Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

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I loved Tracy Chevalier’s earlier work Girl with a Pearl Earring and looked forward to reading more historical fiction by her. So when I found Remarkable Creatures in a book fair I lunged at it surreptitiously (my heart went whoa but my brain said act nonchalant). The book is reminiscent of Austen, with long sentences and pauses; set in that era but it had none of her wit (not complaining, just stating facts). Her book Persuasion is set in Lyme and another book set there is on my to-read-soonest-list, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But I’m digressing. For the highly unique subject of fossils and how their discovery changed science as they knew it, full marks to the book. And what made the book interesting for me is its genesis in truth (Okay simply put it is inspired from real life).

The beginning was slow but your patience will be rewarded. The two part narrative added to the experience of connecting with the narrator, Mary. Her crude accented English was done with the purpose of keeping it real (yes I’m using millenial lingo) but it was a tad annoying.

One of the greatest fallacies (propagated by the Church) that Earth was just 6000 years old, was challenged and refuted when extinct animals were found. Creatures which had earlier died out. Which no longer existed. They questioned God’s plan for he turned out not to be infallible, if not mortal, which was the beginning of the end for Creationism (I so wish!) and paved for the road for Darwinism.

The book at its core is about the friendship between two women from different walks (read class) of life – Elizabeth and Mary; their upheavals when the fortune of one changes rising above her station while life of the other remains the same, and how their friendship is tested. More than friends they were each others’ companions (as they were called then). In today’s time they could have been more than friends. They understood each other best, and made sense of each others lives in a way no one else could. Neither of them married. Intelligent readers will get what the book was hinting at.

The status of women in the 19th century,  and  their role in science overshadowed by men; their opinions ideas and discoveries not even treated as having value forget being given importance, and the tussle between religion and science are some of the themes discussed in Remarkable Creatures. The story is slow and set in a time before *revolution* was afoot, setting the stage for Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

Remarkable Creatures made me want to pick up Ship Fever again. It reminds me of the kind of historical fiction Andrea Barrett writes. And I can offer no higher praise than that.

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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Some books are meant to be savoured a few pages at a time. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of those. With her sparse unadorned prose and economy of words, it reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I find it hard to believe that this was her second novel but it isn’t hard to believe that it was shortlisted for the Booker. She started writing after 60 and quickly became one of the forces to be reckoned with in British literature. It is one of the few books where I don’t mind having seen the film (brilliantly adapted by Isabel Coixet) first because it was true to the book, and left quite an impression on me.

When I got the book I was disappointed to see the shape the book was in. What did I expect of a copy that’s as old as me and was published in 1978! But instead of returning it, I started reading it that day itself, trying to read it at the slowest possible speed so as to absorb every little detail, every turn of the phrase. I could afford to do that because I had already seen the film, otherwise the book is quite compelling.

Florence is a widow, who plans to open a bookshop with the little money her husband left her, but the locals aren’t keen on it, particularly a high society woman (for the lack of a better word), Mrs Gamart, who wants to open an arts centre in the same place.

We all have that one bookshop in our city where we bought our books growing up, one which has stood the test of time. The place becomes a landmark and holds countless memories because of how it is linked to our formative years. Florence intends to build such a place in the hostile little town she resides in.

It is not a cheerful book but hard-hitting and incisive. It is about a community of people who are resistant to change. It is also about the nature of business and what goes on behind the scenes. Reading about arranging books and the working of the library made me feel a strange wistfulness which quickly gave way to relief. For those for you who have always wanted to open a bookshop or a library, The Bookshop would serve as a real eye-opener.

Understated, loud, quietly menacing, cowardly – all her characters are distinct, and in a slim volume without much background information we still get to know what these characters stand for. At the same time they remain an enigma and you can’t quite grasp why they do the things they do. The book is a masterclass in writing (of show not tell should be her middle name) and one, which will throw up new things on each reading.

Spoilers ahead.

Florence fends for herself and doesn’t play the part of a hapless widow, and that perhaps offends some people more than others. More importantly, she thinks she can do it all on her own because her intentions are good (ha!). Her outsider status adds to her woes. The question here isn’t how much time one has spent in a place but how well one integrates in to the community. To survive is a tricky business as it is.

It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.

Florence appoints bossy Christine as her assistant; a 10 year old who speaks her mind (she more or less hires herself). Christine is outspoken and likes to do things her way. The third child in a household she learns from an early age to fend for herself. She gives the book some much needed comic relief by the way she sees life.

How Christine’s life changes due to working for Florence, and the direction her life took we can’t exactly say, but all deep associations change us, especially with people who are markedly different from us.

The two of them during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive.

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LGBT YA books by Indian authors

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Dutee Chand coming out as India’s first gay athlete inspired this post. And June is Pride Month after all. What is it about homosexuality that makes other people so uncomfortable, other than the obvious? Love is love, isn’t? But these barriers have been there since eternity in our society where any kind of difference from what is considered normal, is well, considered abnormal. Ask Oscar Wilde who penned the incrediblly moving De Profundis when in jail.  He dared to be himself (and loved the wrong man), and in stifling Victorian society that is an unforgivable sin.

Being a teenager is hard enough as it is, with conflicting emotions about the changes that are taking place in their bodies, and the formation of one’s identity yet craving to be accepted by peers. They could do without society breathing down their necks telling them they have to fit in or or hide who they are which is damaging to their psyche. It is essential to live your life on your terms and be who you are. Life is too short to go about feeling inadequate. If there was ever a time to be defiant this is the time, with the government deciding everything. Things are changing, I agree, but not fast enough, at least in the Indian context.

I have a soft spot for well written young adult literature (perhaps because growing up YA as a genre didnt really exist) and YA books written by Indian authors are still precious. Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt and Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan are rare books in Indian YA pantheon which deal with the taboo subject of homosexuality in their own way. These books were written when Article 377 hadn’t been lifted. It makes them all the more important because they took a stand when taking a stand mattered.

These books are well written and engaging though very different in tone, texture and style. We have three narrators in Talking of Muskaan and it is comparitively darker compared to Slightly Burnt. The latter embraces homosexuality in a lighthearted way because of the themes it deals with no serious repercussions.  In both the books the worlds the authors have built for their characters feels real.

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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.

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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?

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