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 🙂

Enjoy!

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 😦

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!!

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!