Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Daphne Du Maurier - Mary Anne

@Virago New Ed
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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
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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
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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
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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.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Jasper Fforde - The Eyre Affair

@Hodder and Stoughton Publications
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Thursday Next is a LitraTec Special Operative.  She looks after crimes related to literature.  She is a Crimea War Veteran, this war has been going on for over a century.  This is England, 1985.

Thursday gets a visit one day from an elite Special Operations person who is on the trail of a curious criminal who cannot be tracked.  There is no evidence of his existence, no photograph, nothing through which he can be identified.  He was Thursday's professor in college, hence, she is the only one who knows what he looks like.

Thursday sets off to help them but returns badly scarred when the criminal, Acheron Hades manages to do a lot of damage to her little unit.  She is determined to track him down and returns to her home town, Swindon.

Her family is highly gifted.  Her father is a rogue time traveler who pops back for mad little talks with her.  Her uncle and aunt, Mycroft and Polly are highly gifted inventors of curious machinery which enemies are in need of.  Mycroft has invented a Prose Portal that can take a user inside a literary work, or any book, in fact.

Acheron Hades uses the portal to kill off a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens as a little reminder of what damage he can do to classical books.  His plans are foiled by Mycroft and Thursday.  Acheron Hades then sets his sights on a bigger classic, Jane Eyre.

Thursday is a very hands-on special operative, unlike her colleagues.  They are content to sit behind their desks and do the literary work and let the other police do the field work.  Not our Thursday, she MUST do everything, whether it is aiding Vampire hunters or stop a leak in time or hunting criminals on the streets.

She is a bit too hands-on and goes all over the place.  Her fingers are in all the pies which is quite tiresome. The main part of the story, the part where Jane Eyre comes in, is at the fag end of the book.

That said, the book is a lovely read about an alternate universe where any changes made in the original manuscript affects all the books under print.  It is a fantasy novel that makes ample allusions to classical books, which gladdens the heart of a die-hard reader of classical fiction like me.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Khushwant Singh and Humra Qureshi - The Good, the Bad and the Ridiculous

+Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
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Khushwant Singh belonged to the upper echelon of India.  He was the son of Sobha Singh, a rich building contractor of Delhi.  It was rumoured that most of Connaught Place belonged to him.

Khushwant Singh studied in the best of schools in undivided India and completed his law studies in King's College in London.  He practised law in Lahore for some years before joining Foreign Service.  Later, he moved to journalism.

His elite education ensured that he was already networked with the top people in India.  Hence, he is well placed to write about all the famous people of the past century.  His USP was writing about people with frankness and refusing to pander to them.  This won him many enemies and he was as reviled as he was feted.

It is a fact that his books have sold very well despite not being always very edifying. The only book of his that I have truly liked is Delhi, his tribute to the grand old city.

In this book, he writes portraits of many luminaries of India and its neighbouring countries.  He has profiled Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, General Tikka Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawalan, Giani Zail Singh, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon, Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhagat Puran Singh among others.

Even though the profiles are not always very detailed, they do throw up an interesting angle from time to time.  For instance, he describes the difference in viewpoints of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi.  MA Jinnah was, according to Khushwant Singh, inclined towards secular politics.  He was all for keeping religion and politics unmixed. Also, he wanted to keep voting and governing very upper class.  Only those who paid taxes deserved to have a say in running the country.  When Mahatma Gandhi arrived from South Africa, he mixed religion and politics.  He also involved the common man in the political process.  He preferred Nehru among the other leaders and Jinnah was forced to become the voice of the Muslims.

Khushwant Singh is particularly scathing in his dismissal of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Mountbatten.  He pussyfoots around Sanjay Gandhi whom he admired a lot at one time and cites loyalty to a true friend as a reason for not bad-mouthing him.  He has mixed opinions about Indira Gandhi, in any case his profile on her is not very exhaustive.  I liked his portraits of Giani Zail Singh, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, and Bhagat Puran Singh. The profile of Krishna Menon is perhaps the most candid of the lot.

I gleaned from most of his profiles that politicians, from the time of Gandhi, used religion to whip up hysteria in masses in favor of a particular political party.  They played on religious identities to draw the attention of the people. (Giani Zail Singh is credited with whipping up Sikh fervor to counter the Akalis which ultimately led to Bhindrawale.) This can explain the state our politics is in at the moment.  People are pushed, like MA Jinnah was, into retreating into a niche of labels.  You are either a Liberal or a Right-winger, a Commie or a Congressi.

The book can be taken as a light manual of some prominent personalities of our region.  There is humor, sex and politics in the book.  The usual combination that Singh favored.