Saturday, May 30, 2015

Perumal Murugan - One Part Woman

Published: +Penguin india
Bought:  +Kindle Store

This is the novel that drew fire from Hindutva outfits. An exasperated Perumal Murugan then declared that he would write no more and decided to withdraw his books. The original Tamil title of the book was Madhurobhagan.

The book was translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. He has done a laudable job of it. The book manages to retain a colloquial feel without losing a grip on English language.

Kali and Ponnan have been married to each other for the past twelve years. It was a love match. Kali was friends with Ponnan's brother, Muthu. He had an eye on Ponnan since long. One night, after a bout of drinking and hanging around, Kali asked Muthu if he would like him as a brother-in-law. Muthu agreed instantly and even spoke to his parents and fixed the match.

Kali and Ponnan are blissfully happy together. The only thorn in their side is the lack of children. This lack is not just for themselves, it is an eyesore for the entire community. Anyone feels free to comment upon it, taunt Ponnan about her barrenness, Kali about his impotency. The couple tries to redress the wrong by doing everything in their power. They go to temples, take vows, make offerings, undertake difficult tasks. All their efforts to waste as Ponnan continues to menstruate each month, much to her sorrow.

Ponnan is willing to do everything, but she draws a line at the suggestion that her husband marry again. Luckily for her, Kali is as unwilling to marry again. He is deeply in love with his wife, but there are other factors that are behind this decision as well.

They are willing to live as they are. They are a loving couple and are happy in their life. But the societal pressures are too much for them. They are made to strive continuously. The constant barrage of insults and taunts threatens to tear apart their peace and harmony.

One day Ponnan's mother decides to spend a night at their place. Instead to sleeping with her daughter, the lady decides to draw her cot over to where Kali's mother sleeps. The ladies spend the entire night whispering to each other. Ponnan's mother has a scheme for making Ponna pregnant. What remains to be seen is whether the couple will agree to it.

The novel is full of a wealth of detail about the life of a young farming couple somewhere in the pre-independence era. We are used to extolling the virtues of our society and how it gives us a sense of security. Here we see its destructive side too. As long as you are going according to the general plan, marry, be productive, have children, everyone is happy. But if your life deviates from the plan, you are lambasted roundly, and anyone can take potshots at you.

This is the mean face of the society. Feuds over property are just around the corner. Your relatives are nice to you only because they have an eye on what you can give them. Even though it is nobody's business, everybody reserves the right to comment on how you conduct yourself. Such interference can not only be annoying, it can be downright destructive.

The story is set in a pre-independence era, but many of these ills are still pervasive.. Women still bear the stigma of being childless. Our neighbors and relatives still think our business is theirs to merrily comment upon.

The novel is not entirely without flaws. The story tackles some parts in a very compartmentalized manner. For instance, the details about the couple's attempts at appeasing the Gods are all put in one long stretch. Later, we are treated to long passages about how the couple deals with the suggestion of a second marriage for Kali. It reads more like a documentary instead of a story.

Towards the end, as the story moves towards a tantalizing climax, we are suddenly diverted by digressions in the story.

These flaws do not hinder the value of the story, however. We are given a very incisive look at how a narrow-minded society does not hesitate in riding roughshod over a happy couple. For this, and for a very detailed look at the way of life in those times, this book excels.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Daphne du Maurier - The King's General

Published: Landmark
Bought: +Kindle Books

The King's General is set in the civil war in England that lasted from 1642-51.  Cornwall was divided between landowners who were either the Royalists, loyal to the King or the Parliamentarians who believed in a democratic rule.

Against this backdrop, Daphne du Maurier sets an unusual love story between a handicapped woman and a brash General.

The story starts 15 years prior to the civil war when Honor Harris, a beautiful debutante, is smitten by Richard Grenville. Their love is not endorsed by Honor's family as Richard is seen as a debt-ridden soldier of fortune.  Her family is forced to agree to their engagement when Honor flees her home to avoid being engaged to another man.  A freak riding accident renders Honor handicapped, and confined to a wheelchair.

She breaks up with Richard and refuses to see him.  He goes away and marries a woman for her money. The civil war of 1642 brings Honor and Richard back together. Richard cares not a whit for her disability.  Honor finds she has to nurse her beloved Richard and listen to him as he rants against  incompetent colleagues who hinder the path to victory.

Richard Grenville is every inch an anti-hero.  He is brash, arrogant, foul-mouthed.  He likes to have his own way and does not care for other people's feelings. He is not above using force to loot and pillage what he believes is his by right.  He is also an excellent soldier, but his high-handed behavior lands him in trouble.  He does not know how to negotiate with his colleagues and it loses the war for the King.  Even worse, because of his behavior, no one is ready to stand by him when he is in trouble.

The book also has another character, Gartred, Richard's sister.  Like Rebecca and Rachel, she is also a wanton woman who cares only for her own appetites, whether for sex or for money. Honor is no wilting lily either.  She speaks her mind, and despite her handicap, is very independent.  She does not allow her crippled state to cripple her mind.  She remains cheerful and a person others can depend upon.  She plays a very active role in the drama that unfolds around during the height of the civil war.

There is a lot of drama here, intrigues, battles, secret rooms, spies, ravages, escape, and arson. The characters are well etched.  Dick, Richard's effeminate son who longs for his father's approval but gets only the sharp edge of his tongue. Honor's brother, Kit who first brings a Grenville into the house by marrying Richard's sister, Gartred.  Robin, another Harris sibling who loves Gartred as well. Jonathon Rashleigh who owns Menabilly where the drama plays out.  He is Honor's brother-in-law and keeper of many secrets.

Here also, as in Rebecca, the house where they live plays a major part. Menabilly, a house that Daphne du Maurier once stayed in, was the inspiration behind this novel and also Manderley, Maxim de Winter's house in Rebecca.

This novel is not as popular as Rebecca.  The story here is more complex, as it involves a lot of intrigues apart from the main story of the love between Honor and Richard.  I would rank it as one of the best by Daphne du Maurier.

This novel seems to have something in common with The House on the Strand, a later novel by du Maurier.  I will have to re-read the book to find it out, which is not a bad prospect. I have probably read The House on the Strand as often has I have read Rebecca.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colette - Claudine in Paris

Claudine lives in Montigny and is planning to appear for her higher certificate in school when her father decides to move to Paris.  You see, he is in the middle of writing a book and needs to communicate frequently with his Publishers.  He cannot abide the slow postal system and declares that moving to Paris was the only solution.  Claudine is initially excited by the idea of moving

She declares slyly to her friends that they will not be able to bore her for long as she is moving away.  Her best friend, Luce is distraught.  Just before the actual moving takes place, Claudette has misgivings about leaving her beloved Montigny with its beautiful woods and flowers. There is nothing to be done now, the things are packed, their home let to a tenant, quarters taken up at Paris.  So Claudette packs her cat, Fanchette and sets off to Paris.

She hates the dark, shabby flat in Rue Jacob on sight. She takes ill on arrival and has to spend a long time in bed.  She is bedridden for months and her lovely long hair is cut off as it had matted and could not be combed.  She recovers her health gradually and takes stock of her surrounding.  

Her father takes her to visit his sister, Madame Coeur.  It is there that she meet Marcel, her Aunt's grandson.  Marcel is just a little bit older than Claudette and delighted to find a playmate.  Claudette is also delighted to have a companion at last.  

She also meets Renaud, Marcel's father.  He is a merry widower and does not really get along with his son.  However, he tries to be friends with him and takes him and Claudette to dinners and concerts and plays.

Claudette is settling down in Paris now, having discovered friends and dressmakers.

On the face of it, the book is a simple tale of a young girl, rather in the style of a diary.  Yet, Colette paints a charming and an intimate picture of all things around her.  She describes the doings of her father, her cat, her housekeeper Melie, her Aunt Coeur, Renaud, and Marcel.  We are drawn into her little world, and it is engaging. 

Here is what she says when she meets Marcel for the first time, "I gave him my hand without saying a word, I was staring at him so much. I'd never seen anything so charming! But he was a girl! A slip of a girl in breeches! Fair hair, rather long, parted on the right, a complexion like Luce's, blue eyes like a little English girl's and no more moustache than I had." 

It is Colette's uninhibited and a lyrical style of writing that is the best part of this book.  The book contains references to homosexual preferences of Marcel, who is involved with a schoolfellow of his, called Charlie.  Luce also makes many sexual advances towards Claudette, which are firmly repulsed.  The novel was published in 1901 and at that time these may be shocking revelations.  In the preface, Colette talks about her husband asking her to put more 'naughty' stuff into her writing.

We have come a long way, and whatever Colette writes is pretty tame by current standards.  What is still extraordinary is her beautiful descriptions of everyday things.

Published: Vintage
Bought @kindle_store

Monday, May 18, 2015

Daphne du Maurier - My Cousin Rachel

Philip Ashley lives with his cousin in a large house with farms in Cornwall.  Philip was orphaned at an early age and was taken under the wing of his cousin, Ambrose.  They live together as two happy bachelors.  Good times rarely last, as we know.  Ill health forces Ambrose to spend his winters in Italy.  On one of his visits, he meets his cousin Rachel there.

Philip soon learns through letters sent by Ambrose that they have married.  Soon, the letters cease to happy and speak of illness and treachery. Philip is alarmed and rushes to Florence.  Alas, he is too late.  His cousin has died and he suspects Rachel poisoned him.  He returns home to find that Rachel has asked to visit him to return Ambrose's things. He is quite prepared to have a showdown with her.

He does not reckon with meeting a beautiful, sad widow.  Philip begins to doubt his suspicions about Rachel. She seems like a kind, charming person who just wants to do good deeds for people.  But there are some  reminders of the past that make him doubtful once more.

Daphne Du Maurier gripping story has our interest right at the start and keeps us turning pages.  The story has been told from the point of view of Philip Ashley who is a callow youth smitten by his cousin's widow. The reader is also left wondering about the innocence of the enigmatic Rachel, and the fate she meets.

This has been made into a film starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland.  Usually, Hollywood likes to distort the original story in its film adaptations.  I do not think this story can be distorted much.  I am in the process of the watching the film and will write about it on my film blog soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

John Hennessy - Murderous Little Darlings

                                     Published: Self
Bought:, Kindle store

Marcus, Rocco and Juliana are 9-year-old triplets who lost their mother in childbirth.  They are angelic to look at and draw cute comments from people who see them for the first time.  They are not what they seem.  In fact, they are struggling to discover who they are.

Marcus is the eldest of the triplets by an hour and their leader.  He says they are vampires and must feed on humans and kill them.  Rocco is the middle child and easily swayed.  He hates being in thrall to his older brother, but cannot help it.  Juliana is a strong child and knows her mind.

There are murders, kidnappings and police chases to liven things up.  People who look at the 'darling' triplets do not imagine their murderous designs.

This is a small novella, just 65 pages long.  It is meant to be the first in a series of 7 books.  It has a twist at the end which makes the readers want more.  

It is perfect if you want a quick read and love horror.  John Hennessy keeps his language sparse.  I am not yet an expert on the little darlings.  I expect reading other books in the series will make the picture clearer.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Alexander McCall Smith - Trains and Lovers

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Bought:, Kindle store
"This is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives, in very different ways." 
David, Kay, Andrew, and Hugh happen to share a compartment on a London bound train from Edinburgh.

"It leaves Edinburgh behind it and begins its journey over the rich farmland of East Lothian.  Then there is a coast, that brings the sight of cliffs and sea-birds; and the North Sea which was still and smooth that day under the clear morning light."
All the four people have stories inside of them, and happen to relate them, or think about them during the journey.  Andrew worked as an intern in an art gallery and met Hermione at work.  He fell in love with her and his attempts to woo her makes one of the stories.

Hugh has a love story too.  He once got down at a wrong station and ran into a lovely young girl whom he befriended and later had an affair with. All was going well until he learned some intriguing details about her past. Can he trust her?

David has a secret love from his past.  He once fell in love with a boy who visited the little place his family went to for summer, in Maine. Bruce was also holidaying in that place, he lived in Princeton where his father taught. A friendship struck up between the two, but David felt an excitement that was more than friendship.  He knew he had to keep his feelings in check always. Although they do spend time together, and Bruce never even learned what he felt like, this secret love remained with David all his life. While Andrew is relating his love story, David thinks back upon his secret summer love.

Kay's father came from a poor family in Scotland.  He emigrated to Australia to make something of his life.  He eventually worked for a railroad in a little place near Adelaide and struck up a friendship with a young woman via letters.  Did this pen-friendship turn into something stronger or did it die away?

All the stories are connected to railways in some manner.  The stories are related during a train journey as well.  Alexander McCall Smith manages to weave in references to Art and Philosophy in this book as well.  Andrew works in an art gallery, as his story is the longest of the lot, we get to hear quite a bit about paintings. My beloved series by the same author, the Sunday Philosophy Club series also referenced Art and Philosophy, as the main character in them, Isabel Dalhousie, is a philosopher who also collects Art..

The novel manages to be a light read, with great insights into the minds of its characters and life in general.  The prose is beautiful, as you can see from the two examples I have quoted  I am tempted to quote one more passage, here goes.
"There were all these places where the houses were not made of neat white board and shingle; where there was colour and movement and danger.  There was no danger in that small town, where people's lives led neatly and correctly to the grave; where the water came dosed with chemicals and the food was cleanly wrapped. He wanted to go somewhere else."

Saturday, May 02, 2015

My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Bought +Kindle Store

I picked this book up because of an exchange between two book lovers on Twitter.  It was described as "unputdownable", which was recommendation enough for me, and I picked it up.

Joanna Rakoff comes to New York and lands a job at "The Agency", literary agents for authors. The Boss needs someone who can work a typewriter, Joanna's English degree does not hurt either.  Joanna likes the idea of doing something related to literature and slowly tries to settle down in her job. The Agency has a star client, J.D. Salinger. Joanna has not read any of his books though she is aware of all the hype surrounding them.

Joanna is suitably impressed when she gets to attend Jerry's phone calls occasionally. In the meantime, a lot is happening with her life.  She has left a serious boyfriend behind, and has hooked up with another.  She struggles to learn her work and also tries to do a bit more.  "The bit more" is reading manuscripts. The agency is flooded with submissions from new authors, and they require some people with good taste to read and judge if the offering is good enough to go ahead. Joanna loves the feeling of power she gets when she discovers a good script and is able to get it pushed for publication.

There are a lot of negative things in her life as well.  Her current boyfriend is not perfect.  Her apartment is shabby.  She has to cut corners extensively because her Assistant's salary is not enough. Joanna grapples with all these problems and tries to find beauty in life through the literature surrounding her.

She finds answers to various problems plaguing her when she finally picks up Salinger's book, Catcher in the Rye.

The book is a treat to read. Joanna sketches out her year at the Agency and all the happenings clearly and without frills.  It is written in the manner of the literature of a bygone era, time of the 'quiet' fiction.  There are times when you do wonder why the book was called "My Salinger Year" when Salinger is not really in the picture so much.  I suppose the author wanted to emphasize the point in her life when Salinger became relevant to her.

I am not sure I liked the end of the book. It is obvious that the author wanted closure, hence we hurriedly get to know some facts about her life, and also her reaction at the death of Salinger.  An open-ended final chapter would have worked fine, I feel.  Joanna can always write another novel about the great love of her life.  I could feel that story lurking behind this novel.

design by