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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I, Daniel Blake and not giving up

I saw I, Daniel Blake (the comma is important) sometime ago but it left an impression on me. It is a film with its heart in the right place and it is inspired from reality. I will be talking about what I felt after watching the film. Though I have tried not to be specific you will get an idea about the general premise of the film so spoilers ahead.

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What is a man with a heart condition to do? Forced to eke out a living when declared fit by the state but not actually in a condition to work – a conundrum I hope no one ever has to face. We live in a world where government apathy is so systematized that it doesn’t seem like apathy at all. I thought we in India had bad governments but the rest of the world isn’t so different when it comes to denying upstanding taxpayers their rights and making them run from pillar to post.

You are entitled to benefits but the State has frozen it. Along with Daniel, we see the plight of another young woman with children. She feeds her kids but goes without meals herself until she nearly faints with hunger. She’s desperate for any kind of work because she has to look after her kids. She steals essentials from the supermarket because she doesn’t have the money to buy them. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger. It breaks you, tests you and sometimes you keel over. If you survive, you somehow find the strength to keep walking, hoping against hope that your life will limp back to normalcy. What is normal anyhow.

India doesn’t even have these kinds of laws or these benefits so we are not even in the running to be an ideal or a model country (cue in derisive laughter). A country is known by how it treats its poor and helpless citizens, both young and the old, and in that regard India is a terrible country. And as I found out our colonizer Britain is no better in spite of having amassed wealth (by leeching off from countries like ours) and in a much better position to help the people.

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The Mentalist to the rescue

What are the odds of me peeling an orange at the exact time as Simon Baker is peeling one in The Mentalist? It’s a pity I have never broken off an orange or for that matter an apple from a branch and eaten it (another one for my bucket list). You can call it a coincidence but looking at it as a matter of chance takes the magic out of life and makes the words serendipity or happenstance (if you prefer) redundant. I understand that sometimes you have to let go of fanciful notions and think practically. What. I didn’t get to be three decades old without knowing something about how the world functions.

It wouldn’t do to complicate life by overthinking I have realized. (Turtles All The Way Down was a great help in this regard, thank you John Green). As a bookish reflective sort I have a tendency to brood and try to figure things out (read stew in it) when it should be left to life to sort out the mess.

And here I see Patrick enjoying an orange plucked straight from the tree after knowing something terrible. Don’t dismiss it by saying it’s fiction. There are people who feel deeply but don’t shed tears. I knew such a person. They internalize their grief and hide their disappointments from the world. They deal with it on their own.

There’s always a reason to smile and many reasons to live for, that is if you look at life the glass half full way (sometimes it pays to be an optimist) and not in the pessimistic glass half empty manner. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

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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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Miss me? Not really.

Miss me? Not really is the short answer. For the long answer read below.

I do but I don’t want to deal with all the things that follow in your wake. It’s a chore and like blizzards always intense. Why is it never sunny? It was a deadly winter and I need to survive.

Why so many lies or omissions of truth, in your words? Why promises that you won’t keep and had never intended to keep in the first place, made only for the sake of making yourself look good?

I catch myself thinking you would like Inspector Montalbano or tell you that I found peace in volunteering. I wanted to tell you my grandpa was dying. I wanted to ask you what the right thing to do was. But I could never get past how formal and cold we had become. And you had never shown any interest before in spite of knowing the circumstances. So I absolve myself from all guilt.

Was this only entertainment for you? What was it – the thrill of the chase? How cliched and, you know how I hate cliches. All of us become the things we hate.

It doesn’t matter now because I have seen through you. Perhaps there is a price you pay for being naive stupid. Believing you was my Achilles heel. The amazing thing is the disbelief because I am not usually the kind of person who gets caught up in this kind of drama. You proved me wrong yet again and my only consolation is for everything in life there is a first time (and hopefully a last time).

Why is there never a straight answer but only roundabout clues? It’s a maze I am tired of navigating and red herrings I am tired of dodging. You probably think people have a lot of time on their hands to brood over things. Let me correct you. They don’t. Survial takes precedence. Wading through your mess without complaining, I laugh to myself thinking about it now. Didn’t anyone tell you I don’t even like getting my feet wet and here I am drowning. I don’t even know how I got here. Oh wait you knew I disliked it yet continued to pour water saying it will quench my thirst.

What’s the use of saying pretty please, listen to me? What will I do with it, you selfish pig? Once someone tells you truth, instead of acknowledging it, you wave it aside and walk away only to come back to stomp on their hearts. I wish you would vanish into the unknown never to be seen. Wait, that’s not completely true. In the day of social media I check if you are alive by stalking you online like normal people. Not like you, making your presence known whenever you happen to drop by.

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Of action and reaction

Life teaches you the most amazing of lessons in the simplest of ways. I met a friend’s friend and was astonished by his generosity and uber coolness. A combination of easy charm and good parenting (or is it all a facade)? Some people are born cool I suppose. So unassuming and therein lies their charm. Falling in love with such a person would be easy but I suspect there is more to it than what meets the eye. Because I have a friend that is pretty chill too. But you can’t go in unless he chooses to let you in.

Newton’s third law – of action and reaction. A few bad experiences have made me a cynic, a bitter individual unable to open my heart completely to life, be it people or situations. I judge people harshly, question their motives and then again go back to being myself. But I see that changing. I realize I can’t carry on living like this, like life is a burden. Life is a gift. Every day has the potential to be a good day unsullied by the burdens of the past. Once the lessons are learnt it is time to let it go. It is time to stop mourning and forgive others for past mistakes. Because there is nothing to be done about something which happened in the past and me dwelling on it is only poisoning the present. Yes, I will never be cool enough not to care even if I act like I don’t give a damn. It’s just that with age I have learnt to act better, and I have actually learnt to let most things go. I need breathing room not in the least because I’m claustrophobic.

The perks of getting older

That urge to revisit. To take things slow. To see a film again. To read a much loved book again and not rush the process. It appears contradictory because as we grow older we realize we have less time. But really knowing something changes things, doesn’t it? I know I will never be able to read all the books I want, watch all the movies and series I want. Time is more limited than I had thought and flies far more quickly, especially when you are not paying attention. I realize being aware of your mortality is a good thing.

It is the strangest thing. On some days going through a day is hard with time barely passing, and getting to the next day is a struggle. Yet we struggle with time. If that is not a paradox I don’t know what is. If nothing life has a sense of humour. Irony is what makes the world go around.