Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Anne Tyler - A Spool of Blue Thread

Publisher: Random House LLC
Author: Anne Tyler
Title: A Spool of Blue Thread

You can trust Anne Tyler to spin stories about people who are commonplace and unremarkable. If you pass them on the streets you will probably not give them a second look. Yet such a novel makes you pause and think about the wealth of details that make up each life. An old person has decades of stories behind him. If you had time to ask, you will find out that every person has some interesting bits of story to relate.

When we meet Abby, she is worried about her son Denny. He has just called and told his father that he is gay. Her husband, Red Whitshank, is typically taciturn about it. We learn later that Denny has long been a source of trouble for his family and likely to continue being so. Every time I read a book by Anne Tyler I picture the characters living in a spacious leaf lined house by a quiet road. Here the house is a prominent living thing which grew to life under the hands of Junior Whitshank who built it for others but fell so in love with it that he bought it off the owners.

The wide porch with a swing has seen many pattering feet, this is where Abby sat and swung slowly as she fell in love with Red.  We hear stories of three generations and leave when the house is put up for sale after a death. Abby is the centerpiece of the book and she binds the past present and the future together. All the characters are as flawed as ordinary people are and beg to be loved as they are.

Despite being a story of several generations it does not have the sweep of Searching for Caleb. It remains a story of a family going about their daily lives.  There is drama here, it is not highlighted and thrown in our face, as is the case with many books that seek to thrill its readers. It is merely stated and we are left to smile at it.  Tyler sketches the characters deftly and fills in the color with the times they live in. Junior Whitshank lived in depression and found it difficult to eat properly or provide for his wife. Abby and Red live comfortably with Red's construction business that he inherited from his father. His son Stem has carried on the tradition and managing the firm. His other son Denny is footloose and cannot hold down a career.

The book reminded me why I love Anne Tyler so much. There are readers who may find her middle class tales of ordinary people repetitive and humdrum.  What I see is a town full of people who are same but different. They follow different careers and have different stories. It makes her world so familiar and comfortable for me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Min Jin Lee - Pachinko

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Author: Min Jin Lee
Title: Pachinko

I found this book on my Scribd app.  Scribd app is like a paid subscription to a library which allows you read several books at less cost. I don't have to buy individual books. However, the books on offer are not unlimited, unlike on Amazon where you can get a vast number of titles. I was pointed towards this by a book group on Twitter which goes under #TSBC or #TSBCWedReads run by @TSBookClub. People are asked about the books they are currently reading every Wednesday and one can pick up good tips there.

Pachinko is about a Korean family that migrates to Japan around 1930. Despite their best efforts they find they cannot integrate into Japan. The reason is not poor assimilation on their part.  They are kept apart from Japanese because of deep rooted discrimination against the Koreans.

The story starts in Korea in the picturesque little Island town of Yeongdo near Busan. Sunja is the young daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin. After her father dies, she is busy helping her mother run a boarding house that they inherited from Hoonie's parents. Her life is humdrum but comfortable. Hansu is a businessman whose eye falls on this wholesome young girl. Sunja becomes pregnant and when she tells Hansu about this, he reveals that he is married but offers to keep the girl in comfort.  Sunja is shocked to learn this and rejects him.

One of the boarders at Yangjin's boarding house is a Christian Minister called Isak who offers to marry Sunja to give her unborn son a family name. He is leaving for Osaka soon to join his older brother and his wife and takes Sunja along with him. Sunja's son by Hansu is called Noa who suffers deeply when he learns about his birth. Sunja and Isak have a son called Mozasu who first goes to work at a Pachinko parlour.

Life in Osaka is not easy with the Japanese breathing down their neck and looking down upon them. Many misfortunes befall them but they persevere. Despite being good, hardworking and honest, they find they cannot make a headway in mainstream Japanese life.  They are relegated to ghettos.  The family eventually makes their fortunes in Pachinko parlours which becomes a symbol of the kind of life allowed to them.

Sunja's sons and grandsons achieve academic success they are not allowed into white collar jobs. Noa tries to do it but only at the cost of his identity. He pretends to be a Japanese and cuts himself off from his family. Mozasu's son Solomon finds it hard to work in a proper office even though he holds an impressive degree from a good college. Despite their education and qualification they are elbowed out.

The plot outline looks dull and depressing. It is not a book full of merry happenings but there was never a dull moment. The story proceeds at a breakneck speed, often jumping years to avoid tedium. It was close to 700 pages but I could barely put it down and completed it in 2 days. Like the book I read before this, it was a fast read.

Especially in these days when Immigration has become such a bad word globally, it is important to rake up the issue of how the host nation treats its immigrants. Even though the immigrants work hard and are honest, doing jobs that are shunned by others, they are treated sub-par and are never allowed to integrate. Often they wind up creating their own communities within the host nation.  It seems horrific but is true. It goes against the very tenets of humanity.

The book spans decades from 1910 to 1989. It starts from Korea and ends in Japan. The early parts of the book, set in Yeongdo, are breathtakingly beautiful. The author takes care with her characterizations. The life of Sunja's parents is described in detail. Sunja's seduction by Hansu is again well etched, with the author going deep into how Sunja's mind works. Later, the descriptions are not as unhurried and beautiful and story is trotted forward without much detailing.  Of course, if the pace of the book had remained the same, it would have reached nearly double its size. It is reminiscent of the times also. The early part of the twentieth century was unhurried and slow, later life also became fast and shallow.

By all means pick up the book. Do not let the number of pages deter you, reader. They will fly by, I promise.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Ava Dellaira - In Search of Us

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Ava Dellaira
Title: In Search of Us

I loved the author's first offering Love Letters to the Dead. I loved this inventive novel and  knew I had to pick up the second book by Ava as soon as it came out. I was already in middle of another book when this landed into my kindle on being launched.  So it took me a few days to get to it.

I started reading the book and felt a little disoriented, I could not really get my mind into it.  I wondered if this book would be a bad follow up to the wonderful first one. But as soon as I reached page 24, I found myself melting into it. I paused and retraced my steps from the first.  This time round I had no problems hooking in.

Marilyn is a single mother who has struggled to raise her daughter, Angie.  She has risen from being a waitress at a local diner in Albuquerque to being a bank manager. She is eager to let her daughter have all the love and care that was denied to her by her mother. When she is sixteen Angie discovers some pictures of her father that her mother had kept from her. This makes her dig around and find out that her father's brother is alive.  She wants to find out more and takes off to Los Angeles to search for her uncle.

One of the first things that occurred to me was that this was a little like Gilmore Girls, with more angst and less humor. There are some similarities of course. Like Lorelai, Marilyn is 17 when she finds herself pregnant.  They are both single mothers trying to raise their daughters without the intervention of their families. But that's where the similarities end. There is nothing open about Angie's parentage.  Marilyn has kept many things from her daughter.

Angie is biracial as her father was an African American. This has often resulted in problems for Angie as people did not immediately assume that Marilyn and Angie are mother and daughter, especially as the father is absent.

The story is told in the voices of Marilyn and Angie, when they were/are at the age seventeen. So we go back in time for Marilyn's story and come back to the present for Angie's. Marilyn's story is about her deep and abiding love for James, her neighbor, who is able to make her forget her miserable life and plan a hopeful future.  In current times, Angie is on the way to Los Angeles in search of her uncle Justin.  She hopes he will be able to lead her to her father James and also provide the missing pieces of her past.

The story is so well crafted and so well told that I was loath to put down the book.  I kept racing through it and completed the book in two days, a sort of a record for me in recent times.  The finale, the reason why Marilyn ran away from everyone when she found herself pregnant with James' child is well worth the wait to find out.  The racism that James and his daughter Angie encountered is heart rending.

I loved the love story of Marilyn and James. Marilyn's feelings of being in love, of being in lust are so well expressed. The best part of this book is the image of these innocent children exploring life and wanting good things for each other.

The present time love story between Sam and Angie was quite unnecessary I feel. Angie wanted to know about her father to feel more complete, it should not have tied up to her inability to open up to Sam. Manny lurking in the background as someone who has a long time crush on Marilyn is a bit of a cardboard cut out. Cherry and Miguel are there for convenience. Angie, Marilyn, James, Justin,  Marilyn's uncle and mother are the well fleshed out characters. They are the ones who are really integral to this beautiful story.

What I did not like so much was the neat wrapping up at the end. I guess I would have liked something left a little open to interpretation. Once the truth was out, the characters should have had a little more flexibility than falling into predictable slots.

I will be thinking about 17 year old, beautiful, full of promise, aspirational couple James and Marilyn cavorting on the beach for a long long time.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Catherine Lowell - The Madwoman Upstairs

Publisher: Touchstone
Author: Catherine Lowell
Title : The Madwoman Upstairs

Sometimes you stumble across a book which is completely to your taste. It is like browsing in a library, looking through a few pages and saying to yourself, 'I know nothing about this author but I will try reading it.' This feeling is precisely why I love browsing books in a library. 'If I don't like it', I think,' I can always return it.' There is no commitment via a purchase to hound you if you don't like it. 

I was a member of a private library called Browser in Chandigarh. For some amount, you could read any of the books on offer there.  If you wished, you could also buy a book from their library at a discounted rate. It was a good arrangement, but the library was far from where I lived and it was a bit of drag to come and go.  Now I have an app called Scribd where I pay a subscription and can read any of the books on display there. They don't have every book under the sun, but a good many. I get the same library experience without the pressure of due dates and visits.

I found The Madwoman Upstairs on Scribd. Just like I would do in a regular library, I flipped through a few pages and was hooked.  It is about a young woman Samantha Whipple, who has come to Oxford to study English Literature and is assigned to the dishy Professor Orville. Samantha Whipple is famous, she is the last living relation of Patrick Bronte, the father of the Bronte sisters. This has brought her a lot of attention, most of it unwanted.  Her father, Tristan Whipple was an avid student of his famous ancestors and an author in his own right.

Her father is now dead but the rumor is that he hid some Bronte relics. There are people who are interesting in knowing more about them and are hounding Samantha. She has to grapple between her own theories about her famous cousins, trying to locate the said relics and learning more about her eccentric father. On top of all this, she has to fight her attraction to the dishy Orville who is never happy with the papers she turns in.

If you like this kind of a book which is chockablock with literary allusions you have hit jackpot. Read this ASAP.  It is funny and smart, but without any pretensions. It propounds some really wild theories about the B sisters which are fun. Samantha is fixated on Anne Bronte, so get ready to hear some things about the least famous Bronte. The tower that Samantha lives in as a student is about as Gothic as the tower that Bertha Mason was locked up in.

It is not exactly a derivative as it references the books by Brontes directly. It references even the best known derivatives, Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea. Yet when you are ready to snap the book shut after a very satisfying end, you realize the book was a derivative after all, maybe of The Professor? The epilogue has a dreamy feel that makes you wonder, did this really happen?

It addresses the madness that descends on Literature students who want to unravel the lives of famous authors and find clues to what led them to write the books. The book, for this reason, kept reminding me of Possession by A.S. Byatt. Byatt had created a fictional writer and  his body of work. It was brilliant. Yet this book by Catherine Lowell does not pale overmuch by comparison, as it is very good. You will fall in love with the quirky, socially awkward, Bronte loving character of Samantha Whipple.