Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Claire Tomalin - Jane Austen A Life

+Penguin Books UK
@clairetomalin.com

After finishing the book I agreed wholeheartedly with the blurbs on it.

"As near perfect a life of Jane Austen as we are likely to get." Carmen Calil of Telegraph.

"A book that radiates intelligence, wit and insight." The New York Times


The book starts on the day of Jane's birth and concludes after all her siblings die.  It gives us that sort of a composite picture of the life and times of Jane Austen.  How things were when she was born, how children were reared in those days.  Apparently the children were fostered with some woman in the village who cared for them till the time they were grown.  It is all about her parents, her siblings, her neighbourhood and her extended family.  It gives us a view of all the people that the author was able to locate in her vicinity.

If this makes you think that the lives of those people were dull as ditch water and makes a tedious read, think again.  Did you know that Jane Austen's mother wrote wonderful verses?  Starting from Austen's mother, many of Austen siblings wrote verses from time to time.  Her brother brought out a journal for some time.

Cassandra had Jane's blessing to cull her letters.  The sisters were prolific correspondents but the contents of the letters were only for their eyes.  Hence, Tomalin is not able to get an unexpurgated look at Jane's letters.  She feels sorry for this, so do we.  Times have changed and a candid Jane would be very welcome.  If we look at her writing, she does tend to be candid in her observations of people.  This is precisely why we love her books, this is why they have survived over the years.

The book reads like a Jane Austen novel, full of witty observations.  Tomalin also includes a review of her work and feels we would have seen even better novels by Jane if sickness had not cut short her life.

Frankly, though Jane is one of my most favorite authors, I knew nothing of her.  I have read only short biographical sketches of her on Wikipedia and suchlike.  I have to thank my dear friend Pacifist Immer for having gifted this book to me on my birthday.  It was such an eye-opener to have read it.

It has opened my eyes not only to the life and times of Jane Austen, but the painstakingly detailed work done by Claire Tomalin. She has riffled through all the papers of the time that have a mention of Jane Austen or her family.  She even read through the diary of a neighbour who knew her.  It is clear that the work is very authoritative.

If you love Jane Austen, the book makes you love her more.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Lynn Bishop - Put Asunder

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@Amazon Asia Pacific Holdings
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We meet Michael Rheese in 1809 at Talavera in Spain.  He is wounded and accompanied by some other soldiers who are badly wounded too.  They have been left behind by the General Cuesta.  Rheese knows they have to keep moving or be taken by the French army that was on their heels.

They arrive at the hacienda of Dona Maria Gutierrez y Valdez.  At one time Dona Maria's hacienda was thriving and rich, now because of war and frequent lootings, Dona and her meager household is impoverished.  She worries about the fate of her beautiful granddaughter Eva.

When she sees Michael Rheese, she thinks up a perfect plan. She asks Michael to marry Eva and take her away to England.  In return, she will care for the invalid soldiers in his company. Rheese and Eva agree to this for their own reasons. Rheese wants his friends to be cared for, as they are wounded and cannot travel. Eva has to agree for her Grandmother's sake.

In a dim light, where they can barely make out each others' faces, they are married. The same night, again in pitch dark they leave the hacienda.  That very night, a few hours later, Rheese is taken by the French and Eva lies in a ditch in a faint.

Six years later, Eva learns that her husband is still alive.  All she has is a marriage certificate and the ring her husband had given her at the wedding.  She travels to England to find her husband who lives in Brigford Manor. On her way there, she runs into a Mr. Denborough who is sometimes helpful, sometimes in the way and sometimes plain annoying.  Eva must not think about this handsome stranger and instead concentrate on getting to her lawfully wedded husband.

Here is a book which is all about romance.  Eva is married to man she has not even properly seen and been without for six years. She is not even sure if her husband remembers being married to her, or worse, if he wants her at all.  She has pieced together whatever little money she could manage to gather and come in search of her husband. Will it end well for her?

The book is well written and the reader is kept turning the pages.  All the characters, Michael Rheese, Denborough, Dona Maria, are very well etched.  I love that it is set in Regency Period, just when Austen's Sense and Sensibility came out.

It could have been a bit shorter.  Romances are not usually such long reads.

The subtitle says "A period romance (War Brides Book 1).  This means we can look forward to many such books by Lynn Bishop which is the pen name of Madhulika Liddle of Muzaffar Jung fame.


  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Greame Macrae Burnet - His Bloody Project

@Contraband
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In 1869 a 17 year old boy called Roderick Macrae killed three people and surrendered tamely.  He was upfront about owning to the murder. Something about the stoic, taciturn boy appeals to the lawyer chosen to defend him, Andrew Sinclair.

Sinclair asks Roddy (Roderick) to write out in detail the events leading up to the murder of Lachlan McKenzie and his kin.  In addition, he sets about getting Roddy examined by a criminal psychiatrist (though he is not called thus in those times) about the possibility of Roddy being insane at the time of the murder.  This is the only thing that will acquit him.


Through Roddy's memoirs we learn how the events came about. Roddy feels the bad things started happening when his mother died, or when the two Iains died, both his uncles.  He was left alone at home with his older sister Jetta and younger twins who were very little. And his father, of course, John Macrae.

They were a family of Crofters in the remote place called Culduie near Applecross Village in Scotland.  They were very poor, renting a small farm to croft to get along.  Things got worse for them when a neighbour called Lachlan McKenzie became the Constable in their little village.  He was not well disposed towards the Macraes and harassed them at every given opportunity.  

Roddy's memoirs consist a part of the book and serves to give us a look at all the events that led to the murders.  After that comes cherry on top of the cake for the readers. We get a magnificent look at how the case was conducted in the court of Lord Justice-Clerk, Jury, Prosecutor Gifford and Defending lawyer Sinclair.  Witnesses are examined, evidence is produced, the lawyers argue their versions, the people in the gallery are entertained and the reporter Philby of Times sends out lovely dispatches.

We are treated to how the Law maintains its solemnity despite the circus around it.  The author who speaks in a very different, rather droning voice when Roddy's memoirs are being recounted, becomes different, more energetic, descriptive, when giving us the court scenes.

At no point does the reader feel manipulated into liking the cold-blooded murderer.  We are merely shown the reason why he picked up arms. The extreme poverty, the pathetic life of the Crofters in 19th Century Scotland is shown vividly to us.  Historical dramas usually talk about nobility - the well heeled aristocracy who saunter about the countryside not heeding the poor men to whom they owe their wealth.  Here we get to see the men who tipped their hats at the aristocrats in the usual historical novels, and their beggarly lives.


It is a fabulous novel which deserves to be read.  It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.  It may or not win. That is immaterial.  It is a wonderful Crime/Courtroom drama which lovers of the genre should not miss.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Helen Fielding - Mad about the Boy

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The trouble with sequels are that they are sequels.  They never have the sheen of the original. They cannot, the original came first and wowed us with the new concept, the mad, wonderful idea.

Bridget Jones, 30, single, overweight, has a tendency to over indulge in cigarettes and liquor.  Being plump, she has a low self esteem in this world where all women have to be well groomed and thin.

She is not the take charge, alpha female.  But she has oodles of charm.  It is something Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver are able to see.

So did millions of readers.  Helen Fielding's first Bridget Jones (1996) book became a bestseller and was made into an equally popular movie.  A sequel (1999) followed fast on its heels; 'Bridget Jones: The edge of Reason.'  It wasn't as brilliant as the first book, but it rode on the popularity wave of the first book and was likewise made into a film.

When 'Mad about The Boy' came out in 2013, I waited for the reviews.  They were quite unkind and I gave up on the idea of reading the book.  A few days ago I read this article on the new Bridget Jones movie. It send me racing to amazon to buy  'Mad about The Boy', which I read with expectations duly lowered.

Of course, the latest Bridget Jones cannot beat the original for the very reason I mentioned in the first paragraph.  BJ is still scatterbrained. She can barely take care of her two children. Mark Darcy is out of the picture, dead. Like a good man that he was, like any man that Miss Austen dreamed up, he was a good provider and BJ does not lack money or resources.  She lacks love.

Her good friends, Jude, Tom and Talitha (Shazzer has moved to Los Angeles) try to get her out there. New Bridget Jones is not using intra office messaging now, she is tweeting. She picks up a yummy boyfriend over Twitter.  Roxster is young and toned and oodles of fun.  Just what a newly minted BJ needs. She needs to lose her 'Born-again Virginity', stop obsessing over Mark Darcy and get on with her life.

BJ's sojourn into the world of social media circa the second decade of the new century is hilarious. There are sad moments when she misses Darcy, but being Bridget, she lapses back into being funny soon, so we do not feel too depressed.

The ending seemed a little upper class and tame to me.  Surely she could have done something crazy.

The book was very rollicking at the beginning,  It got a bit tame later, but was still a v.g. yarn.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Jeanette Winterson - The Gap of Time


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@Hogarth Press



The Hogarth Press got in touch with eight acclaimed writers to put a modern spin on Shakespeare Plays of their choosing.


Jeanette Winterson chose to write a cover for A Winter's Tale a play by Shakespeare that resonates with her particularly as it is about a foundling - Perdita - just as she was. She has long studied the play and unraveled it like only a true lover of literature can.

We get a brief description of the original play by Shakespeare and then starts Winterson's version. Leo is a magnate married to MiMi, a jazz singer. He is at the moment in throes of jealousy, just as MiMi is heavily pregnant. He is sure that his best friend and sometime lover, Xeno, is the father of the unborn child.


His jealousy sets things in motion, and a baby winds up up in New York, in a baby hatch outside a hospital with a briefcase full of money and diamonds. The baby and the money are appropriated by Shep who brings up the girl, Perdita, like his own alongside his grown son, Clo. She grows up loved and cossetted like a darling child while Leo, having lost his wife and older child, is a shell of his former self.


Leo's best friend and one time lover, Xeno is also in New York. Xeno's son has grown up now and just like Shakespeare decreed, he gets to know Perdita.



Winterson analyses Shakespeare and gauges his depth brilliantly. She transfers the same brilliance to her story and gives us a tale as delightful and merry and full of happy coincidences as the Bard's.


She looks at the two things that set apart the play. One: that it highlights the gap of time. The play halts just when the annihilation of happiness of King Leontes at his own hands is complete. There is a jump in time and we see Perdita grown up at sixteen. Two: the theme of forgiveness. At the essence of the play, Perdita and the good people in the play, Paulina, Shepherd and Clown (the people who adopt Perdita), forgive the wrongdoers.


She brings us a near perfect modernization of Shakespeare. As a rare treat, we get a treatise on the play and are given a very good analysis of it. It is a MUST read for lovers of Shakespeare.



Monday, September 12, 2016

Elizabeth McKenzie - The Portable Veblen

@Publisher Fourth Estate
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Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is a curious girl.  She lives in a run-down bungalow in Palo Alto that she restored herself.  She chooses to work as a temp in a hospital.  In her free time, she translates tracts of Thorstein Veblen's work into English from Norwegian. She has a dysfunctional family.  Her mother is a hypochondriac and her father is in mental hospital.  She lives her life without any complications, is happier among squirrels and nature.

Her boyfriend Paul springs a proposal on her one day.  She is not very sure and it seems very sudden yet she finds herself saying yes and accepting a large diamond ring which she does not like.  Paul is in medical research at the same hospital where Veblen temps. They met each other when Veblen was sent to Paul to deliver a message. They liked each other instantly and started dating.

Usually couples know everything about each other by the time they decide to get married.  The situation is in reverse here.  Paul and Veblen have a lot to learn about each other.  They are certainly not a perfect fit.  Will their love be able to withstand their contradicting natures?

On the surface, the book is about Paul and Veblen.  It is also about Thorstein Veblen, an economist who propounded the theory of "Conspicuous Consumption".  It is about letting nature breathe amongst reckless urbanization. It is also about devious pharmaceutical companies using underdeveloped research to mint money. It is about hippies and hypochondriacs and the mentally unstable learning to live together.  It seems that the dysfunctional are the truly functional people in our society.

In the end, we learn, nothing is as it seems.  Veblen can be pretty sorted out despite appearing unstable.  Paul, despite appearing so straight and so conventional, hides flaws too.  He has to learn to accept his hippie parents and his mentally unstable brother before he can even think of making his relationship work with Veblen.  The question is, can Paul even learn that he has flaws?

It is a wonderful mish-mash of a book that appears to be a very simple love story between Paul and Veblen, but is much more.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Shirley Jackson - The Haunting of Hill House

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+Viking Books
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I am not a big fan of scary books, I scare easily and I have no intention of keeping awake at nights imagining movements around the house. Yet, I am a fan of Shirley Jackson.  I love beautiful prose. For that reason alone, I picked up this book by Jackson.  It is supposed to be the best supernatural literary story of all times.  Stephan King has admitted to being heavily influenced by her.

Eleanor Vance receives a letter from Dr. Montague, asking her to be a guest at Hill House.  A small party is planning to spend a summer there and Dr. Montague hopes to study the presence of supernatural elements that the house is supposed to have.  She accepts the invitation.  She has been living with her sister and brother-in-law after the death of her mother.  She looks forward to this invitation as an escape from her dull life.

She reaches Hill House and meets the other guests.  There is Theodora, who is very friendly and full of fun.  Luke Sanderson is the future heir of the house, hence he sees himself as the host. Dr. Montague is the head of the party and gives them various directions and pointers.  


He tells the other about the background of the unhappy house which has seen some deaths and a suicide.  No one seems to be willing to stay more than a few days here; those who have rented the house, abandoned it hastily.

Soon, Eleanor and others begin experiences supernatural happenings. Will they discover who is behind them, or will they succumb to fear like the previous inhabitants.

Daphne du Maurier would have been very proud of way Shirley Jackson describes the house.  It is the centerpiece of the story.  It seems to have a sinister life of its own.  Despite its ugliness, it casts a spell on Eleanor.

The story is beautifully written, earning it the sobriquet of a 'literary' ghost story. We never really know all about the four main characters, a lot is just pointed at, we have to fill in the remaining information in our imagination.

Even though I am scared of ghost stories, I was charmed by this one, if that is the correct phrase to use. Shirley Jackson knows how to evoke terror through the written word.


This novel has been made into two movies, both called 'The Haunting', one in 1963 (which has been acclaimed) and the other in 1999 (which has not been received well).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rishad Saam Mehta - Hot tea across India



@Tranquebar Publishing

This is not the first time I have fallen for an attractive cover and an enticing name,  Tea is to Indians what magic potion is to Asterix.  I know some people who can imbibe as many as fourteen cups a day.

This book is not just about tea, though it pops up quite frequently in it.  It is a travelogue. I will amend that.  It is an adventure-travelogue. Rishad Saam Mehta traveled at any given opportunity, whether hitching a ride on a truck, or on a train, rickety bus, airplane, motorcycle or myriad cars.

This book is a collection of his essays on a travel to some part of the country, titled by the most remarkable point of his journey.  He has been nearly robbed, looked down the gun of a policeman manning checkpoints, caught pooping in a wrong place, subjected to arson and had his bones rattled in a rickety bus. 

No matter where Rishad is, or what he is doing, his narration is so interesting, so full of warmth that we are loath to put the book down.  He is always aware of the beauty of the place he is visiting, the history behind it and remarks on it.
"Chandra Tal is as close to heaven as you can get while yet in a mortal form." 
Don't expect pretty purple prose though.  This is only on occasions when he is struck by the beauty of his surrounding. That is when he gets all lyrical.

While traveling to Manali he was tempted to take this 'LUXAREY BUS'.  Imagining plush seats and a comfortable ride, he is rudely awakened by a wreck on four wheels and wooden seats. He says:
Most of the other passengers were simple hill folk for whom the bus really was a luxury- because for them anything that moved on its own accord without the help of a four legged creature was a luxury.
Then there were people he met:
The first thing that struck me about him was his hair: hormones had made a serious navigational error because while his pate was shining and bald, his shoulders were a barber's playground.
He is very witty without sounding smart-alecy.  How he manages that, I don't know.  He has, I presume, an innate and an enviable talent for writing.  His anecdotes are so well told, that most times I was laughing out loud.

I polished off his book in a couple of long sittings.  I was blessed with very little work in the office and read this book on phone all day.

He touches upon his visits to Leh, Ladakh, Drass, Srinagar, Delhi-Chandigarh highway, Kerala, Jaisalmer, Rann of Kutch.  He has done river rafting and also participated in Raid-de-Himalaya. He knows how to let us know the difficulties of his situation without depressing us.

I got a recommendation for this book by @raghavmodi of tickereatstheworld@wordpress.com. 

Like in my last blog post, I will go into a didactic mode and exhort all to read this book.



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

James Patterson Emily Raymond - The Little Black Dress

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@Book Shots

Book Shots is an initiative by James Patterson, the acclaimed author of thrillers, to present a series of novellas under 150 pages and under 5$ as a sort of a quick read.  The idea is to use the presenter 'James Patterson' as a brand name to sell many books; so I presume.

I am not much of a thriller reader but the name was seductive and I fell for the quickie, cheapie book.  I was expecting it to be a thriller of some sort, thanks to reputation of its Godfather.  I was wrong.

Jane Avery is a divorcee who has tried to drown her heartbreak over her cheating ex-husband by watching Netflix and shunning all social life.  Her sister and her friends are trying to nudge her back out there, but Jane isn't interested.

UNTIL she gets a sexy little black dress and turns into this whole different person.  Suddenly she is into casual sex and straight-arms any attempts at second dates or any other form of male contact other than sex.  I can understand her motivation, she has just suffered a terrible break-up and does not trust herself in any other relationship.

ALAS, the story does not go there.  Her psychological motivations are all bypassed, despite the presence of a Psychoanalyst that Jane visits every week. There are absolutely no thriller elements in the book either.  Apart from one little hiccup, nothing noteworthy really happens to her.  We are treated to rather boring descriptions of sex.  With gorgeous men. That's it.

To be fair, the writing is good, which means the language does not make you cringe.

Usually I do not try to 'recommend' or 'warn off' people from a book.  Here, I am tempted to issue a warning.  Do not bother reading this.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Anne Tyler - Vinegar Girl




@The Hogarth Press
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+Vintage Digital Agency

The Hogarth Press got in touch with eight acclaimed writers to put a modern spin on Shakespeare Plays of their choosing.  I chose to read Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girls, published under project Hogarth Shakespeare, as I love Anne Tyler immensely.

Anne Tyler brings The Taming of the Shrew to life in Baltimore. Except Kate Batista cannot really be called a shrew now.  She is merely a blunt person who lacks social skills.  She has been caring for her father and younger sister, Bunny for years now.  Her social life is, of course, non-existent.  She has a sort of a crush on a fellow teacher, but does nothing about it.  She seems content to spend the rest of her life gardening, working at a day-care and being the housekeeper.

Her father, Louis Batista is a brilliant scientist.  At home is just a lost father who likes to lean a bit too much on his elder daughter, and be a bit too indulgent with his younger one.   His assistant at work is about to be deported and he wants Kate to marry him.  This is such a preposterous idea that Kate is outraged.  Pyotr, the man in question, is an orphan from Russia.  He seems to take a fancy to Kate, he actually enjoys her bluntness and likes her long hair.  Kate turns into a prickly cactus on seeing him.


Here we get to see the comic touch of Anne Tyler.  The exchanges between Kate, her father, Pyotr and Bunny are hilarious.  Tyler has a deft touch with her characters, and she seems to have some special skills with displaced people.  Her portrayal of the Iranian American Maryam in 'Digging to America' was simply brilliant. Here also, she is deeply sympathetic (without seeming so) with Pyotr, with his peculiar accent and choice of words.  

Vinegar Girl is primarily about Kate Batista and her jaundiced view of life in general.  It is also about a displaced person (Pyotr) who is trying claim some space in this world for himself. He has left his country where he had no one and is trying to adapt to a new country where no one seems to be willing to accommodate him.

This is a link to other projects of Hogarth Shakespeare that are published or due out soon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

N. E. Brown - Galveston 1900: Indignities, Book Five The Arrangement

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@N.E. Brown Publications

This book is the fifth in the Galveston 1900 Indignities series.  The journey started with Catherine Eastman landing in Galveston in 1898 as a young fifteen year old girl with her mother.  They came to the USA from England in hopes of having a better life.

Catherine has had a very hard life.  She was married by 16 to a very nice man, but was abducted by a sadistic serial killer David Brooks which led to the dissolution of her marriage.  Later she married a kind man who had an accident which again led to the dissolution of her marriage.  Thus, at a very young age she had three children from different men  She also adopted a girl that was her daughter's half sister.

She studied hard, despite all the setbacks in her life, and became a doctor.  When the last book closed, she was married happily to Trent Mathews and living in Rosenberg, Texas.  She plans to return to Galveston eventually.

Right now, she is very happy.  She is expecting a child with Trent.  What she does not know is that she is harboring a criminal in her house who will turn her world upside down.  She has to stay strong for the sake of her children, but how long will life continue to deal her with a raw hand?

Just like the other books in the Galveston series, this too is a smooth read.  It is a page turner, no doubt about that.  The story is told in simple words and without too many emotional hiccups.

The book is set in 1906. It was fun to read about the time when telephones were connected by operators.  These ladies were a reliable channel of gossip and also very often, important information.  People still traveled by horseback and buggies.  Automobiles were just beginning to make an appearance.  For most people, trains were the best way to travel.

In the first book, The Arrival, we got a look at how primitive the policing system was.  In this book we see how an improved technology was making an improvement in the policing work.

The entire series are perfect for a light read.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Elena Ferrante - The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels #4)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.


'It was the Solaras.' A litte child has been spirited away from the neighbourhood and among other fantastical explanations, we hear the familiar line, 'It was the Solaras'.  After I am done reading the book, I think so too.

Now that all the books have been read I am feeling empty. The books have a very appropriate ending. Even if I do not get the closure that I really wished for, I realize this is better. A character like Lila was not made for an ordinary life.

Right to the end, Lila and Lenu continue their see-saw relationship, now thick with each other, now fallen out. It is not in their character to truly weld with each other. They could be close one minute, yet another minute blow up like the Vesuvius that is forever in the backdrop.

Nino Sarratore is another big character in the books. Yet I have written nothing about him in the past three reviews. To write about Nino is to give away the story. Here, I don't want to give away any of the story. I want the reader to have the same pleasure that I did, discovering every bit of the books on their own.

Nino is intelligent and handsome.  He has also outgrown the neighbourhood because his parents moved away.  He came up in life, despite poverty, due to his education, like Elena.  His destiny is to be linked to the two friends.  They look up to him as a symbol of all that is good in their neighbourhood.  He is their 'God' unlike the Solaras who are the 'Devil'. 


Elena continues to write books, Lila, following Enzo's ambitions, makes a foray into the world of computers. Despite their personal successes, they continue to suffer at the hands of Solara brothers who make life difficult for them.

By the time the reign of Solaras ends, Lila and Lenu are too damaged to be whole again. 
The friends face devastating losses in their lives and a laborious process of trying to mend themselves begins.  But will they succeed at it?

The strident feminist and political activism of the last novel is missing here.  Because times change, I realise.  Women have earned the right to more personal freedom now.  They are able to achieve a lot more, have more command over their destiny.  The men in their lives yield to their insistence on living their lives the way they want.

Lila and Lenu were always strong women but by the time the books end, they are completely in command of themselves.

The political situation in Italy also seems to settle down, becomes less volatile.  The current regime cannot commit crimes, it faces action for corruption.

In the first book, Elena mentions how the girls devoured 'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott and were tremendously inspired by it.  I was pleased to read this.  Even at the end of the book, Elena (who is recounting the whole story as a tribute to her friend who has vanished), recounts again how the book had set the friends on a path of aspiration that led them here.

I was pleased to read this.  I personally love 'Little Women'.  It has been reviled a lot in recent years for being too preachy.  It is preachy. But it is also a warm and a lovely story of four young girls who want to live their lives to the fullest.  

In a way these books also resemble 'Little Women', but only in the scope.  As in the 'Little Women' quartet, the four Neapolitan Novels also chart the lives of two young women. If you reduce the story from four to two sisters you can find a shadow of a similarity. Like Jo and Amy, Lila and Lenu also love the same man for a long time.

Apart from a very slight similarity in themes, not only with 'Little Women', but also 'Anna Karenina', there is absolutely no similarity in the treatment of the story. Ferrante is too visceral, too original in her depiction of women and their lives to be compared to any other novelist. Never does she pander to her readers, never does she attempt to sugar-coat her story.


I am sure these books are never really going to go out of my head.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Elena Ferrante - Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels #3)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

This book is the third in the Neapolitan Novels series.  We follow Lila and Lenu further as they grow into their 20s.  Lila struggles to bring up her love child Renuccio along with Enzo, who is allowed to be with her as a friend, not a lover.

Elena(Lenu) is trying to cope with the sudden success of her first book. She has money now, prestige and fame. She seems to have arrived. She even has a well-born, intelligent fiance.   On a sudden call from Lila, who is very sick, the friends reunite.  Lenu takes care of Lila, pulls strings to get her life back on rails and makes her well again.

Elena has to leave to marry her professor fiance.  Is married life going to bring her stability and greater glory? Or is the story of women the same in all strata of society? Are they looked upon as subsidiaries of men everywhere?

I have read the three Neapolitan Novels back to back.  What struck me most was the change in the tone of the books.  The first book, when Lila and Lenu are children had a 'To Kill a Mockingbird' kind of a feel to it.  The lives of adults are examined through the eyes of children.  We felt the insecurities and uncertainties of children facing terrifying poverty and anger all around them.

The second book had the insouciance of teenage lives, learning about love and life.  The girls map the changes in their bodies, the times of their mensuration, as a kind of benchmark to see who is prettier and better.  The young boys around them are growing up too and settling into professions.  Along with their assurance comes their wish to bag the best of the girls in their neighborhood.

In the third book the voices of the characters grow.  Lila and Lenu are not concerned merely with boys and spending money.  They are embroiled in life, playing with ideas, going places, getting hurt. They discover that to get ahead in life, they need backing of influential people.

The current political situation is affecting the lives of Naples. On one side the Communists are trying to rouse up the workers and creating problems, on the other side the Fascists are ready to kill the people who are trying to cause disruptions. 

Both the communists and fascists have their roots in the little suburb where Lila and Lenu grew up.  They see their childhood friends on opposing side of political spectrum, ready to kill and maim each other.  

The common people, in the meantime, are tired to their bone, exploited by their employers and loan sharks, are equally fed up with both.  An uneasy truce emerges after the people align themselves with the most powerful. It is a means of survival for them.  However, there are some guerilla like elements who are killing important people.  The people being killed are notorious for exploiting the worker class.

The familiar characters of the past two books cease being people and turn allegorical in our eyes.  Is Michele Solara just a local moneylender or is the embodiment of the 'Evil Corporate'?  He seems to be behind all evil ventures that suck the blood of the people and gets more and more powerful.  Pasquale Paluso is a vociferous communist.  Is he behind all the guerilla attacks on the rich and influential? He is the spirit of the people, the 'vigilante' who looks out for the oppressed.

Elena also gets involved with the feminist movement and begins to question the established authority of men.  The socio-political turbulence of the 70s is very prevalent in the book.

Lila and Lenu have grown in stature.  They are trying their best to live fulfilling lives in the way they know best.  They are making mistakes, but are ready to own them too.

All the three books have had a fantastic cliff-hangers for endings that have send me racing for the next in the series.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Elena Ferrante - The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Novels #2)

+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
+Europa Editions

Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

The story of Lila and Elena continues in the 2nd installment of the Neapolitan Novels.  The girls are sixteen and have chosen diametrically different paths from each other.  Lila is married to Stefano Carracci, the gentle, soft spoken, grocer. Everyone envies Lila.  She is a posh young woman now.

Almost all the boys in the neighbourhood had coveted Lila.  She is no longer a scrawny 12 year old, but a tall beautiful young woman who seems to attract all men to her.  By contrast, Elena is bookish, pimply and ungainly.  She has continued to study, unlike the children of the little niche of Naples.  She has to study very hard, depend on scholarships and gifts of books from her old teacher.


Is she right in being envious of Lila?  Has she chosen the right path? Who of the two friends will wind up happier?

We are drawn once again into the world of Elena Greco and Lila.  The little band of boys and girls who grew up in abject poverty are tied together.  Some of them become rich by devious means and some of them are still struggling.  


The conflicts between the friends remind me of Lord of the Flies. They are constantly at strife with each other to gain the maximum power and money.  The most cruel and the most unscrupulous are the ones who win.  

Lila tries to stop the madness and keep her loved ones from making wrong decisions.  Being a woman, she is unable to prevent the madness of men, and finds herself being trampled.

Elena has her own battles to fight and hardships to overcome, which often keeps her apart from Lila. 


Ferrante's voice is crystal clear as she speaks of the pains of growing up in places where women find no privilege, are beaten and subjected to marital rape, where women have very few choices. Even in the Lord of the Flies situation that I mentioned earlier, the power game is played among the young men, while women hover in the periphery.

While the world ponders over communism, aftermath of Hiroshima and wars, in the shabby little suburb, Elena and Lila aspire to grow out of their squalor and find love and comfort.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)

+Amazon.in
+Kindle Store
+Europa Editions

Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

Elena Ferrante is likely appear frequently on my blog.  I am so bowled over by this book that I am going to stalk her and read everything she writes.  This book has long been gracing several lists of books that MUST be read.  I caved in when a couple of friends recommended it highly on twitter. 

In this book Elena Ferrante takes us back to the 1950s when her protagonist - Elena Greco - was a little girl growing up in a poor suburb of Naples.  Elena (Lenu) makes friends with a thin, fierce little girl called Lila.

We are given a deep and incisive look into the world of little children and how they cope with pressures of growing up in a neighbourhood that is full of poverty and squalor, tattered lives held together by a fraying string.


There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable.  The essential, however was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.

There were countless number of times while reading the book that I was transported back to my own childhood.  I felt all the insecurities and anxieties that I felt in those years all over again. 

Children live in a world that can be completely detached from their parents at time.  The parents come alive only when the children return home to them in the evening.

The relationship between Lenu and Lila is not the usual girlish sorts that we see in most young adult books. They are not inseparable besties giggling through puberty and boys. Their relationship is like a see-saw.  They are sometimes jealous of each other, sometimes, fiercely loyal, sometimes distant, but never indifferent to each other.

This is the first of the four part series of The Neapolitan Novels. We get a look not just at the lives of Lenu and Lila, but the entire community of people who live in the suburb, tied by a common thread of poverty.  Yet among them live young people who promise to bring a better way of life for them all.
You are my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.
These are the lines that Lila says to Lenu, willing her to achieve everything that she cannot, showing the Lena that she is not merely a friend or a sister, but an extension of herself, Lila.  Lila and Lenu, each looks upon the other as a 'brilliant friend'.





Monday, July 18, 2016

Alexander Pushkin - Eugene Onegin

+Amazon India
+Penguin Classical

This is a book that was for a very long time on my to-be-read list.  Decades ago, I saw a beautifully illustrated copy of this book in one of those book stores that sold Russian books.  

I do not remember why I did not pick it up.  I was there to buy some books to gift little children and maybe did not have enough space in my bag (silly excuse). 

Anyway, I was reminded of that beautiful book when I read Vikram Seth's Golden Gate.  He admitted to being heavily influenced by Eugene Onegin while writing his own, a worthy successor, I must say.

The final version of the Eugene Onegin was published in 1837.  Pushkin used the iambic tetrameter for the verse.

Eugene Onegin is a world weary fop in his mid-twenties.  He is done with the society which is a mad repetition of parties, balls, opera, ballets.  He is careless with the feelings of society girls who vie to get close to him.  His father collapsed in debt like many aristocrats in Moscow.  He was fostered by some benevolent friends until, luckily for him, an uncle died leaving him a legacy; wealth and a country house.

He goes to live in the country, not completely appreciative of what it has to offer.  He makes friends with a neighbour Lensky and goes calling on the Larina family with him.  Lensky is engaged to the younger Larina girl, Olga.  Eugene is drawn to the silent and intelligent older sister, Tatiyana.

In her turn, Tatiyana falls absolutely in love with him.  She is a romantic creature, given to reading and spending time in solitude and reflection.  This unspoiled maiden of the country decides to declare her feelings for Eugene through a letter.  


Eugene lectures Tanya (Tatiyana) about not wanting to be tied down.  He is sure that he will be bored if he is married to her and her dreams would come crashing down.  He exhorts her to be more circumspect in her dealings with men in future as someone may take advantage of her innocence.

He leaves Tanya heartbroken to the core.  She weeps silently and mopes for a long time.  After Eugene's departure, she goes to his house and reads Eugene's books in an effort to understand him.

Will the lethargic Eugene ever see sense? Will not the pastoral surroundings help him redeem himself? Will he sink deeper in the mire of ennui? What happens to Tatiyana? Will the Olga-Lensky romance culminate in a wedding?

The poem is a classic of Russian literature.  There are breathtaking descriptions of the countryside and candid portrayal of the true feelings of the characters.

Eugene is not completely a fop, though he behaves like one.  He likes to read and ruminate.  He is charming.  If he had been just a fop, he would have lived like any other aristocrat.  He would have sown his wild oats, married, had children and spent his life gathering wealth and settling his children.

It is his restless mind that makes him seek more than what his life has to offer him.  But lack of self-awareness makes him fall between the two stools of being flippant and being serious. All the experiences of life, good or bad, do not seem to teach him anything.

Tatiyana, by contrast, grows immensely as a person.  She retains a sense of self and does not get mired in the commonness of the society around her.

At the heart of this book is, of course, Pushkin's brilliant verse.  This book is translated by Stanley Mitchell, about whom I quote from wikipedia:

His life's work was a translation into English verse of Pushkin's Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin, commenced in 1966 and published in 2008. In this he has been praised for capturing not only the precise meaning, but also the wit, the grace and the constantly varying intonations of Pushkin's voice.

Here is a sample of the verse, this is when Tatiyana finds herself in love. 



"I am in love," again she whispered

In sadness to the old above.

"My dearest, 'tis only illness" -

"Leave me alone: I'm in love."

Meanwhile, the moon in skies was shining
And with a languorous light was lightning
All Tanya's features, pale and fair,
Her splendid, loosely falling hair,
Her tears, and the old woman here,
With a kerchief on her gray head,
In her old, warm, too long jacket,
Sitting before our maiden, dear.
And all was sunk in silence soon
Under the pale inspiring moon.


Here is one about Eugene, the star of the Moscow Society:


They would bring him the morning letters,
When he's still lying in his bed.
What? Invitations? Yes, the matter's:
Three evening parties in a set.
There’ll be a ball, an evening children's.
Where will he go, this lad mischievous?
Who will be first? That's all the same:
It's simple to visit all of them.
But now in the morn's attire -
A wide hat, a la Bolivar,
Onegin rides to the boulevard,
And walks there, calm and free entire,
Until the watchful watch's alarm
Will advertise the dinnertime.

My copy of Eugene Onegin is plain.  I will keep looking for a better illustrated one, something that will showcase his beautiful verse better.










Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Geronimo Stilton - Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye


+Scholastic
+Amazon.in

 Geronimo Stilton is a mouse who lives in New Mouse City, the capital of Mouse Island.  He runs a newspaper called The Rodent's Gazette.  He has several very interesting friends and relatives.  The major characters in his early adventures are Thea Stilton, his sister. Trap Stilton, a very annoying cousin who is never respectful towards Geronimo, alas, he is too useful to be left behind. Benjamin Stilton, Geronimo is very fond of this little nephew of his.

Geronimo is NOT fond of adventures or travels.  He would rather spend his free time in his comfy little flat, going about the daily business of producing a paper.  Thea is a fit young mouse who is quite the reverse.  She is game for any excuse to travel.  She is also the Chief Reporter of The Rodent's Gazette which is why she is always on the lookout for a fresh story.

Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye: Thea finds herself in possession of a map which contains directions towards a hidden treasure.  She is eager to go and look.  Geronimo is not too eager but does not want to let down his sister.  Thea ropes in Trap as he is supposed to be a master sailor.  Things don't work out as they planned and they find themselves in hot soup.  How will they get out of it?

I'm Too Fond of My Fur:  Geronimo gets a distress call from his good friend Professor Paws Von Volt.  He is chasing Yeti in far away land of Kathmandu, atop Mouse Everest.  He wants Geronimo to bring him a diary else all will be lost. Geronimo hates traveling but he wants to be a true friend, so he finds himself on another adventure, Thea, Trap and Benjamin in tow.  They must deliver the diary.  But getting atop Mouse Everest is no joke.  It is a long high trek.  Will they survive? Will Geronimo be able to help Professor Paws?  Will Thea manage to get a great story out of this?

Valentine's Day Disaster: Geronimo has a simple wish.  He wants to throw a grant Valentine's Day party for his friends.  He has arranged everything.  He has magnanimously given a leave to all his staff for the day.  When he reaches the office he finds it deserted.  What's more, the day's paper has not been delivered.  All alone, he must resolve crisis after crisis. The food is ruined and the orchestra has cancelled.  He has help from an new friend Cheesy Lou and his annoying but useful cousin Trap. Will Geronimo's party be a success

Geronimo Stilton books are written by Elisabetta Dami.  The books were written in Italian.  Later, they were translated into English (and many other languages) and published by Scholastic.  The books are colorful, well illustrated and written in a witty style that is perfect for little children.


Monday, May 16, 2016

George R R Martin - A Game of Thrones

+Voyager Books
@Bantam Spectra, USA

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin is a work in progress.  A Game of Thrones is the first in the series of books.  It is based on the War of the Roses which lasted for thirty years from 1455 to 1487 between Lancasters and Yorks in England.

These wars were full of intrigue and merciless killings. Likewise, George R R Martin's books are also full of torturous happenings for its characters.

It would be fool-hardy to list all the people who appear in the book.  A Game of Thrones is just a start after all.  It is the first in the seven-book series (as planned).

It is summer in Westeros and Robert Baratheon has been on the throne for 15 years. Lord Eddard Stark is the keeper of the North from his seat in Winterfell.  He is living happily there with his wife Catelyn and children, Robert, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Ricken.  He has a bastard son called Jon Snow.  All the Northern bastards are called Snow to let the world know they are nameless.

Right at the start we find out that the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn has died and the King is on his way to Winterfell.  As feared by Catelyn and Eddard (Ned), he wants Ned to take Jon's place.  All the courtly intrigue is not really Ned's cup of tea but he cannot refuse his one time best friend, Robert.

Robert is wedded to Cersei Lannister, daughter of Tywin Lannister.  He is a very rich and an ambitious man.  Cersei has two brothers, Jamie, her twin, and Tyrion, who is a dwarf.  Tyrion is the black sheep of the family. Jamie is the knight in the shining armour and an accomplished swordsman.

The Lannisters want absolute power and will have it at any cost, no matter who is killed.  They are willing to play dirty.  Ned Stark is too honorable to do any underhand deals.  A couple of courtiers, Petyr Baelish and Lord Varys try to teach court intrigues to Ned but meet with open scorn.

While the War of the Roses had just two contenders, Yorks and Lancasters, the Iron Throne of Westeros has four. The Targaryens, Baratheons, Lannisters and Starks.  The plot of the books is very basic.  It is all about who will eventually sit on the Iron Throne which has the Lannister progeny on it at the time of the end of the book.

The books have been adapted for a blockbuster television series and its aficionados can tell you a lot about their theories and back stories and lineage of the characters.  There are a number of people who present YouTube videos about their analysis of each episode and theories and assessment of each character. You can while away hours upon hours watching them.

In fact, the books and the series have seen unprecedented popularity.

George R R Martin keeps the books plot driven and his language sparse and sparkling.  As you read, you can see the characters speak and move, it is so evocative. There are times when there is too much detailing, you wish he did not have to list each movement of some characters.

The scope of the books is so vast that my mind boggles.  There are myriad characters who are bent on keeping the story racing forward.   It is easy to get hooked to a series, the characters are carried forward from book to book.  If the story is gripping enough, it can keep you wanting for more.

A Song of Ice and Fire keeps you wanting for more.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Robert Galbraith -The Silkworm

+Mulholland Books

This is the second book in the Cormoran Strike series.  The first one, The Cuckoo's Calling was pretty interesting.  A little cluttered, according to me, too many things happened.

Cormoran Strike is ex-Army.  He lost his leg in Afghanistan.  He worked for SIB for a while.  Now he is a private investigator.  He was dating a beauty called Charlotte off and on for the past 16 years.  It has definitely been off now.

Strike managed for find his feet as a Private Investigator after the success of the Lula Landry case (covered in The Cuckoo's Calling).  He has several gigs investigating cheating spouses which are bringing in the bread.  His secretary, Robin, is still around.

One day he gets a call from a distraught woman who wants Strike to look for her missing husband.  He is a famous writer called Owen Quine.  He has often left home for long stretches but has come back eventually.  But this time he hasn't and she is worried.

Cormoran starts looking for the errant husband but soon discovers a gruesome murder/  There are several suspects, conveniently listed in a book called 'Bombyx Mori' or The Silkworm.  So why did the writer disappear?  Who committed the gruesome murder?

Cormoran Strike has to step into the publishing world to get his clues, among literary agents, publishing houses, moody writers, transgender people, learning disabled people.  He has to unravel past secrets before he can get to the truth.

The book is much less cluttered than The Cuckoo's Calling.  The red herrings are not as wild as they were in the first book.  The array of characters are quite as vast, but interesting.  Strike has these very lengthy interviews with various suspects, too lengthy, I feel.  The reveal was another lengthy chapter. We are not filling eight book here, Joanna, we need to be terse.

I was bothered by all the physical pain that poor Strike suffers because of his prosthetic leg.  All that labouring about in snow and falling and swollen knees got at me.  I do wish he gets some decent medical attention and spruces up his health in future.

His secretary, Robin, has a more active role in this book, luckily.  She is a great value add to the series.  All of Strike's angst over a famous father who abandoned him, and the uber beautiful girlfriend who ditched him continues to trouble him.

I would not call The Silkworm a very good detective book; it is decent though.  I see there is a third in the series.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Daphne Du Maurier - Mary Anne

@Virago New Ed
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Mary Anne Clark is shown as an early feminist in a preface to this book by Lisa Hilton. Many women have been asserting for their rights ever since, well, our Stone Age sisters.  They were depicted as Overreachers or Bad Women in their times.  Modern age is inclined to view them with more sympathetic eyes.

In Regency England, it was hard for women to get along unless they were provided for by rich fathers or husbands.  Mary Anne Clark, born in a poor London household had no prospects.  Her father was a proofreader for a pamphlet publisher.  As imagined by Du Maurier, Mary Anne caught the ropes of the trade at a very early age.  Her step-father, Farquhar, was often drunk.  That is when Mary Anne stepped in by doing the work for him.

In addition to precocious reading skills, Mary Anne was also very beautiful.  She caught the eye of her step-father's employer and he paid for her schooling.  He had an eye on her for himself.  But Mary Anne fell in love with and married Joseph Clarke.  Mary Anne had reasons to believe that Joseph was rich. His father, alas, disowned him for his wayward behaviour and Joseph could not work at his chosen trade for long.  He was too drunk most times and simply not inclined to work.

Soon, Mary Anne was left with four children and no means to raise them.  This is when she shed her scruples and chose to be an escort to well heeled gentlemen.

Circumstances and a shadowy gentleman called Will Ogilvie brought her to the attention of the Duke of York. For some years, she became the mistress of a Prince.  She used her influence with the Prince to provide favors to several people and got paid for it.  As Will Ogilvie tells her:

This country has been run on graft since the Norman conquest. From the highest Bishop down to the lowest low-paid clerk, we're all in the same business.

Things get bad very soon when the Duke finds that her side business, which he has abetted in so far, as he is in debt, could be harmful for him.  He drops her like a hot potato.  Mary Anne is stung to the quick and aided by some enemies of the Duke makes things very difficult for him.

Mary Anne Clarke earned a lot of notoriety in her lifetime due to her libelous court cases and the book she wrote, The Rival Princes, that alleged that the Duke of York's brother was responsible for bringing him down.  But the truth is, she was just struggling for her rights in times that granted few to women.  She tried to make her living in the only way women could be allowed, by being kept by rich men.

Daphne Du Maurier gives a lot of color to her life.  Her early days, her married life are imagined beautifully.  How Mary Anne tries to sponge off the rich relatives of her husband in an attempt to live well and bring up her children properly.  Her last spat with the Duke is because she wants her son to be commissioned in the Army as the Duke had promised to her once.

Daphne thought her novel dull and reading like a documentary.  But the fact is, that the court scenes are very well described and reminded me so much of Charles Dickens. Maybe the verbatim reproduction of an open letter she wrote to a gentleman who reneged on his promise was not required.

How could Daphne have passed up a chance to write about a great-grandmother who was so notorious that she has a wikipedia page to herself.

 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Elizabeth Cadell - The Corner Shop

@The Friendly Air Publishing
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Lucille Abbey knows how to get her way.  She runs a very efficient agency that provides secretarial services to people.  Professor Hallam, one of her latest clients, has proved to be extremely difficult.  Three of her best secretaries quit his job within a day of taking it up.

Lucille is miffed and decides to investigate the matter herself.  She goes all the way to the obscure little village he lives in.  She finds herself at a godforsaken railway station from where she has to take a bus which deposits her at the foot of the hill on top of which the Professor lives.  By the time she climbs up the hill, the heels of her shoes have broken down and she is a mess.  There was no lunch available anywhere.

At the grand house that the Professor lives, she finds him lunching nonchalantly.  He does not bother to ask if she wanted a cup of tea. On top of that he speaks of her girls in derogatory terms.  A furious Lucille tells him off and shows him the error of his ways.  The Professor is a kind man, just rather absentminded.  Lucille gets her Lunch and some tea.

She is forced to spend the night there.  She is due in Paris.  Her Aunt is expecting her come and help run her shop which she goes on a holiday.  Her fiance is also coming over to spend some time with her in Paris.  He is eager to announce their engagement and make plans for their future life.  Lucille wants to spend some time in quiet contemplation and Hill House in Village Holme seems to her the right place to be in to do it.

Before she leaves Holme, she runs into an art dealer, Paul Reynauds who is very interested in acquiring the paintings done by Hallam's mother.  When they do try to look for the paintings in her room, they are missing.  Mrs. Westover,  Hallam's previous housekeeper could have taken them away with her.

Lucille arrives in Paris three weeks late.  Soon her fiance-in-waiting Malcolm Donne arrives.  She runs into an old acquaintance, Diana Bannerman and also a damsel in distress, Barbara Clitheroe. There are women who were robbed and duped, these events may be connected, or not.  Unwittingly Lucille finds herself in middle of a mystery.  One lucky lady finds herself hopelessly in love.

This book is a delight.through and through.  It is a perfect light read which is not inane in any place. It reminded me of a grown up Enid Blyton mystery.  Lucille Abbey might be a grown up Darrell Rivers (of Mallory Towers series).  She is prim and correct.  She certainly know how to handle situations.

There are some situations that seem to coincide a bit too conveniently, a loose end here and there.  But these are very minor issues that do not stop you from enjoying this completely CHARMING book.  I am hoping to read many more books by her.  She is a perfect pick for those times when you are blue and desperately want to smile.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Maya Angelou - I know why the caged bird sings

@ballantine books
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Stamps, Arkensas is in Southern part of the USA and it became the place where Maya was brought up as a baby.  She arrived there with her brother Bailey Johnson when her parents divorced and abandoned the children. It was the 1930s and the world was standing still in Stamps and changing rapidly in other places.

Her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson ran a store in Stamps and was one of the affluent women of color.  Despite their easy life, their grandmother did not allow them to be soft.  They had a very strict upbringing and frequent encounters with the rod if they slipped up.

Despite this, Maya recalls her childhood as a happy and an eventful one.  As long as they keep to the colored section, of course.  They are scared of venturing into the 'white' part of town and do not have even a single pleasant interaction with white people.

When Maya is seven years old, her father turns up and takes them to live with their mother, Vivian, in St. Louis.  Maya discovers a wealth of new relations.  She has a colorful grandmother on her maternal side, Mrs. Baxter.  She also has several mean uncles.  Her mother is a captivating lady and Maya and Bailey fall instantly in love with their Mother Dear.

Things turn horrid for poor Maya when she is raped by her mother's boyfriend Freeman.  This horrific event scars Maya and she retreats into a shell.  Once again, they are shunted back to Stamps to their grandmother Henderson.  Maya and Bailey stay there till they graduate from the school. They are sent back to live with their mother who has relocated to San Francisco.  They are now in their teens and ready for the headier life of a big city.

Maya Angelou is a famous poet first and foremost.   She has worn many professional hats in her lifetime, she has written plays, screenplays, poetry, memoires, she has sung and danced. She was a civil rights activist and lectured frequently. She was talked into writing about her life by James Baldwin when she was undergoing depression after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom she was closely associated.

The life of young Maya is brought out in vivid detail.  Through little Maya growing up under the strict and watchful eye of her grandmother, we also learn about the lives of people who live in the colored part of Stamps. The whites are White and blacks are Black and never the twain do meet.  When they do, there is meekness on the faces of the Blacks and condensation or downright meanness on the face of the Whites.

The only thing that pulls the colored young out of the mire of poverty and helplessness is education.  The people of Stamps recognize this and make sacrifices to send their young to the best schools they can afford.  Maya is a beneficiary of this as she completes her schooling with honors and is ready to face the further challenges that she will face in the big city.

The book touches upon her life till the age of 17.  Even so, with her colorful mother and father she sees a lot of life.  We do feel sad that she got such a raw deal after being raped as a child. She feels guilty about the incident, instead of feeling victimised.  Maya and her brother were put on a train at the ages 3 and 4 to travel alone to Stamps from St. Louis, which sounds cruel now.

Maya writes very little about Mrs. Flowers who had such a major influence on her life when she was all bottled up inside post-rape. Mrs. Flowers helps her out by teaching her to recite poetry and read quality books. Surely she merited more of a mention.

Then there are long passages about her experiences with the Church.  I expect they were very important to her as a devout Christian, but in current times they make for a tedious reading, especially to readers who are not too enamored of religion.

But then there is a recounting of the time when a neighbour, Jackson, drops in at dinner-time during a raging storm.  He has recently lost his wife and claims to being visited regularly by her ghost.  The chapter is a pure delight to read as young  Maya is scared and fascinated at the same time.  Her grandmother takes the situation in hand and turns Jackson to more practical thoughts.

All the people in her life are drawn to perfection, her grandmothers, Henderson and Baxter, her mother, Vivian, her father Bailey Sr.  Uncle Willie, Annie Henderson's younger son is a cripple but helps run the store like a tight ship.  All these characters stay on with you long after you have put the book down.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Eva Rice - The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

+Penguin Books USA
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Penelope Wallace is accosted at the Bus Stop one day by Charlotte who just pops out of the blue to ask her if she would like to share a taxi with her.  In the taxi she talks about having to go to her Aunt Clare's for tea and invites Penelope to go along.  Penelope is overwhelmed by Charlotte's personality and agrees to accompany her.

At Aunt Clare's she meets Harry, Clare's son.  Harry wants to be a magician and is currently trying to win his lady love back.  He feels Penelope is perfect for making his ex-girlfriend, Marina, jealous, and wants her to act like his date. Penelope is sucked into the world of Harry, Clare and Charlotte.

She lives in one of the most ancient and imposing houses of England, Milton Magna, with her widowed mother and a younger brother, Inigo.  What other people do not know is that they are completely broke and in debt.  It is with great difficulty that they are making ends meet, even if they belong to a respected aristocratic family.

Penelope is 18 years old and the year is 1954.  There is a lot she has to learn and ghosts she has to bury before she can learn how to live.  Charlotte becomes her beacon and she finds herself stepping out in society and meeting interesting people.  Some of these people will change the course of her life and she will find true love.

The starting of the book is simply fabulous.  It throws a hook right into you and pulls you along.  I was furiously flipping pages on my kindle. It was quite unputdownable.  It got a wee bit tedious as it went along, yet I could not stop until I had reached the last page.

Eva Rice points to various love stories in the book.  Three women find love in it but there is no wedding, or even a promise of one.  This leaves it open-ended which feels quite good.

Eva references various books/poems like Rebecca and The Lady of Shallot in this book.  Charlotte and Penelope, like the girls of the their times, are crazy about Johnny Ray.  Penelope's American uncle brings them records of Elvis Presley who was not very popular at the time, but rising.

There are great descriptions of the high society in London and how they party.  The rich Americans are everywhere.  The provide the money and the impoverished British aristocrats provide class.



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Zelda Fitzgerald - Save me the Waltz

@Charles Scribner's Sons
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First Published: 1932

This book was a thinly masked look at the life of Zelda Fitzgerald. She was married to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

She begins the story when she is a young girl who has just become aware of the world around her.  She watches as her two older sisters fall in love with inappropriate men, then choose more appropriate men to marry.

Alabama Beggs is the youngest daughter of Millie and Austin Beggs.  He is a Judge and a well respected man living somewhere in the Southern part of the USA.  She watches the wooing and wedding games of her two older sisters with a lot of interest and imbibes lessons from them.  When her own turn comes, she is courted by a lot of beaux, but gives her heart to David Knight and eventually marries him.

David is a soldier with some money but intends to make his living as a painter.  He is quite successful in his new profession.  Alabama follows him to New York where they are giddily in love with each other.  They are also impractical youngsters who do not know how to hold on to their money.  Their life is a series of drinking and partying orgies.

After a while David decides to go and settle down in France.  Slowly, Alabama tries to chart her own life.  She dedicates her life to ballet and tries to make it as a dancer.  She tells her little daughter 'Never be a backseat driver'.  It is obvious that she is fed up of basking in her husband's success and wants to make a name for herself.

The book is mired in heavy purple prose.  It is hard to read the book without finding your head spinning from the weird writing. Here is an example.
That was because of the sense of security they felt in their father.  He was a living fortress. Most people hew the battlements of life from compromise, erecting their impregnable keeps from judicious submissions, fabricating their philosophical drawbridges from emotional retractions and scalding marauders in the boiling oil of sour grapes.

Most of the book is filled with this kind of writing, which makes you feel quite cross-eyed.  However, the story is not without its charms.  It is extremely straightforward.  Zelda does not hesitate to write down exactly as she felt.

She charts the journey of her life with honesty.  She is a rebellious youngster, a clueless young woman and grows into a slightly more informed person later in her life.  Her marriage also proceeds from their being mad for each other, to the detachment that comes later, and then staying together in harmony that comes even later.  She is an indifferent mother to her daughter, affectionate in fits and starts.

She finds that she cannot depend on her husband the way she could depend on her father.  He is not cut out from the same mold.  She also realizes that she needs to have her own life, her own identity.  Hence her advice to her daughter about not being a 'backseat driver in her life'.  There are these candid flashes of wisdom in the book that make it worth wading through the unwieldy prose. I quote:

David's pictorial sense rose in wild stimulation on the barbaric juxtapositions of the Mediterranean morning.
Zelda had largely a disturbed life (was that responsible for the prose?).  She spent a lot of time in institutions and died in a fire there.  She may have had better care in these times, when people understand a lot more about insanity, or mental disturbances. But so early on in the past century she did not stand a chance. Poor Zelda.


 
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