are destined to. The development of an illicit affair between the Lady and their gamekeeper forms the rest of the story.

The first of the many aspects that touched me is the insight into the mind and thinking of the Lady. 23 years old, in the prime of her life, stuck with a husband who is half paralysed, she does her best to be the dutiful wife. In fact, she is a dutiful wife and takes good care of him. But then enters the issue of her needs and requirements as an individual.

I loved the way the writer took me into her heart and showed me in person every one of the battles that raged there!

I have often heard and read about those soldiers who have had to return home wounded. But reading this book showed me how the psychological fears, sense of insecurity, the agony of shame, the craving for life and well being, all play out.

The relationship between the lady and her lover, the gamekeeper, Parkin seems purely physical but at times I felt there was more to it. Maybe it is the feeling of being wanted that made both the Lady and her lover stick together.

The burning passion in the detailed descriptions of the love sequences showed me why exactly the book created such controversies in his times!

A thought in the mind of the Lady about love and passion having different phases intrigued me.

But the pivotal point in the novel that struck me was this question posed to the Lady by a member of the working class…

 “Do you think it is possible for people in a very different walk of life to be friends-really friends? What I want to know is it possible that there could be a real friendly feeling between the working class and the upper class?”

This seems to me a central point that runs throughout the novel. This battle of the classes seeps in into the passionate relationship between the Lady and her lover as well.

There are many more aspects to this novel that needs to be looked into but I’d like to end on this note.

Even when we argue that all are equal, even when we are nice to those “below” us, even when we boast that we are good, kind and benevolent even to the domestic help at home, isn’t there a tinge of class thinking lurking in our “benevolence” and “kindness”?

What do you think?

The Year through the Reads

Reminiscing the Reads

Resolutions and promises are alike. The intention is always good, unless it is to kill someone . The year started with a resolve that in hindsight sounds lofty. To write a review on each book that I read. That reminds me of another challenge that I took up on myself. To read 100 books  against 80 last year. If you get the drift of how most things in my life turn out, suffice to say the well begun things still remain half done. In fact, that was one proverb that has confused me no end as a kid. If you begin things well, would it always remain incomplete, my young brain used to wonder. Not that it has got better with age. The brain, that is. Anyway, if not all, let me make an attempt to run through some books that I enjoyed, a few that I loved and certain others…

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‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ by Samanth Subramanian

islandThe abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.

For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.

Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.

“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”

As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a  community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.

Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,

“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.

Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.

What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations  like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as  he 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.”

Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.

4/5

(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads athttp://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)

Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan  begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set  tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.

Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”

As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “

I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation,  how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.

A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following  the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without  compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.

Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.

Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.

One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.

Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being.  It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.

Verdict : Go grab it and read!

It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.

5/5

The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neQcqyUAhr8

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads athttp://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

3.5/5

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads at http://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng

rainThese days it is a rare miracle to get the time, temperament and the right kind of book to read for hours at a stretch and finish it in one go. As you get to explore more and more authors and genres, you realize, with some sadness, that it is getting increasingly difficult to satisfy the growing soul that is you. So you flit from one book to another, trying to find that magic that once was there in every story that you read. You long for that time when each author was fairy god mother  or father as the case maybe, with a bottom less hat from which tale after enchanted tale was pulled out.

Then, out of the blue, like a long lost rainbow, you meet authors like Tan Twan Eng, who ensnare you with the lyrical quality of their writing, sears you to the core with the stories they have to tell and leaves you with an ache that saddens you and a pain that turns into the joy of something essentially good. My first meeting with him was more than an year ago and quite accidental. The cover caught my eye and the blurb gave a go ahead to the heart (yes, some books have to be read with your heart and soul). It took me a while to come out of ‘The Garden of  Evening Mists’, in fact, each time I read a mention of it, a cool and gentle breeze descends on my soul.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s debut novel and it has been calling out to me for quite some time. The fear of being disappointed was pulling me back, till a few Saturdays ago I decided to get drenched. The opening lines were more than enough to hook me

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.”

The Penang Historical Society was planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War as Philip Hutton receives a visitor who would take him back to his youth and force him to open some wounds that he had kept hidden, somewhere deep inside, never opening it out to anyone, leaving it to fester and killing him slowly and painfully.

Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, young Philip feels he belongs neither here nor there. He feels alien to his elder, all British siblings – two brothers and a sister. His mother had passed away when he was young, and the only contact he has with the mother’s side of family is an aunt. At sixteen, he finds himself alone in their large bungalow by the sea, his father and siblings in England on their annual sojourn. And to his life appears Endo san,  a Japanese aikijutsu master. As the cliche goes, Philip’s life will never be the same again.

There is an unspoken closeness between the master and his student right from the beginning, as if they have known each other for more than a lifetime. As the bond grows stronger each day, it is also evident to the reader that there is more to Endo san than what meets the eye. It is not that Philip is not aware of this as well, but he chooses to ignore the obvious as many a young one is wont to. As Japan prepares for war overtly in other places and covertly in Malaya, the natives and British continue to go about their lives as though they are invincible. Philip is innocently pulled into the quagmire and inadvertently paves the way for setting the base for a Japanese invasion.

At the same time, there is a transformation that is happening silently within Philip. He comes to terms with his parentage, his families on both sides, and finally he is at peace with who he is. The tragedy begins at this point, unfortunately. Soon as he finds his space, the very root of his love and convictions are tested, to a limit that seems almost beyond endurance.

If Part One of the story is about Philip’s coming of age and of being a family, the real soul of the story is in Part Two. The war is in earnest, Philip is seen as an enemy by many and as a closest ally by others. The fact that he is working for the Japanese is enough for many to condemn him. Even the ones that he helps, seem to question his motives. With almost all whom he loved turning against him, his biggest pain is the knowledge of betrayal by his trusted master and love, Endo san.

The eternal tug of war between duty and love, fate and choice, family and friends is brought out beautifully in the second part. It takes more than a strong will to stand firm when everything that you believed in and everyone whom you loved turns against you. And then comes the feeling that would shatter even the strongest ones,

“And I realized then that there was an emotion worse even than the sharpest fear; it was the dull feeling of hopelessness, the inability to do anything.”

It takes Philip almost half a century to come to terms with the war and his part in it. There is a multitude of nuances that run beneath the story and which holds it together, threads that are as fine as silk and unbreakable at the same time. The relationship between the master and student, the soft undercurrents of sexuality, the unequivocal love between an English man and a Chinese woman, the common love for someone who is no more that brings together conflicting cultures and transcends pride and finally, the acceptance,

“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.”

In short, a tale so well told that after ages, all I did on a Saturday was just read. Everything else was incidental.

Verdict – I was ready to judge it  a little above a  customary okay, till Part Two happened. Read it of you love stories that question your ideals, makes you think about coincidences, choices, duty, love and a little bit about what is this life all about.

4.5/5

 

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads at http://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’ by RM Rajgopal

emptyBooks signed by authors, I have a few. But a book launch? Never.

So when V, a good friend, sent out an invite, I was excited. For more than one reason. V is a born raconteur and his sense of humor is truly out of this world. So by law of genesis or whatever, his brother had to be a chip off the young block, I presumed. And rightly so, I was to find out.

RM Rajgopal, the author wrote these stories ‘while pursuing a hectic career,’ says the introduction in the book. And the author corroborates it when he says tongue-in-cheek that he has a lot to thank Indian Airlines for the number of delayed flights, most of these stories were written either while waiting at the airport or while on a flight. Apparently he used to carry and notebook and pen with him, always. That he must have observed a lot, not just in the course of flying, is evident from each of the story that he has penned in this debut collection.

‘The Empty Pedestal’, the title story, and the first one in the book is about how times change and the labor leaders along with it – from being idealistic to realistic . The tone was a little sombre and I was more than a little disappointed. I had an inkling of the next one, ‘They Listened’, this was one of the stories from which an excerpt was read out at the launch. An old musician’s yearning for at least one discerning ear and how a few choice requests change his whole life, albeit for a few days, is told so well.

The true meaning of that twinkle of mischief in the author’s eyes starts getting visible from the third story, ‘A Genuine Blonde’. The climax is brilliant, I wouldn’t dare to add any spoilers here. That he is still a boy at heart is brought out in the following stories about a nursery interview, the swaggering senior in a boarding school, and a boy who has lost his mother.

Humor turns into satire as he goes on to regale us about the God-man in ‘All the people all of the time.’ Life’s strange twists and turns are what the next few stories are about. ‘The Bombay Edition’,  is set in a typical corporate office, and was something that I could totally relate to – how the news of a promotion can bring out the attitude of a typical Indian male mind, even today. I was nodding vigorously through the story, reading the archetypal comments about Finance departments and women working there 🙂

The brash Punjabi graduate in ‘A B-Class Abode,’ the hapless Krishnaswamy who is caught between the eternal tangles of principles and an avaricious wife in ‘Principles and the Price Line,’ the ill fated Umesh in ‘Sharing a Berth,’ – all of them are characters taken straight out from life. We would have encountered them sometime in our lives, their stories are heartening and tinged with the pathos of middle class life as it truly is.

The author’s pen turns political in the next four stories. You cannot help but chuckle as you read ‘The Hand’ . There was a time when his words might have been truly prophetic ,

“The irony of what has happened cannot be forgotten. That fifty years after the last Englishman who ruled us left our shores, a daughter of Europe was sworn in as Prime Minister last evening….”

That Mr. Rajgopal decided to have ‘A Guffaw in the End’ is so apt. It is the changing face of today’s woman, practical, clear of what they want, they knowing exactly where they stand and how they will walk their life.

The charm of this collection is how true to life each story is. That the author is a keen observer of what happens around him need not be stated, his tales speak for themselves. What is also evident throughout is his zest for life and the eyes of a naughty boy that looks at life through his sparkling eyes, hiding his seriousness behind resounding laughter.

However, what enamored me totally is the exquisite language, there is that unmistakable charm of old world. You feel as though you are sitting at the end of a long dining table, the dinner is done, you are picking at morsels now and then, the tinkle of crystal and the muffled sound of silver on porcelain somewhere in the background.  Your eyes and ears are keenly attuned to this sixty something charismatic, worldly wise guy, churning out tale after tale amidst loud bursts of laughter, with a few guffaws thrown in here and there and the inevitable anecdotes by others around the table, adding to the spice. The kind of night that you wished never ended.

Verdict : If you are one who loves tales that smell of life as we know it, told in an exquisitely elegant manner and impeccable language, a must read. You will love it.

4/5

p.s. somehow I could not connect to the title story, it seemed to stand apart from the rest. Maybe that explains why it is the title 🙂

‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

kateWhen 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.

4/5

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads at http://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

faultWhat 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 themselves. 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 so we 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, sbut is someone who believesl in and tries to live by the above quoted lines,

4/5

(Also posted here)

Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads at http://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/