Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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First off how good is the minimalist cover of Olive Kitteridge? I really thought I got lucky with this edition not just because I love lighthouses.

I have been delaying talking about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge because I read it within a month of my grandfather’s death. Saying we were very close would be an understatement. At first the book hurt terribly. I thought I knew heartbreak and then life decides to say ha let me show you how you wrong you are! Initially, you want to escape the pain not experience it more deeply. But then the latter is more cathartic in the long run, and you start to heal when you realize this is the way of the world. We are all connected by loss, love and longing.

I was astounded by Elizabeth Strout’s writing. There’s a kind of gentleness about the everyday life she writes about. It is never banal. I never thought everyday life could be written about so poignantly and have such an immediacy to it. Ordinary people, everyday entanglements and normal lives in the hands of a gifted writer makes for a compelling narrative.

Henry Kitteridge, the husband of Olive Kitteridge, reminded me of my grandfather – kind and affable, never wanting to make a fuss and trying his best to be in harmony with what is.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Olive Kitteridge is the portrait of a long marriage and of an only child’s failed relationship with his parents. It is learning that marriage cannot alleviate your loneliness completely even though you are bound together for life. It is about the deterioration and fatigue that sets in old age. It is about finding companionship when you least expect it. It is about tender unexpected love that has no name but which gushes forth without caring if it’s appropriate. It is a deep yearning to be connected yet unable to bridge the gap.

It is about the truth and being straightforward being the kinder way in some cases. It is about the meek and submissive becoming vile when it is they who wield the power.

It is about small things, things of no apparent consequence and almost invisible to others, having the capacity to cause such tremendous heartbreak that it takes you by surprise.

It is about compassion lurking under battle hardened hearts and letting go of judgement, living with everything as is. It is being true to yourself above all because in the end when Death is coming for you, that’s all that matters.

Olive Kitteridge showed me all that and more. I could identify with many things. Things I didn’t know I felt, things I suppressed because they weren’t important in the scheme of day to day living. And there were things I could foresee myself identifying with in the future. When a book does that you know it’s a keeper.

Continue reading “Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout”

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Possession

If any book was made for a reread it’s Possession by Antonia Susan Byatt. The language lends itself to a slower reading with multiple pauses, not the way I read it. Initially I required pauses but as the book progressed I became breathless with anticipation. The story shifts from the past to the present and unlikely but delicious connections are forged. A literary mystery with a difference. I’m way under qualified to talk about Possession. Consider this a book appreciation post, if you may.

It was a slow start with too many characters and their back stories, with some passages dragging in between but the plot and the writing more than made up for it. I raced to the end, and this after having seen the film should tell you what kind of a book it is.

This book made me work hard, like the few classics I have read do but none had actual poetry in them. The poems took me back to school (the way we were required to study it but we didn’t have long epic poems). The poems were interwoven so delicately that I actually read all of them though not in order and, of course, I couldn’t understand everything. Out of all the poems Swammerdam stood out for me.

What surprised me was the amount of natural science present in this book about the Victorian romance of two poets. And it is clever because the year 1859 was an important year for biology. It was the year Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. I could appreciate the book better because I knew some of the things being talked about. Who would have thought my biology background would lead to a greater appreciation of this splendid book. Continue reading “Possession”

A Suitable Boy

I found Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy at the back of my cupboard after searching for it in all the usual places. It was a trial getting it out but I did get it out without damaging anything. Aired and dusted I’m ready for his words to shine a warmth this dreary winter.
I bought the book, rather my father found this lovely copy for me in a bookshop in Bombay nearly a decade ago when a friend rated it highly on Goodreads and it moved up on my TBR (thank you Goodreads). This is my second attempt at completing the book but third attempt finishing the book. The fault is mine alone. I was in a phase where reading was tough. I already know what will happen having read the relationship parts staying up one wintry night to find the answer to the million dollar question – who will Lata marry? I know it is abominable and I usually don’t spoil books like that. I was unwell then and couldn’t sit much so reading it in its entirety (the longest novel ever!) was out of question. Ergo, I found a way to get to the end without breaking my back and straining my wrists (bit of an inside joke, read the book to know what it means).
This time around I have decided I won’t be taking a risk. I will be reading it on the table, sitting on the chair near the window with sun on my face, if I’m lucky. Winter will be infused with the warmth of his words. If you have seen the book you will know what I mean and mine is a first edition, a hardbound copy with golden pages which is older than me.

Thoughts on The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

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I loved Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth and I have come to expect lyrical prose and magical realism in her work. I am not a fan of magical realism as such but hers I gobble up like a plate of hot Top Ramen noodles (read the fragrance of childhood). Poetry, magic, fate everything I have never understood and can’t put into words, Alice Hoffman does it with ease like she has done it all her life, which she has, but it always takes me by surprise.

I usually steer clear of misery or negativity in pop culture unless I think I can handle it. And Alice Hoffman should be read when you can handle her prose. Her words pierce your soul. She wrings out emotions and feelings you never thought you had. The storyline is easy to follow but the themes are weighty. The Ice Queen deals with matters of life and death and everything in between that constitutes the business of living. She writes fairy tales for adults but don’t be fooled into thinking that it would be simple or straightforward.

I took the book with me when I was travelling but somehow I could sense it wasn’t the place for it and I read very little. And I didn’t want to read the book at breakneck speed because I wanted to inhabit the words of this book until I absorbed its essence.

Like many reviewers I agree there isn’t an extra word in The Ice Queen. She covers so much in 211 pages. It is a sentimental tale but the ending is unpredictable. At the centre of the story is an unlikeable protagonist – the unnamed narrator, who is a librarian and a lightning survivor. Something happened when she was a child and and she has allowed it to colour her entire life. Lightning has always fascinated me but this scared me, the damage it can do to your system if you have the misfortune to be struck by it. Her character changes in a fundamental way and she sees herself differently by the time the book ends and so did I. Alice Hoffman makes you feel for her and in spite of everything you root for her. Deep down we are all dreamers.

The Ice Queen is a book about life and death, and about love and hate. It is a book about secrets and their power to define us if we let them.

Secrets are only knowledge that hasn’t yet been uncovered… Therefore, they are not in fact secrets but only unrealized truth.

The Ice Queen is about all kinds of love – love between siblings (blood ties can’t be so easily dismissed), love between people who have survived the same thing, love between people who are married and their lives tied together in ways unimaginable and love that remains even when the object of affection has vanished into thin air. (Not literally true but I wanted to use it because I am feeling theatrical today!)

Feel lucky for what you have when you have it. Isn’t that the point? Happily ever after doesn’t mean happy forever. The ever after, what precisely was that? Your dreams, your life, your death, your everything. Was it the blank space that went on without us? The forever after we were gone?

The Ice Queen tells me things find their own way to fruition if it’s meant to be. And to have an open heart and appreciate the present. Nothing I didn’t know but how many of us actually live fully in the present?

Continue reading “Thoughts on The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman”

Still Alice

“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.” – Oliver Sacks

What does a disease do to you? It changes your body and attacks your energy reserves. It changes your psychological makeup, changing forever who you are (or who you were meant to become). The landscape is forever altered. It is foolhardy to think that it’s possible to go back to being the person you once were. And with time you realize, like with everything in life, you have to do the best with what you have got (left).

During my student days I was interested in the chapter on neurodegenerative disorders and was particularly curious about Alzheimer’s (I wonder if it was because of Bhansali’s Black) because of what it does to a person. I had often prided myself on having a great memory, remembering stuff that mattered (of course I am not talking about textbooks) easily. But sadly that has not been the case for a while now.

I had wanted to read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice for a while and I found a lovely hardcover in the book fair last year and immediately pounced on it. I read the author interview at the end of the book and found that I would not be able to handle such a topic then. It took me a while to plunge in. I couldn’t bring myself to read it sooner fearing what I would find and, more importantly, how the dots would connect. 

Losing your mind is a big deal. Memories are integral to how we remember the past, and connect it with the present. It is through the prism of memories we see ourselves and others. Armed with memories we navigate the choppy waters of future certain of at least where we come from, if not who we are. What if the sense of self you have built over years is taken from you?

Still Alice deals with the struggles of Alice Howland, a brilliant linguistic professor. when her life is torn apart by early onset Alzheimer’s and how she and her family learn to cope with the ravages of the illness – with a person left with a mind, not as sharp as she used to be but deep down still remains the same person. How caregivers deal with the altered circumstances, the ugly reality, the frustration and helplessness at not being able to find a way out from the messy tangles is hard to read about. The ravages of the disease diminishing a person slowly and seeing a much loved person vanish before their very own eyes almost becoming a stranger is heartbreaking.

Will people still see Alice or see through her?

When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that is responsible for my unique ‘me-ness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s?

Still Alice is compulsively readable and I love the author for putting a compelling narrative of Alzheimer’s on the map but some characters weren’t fully realized and were shown only as good or bad whereas people are complex. Her family was supportive almost to the point of being angelic when in reality it might be far from the truth. Illness takes a huge toll on the caregiver and the family’s happiness frays around the edges. Reality is a bitter pill that unfortunately cannot be swallowed in one go.

The book was engrossing and I felt for Alice but I wanted more depth (because I hadn’t seen the film then) and also, how the medical industry (my experience tells me it’s the correct word to use) views the disease, to get the complete picture.

I recently saw the movie nearly a year later. I don’t remember how the book ended but the ending of the movie seemed to be less hopeful than the book.

The movie ended with the following lines said beautifully by Lydia, Alice’s daughter, played with an intensity that only Kristen Stewart could have brought to the part. Along with Julianne Moore who plays Alice, she is the beating heart of the movie and makes it what it is.

“Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.” – Angels of America.

 

 

Thoughts on Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring was an intereseting read considering the fact that I had seen the movie years back and quite liked it. It was a pleasant suprise because I hadn’t quite warmed up to Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn which was my introuction to the author

Spoilers ahead for the book and the movie.

It is 1665. The story is told by sixteen year old Griet who comes to work as a maid in the Vermeer household to support her family. Vermeer, the artist, takes a fancy to her because she understands art.

The house is run by the the matriarch, the wife’s mother who single-handedly managed the household. Although Vermeer was a good artist he was not the best man to provide for his family. Vermeer worked at his own pace. He was moody and temperamental even though the entire house was in debt and his paintings were the only source of income.

Life was tough in a way the population with access to modern healthcare wouldn’t understand. There was no method of contraception and it was one baby on the way after another whether you can afford it or want it.

Griet was a strong character for her the times she lived in. The name Grit would be apt for her because she is gutsy and resilient. She is sharp and observes things which would elude a casual onlooker.

I was delighted to see Antony van Leeuwenhoek in Girl with a Pearl Earring. He was Vermeer’s friend. I was happy to see a microbiologist in a novel about an artist. Seeing Antony van Leeuwenhoek as a character took me back to my student days.

I confess I had never heard the term camera obscura before. Shameful because I call myself an amateur photographer (the amateur bit does take the sting out of it). Of course my grandpa knew what camera obscura was. He was an engineer and a photographer, and unlike me a person who understands technicalities well.

A painting which isn’t a painting. The word photograph is yet to be invented because the camera hasn’t been invented yet. What a world it must have been. Since something cannot be captured there is no choice except to draw or paint what fascinated them.  A while ago I had read Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life where I got a peek into a world where photography was being invented.

It is not new wanting to save memories which have an impact on us. The word nostalgia means a great deal to us humans. Hence the need for keepsakes. When we write we do the same thing. Capturing a moment, a place, a situation, an experience, a time.

It was fascinating the way he tried to make Griet a part of his life – in charge of cleaning his studio, making her understand what an image was. He valued her opinion sensing her intelligence. He allowed her near his beloved colours, to make them, to buy them. He trusted her with his art, he took her suggestions into account and respected her opinions. Intellectually he treated her differently from a maid but the class difference remained. He was in a position of power so he did order her about and forced her to do things.

It’s interesting to see the interplay between their characters, Vermeer and Griet, the artist and the observer who later on becomes the subject. Griet is unusually quiet but she challenged Vermeer in her own way. She played many roles – muse, helper, and model. The relationship of the muse with the artist is fraught with complications and has no clear boundaries. Where does feeling stop and art begin? Can one draw in a completely detached manner from the subject? Would the essence be conveyed? The artist moves on. What of the muse who is caught up in the process unknowingly? Is the subject or the muse (in this case the same person) allowed to feel or have a say in how she is going to be portrayed? All these questions came up while reading the book and I don’t have any anwers.

The book gives us a picture of her life after she leaves the Vermeer household unlike the movie, which shows no clear resolution and leaves it to the audience. The movie shows more moments between them, paint a more romantic picture than it really is. Griet’s family makes her a well rounded character in the book but her family barely makes an apperance in the movie. The movie has more dialogue naturally as opposed to the book in which silences abounded.

A world of veneers and facades. The beauty of the book and the movie is in its restraint, in the things left unsaid.

Have you read the book or seen the movie?

Lessons in life from a little girl (real and fictional)

Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is. – Saul Bellow

There are no words to express the way you feel when you hold the hand of an eleven year old, let her take charge and be your guide. For a few moments I felt like the schoolgirl I had once been, carefree, innocent and oblivious to what the world looked like to grownups. I thought I had left that self far behind but it was hiding in the open underneath the veneer of adulthood. I desperately hope (in spite of knowing that it will) growing up doesn’t rob her of her curiosity.

This child was knowledgeable about the technicalities of photography and that impressed me, I am still an amateur photographer years after professing interest in photography as a hobby. There lies the difference. It is more than a hobby for her. She is passionate about it.

I took to her immediately. Our vibes matched. It would appear strange when I say that because I am a world weary adult (even though I cringe while saying it) and she’s a bright kid. My inner child connected with her and perhaps in her I could see a glimpse of the happy-go-lucky child I used to be.

I have always connected well with children. At the same time, I have been told by my older friends that I am far too mature for my age. I am an old soul with a young heart. And only with a Gemini it won’t be a conundrum.

She was cheerful, restless and bubbling with enthusiasm like children are. It was something I could not have asked for but got in spades interacting with her that day. I was not supposed to meet her but she had come with my friend and how funny it was her that made my day.

The same night I found a book  I had been looking for ages, Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle. I don’t have to tell you that the illustrations are beautiful because it’s a book by Oliver Jeffers. It talks about a girl shutting herself away from the world because something bad happened to her. To live and to just exist are two different things. She allowed grief to overwhelm her and forgot to live until a little girl shows her what she was missing, just by being herself, full of life and not being afraid of the future (the great unknown for most of us unless you are a seer). I was that little girl but I don’t want to be that adult. Finding the way to yourself, and discovering who you are, isn’t that the purpose of life?

Life mirrors art. Art mirrors life. And we continue to live on trying to find meaning in the things we do.

Yesterday I read an insightful interview about Oliver Jeffers’ new book Here We Are which comes out today. The cover looks stunning and I cannot wait to read it.