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.

Continue reading “The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald”

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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”

The Fault in Our Stars

IMG_20180320_221535_EDIT_1I was watching The Fault in Our Stars and I was amazed how it felt like a new film.  Hearing the news of the Bollywood remake has sent me scurrying to the book. I don’t want to imagine the lead actors to see Augustus and Hazel in my mind’s eye. I wish I had never seen the pictures! How are they going to keep the humour and wryness intact in the film is what bafffles me. One can only hope they don’t massacre it. When I watched it I did not know this was on the cards and had John Green not tweeted the news I would have shrugged it off as a rumour.

How did I miss the cameo of author John Green when I saw it on the big screen is equally astounding.  Of course I remember the key points and see some differences (inevitable comparisons to the book) but four years later (it released in July 2014) I can somehow just enjoy what’s unfolding on screen and be at peace with it while racking my brain to remember the exact date I saw it first. (Thank you Gmail for keeping a log of my memories, of tickets booked and the exact expenses.)

Instead of watching a recently released film (there are so many I want to watch) I stuck to an old favourite. Not exactly true, I know, if you have seen a film once but sometimes once is enough to know that you will be returning to it. I know the terrain for a film I have seen before and the comfort factor is of paramount importance when in pain. I know that pain demands to be felt but sometimes distractions help you survive so you may lose a few battles but win the war.

Like there’s comfort food, there’s comfort viewing because with something that is familiar I won’t be in for any nasty surprises and that’s all one needs to get through the day sometimes. For all the unpredictability packed into the day, you need something to hold on to. And it is a bonus when so much time has passed that the film is almost new. The Fault in Our Stars was like a breath of fresh air (pun intended) and I am looking forward to reading the book again. Okay? Okay.

Have you read The Fault in Our Stars or seen the film?

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

“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

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Girl with a Pearl Earring was an intereseting read considering the fact that I had seen the film 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.

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.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Girl with a Pearl Earring”

Fitoor

As the movie began there was a wide smile on my face watching young Noor and Firdaus. The stirrings of first love. The awkwardness and the unexpected pleasures that lie ahead. Young love is so beautiful, the possibilities are endless but when it doesn’t work out which is inevitable because it is not made to weather the storms of the world, you get your heartbroken. It is a rite of passage. You feel as if you will never be whole again and your pain is unprecedented in the history of mankind. (Guess what it’s not and this one is practice for getting your heartbroken many times during the course of your life.) A door to a new world is opened and the universe is forever altered.

Mohammed Abrar as the young Noor is terrific as the vulnerable, shy boy who desperately wants to belong, and be a part of Firdaus’s world. Earnest and likable, I would have liked to see more of him. Watch out for the hole in the shoe moment; it is tender and heartbreaking.

The innocence is carried forth into adulthood by Aditya Roy Kapur splendidly. My eyes stay on Noor even when he isn’t shirtless. Katrina as Firdaus looks chic but not that big a departure from her conventional avatars. She looked better in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, if you ask me. Tabu is matchless as the Begum who plays Firdaus’s mother. No husband in sight, it’s just her and her daughter. It is her machinations which drive the plot forward, and it is her story which sets the tone for the characters.

He is thrust into the world of art after an anonymous benefactor recommends Noor’s name (it is not who you think it is) to an art residency in Delhi, a world far removed from his own. Here the adult Firadaus makes her first appearance in his life.

Unsure about his place in the world, making art is the only thing that makes sense to him. He doesn’t know why he loves Firdaus. He just does. This gravity defying love he feels for Firdaus I don’t understand (must read Great Expectations!) but I suppose that’s what great love stories are about.

His lack of sure-footedness is portrayed convincingly. A lost soul, a dreamy artist but chillingly aware of the harsh realities of life. He doesn’t quite fit into the unforgiving materialistic world he is a part of.

The scenes where he’s making art shine. He is perfectly believable as a tortured artist. It is not exactly a case of the artist and the muse but a case of unrequited infatuation. quite possibly love finding a vessel in his art and hence her serving as a muse first indirectly then directly. Watch the movie it will make sense to you.

Firdaus is a terrible beauty who feels but knows that she is not allowed to feel. Noor emotes with his eyes and carries his pain in his persona.

More than the lead characters the movie belongs to Tabu which is a shame because it was marketed as a love story. Slowly fading away in sadness and illness, the elaborate costumes make her look deranged. Never seen a character like this in Hindi cinema (or maybe I haven’t watched that many movies). Continue reading “Fitoor”