Sunday, November 25, 2018

Une Femme Fatale

In this era of social media and advanced phone technology, it is easy to stay in touch with friends through emails, texting and messengers. Electronic communications make it less demanding on friends and acquaintances to remain in contact but there are clearly limitations.Virtual communications are useful in situations when one wants to avoid face-to-face conversations or when one prefers to maintain a distance so as to keep some degree of solitude and space.

I often feel that friends could be more discerning and selective when sending on messages or circulating information as I find most of these news and videos distressing and rather doubtful  neither inspiring nor useful. These are the people who are keeping me grounded, thus as much as I very much like to exit from the group, I remain in the loop and continue to be fed with pictures and video clips most of which I discard without downloading them largely due to time constraint and when I do click on them, I delete them due to certain elements of repugnance. They serve as a reminder that  I have to be tolerant of each other’s idiosyncrasies as all of us on this earth are so different, each to their own and yet we are not that different in that we are all in need of finding a connection somewhere somehow on this planet.
The Robber Bride is wickedly brilliant.  Margaret Atwood is a prolific writer and you get drawn into the characters even though you know they are fictional. The story is set in  Toronto between 1945 and 1990 . It is  about three women who  share  a common nemesis, Zenia  Arden who used to attend the same university as them and with whom they each share a past friendship. The story begins and ends with Tony and her attempts to reconstruct Zenia, a  femme fatale. Tony, Roz and Charis (formerly Karen) are meeting in the restaurant Toxique for lunch and they have been doing that even since Zenia’s death.  Five years on, during one such lunch outing,  the impossible happens, Zenia appears. Their friend is not dead. It is as if these three women have not been able to let her go despite having attended her funeral that was conducted by her lawyer.

They are all strong and capable women characters : Tony, a historian who was born left-handed but  forced to write using her right and she  can reverse her words and has a keen academic interest about wars and battles. Roz is a successful business woman who is a mother of three, a son and a pair of twins. Charis is into new age  practice and she is mystical and airy. She is damaged as a child and has to bury her angry and bitter self in another life where her name was Karen.

From the narrations, we know the childhoods, relationships  and  point of view of Tony , Roz and Charis while Zenia remains in the shadow of their lives.  Zenia remains elusive and fascinating in a fiendish way as she is a pathological liar and the stories that she tells are far out yet to those she has told they come across as credible. Margaret Atwood writes: 
After Zenia turned up at the Toxique that day, Charis spent about a week wondering what she should do.Or rather she knew what she should do, but she didn’t know how to go about doing it. Also she needed to fortify herself spiritually, because an encounter with Zenia would be no casual thing.

For the historian, Tony, ‘the story  of Zenia is insubstantial, ownerless, a rumour only, drifting from mouth to mouth, and changing as it goes. As with any magician, you saw what she wanted you to see; or else you saw what you yourself wanted to see. She did it with mirrors. The mirror was whoever was watching, but there was nothing behind the two-dimensional image but a thin layer of mercury.

The men characters in the story are pathetic and philanderers. It is cruel that Zenia attacks Roz’s failing marriage and her failing feminist magazine yet indeed there is some wisdom in Zenia’s statements. The irony is when Roz needs some advice about her family life, she turns to her gay personal assistant  managing her business affairs . 
The author writes beautifully. 
Every ending is arbitrary, because the end is where you write The end. A period, a dot of punctuation, a point of stasis. A pin-prick in the paper: you could put your eye to it and see through , to the other side, to the beginning of something else. Or, as Tony says to her students, Time is not a solid, like wood, but a fluid, like water or the wind. It doesn’t come neatly cut into even-sized lengths, into decades and centuries. Nevertheless, for our purposes we have to pretend it does. The end of any history is a lie in which we all agree to conspire. ‘

The Robber Bride  may come across a little cliché  if not for the author’s wit, writings and acute observations.  Margaret Atwood is skilful in her plot, structure and portrayal of central characters. It is such a pleasure reading Margaret Atwood’s fictions and how she cleverly  plays with irony. The Robber Bride is a book that I would like to re-read but will not be able to do so at the moment since there are far too many books that I need to devour before the end the year. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

If we could stop time

Amidst too many good reads, what to read next can be a tough decision, even when  I embark on several books at any given time. Sometimes such contemporaneous reading can slow me down particularly when  I have to contend with work and numerous distractions like errands, emails, WhatsApp messages. There are evenings when I feel torn as to how I could be more efficient and effective in doing what I really want to do. As I age, I feel the urgency rising looking at the books that I have not read and want to read and the stories that I want to write. I was thinking about what happens if people know when they will exit from life and then  I came across The Immortalists written by Chloe Benjamin when I was browsing around a bookstore during one of my work trips out of town recently.

It is 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, four Gold children, Varya aged 13, Daniel, aged 11, Klara, aged 9  and Simon, aged 7 visit a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. After they each know their sell-by date, the Golds become consumed by what they have been told and the big question: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life.

The stories of the four siblings are told in four different parts, starting with Simon who runs away from home and is determined to live the life that  he wants after being told that he will die at 21 years old. Both Simon and Klara leave home at a young age. Simon has dyslexia and has never been a good student. As a child, he loves to visit his father’s tailor and dressmaking shop but as a teenager, the women’s clothing bore him and the wools make him itch. When his dad dies, he is the one who will be groomed to succeed his father’s business since his older brother plans to be a doctor. He is close to Klara who later becomes a magician and is inclined to tempt fate as she performs the Jaws of Life,  the act of dangling from high ceilings with the bit of rope between her teeth. 

The author, Benjamin gives a detailed description of  Klara's act. 
'There is no gap between failure and success - the timing is perfect or it is disastrous -- and her pulse trills as she lashes the ascension rope to the batten from a ladder, as she wraps it thrice with sash cord and puts a safety break on the reverse rope. On stage, she measures seventy-five inches up from the floor; her own five feet six inches, plus seven for her fee when pointed, and a two -inch clearance to the ground.'

Klara, too, has an early date with death. Klara knows that Simon is gay so they both head to San Francisco where Simon is comfortable and it is there he discovers that he can dance well.  They become estranged from their widowed mother and their older siblings who are attending college.  Daniel becomes a military doctor certifying who can go to war while the bookish and OCD Klara plunges into research about prolonging life. According to the psychic, Klara lives till the ripe old age of late eighties while Daniel lives past middle age. Daniel is guilt-ridden by Simon and Klara’s early exits as he has been the one who has told them about the psychic. The knowledge about when they die seems to have compelled the Gold children to make certain life choices. It appears that the youngest two siblings have been living capriciously and consequently driven themselves to their early deaths leaving the older siblings wondering if their destinies could have been different. When their lives end early, it is as if they have lived to fulfil the prophecy made by the psychic. Years later, when their widowed mother, Gertie find out from Varya that her children have been to the psychic and believed in the prophecies, she is indignant.

“ How could you believe that junk?” she asks, quietly.
Varya opens her mouth. Gertie puts the yogurt container beside the spoon and folds her hands in her lap, looking at Varya with owlish indignation.
  “ We were kids,” says Varya. “ She frightened us. And anyway, my point is that it isn’t ----”
“ Junk!” says Gertie, decisive now, leaning back in her chair. “So you went to see a Gypsy. No one’s stupid enough to believe them.”
 “ You believe in that kind of junk. You spit when a funeral goes by. After dad died, you wanted to that thing with the chicken, swinging a live one around in the air while reciting  ----”
“ That’s a religious ritual.”
“ And the funeral spitting?’
What about it ?”
“What’s your excuse?”
“Ignorance. What’s yours? You don’t have one,” she says when Varya pauses. “ After everything I gave you: education, opportunity ---- modernity! How could you turn out like me?

It is then Varya sees that what Gertie has given her children: the freedom of uncertainty. The freedom of an unsure fate, her dad Saul would have agreed. 

Benjamin writes,
As the only child of immigrants, her father had few options. To look forward or back must have felt ungrateful, like testing fate --the free present a vision that might vanish he took his eyes away from it. But Varya and her siblings had choices, and the luxury of self-examination. They wanted to measure time, to plot and control it.  In their pursuit of the future, though they only drew closer to the fortune teller’s prophecies.

The Immortalists is a heartwarming as well as a sad story about a Jewish family in New York. The novel explores the line between destiny and choice.

Friday, October 26, 2018


A scrawny puppy walked into our garden, looking abandoned and famished. When it pleaded to stay with those doleful eyes, we let it remain. The puppy has since stayed on and we have named our invitee Holly as it reminds us of the character, Holly Golightly, a runaway in Breakfast at Tiffany's,  one of my favourite books and film. While Holly could well fit into the dog kennel that was built for our previous dog,  Angel, a cocker spaniel nicknamed Pebbles, Holly refused to be confined to the dog house, it much preferred to wander around our garden. 

My elder daughter said,“I think I like pebbles more but Holly must not know it.”
Holly gets her walk every day and it refuses to be ignored. Pebbles was relatively quite deprived of attention as the children were busy growing up;  just as I was thinking that it was getting on with age and felt the rise of guilt for not paying enough attention to it, Pebbles fell ill and it died shortly after. We had not intended to get another dog and Holly showed up. It has been more than two and a half years since she walked into our garden and has become part of the family. 

French Exit written by Patrick deWitt tells the story of a sixty-five-year-old socialite, Frances Price and her thirty-two year old son Malcolm. Frances was born with privileges and  married to Franklin Price, a brutish lawyer who defended the indefensible. Franklin  was formidable ‘ among the highest paid lawyer in the United States, and his every extracurricular investment was seemingly predetermined to turn a profit. Sensible, professional men and women spoke with sober seriousness of Franklin Price as one imbued with dark energies’ and up-and-comers discreetly kowtow to him. ‘His death came unexpectedly’ and the’ coroner who performed the autopsy said he’d never seen so powerful a heart attack in his long years at practice’. When Frances found him dead in bed , she went skiing rather than calling an ambulance or the authorities and the tabloids ran a photo of Frances at an après-ski party that was taken five years before that. 

Malcolm asks Frances if she ever loved his dad,  she neatly sums up their life together in a dozen words: “ I did, then I didn’t, then I did, then I really didn’t.”  In her youth she had been renowned for her beauty and style, and these attributes are still in evidence. When her inheritance runs out, Frances liquidates all that she has and  head for the exit . When Joan, her good friend from school offers her a vacant Paris apartment, she goes  to France by cruise liner with her son and a bag stuffed with all her last €170,000 and an aging cat named Small Frank, who apparently houses her husband’s spirit. During their voyage, on the ship, they meet  a medium whom they meet again in Paris.  Apart from the protagonists, all the characters whom they meet are oddballs that include a private detective, one Mme Reynard, a lonesome American dame desperate for France’s friendship. Frances’s plan is to die before the money runs out.

Malcolm is engaged to Susan who finds it painful to maintain the relationship with him due to Frances’s disapproval and her possessiveness.Susan has fallen in love with Malcolm thus .‘It was like an illness coming on; it loitered at the edges of her consciousness, then pounced, gripping her mind and heart.’ 

Patrick deWitt’s writing is sharp and straightforward. His narration is peppered with wicked urbane aphorism such as ‘ Hatred was a fillip and she was glad in her preparations.’  Frances had come to think of gift-giving as a polite form of witchcraft

The story is dark, a madcap comedy filled with  quirky characters and clever and funny dialogues. French Exit is a page-turner and as the protagonist is bent on executing her plans, I find the  ending of the novel rather disturbing.