Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

This is my first Atwood and since I’d received mixed reviews of her work from friends, I was more than a little nervous about reading her. All I can say is this was a great start!! Yes!

I chose this book because it’s based on a real-life murder mystery and I felt that would make it that much easier for me to read. At least if it’s a subject I like, I won’t find it too hard to read, I thought. I was understandably wary, coz she’s a prize-winning author and in general I’m wary of award-winning literature! Also attempting to read the Bookers recently, has only served to increase my scepticism 😛 This one was nominated in 1996 after all 😉

Still, since the Daily Mail promised an ‘explosive mixture of murder, sex and class conflict’, how could I resist? I’m glad I didn’t! Although explosive isn’t a term I would use to describe the author’s style of writing, the double-murders of Thomas Kinnear & his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were certainly sensational when they occurred! The book mixes fact & fiction seamlessly and so efficiently that it’s hard to believe that the fictional characters are just that – fiction! Also Atwood’s prose is quite phenomenal and is so evocative, you can taste it! Here’s an example as early as Page 25, “Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor. Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.” Well now!

I was hooked! The story explores the life of Grace Marks, co-accused in the double murders. Her alleged accomplice James McDermott was hanged for the crime, and her sentence commuted to life in prison due to her extremely young age (she was only 16 at the time) & her supposed amnesia surrounding the actual events that took place. I dare say in the 21st century with our somewhat superior knowledge of the human mind & considerably advanced practice of Psychiatry, her case wouldn’t be considered unique, one might even think it commonplace, but given the time period, it is fascinating, not in the least because of its ambiguity and deceptive simplicity.

Atwood traces Grace’s childhood; as a young girl growing up in Ireland, with a drunk, abusive father and a passive, lacklustre mother who cannot seem to stop reproducing despite their poverty and hopeless circumstance; the journey across the Atlantic that brings her to Canada – the promised land of dreams & destiny; and her years spent as a servant in various households & the people that mould her short life before it all goes to pieces. Atwood’s use of narrative style lifts what could have become a monotonous narrative and lends it perspective & character. I like that every chapter begins with quotes from the newspapers of the time and often a relevant verse, & I like that some of the story is told in the form of letters between different characters that serve to carry the tale forward and are each written in a signature style.

The highlights of the book for me were the interactions between Grace & Dr. Jordan, a doctor with an interest in ‘mental illnesses, who attempts to help Grace overcome her amnesia & understand her side of the story. They work like teasers – at once insightful, imaginative and revealing, & yet ambiguous enough to leave you guessing just like poor Dr. Jordan! And ultimately I think that’s why this book made such a lasting impression on me – I can’t quite make up my mind – is Grace innocent? If she is – is it because of her ‘alleged insanity’ or because she’s ‘truly’ innocent? There are so many versions of Grace as seen through the eyes of those whose lives she touches, that it’s hard to know which one is the authentic one – it could so easily be ‘all of them’. The fact that Grace was real makes her all the more intriguing! I can well understand her ability to drive most men up the wall and probably more women – given her fatal combination of beauty, brains, innocence & a deceptively calm and collected demeanour. A hard nut to crack this one but Oh! The joy in trying!

There was a time when this kind of story would have irritated me no end, a time when I liked my endings neatly wound and presented with a bow 😉 Thankfully I’m over that phase and so able to enjoy a much wider range of books 🙂 And I did – enjoy this one! Immensely & Utterly 🙂 Even the strange side story of the good Dr. Jordan and his land lady that often seemed to me to mirror his unconscious feelings toward Grace. As for the rest…well you’ll just have to read the book now won’t you 😉

After a few weeks break, I’m hoping to tackle The Blind Assassin. I have high expectations of Ms. Atwood now and I hope she doesn’t disappoint! Somehow I don’t think she will 🙂











The Tiny Wife – Andrew Kaufman

I stumbled onto this tiny gem of a book in the Broadway bookstore in Goa on my last visit. Ishaan was with me and was squeaking at my heels to leave as usual (poor kid hasn’t discovered the magical world of books yet!), and I grabbed this from the shelf intrigued by its title, cover and let’s face facts here…it’s very short length 😛 Hold your snide looks and thoughts people…I’ve been wading through the Bookers for far too long…long, complicated books which I have struggled to read, understand and like without much success, because they’re award-winners and a panel of experts somewhere say I should if I consider myself ‘well-read’. Huh!! And then unexpectedly (don’t you just love the unexpected?!), here comes a breath of fresh air, a short book, all of 88 pages, interspersed with some interesting illustrations and a story that’s whimsically weird yet utterly entertaining, and unlike anything I’ve ever read before! Hallelujah!

The story begins with a robbery and continues on to its consequences, but in the telling, it reads like what I can best describe as part fairy-tale, part parable. It deals with deep issues like losing a loved one, murder, facing our fears etc in a way that most of us will find intriguing, absorbing and dare I say entertaining?! Yup! My favorite is the title story…the story of the ‘Tiny Wife’…brilliant and imaginative! Dawn & her lion come in a close second! Every story dwells on choice & consequence but is narrated in a wholly original, if quaint manner. No preachiness here, no solutions, no judgment…just good old story-telling 🙂

A must read people…it’ll only take an hour of your time but I guarantee it’ll stay with you a lot longer 🙂


The Book Club – Mary Alice Munroe

ImageI’ve just finished this book and am so disappointed that it’s done, over, finito! I wish there was more of it, more of the women in it, of their stories…I wish! It’s been a while since I felt like this about a book from this genre. I was drawn to it by a Shelfari friend’s glowing review (Thanks Swati!) and the title…how could I not read a book about a Book Club?!

Didn’t feel like that when I began though, which was two days ago…ah I thought, here’s another one of those books by a woman about women, finding themselves, triumphing against all odds, finding the end of the rainbow…a ‘feel-good’ book and not particularly my favourite genre. After a lifetime of reading, you’d think I know better than to trust my own judgement 😉

I can’t say exactly when I found myself truly hooked onto this group of five very different women on their own separate, unique but oddly similar journeys 🙂 Coz isn’t that what Life’s all about…aren’t we all on the same journey viewd from different perspectives, if you get what I’m saying? I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that, as a woman in her forties, their stories resonated with me. I understood a lot of background and context because I knew so well where they were coming from. Many times I had ‘been there and done that’. I don’t think this would have been as powerful or interesting a book for me personally if I had read it in my twenties, I just wouldn’t have been as interested or understanding of these women and their problems. I would have been…dismissive and boy would I have been a fool!

So, we have Eve, Doris, Annie, Midge and Gabriella and the stories of their lives, intertwined yet separate, each unique not because of the ‘story’ but because of the ‘woman’ it happens to. Munroe is fantastic when it comes to writing about the ‘ordinariness’ (if you will) of life in general. Her prose is easy; her simple, gentle style suits her subject. I love how she takes us on each woman’s journey, every agonizing misstep and every tiny triumph, in an oddly comforting way, peeling away the layers of self-doubt every woman goes through, until she comes to the right decision for herself. Along the way each one of the ‘Girls’ as I like to call them, discovers an inner strength and tests the bonds of friendship, often discovering support & understanding where she least expects to! So like in real Life! Each one during the course of a year, learns more about herself, her friends, trust, love and the hardest lesson of all in my opinion…the art of letting go. Munroe finds a way to make each journey believable, authentic and interesting, without lapsing into extreme sappiness.

In a book with five women, one is bound to have favourites 😀 and although Eve’s story is the dominant one, I liked Doris’s best which surprised me no end, not in the least because I have nothing in common with her life outwardly, but I understood her inner self best and was soon rooting for her to do the right thing! Strange that, coz I felt and still feel that I identify most with Annie…her feelings of isolation in childhood and the kind of person she is because of them, her need to always be strong (or perceived as certainly), her inability to reach out and ask for her help until her world’s collapsing around her are sadly not alien to me, and that’s what really got me thinking. I didn’t ike Annie much in the beginning and I can’t say I liked her in the end, but I understood her better and I was glad she understood that help comes to those that ask. It’s something I need to understand too and I’m getting better at it, but there’s always room for improvement! Maybe it’s a woman thing?!

Another thing I have to be thankful for is that this book finally got me writing again!! A long review that will go on my blog after ages of being abandoned as Life & routine overwhelmed me! Slowly I feel like I’m getting back some semblance control and maybe that’s why this book hit a chord. Munroe’s picked some great books for this Book Club of hers…ranging from Moby Dick to The Bible…and every chapter starts with a quote from the ‘book of the month’, that sets the tone for what’s to follow. I liked that and I loved the retreat at Doris’s cabin on the lake, and the tree house she built…a celebration of womanhood if ever there was one.

This is a wonderful read, easy and fulfilling in a quiet gentle way. It’s about women like you and me trying their best to get on with their lives, battling issues that most women in their forties will identify with consciously or not…troubled marriages, a loss of that ‘sense of self’ that defines who we are, loneliness, menopause, children leaving, and many more. And yet this ‘second adolescence’ as the Girls call it, is worth all the heartache, pain and struggle that come before. That doesn’t make it any easier to accept. Oh No! It’s a trial by fire at best, and I can testify to that coz I’m still still in the middle of mine…but dare I say…enjoying every terrifying, exciting bit of it?! Yeah…it’s all about choice and perspective and most of all about freedom…Freedom of the ‘self’, which so many women fear perhaps because we’ve been conditioned to equate it with betrayal & abandonment of our family & friends. Strong words I know but oh so true. One look at my Mom and I know I’m not wrong. But we’re getting better at taking care of ourselves…slowly, steadily and hopefully 🙂

Let me leave you with a passage from the book that made me smile and that to me defines the essence of this book…”She leaned back in her chair and stared at the moon.  It hung in the sky beside her, a silent but steady presence – inspiring, enlightening, timeless, changing. Sometimes fat, sometimes thin, sometimes glowing. Sometimes those blotches were right there on the surface for the world to see. Some nights the moon dominated the sky, other nights it slipped quietly through veils of clouds. Sometimes it was mysterious, other times it was exposed, scarred with the prints of men’s heavy boots. Tonight the moon seemed to be smiling at her, keeping her company with a glow that seemed to radiate from within. It filled her with its golden light. The moon had to be a woman, Doris decided. Raising her glass, she toasted her new friend and called out, “You Go, Girl!”

Read it!

P. S. Oh and just so we’re clear…as far as I know this book wasn’t nominated for a Booker or any other award but I could be mistaken about ‘any other’. I haven’t checked! Still, for me another nail in the coffin that is my Booker-reading Project 😦

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

So, I’m finally done with my second Booker winner this year, the first being The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, 2011 Man Booker Prize Winner and a much easier read! This one is many things, but easy is not one of them! I haven’t rated this book and I don’t think I will, because frankly I can’t make up my mind whether I like it or not! Doesn’t happen too often, although these days it’s been happening more often than before. Perhaps that reflects a better choice in literature? Or perhaps a deeper insight while reading? Or just a keener sense of self? Who knows? Who cares? I think I’m beginning to channel Jacobson 😛 Think like him or worse feel like Treslove! Why use one word when you can use several dictionaries? Why stop at one question when there’s a whole smorgasbord waiting to be sampled? So back to the rating question, there were times when I liked it, for the humor, for the originality of thought for the language, and times when I just wanted to stop reading from frustration at the repetition of thought and ideas and the wordiness, oh the wordiness! But I’ve promised myself that this is my Booker year…am attempting to tackle that side of literature that I generally avoid because I think I’m not going to get it, it’ll be too difficult, too elite, too everything! So I persevered. This book is one of those for me – it requires perseverance and patience – neither my forte when it comes to books nor life for that matter 😛

Anyway, moving on to the book itself, a story of three friends, two ‘real’ Jews and one ‘aspiring’, two widowers and one ‘aspiring’, two ‘sane’ and one ‘aspiring’. Let me explain. Libor and Finkler are ‘widowers’, united in their loss of wives. Treslove excluded from this macabre club that he longs to belong to, and indeed seems the most logical member given his approach to life and women…”He no sooner saw the woman than he saw the aftermath of her…”. Never married and always left behind, seeing a tragedy at the beginning of every love-story, living the title of the ‘eternal widower’! Again, of Libor, Finkler and Treslove, it’s fairly obvious as to who are the two ‘real’ Jews, at least by birth and sentiment if not choice. Libor and Finkler appear secure in their ‘Jewishness’ (whatever that means, and at the best of times it means many things, like it does with every race. Jews aren’t unique in their idiosyncrasies, although their idiosyncrasies are unique to them!), although appearances are as always deceptive. Treslove on the other hand is like an echo of a Jew, distant and hollow, trying to learn how to be one by incessant questioning and observations from which he invariably reaches the wrong conclusion every time. He was rather endearing initially albeit maudlin, because his questions were mine, his thoughts were mine, but then, began to grate on my nerves as I learned my lessons and he seemed to ignore his! Perhaps he never really wanted to, which is what I suspected from the beginning. This book has me confused as you can see (is that the sign of a good book?), and confusion makes me ‘wordy’, so please forgive me, I know not what I do…like Treslove, I haven’t a clue! Well rating or no rating, its obvious this book has got under my skin in a big way.

I’m not a Jew, and I don’t personally know anyone that is, living as I do in the largely Jewless (to my knowledge) state of Goa, India. But the questions in the book intrigued me in that they are applicable to every faith, and consequently every human. What does it mean to be a ________? (Pick a Faith, a gender, a class, a nationality, a profession!). That’s the central question in the book, from which all others originate, unto which all others congregate. A question that in my opinion has many answers, none of which are wrong and all of which are the sum of several differing lines of thought. Treslove however is not satisfied with any of them. He remains until the end, unable to make sense of the different answers presented to him by Libor, by Finkler, by the Hunoesque Hephzibah – and that to me was disappointing. He insisted on staying juvenile while I willed him to grow up and that irritated me! Still I do recognize his type, and I don’t have much patience with them in life either. Perhaps it’s my failing rather than theirs. They seem happy enough in their own context. See, didn’t I say – confused!

I’ve known people like Treslove, who seem content in their sadness, indeed who seem more at home in it, who seem to choose it and embrace it, like I would never do (Mom is one of them). I don’t get it – it angers and disappoints me. I’m essentially a ‘happy’ person and yes probably more judgmental than I thought! Perhaps that was another reason I wanted to get a hold of Treslove and shake him, much like his mugger did, make him see that happiness is available too, it’s a choice too, like he discovered ever so briefly with Hephzibah before getting into the self-sabotage act. Why didn’t he get it? Is it so difficult? Why is self-doubt so much easier than self-belief? See…more questions! I’ve been wondering as I type, whether I have a favourite character at all. Hephzibah is a front runner for the title. She’s spunky and identifiable with, the most ‘normal’ of the lot, in my opinion. Also she’s the only woman that matters, that’s alive in the book, which adds to her appeal 😛 I thought I liked Libor best but Finkler has grown on me. Let me put it this way – he’s my kind of crazy! I wish there had been more Tyler-Sam scenes, they’re brilliant! Tyler’s brilliant – sharp enough to cut men – physically, mentally and spiritually – and unafraid to use those edges! What a woman! Libor-Malkie in contrast were less appealing, perhaps because I thought them more conventional. I wasn’t too surprised with what happened to Libor, I’d seen it coming. It’s not that kind of book – if anything it’s predictable and characters stay true to their type, although I have hopes for Finkler’s evolution 😉

The language – I loved at times and at times the long hyphenated sentences had me tearing my hair out. And yet, who would think to compare the coming of dawn to a military coup? Bloody brilliant that! The book is full of clever one-liners that I’m not going to list here. There are too many and they are best read in context. So I guess you’ll just have to brave the book 😉 The ending, inasmuch as it can be called that, coz do such books (or should I say books that deal with such subjects), have an ending, is not entirely unexpected. But the last line of the book stays with me, and I quote,”There are no limits to Finkler’s mourning.” That I think is a brilliant beginning…for a whole other book! Clever that! And as I type, more questions come to mind – does the last line mean that Finkler is turning into his own kind of Treslove? If it does, what does that mean exactly? Did I really like this book or has it just irritated me into admiration with its cleverness, and wit and endless questions and existential angst? All that soul-searching and I still can’t say one way or another! But it has affected me and it will stay with me and I will recommend it to people who are unafraid of challenging reads and have bucket-loads of perseverance and patience, coz didn’t I say earlier? It’s that kind of book!

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

This is one that was short listed for the 2011 Booker eventually losing out to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

I picked it up because of its intriguing title and rather droll cover. Don’t you love a book with a great cover? It’s a good read, although at times the descriptive prose tended to excess. It took me a while to get used to the author’s style and her often abrupt prose. It suits the subject matter fine though which for the most part deals with sailors and their voyages. She’s cleverly woven a coming of age story into a sailing background, which is very reminiscent of Life of Pi. But while Life of Pi has a surreal quality to it, what with the charismatic Richard Parker, this book is firmly rooted in reality. And reality is so often ugly, an ugliness that Birch describes with vivid, if occasionally noisome attention to detail.

There are parts of the story which were extremely tough for me to read, softie that I am! The ship-wreck and its aftermath, the dragon hunt & escape, the whale-killing – all very graphic, disturbing and yet imbued with a strange and terrible beauty. The other parts I enjoyed, especially her character descriptions. The description of Jaffy’s early days, his drive, his ambition and his early naiveté were very endearing. His friendship with Tim and Ishbel, his joy at working at the Menagerie and the descriptions of the animals themselves along with the emotions they might have been feeling were spot on. It was easy to understand how young Jaffy was enamoured of the animals and especially the birds, because through her prose, the author made me fall in love with that rather seamy, chaotic place too. I could smell the smells and see the looks as it were!

I enjoyed the descriptions of ‘life-at-sea’ too. Birch paints pictures with her vivid prose. Descriptions are obviously her forte. So it’s easy to imagine a ship leaving harbour, peopled with seasoned sailors, their eyes wise & sorrowful, and young boys out for an adventure, eyes bright and unafraid, untouched and unclaimed as yet by the wily sea. Easy to see her pitching on the high seas as her crew struggle for survival and battle the ocean in all its fury. And easier still to watch her anchored in a calm harbour where the beaches are lined with palm trees and where at last land offers respite, refuge and recreation. Especially loved the description of three hurricanes that dance on the water before all hell breaks loose and a definitive scene early on in the book that I’ll simply call ‘Jaffy & the Tiger’! Brilliant stuff!

But it’s not all about the descriptions, there’s a story here too, of love and friendship, of courage and sacrifice, of leaving and being left behind, of forgiving and being forgiven, of humanity and animals and whether they are as different as we like to think. I was a little confused by the choice of title, especially when the said Menagerie is absent for a good part of the story, until I realized that this is indeed a Menagerie, literally of animals and symbolically of humans, all thrown together by fate and circumstance to get along as best they can or die trying.

Although I cannot but help compare it to Life of Pi, which was for me an easier read and remains my favourite book on a similar subject, Jamrach’s Menagerie is absorbing, intelligent and thought-provoking. In short it’s everything a great read should be!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending

I read this book on a recommendation from a friend and like her, I couldn’t put it down. It made me give up my Sunday afternoon siesta which is saying a lot!

There are so many things I love about this book that’s it’s hard to know where to begin. Let me begin then with the cover which I loved for it’s artistry before I began to read, and for it’s aptness after I finished! You’ll just have to read the book to understand 🙂 Loved the first paragraph and most especially the last line. Loved the author’s way with words, the way he uses them to breathe new life into well established ancient truths…”We live in time – it hold us and moulds us…and yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.” How beautifully stated, how true, how terrible.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that describes the human condition and relationships in quite this way before. The ease with which Barnes describes an average, everyday life, such as most of us might hope to live, even strive towards, like Tony does, carefully, cautiously and willfully, is at once exemplary and frightening. It’s the same way he describes memory and human remembrances and their mutability. “I must get out there and ‘do’ something, ‘make something happen’ before Life passes me by,” is the thought that resonates in me when I finish.

Most of the characters in the book are left deliberately ambiguous (or at least that’s how I felt), except to an extent, Tony’s, and yet Barnes manages to sketch a clear picture of them at decisive moments in the narrative through clever dialogue and more often through Tony’s introspection and memories of events. A formidable skill! Tony, Veronica and Adrian, a trio of unforgettable characters that will stay with me for a long time. After reading The Ant Colony by Jenny Valentine just yesterday, it’s feels wonderful to have found two books that have become favorites in two days! Or is it?! 

A must read!!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My Edition

So, I was prepared to be intellectually stimulated, have my beliefs challenged and learn important life lessons as one expects to from a classic (also helped that I could tick off one more book in my bible, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!). It wasn’t long before I was utterly sucked into Esther Greenwood alias Elly Higginbottom’s world! Plath’s language is impeccable and her precise choice of words, is a delight. Her analogies, the Fig tree in particular offer vivid imagery – I could see the tree and imagine myself (in Elly’s place) quite easily,  bewitched and confounded by all the different figs/choices that were hers to make and none of them quite right. Although I’ve never been quite so depressed, I certainly know what’s it’s like to be sandwiched between a rock and a hard place, to be burdened under the weight of a million expectations, to feel pressured into making a decision you’re not ready to and to feel like you have no choice. Indeed, who doesn’t? We’ve all known what it feels like to be helpless and out of control at some point in our lives. Most of us are lucky enough to find help in time.

As I read on, I was blown away by Plath’s description of Esther’s descent into depression. Being a doctor myself and having interacted with patients who are clinically depressed, I am familiar with a lot of what she describes, but from a doctor’s point of view. The lucid, detailed, patient’s point of view that she presents is astonishingly accurate until I remember that she herself suffered from depression and committed suicide. The words she uses, the emotions she describes are eerily reminiscent to some of my patient recollections. She certainly knew what she was talking about and that makes me wonder, whether sometimes genius is not just another name for an abnormal mental state.

It was also sad to read of the rather appalling & often crude treatments used when psychiatry was still an emerging science, not the popular, developed science it is today, at least in the developed world. As a doctor in India, I am well aware of the abysmal state of mental health care in my country. There is much stigma still attached and good, well-thought facilities are few and hard to come by, if at all. One can still read horror stories where asylum inmates are chained to their beds and suffer in inhuman conditions. Many of them die from non-medical disasters such as fires & floods make rescue impossible and brutal attacks from fellow inmates. Although the situation is in the book is not quite as bad, Dr. Nolan’s crude and disastrous first attempt at ‘shock therapy’ is nevertheless disastrously familiar. Thankfully, science has progressed and with it, our understanding of the human mind and its workings, although both continue to evolve with time.

The fact that the world in general, perceives Esther as a well put together young woman, living the NYC dream, on her way to a successful career and life, is common to many depression stories. I have met people, shocked at an attempted suicide by an apparently ‘normal’ member of the family or a close friend. “But she seemed fine!” they exclaim, taken unaware by a reality that seems alien and contrary to everything they believed and though they knew. I’ve often thought, it makes them feel unsafe and helpless, because their confidence in themselves as astute judges of character is shaken. They don’t know what to believe or think any more and are shell-shocked as a result. Certainly, makes one think about what defines ‘normal’ doesn’t it? Things are a whole lot better now, as awareness increases and relatives are actively and intimately involved in the treatment process, but in countries like India, mentally ill people are still often tragically & unfortunately, labelled ‘mad’.

I love the way Plath illustrates, Elly’s loss of interest in life, her confidence, her perspective, until the whole world appears uni-dimensional. This is one of my favorite Elly quotes, “I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, and this made me even sadder and more tired.” She becomes oblivious to all and everything around her until even the most trivial human interaction becomes unbearable, intolerable. Many people may have trouble relating to the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a single precipitating event that triggers her downward spiral. This is not uncommon in depression, which is most often multi-factorial. However, personally, I think the death of her father, not described in detail in the book, but mentioned often enough in the narrative, to make an impact, is a major contributor. It is easy to see that they were close that she loved him deeply and was loved deeply by him and the fact that he seemed un-mourned by her mother made her exceedingly angry. She refers occasionally in the book, to the fact that she cannot really remember being happy after he died. I love the scene where she cries at his grave and was hoping that that would serve as a positive turning point, where she could gain some sense of closure, but that was not to be.

I am glad the book ends on a note of hope though, otherwise, it would have been a miserable read. Brilliant but miserable! I do wish the cast of supporting characters in Esther’s life had been more fleshed out, but I think Plath describes them from Esther’s point of view, and so we see them only as she does, in turns boring, dumb, stereotypical, conceited, sad, pathetic, lost and confused. I don’t think ‘enjoyed’ is the right word to describe what I felt while reading this book and after. I was completely involved in Esther’s story for the duration of the read and thankful I wasn’t her when it was done! I must say, I thought the title and the inherent analogy, simply brilliant! A must read for those who wish to understand depression from the point of view of the depressed.

A difficult but eternally unforgettable read for me this. Does this make me want to read more Plath…Yes! But probably sometime in the future when I feel strong enough!

Solo by Rana Dasgupta

Have had this book for a while (it’s natural for me as I think it is for everyone who loves books, to have several unread books warming my shelves at any given time!) but haven’t got around to reading it yet. I picked it up in my favourite bookstore in Goa, Literati for several reasons. First, the very interesting blurb – I mean who can resist a 100 yr old Bulgarian man and something about dead parrots right?! Second – the gorgeous jacket cover that features a stunning still life by Georg Flegel and third – the many great reviews in cyberspace. I don’t usually go by reviews, preferring to draw my own conclusions, but they do broaden perspective, which is never a bad thing 🙂 Yeah…that’s the way I choose the books I read – Genre. Blurb. Cover. Recommendations from Friends. Reviews. In that order.

I’m a quick reader – a day or two for most books…and this one seems like it will be an easy read. My definition of an easy read is a book that has an interesting story told in a direct, simple style in crisp prose. Not a Marquez for example – whose flowery prose gets rather overbearing at times, and leaves me wading through pages of rambling sentences & descriptions, until I forget what it’s all about!! I speak from experience – we read Love in the Time of Cholera for our book club and although I found the story in itself fair and the characters interesting in parts, the prose made for excruciatingly slow reading! I’m all for atmosphere of course – it’s essential for authenticity – but crisp and edgy is more my style. Also, am not a huge fan of sweeping love stories (except Gone With the Wind which is more my kind of love story!). I’m essentially a crime and thriller kind of girl! So Marquez is most definitely not an easy nor quick read for moi!

That said…lets begin…Chapter 1…

It should actually be Day 1, cause I only started reading today. With one thing and another, didn’t get a chance to begin yesterday. But I’m well away now…Chapter 28, Page 165 and have just finished reading how Ulrich lost his sight. Of all the stupid things the man has done so far, really at times I wanted to just reach into the pages and shake him. Anything to make him awake from the stupor in which he functions – hard pressed to call it living!

It’s a fabulous read so far and based on the first half, is already on its way to becoming a favorite. The language – truly stunning, is what has me hooked! Of course reading the life story of a Bulgarian man, a centenarian or fast approaching is no less enticing, but the language is what has its hooks in me – deep and welcome and making the book pretty much un-put-downable! Enjoy the ways in which the author strings together a sentence, births a thought, uses well-worn adjectives in nouvelle, surprising ways. It is what makes the story of an old, lonely man who has lived a rather pathetic, exceedingly average life – interesting, intriguing and romantic. His story isn’t unique, (certainly there are thousands of Ulrichs’ across the globe, aging men and women living lonely, forsaken lives, clinging to an uncertain, tenuous reality whose stories have been told over the years), but the narration is what sets his apart from the rest.

In short – brilliant writing and interesting story so far…


Alright – I’m done (read all through Day 3 and no time to blog, so this rather longish post) and not a little bamboozled from reading the ‘Second Movement’ of this weirdly wonderful book! I didn’t really get why the book was split into two halves entitled First & Second movement at first, until of course I realized that Ulrich’s one true love in life was music, from the loss of which he never fully recovered. As his fierce dedication to chemistry unfolded, the chemical names of sections became understandably valid. Equally vague were the captions in the second half, until a passing phrase, thought or idea ascribed to one of the characters brought clarity and illumination!

I found the second half disorienting at first – even though I caught on to the fact that the new cast of characters were a product of Ulrich’s daydreams – and so, essentially unreal, a figment of his imagination or should I say a creation of, instead? But they seemed so much more, their stories so well fleshed out, their anguish so real – that initially I kept looking for a tangible physical connection to Ulrich’s life. When I didn’t find one, I was in turns, confused, angry and disappointed, and quite frankly would have been happy to give up right there. Thankfully, I didn’t. I persevered and was rewarded with an original, weird (although, this is a word I associate with its characters rather than the book as a whole) albeit profound saga of love, friendship and life journeys. Once I surrendered to the author’s premise and suspended my initial disbelief, I found myself carried away by the flow of the narrative. The going got easier, and it was rather like reading a book within a book, scripted, cast and directed by Ulrich, which was strange, novel and intriguing all at once! An enjoyable experience, although several times, I found myself re-reading parts and scenes and sentences to draw parallels between Ulrich’s life, his character, his failures and his short, stunted periods of happiness.

So initially I had ‘Boris’ pegged for Ulrich himself and I thought his purpose, if one can call it that, was so Ulrich could live the successful life he never had, vicariously in his dreams. But as I read on and met Irakli, I was convinced that in this solitary, confused, alcoholically weak, but intensely passionate character was an unfortunate repetition of Ulrich’s own desolation. Khatuna, (the third character in the ‘dream trio’ as I began to think of them), had flashes of Magdalene’s resolve and firebrand personality, with her penchant for violence, her innate preference for ‘war’ over ‘peace’ and in her fervent devotion to her brother Irakli. ‘Plastic Murani’, the man who ‘discovers’ Boris and offers him up to the world, deserves a special mention. I loved him from the moment he appeared! How could I not – with a name like that! He was a delight, perhaps because he represented sanity in the ‘trio’s’ progressively flamboyant, destructive and insane lives. Also, he seemed to me the character that knew himself best and was secure in that knowledge, whether for better or worse; while every other character spiralled on an endless, often tortuous journey of self-discovery – rather exhausting that!

Ulrich is not physically present in this half, not as as himself that is, except in parts – although one is always aware of his subtle haunting presence throughout. I enjoyed the encounter between him and Clara Blum at the Woolworth building, surreal and poignant as it was. In the last few pages, the author crystallizes what for me is the essence of this book – through one final encounter between father ‘Ulrich’ and son ‘Boris’ (I should have known!), in which he (Ulrich) tries (as indeed, I assume all fathers do) to pass on his life’s wisdom hard-gained through his massive failures and brief victories. The meaning he ascribes to Einstein’s statement ‘I am nothing without you.’ is understandable, indeed plausible by the end. His theory of several, individual failures feeding the ‘one stupendous success’, in this case Einstein’s, however, seemed like a stretch at first. Don’t we attribute success to hard work, dedication, perseverance and all that jazz? Certainly not to another’s failure, right? Perhaps. Perhaps a bit of both. Another question of perspective that this book seems full of.

I guess seen from ‘the other side’, one could describe success as a collation of the little failures (real and perceived) of presumably insignificant lives, that go unnoticed, singed by the blinding luminescence of the hugely successful persons that they surround, feed and nurture at the cost of their own lives, their own dreams. Sacrifice may be a better word than failure and one that Ulrich himself uses while explaining his theory, but methinks the difference is only one of perception. Like Ulrich and later Boris reiterates, success-failure, love-loss, reality-daydreams – just two halves of one whole, and that to me, is the essence of Solo. True, not an original premise, but an original presentation certainly. I think I begin now to understand the reason for the title, which at first was rather obscure.

It’s a difficult book to slot into a genre other than literary fiction. It brought back memories of Life of Pi by Yann Martel, another favourite. This book made me think, it made me wonder, it made me curl up with sadness and seethe with anger. Like all good books should, it took me on a journey through another world, another time, another life and will stay with me through mine, until perhaps, I, like Ulrich, lose my grip on reality and even then maybe in my own daydreams!

A powerful, surreal book – this one’s a Keeper!

A Cultural Stranger

I recently read Aatish Taseer’s, Stranger to History – a fascinating account of a son’s quest to understand his father through his religion, Islam. What interested me most were the author’s concepts of ‘Cultural’ versus ‘Traditional’ or ‘Historical’ Islam, which he uses effectively to describe his simultaneous affection for & disconnect from, a religion that’s as new to him as his famous Pakistani father. Estranged from his father before the age of two, he was brought up without any specific religion, by his Indian Sikh mother and grandparents in Delhi. His only sense of being ‘Muslim’ came largely from the fact that traditionally on the sub-continent, children follow their father’s religion. He is thought of as Muslim and largely accepted as such in the Muslim world (although not without doubts & questioning as we learn in due course), because his father is one. And there in lies his dilemma.

My edition of 'Stranger to History' by Aatish Taseer

What does being a follower of Islam really mean? Is it a dynamic state of being that changes in historical & cultural context or is it a static constant determined simply by the accident of birth, that remains unchanged & unmoved by circumstance? Is being a Muslim more important than being a citizen? What does being part of the global Muslim ethos really mean in the 21st century? Do Muslims everywhere believe in a uniform Islam? Should they? Do they aspire to the same freedoms? Is there a place for those that believe differently within the community? These are the questions he sets out to answer, in hopes of gaining insight into his life and his father’s, and he does so by traveling through a major chunk of the Islamic world over land, from Turkey, through Syria, The Kingdom (Saudi Arabia) and birthplace of Islam, Iran and finally to Pakistan and his father’s house. Along the way, he finds some answers and more questions and his thorny reunion (if it can be called that), with his father who is at best distant, difficult and a slave to his political compulsions, doesn’t make for a happy ending, just a real one.

Through his journey I learned a lot about Islam & the Prophet – how it began, the initial struggles, its eventual spread and its inherent uniqueness in offering a set of written rules for practically every part of life, including paying taxes, which I find fascinating, if a little overwhelming! I identified with the author’s feeling of camaraderie toward what he terms ‘Cultural’ Islam. He uses the term to loosely refer to the Faith that allows him to wear a religious thread around one wrist & the Sikh ‘kada’ on the other; allows his father to be a Muslim while enjoying a drink; and encourages Hindus and Muslims to pray together at certain shrines across the sub-continent, without comprising their Faith or identities.

This book hit a nerve, mostly because a lot of the questions Taseer asks of himself, his father and of Islam are similar to the ones I’ve been asking myself lately. My context though is not religion but culture. Questions about what it means to be a Goan living in Goa and yet feeling disconnected and rootless. It’s not a new feeling. I’ve felt this way ever since I was old enough to think about stuff like this! I couldn’t wait to leave Goa fast enough, way back when, and the first chance I got, I did. I thought then, it was a combination of the usual emotions that makes people restless – a desire to escape the past and a belief that the grass is greener elsewhere! And for the most part it was. I did want to get away – from my parents mostly and be independent, master of my own fate, an adventurer! I stayed away for 14 years, and can honestly say that if it were not for family, would have been happy never to visit! (I can almost see the shock and disbelief on the faces of my Goan friends!). The thought of coming back to Goa to settle down therefore, you can imagine, was tantamount to suicide in my book! Scary, awkward and painful, more so coz it was a choice we made.

This August, it’ll be two years since we moved back to Goa and while some things are easier, others are not. It’s the not that worries me. There seems to be a Goan sensibility that everyone is a part of but me! And it’s not to do with the fish-loving either (although I will never quite understand that!). It runs deeper. I don’t fit in. My views and opinions on almost everything from politics to people seem at odds with everyone else. My Mom says it’s coz I’ve lived away for so long, but that’s not really true coz I felt disconnected when I was in my teens, only then I blamed it on hormones & teenage angst! Where does it stem from, this reluctance to become part of what seems a happy Goan collective? Not from my family that’s for sure, they’re model citizens and cannot imagine a better fate than living & dying in Goa! Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never felt truly at home anywhere, except for the years I lived in Bombay, coz I’m a city girl at heart and Bombay offers anonymity & privacy, which I prize fiercely. Blending into the background – that’s me. And yet sometimes that frightens and disappoints me. What does it say about a person, when all they want is to be left alone to live their life in peace, free from judgments and expectations? I always thought there was nothing wrong with that, but moving back to Goa, brought stuff back into sharp perspective.

It’s a cultural thing. Or is it? You tell me. One is expected to do the right thing, be strong for one’s children, for one’s parents, be willing on occasion to sacrifice individuality for the sake of societal acceptance and the greater good (whatever that may be). And while one is being advised on how to do all of the above, the underlying hypocrisy is revealed. I see that rules and principles are broken and bent at will, if the rewards are big enough…usually monetary. That rules do not in fact apply to all, only to those who do not have the means to get around them. That corruption has come to mean ‘being practical’ and that ‘being practical’ is an accepted way of life. All of this and more scares me. The insistence on trivial religious practices and superstitions simply because it’s been the done thing for centuries. The desire to conform, to not be the one who rocks the proverbial ‘boat’, to accept the unacceptable out of fear or worse nonchalance. Wouldn’t it scare you? And the scariest thing of all – knowing for a fact that even though you can fight against the system, you can’t ever win, coz to do that requires unity and these days unity is like a rare metal…precious & scarce. This is not the way of life I want for my son.

Goans by Mario Miranda, a famous Goan cartoonist!

But not everything that bothers me culturally is earth-shattering and system-related. I can be petty! Or not! I like people to be punctual and the Goan lack of respect for time, drives me crazy. ‘I’ll be there in 10 minutes’, is best interpreted as ‘I’ll be there when I feel like. Don’t wait up!’ I have lost count of the number of times I’ve called up people after days to remind them of an appointment they didn’t bother to keep nor cancel. “Couldn’t you just call and say you couldn’t make it?” I ask, only to be met with sheepish excuses or more often, awkward silence. (It’s been two weeks since we called the guy to service our ‘Inverter’, a contraption that gives us electricity during Goa’s infamous power outages!) It gets my goat more than anything else, especially when I hear people bragging about Goa being such a paradise to live in…beaches need cleaning people and tourists need facilities, and as far as I know self-cleaning sand and self-developing infrastructure have not yet been invented! And don’t even get me started on driving and Goan drivers…complete disregard for every traffic rule combined with supreme confidence & pride, in the ability to get out of every scrape through political connections, and a healthy dose of road-rage especially when caught in the act, best describes it!! Compared to these, the penchant for gold displays and a tendency to equate over-the-top with ‘good’ taste, seems inconsequential. I know you agree!

When I complain about this, most Goans answer me with this completely inscrutable and to me unacceptable defense, ‘It’s a matter of time. You’ll get used to it. Things work differently here in Goa.’ They say it in a rather superior, irritably smug kind of way that excludes me from some secret formula they are in on! “Get used to what?” I ask. To unprofessional behavior and lackadaisical attitude? To the tattered state of infra-structure which results in random power outages and water shortages & an Internet connection slower than a turtle? “What if I don’t want to?” I persist. They look at me sadly amused, again with a secret knowledge that I will eventually surrender to this way of life coz what else is there? I don’t know what it is that makes me so unforgiving of their presumptions. They all seem happy, successful and at peace with their assimilation. And yet here I am, struggling to hold on to my individuality and the things I believe in, against all odds. And no, I do not think that sandy beaches, great cocktails, the famous Goan ‘susegaad’ lifestyle, and the fish (especially not that!), make up for all the stuff that bothers me. Coz I ain’t living on no beach!

Regardless of the rant, I don’t hate Goa or Goans 😛 (Hah! You don’t believe me! Don’t blame you ;-)) It’s just that sometimes it feels like you have to love fish, gold and land (the Holy Trio!), to fit in and I couldn’t care less about all three! So where does that leave me? Bemused and bewildered! Perhaps that’s why I identified with Taseer’s dilemma. I have a Goan pedigree. Indeed, in my case, there are no doubting Thomases! Why would there be? I’m born to Goan parents with impeccable pedigree, married into another family with equally impressive credentials and belong in a sense to the Goan Hindu elite. But that is the key isn’t it…everything says I belong except my own sense of disconnect. For the most part, I make the right noises now in public. “Yes, Goa is beautiful” I say, (No problem there!) 🙂 “Where else could I possibly want to live!” (Anywhere but here comes to mind! No matter what Goans think, Goa is not the first and last beautiful place in the world!). I don’t blame for thinking that though coz they hate to travel and the thought that any place comes close to Goa is sacrilege. Perhaps it’s easy for them to feel that way, coz to them Goa is home!

Sometimes I think people can sense the charade, smell my underlying discontent. Perhaps that’s where the real problem lies, in people defining me within set parameters, trying to fit me into their idea of what a Goan should look like and behave. Or perhaps it’s me, trying to fit in, knowing I never will and not really wanting to, that leads to the stress. Or perhaps it’s the original small-town ethos, that made me so happy to leave all those years ago. A place where everyone knows (or thinks they know), who you are, is free with unsolicited often bad advice, and where attempts to assert one’s individuality are often met with stubborn resistance and narrow-mindedness. That’s the Goa I left, and in many ways the Goa I returned to remains unchanged. Perhaps that’s what scares me more than anything…the resistance to change and even scarier, the inability to consider that some change might be for the better and that in the long run, all change is inevitable!

I guess what I’m wondering is, how long does it take to feel like you’re no longer a stranger to your own culture? And all I can say for now is…as long as it does.

There…now you know why I like to call myself Crazy Goan Girl 😛

p.s. For those of you still awake after reading this post…read the book 🙂

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

My Edition

I finished re-reading this book last week, while in my cotton-headed state. Perhaps it’s what prolonged that state of being for a while…the book is wont to have that effect!

I remember feeling confused, moved, restless and uneasy after reading it the first time. It was unsettling then and it is unsettling now. It is one of the few books that will haunt me forever, never leave my consciousness, probably because of the way the author deals with issues that interest me – the resilience of the human spirit and its will to survive in the face of gargantuan odds, the power of faith, the intricacies of the human mind, boundaries in the physical & ethical world, and the healing power of love that allows us to survive the worst of our nightmares, whether physical, mental or spiritual.

Love the flying fish on this one!

There are so many things I treasure about this book; it’s hard to know where to begin. An excellent story, fascinating characters and a strong interplay of science and religion (my favourite), all make for an amazing read, but if I were to start at the very beginning, I guess I would start with Pi – his name and how he got it! Piscine Molitor Patel – with a name like that, it’s almost criminal to expect a life on the straight and narrow. A name like that begs adventure, excitement, a life less ordinary! I love the author’s descriptions of the diverse environments in which the story is set. Pondicherry & the Zoo. The Sea. The Human Mind. With minimum fuss and deft strokes, he sketches each to perfection! Love the Zoo and its animals – how they live, interact and survive their cages. He explodes many myths about zoo animals, especially with regard to their need for freedom and I love how every animal story he tells (and there are many) has a lesson for us humans in it! Great writing!

I also enjoyed reading about Pi’s forays into religion and the fact that he does so more out of curiosity rather than compulsion, interested me. I appreciated the way the author has approached the subject, keeping his language, Pi’s motivation and the followers of different faiths that he encounters, simple and clear and almost one-dimensional, rather true to life I thought. Loved the nonchalant way his parents react and the dialogue that follows between them and the representatives of the three faiths that Pi has espoused, after the outing of his ‘multi-religiousness’, is delicately yet superbly done. The author manages to avoid offending sensibilities by keeping the dialogue matter of fact and to the point and I like that he doesn’t let Pi back down in the face of societal prejudice. It is one of the high points in the book for me.

The shipwreck, is so clinically described, that for a while, like Pi, I almost disbelieve that it has indeed occurred! The events that follow are gruesome, tragic and surreal, making for an awesome read, if you’re not squeamish. The description of the Sea in its various ‘avatars’, is fascinating and only fitting I thought, in a tale where it is a major, if not ‘the’ major character. At the end, when Pi hits landfall at last, is when the geography really hit me. He’s drifted from somewhere near Manila to Mexico! Incredible, unbelievable, astounding! Without giving the story away, suffice it to say, that my reactions mirrored those of the men that Pi tells his stories to in Mexico, and the fact that they did taught me something about myself, while offering important insight into the machinations of the human mind and the extreme measures it can take to ensure survival. This book reaffirms my belief that humanity is geared to survive. It is our strongest instinct and though most of us thankfully will never have to go through such extremes as Pi did to know it exists, nevertheless, it’s what keeps us going through all the petty trials and tribulations of our everyday lives.

Love this cool illustration of Pi & Parker 🙂

And so I come to Richard Parker, one of my favorite characters in literature, brilliantly imagined and written, and for me, the single reason (if I had to pick just one) this book is extraordinary! In turns abhorred and beloved, in turns friend and foe, in turns devil and savior, in turns tiger and man – he is unforgettable! Enough said 🙂

This book will offer fresh insights every time you read it. It is a many-layered story that will engage your imagination and intellect on many levels. Yet it is neither over-written nor over-thought and at its core, it is still about the universal battle of ‘good versus evil’ and relationships…with self, the rest of the world and the Almighty.

A must read!