Friday, March 24, 2017

Stranger than fiction

Books are my primary indulgence followed closely by coffee and chocolate. I believe that reading expands our consciousness and if only more people read, there may be greater empathy and tolerance amongst the people. Although we are entitled to form an opinion  thus inclined to take a stand , we must read with an open mind when we read. Every reader  reads  about stuff that interest him or her . Every reader has his or her own preferences.

find that words persuade, dissuade, describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our truths and the ordinary events that shape our lives. Poignant writings touch our hearts, humour tickle and make us see the lighter side of life while thought provoking passages find its way to stir our conscience. Without words, we are mere beings. click

Some people prefer non-fictions to fictions for the former is intended to be informative and educational. I read fictions and non-fictions but I tend to read far more  fictions than non-fictions as I can get through fictions more quickly than  non-fictions that require more time and concentration. I take to fictions more simply because I  binge on books. I need to feast on words and in reading fictions, I gain a better understanding about humanity. What draws me to a particular fiction is its narratives, the voice,  the words chosen and how the sentences are structured
Hilary Mantel’s prose never fails.  Here is  the opening paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. It had me hooked right away.
     September 1984
       IN FLIGHT
‘ Would you like champagne?”
        This was the beginning ; an hour or so out from Heathrow. Already it felt further;watches moved on, a day in a life condensed to a scramble at a check-in desk, a walk to a departure gate; a day cut short and eclipsed, hurtling on into advancing night. And now the steward leaned over her, putting this question.
      ‘ I don’t think so.’ They had already eaten; dinner, she supposed. So much smoked salmon is consumed on aircraft that it is a wonder there is any left to eat at ground level. The steward had just now whisked her tray from under her nose.’You could give me some brandy,’ she said.

Eight months on Ghazzah Street written by Hilary Mantel is a story about an English couple who has to relocate to Jeddah when the husband is offered a job after his contract in Botwana has ended. They are doubling his salary and offering free housing, a car allowance, paid utilities, yearly leave ticket, school fees. The only reservation is how the wife will settle in as she is a working woman and she won’t be able to work when they are there. Here is the exchange between Andrew Shore and his wife, Frances.
Well, if you ‘re going to earn all that money, I’m sure I can occupy myself. After all, it’s not for ever, is it?’
‘No, it’s not for ever. We should think of it as a chance for us, to build up more security-’
‘ Will you pass me those salad bowls?’
Andrew was silent. He passed them, one by one. Why, really, should she share his vision of their future? She had come to Africa at her own behest, a single woman, one of the few recruited for her line of work.

Frances Shores is lost within Jeddah’s ever developing streets. The regime is corrupt and harsh, the cynical expatriates are money-grabbing and they tend to have the habit of  laughing  at everything as if it is the safest way of expressing dissent. She hears whispers from the “empty’ apartment above her. You can feel her sense of creeping unease. She has met her neighbours, one Pakistani couple with a small child and a young Saudi couple, also with a baby. Frances feels frustrated as her only source of information is from her husband, Andrew. During her stay, she finds her warily curious Muslim neighbours remain mysterious. Frances ‘is the sort of person who rings dates on calendars, and does not trust to memory; who, when she writes a cheque, does a subtraction and writes a balance on the cheque stub. She knows where all their possessions are, everything that belongs to her and everything that belongs to him; she remembers people’s birthdays, and retains telephone numbers in her head. She likes to make sense of the world by making lists, and writing things down.      She keeps a diary.
          FRANCES SHORE’S DIARY : 14 Muharram
At last the doorway has been unblocked, and I feel that I am going to end this rather peculiar isolation in which I have been living. When I began this diary I described my first morning in the flat as if it were going to be exceptional. When Andrew locked me in , I thought it doesn’t matter, because  I won’t be going out today. As if not going out would be unusual. I didn’t know that on that first day, I was settling into a pattern, a routine, drifting around the flat alone, may be reading for a bit, doing this and that, and daydreaming. I can see now that it will need a great effort not ot let my whole life fall into this pattern.
Andrew thinks that perhaps after all we should have gone to live on a compound, where, he says, it is all bustle and sociability, and the wives run and out of each other’s houses the whole time. I’m not sure if I’d like that. I still think of myself as a working woman. I am not used to coffee mornings. I think of myself in my office at Local Government and Lands. I was run off my feet, or at least I like to think so. Being here is a sort of convalescence. Or some form of sheltered accommodation. You think that after a dose of the English summer, after the hassle of getting out here, you will need a recovery period. You need peace and quiet. Then suddenly, you don’t need it any more. Oh, but you have got it . It is like being under house arrest. Or a banned person.

Eight months on Ghazzah Street is chilling and reads like a thriller  but it ends in suspense. Perhaps that is the way things are as we will never find out what has happened or know what is actually happening. In the present era of media frenzy, we have to decipher the information that is available and decide for ourselves what to believe and what not to.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

En Famille

Imagine a gatecrasher comes to your party uninvited and he ends up 'stealing' your wife. Stealing is clearly not the right word as you cannot steal a person. As it so happens, the uninvited guest steals a moment with the hostess and the demographic of two different families have to be reconfigured.

Commonwealth  written by Ann Patchett is about children growing up in a blended family.

The book opens in 1960s Los Angeles.

Fix Keating does not know who Bert Cousins is when he shows up at his younger daughter’s christening party. Fix is a local cop while Bert is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Although they barely know each other, Cousins goes to the christening party to escape from  howling kids and his pregnant wife , Teresa. He arrives with gin at the christening party and ends up kissing Beverly Keating when he is totally drunk on gin and orange juice. They divorce their spouses and move from California to Virginia. Consequently the six kids from their previous marriages end up shuttling from coast to coast every summer. As we follow the Keating and Cousins children, their stories come into focus.  Bert has Cal , Holly, Jeanette and Albie while Fix has Caroline and Franny.
Coffee in a wine glass

In her 20s, Franny Keating has an affair with Leo Posen, a famous writer who ends up writing a best seller based on Franny’s stories about growing up with her siblings.

The story spans five decades and it is like a jigsaw puzzle, the readers get to piece together the story from fragmented memories of the Keating girls and the Cousins children.

But Caroline and Franny were not glad they were home. They were not glad at all. It was in this battered state that the Keating girls returned to Arlington to be reunited with their step siblings.

Holly was certainly friendly. She hopped up and down and actually clapped her hands when the girls came through the door. She said she wanted to put on another dance recital in the living room this summer. But Holly was also wearing Caroline’s red T-shirt with the tiny white ribbon rosette at the neck, which her mother had made Caroline put in the Goodwill bag before she left because it was both faded and too small. Holly was not the Goodwill.'

 Ann Patchett  tells the story in a  succinct style with vivid description for each scene and the story flows in a nonchalant and existentialist manner. 

ALMOST TWO WEEKS  after Franny had so miraculously deduced that Leo Posen’s room number was 821, and had gotten him to that room and gotten herself out of the hotel without anyone’s being the wiser, she got a phone call at the bar. Ten minutes past six and every table was full, every barstool taken .People stacked up behind the people in the chairs , drinks in hand , laughing and talking too loudly while hoping that a seat would open up. One of the other waitresses, the girl named Kelly who had the ex-husband and the child , put her hand on the small of Franny’s back and nearly touched her lipsticked lips to Franny’s ear while whispering to her . Everything these people did was intimate, even the delivery of messages. “ Phone call,” she said, her voice slipping beneath the din.

Though it is an ordinary tale about ordinary people, Ann Patchett  click is good in painting characters and in her subtlety , it shows that nobody is completely bad and the characters evolve as they age.  Through the female characters, she aptly conveys  how a woman’s hopes about life have been slowly dashed in middle-age. She is insightful and humorous in her eloquent narrative.

Often there may be bitter rivalry between siblings, they do share a common past where they each remember things differently. If they could just grow out of the sibling rivalry and let go of  the memories of the past that hurt them  , they might find a deep bond in their shared past.

I first read Ann Patchett's memoir " This is the story of a Happy Marriage". She writes with such ease in capturing small moments in life just like how she tells the story in Commonwealth.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Lovers

Daunt Books
My daughters and I participated in the London Bookshop Crawl on a Saturday in the month of February this year.
When we came to know about the event, we placed our orders electronically  and  had  the  tickets downloaded and printed before our trip to London. I was certainly looking forward to hitting some bookstores while we were in London and the Bookshop Crawl happened to take place on my birthday. Hooray!
That Saturday morning, my girls slept in while I took my time to get ready. I was rather indecisive about which outfit to wear and whether to put on a dress. Whenever I am being fickle minded, I know I should simply settle on whatever I put on next without further ado. Later that evening I felt that I could have paid a bit more attention to some details for those picture moments. The cold weather looked to be warmer ( 4-12 degrees celsius ) and the prospects of a day spending at bookstores made it a brighter day indeed.

We started with London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury amongst some fifty participating bookshops.When I was at the London Review Bookshop around 11.30 a.m. , I met a young woman who was already onto her third bookshop. If we were taking part in the Amazing Race, we would have been eliminated.

The range of books available at the London Review Bookshop (LRB)was simply amazing. After spending sometime browsing around, both my girls picked up a non-fiction each while I picked up a book of fiction. Being a  bibliophile, I had to remind myself to be prudent. The cakes at  the London Review Bookshop Cafe were irresistible and we had to treat ourselves to some. They were delicious!! Our next stop was  Foyles  where  we acquired  a few more books. For both bookshops, as participants of the Bookshop Crawl, we were accorded some privileges, namely 10% discount  at LRB and 15% off the listed price at Foyles plus a gift bag in the case of the London Review Bookshop. After a late lunch,  we went to Daunt Books in Marylebone where they organise all of their books by country. My girls and I wandered around separately. As I browsed around the wonderful array of books, I heard my girls' exclaiming in unison when they discovered that they had both picked up the same book, Wish Lanterns Young Lives in China by Alec Ash.  I picked up a copy of  The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and moved on to look under the country, France where I settled on a couple of fictions  by Patrick Modiano and also Toujours Provence by Peter Mayles. An hour  later, we gathered our find and headed  to the check-out counter.When I produced the electronic ticket  for the Bookshop Crawl, we received a free copy of The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford and published by Daunt Books. Splendid. Seeing that we still had an hour or so before our dinner , I suggested grabbing a coffee from Monmouth coffee shop , one of  my favourite things to do in London. Outside the Monmouth cafe, I joined the many customers in need of  a caffeine fix.The queue moved steadily and I managed to pick up a black coffee fifteen minutes later. We then agonized  if we should take a bus that would stop right in front of the restaurant and as we headed towards the bus stop, I told my girls to retract  our steps and head back to Leicester Square  to catch a tube to London Bridge. That was probably the umpteenth time that I was being indecisive on that day.

Happiness is holding a cup of steamy hot black coffee and sipping it as one braves the cold. Even though my boots were killing me after all that walking up and down the roads and in and out of the tube stations, coffee and  books in the bag definitely kept my spirit up. 

Neal's Yard, London
Invisible Ink written by Pippa Kelly click is  amongst my acquisitions from the Bookshop Crawl.  I was drawn to it partly because the protagonist is a lawyer. Though I have my reservations about becoming a lawyer given another life, I have a tendency to read fictions involving a lawyer and also  fictions and  non-fictions written by a lawyer. 

Max Rivers has it all – burgeoning career , a beautiful partner , an exclusive address in London. But life is not perfect as he harbours a long buried secret from his childhood. He has to take care of his elderly mother and feels  overwhelmed by the declining health of  his aging mother and the onset of her  dementia. He  is very much weighed down by the guilt he feels over the disappearance of his younger brother, Peter when they were both children. Maxi’s dad walked out on the family when Peter was still a baby and Maxi was  five years old. 

The story unfolds through two narratives. Maxi as a child is  narrated in the first person’s voice where as for Maxi's adult life, the narration is in third person’s voice .  Here is a flashback as Maxi waits for the ambulance to arrive.
As he sat on the cracked, worn lino his legs grew stiff under her weight and, shifting slightly, careful not to disturb her now that she’d finally drifted off, he leant back against the table leg and shut his eyes. The house seemed to wrap itself around him. The  smells ,the  creaks, the very texture of the air, all seemed to be pulling him back, reclaiming him, and an image, a scene as clear as crystal , came into his mind.   
  The three of them are standing in the kitchen. Mum’s trying to brush Peter’s hair. It’s all mussed up from where he’s been playing in the sandpit. She’s pushing his thick fringe out of his eyes but he’s squirming away.
   “ Stand still !”
   Peter’s arm shoots out and shoves her in the tummy.  Max knows that she’d kill him if he did that . Kill him! But instead all she does is scowl and pull Peter closer. Max watches out of the corner of his eye as he kneels to pack his satchel. The sight of the dog-eared covers of his books soothes him. Nothing – nothing – can get to him today because it’s the last day of term. His very last day at St Joseph’s. In September he’s off to the Grammar on the other side of town. Where the big boys go – the clever ones that is .
           Mum’s yanked Peter back so she can finish fiddling with his hair. “You’re not to go up on the fields love because the grass will set off your coughing and we don’t want that. “ He chews on his bottom lip and doesn’t answer. Max knows that Peter will disobey Mum and like always he’ll get the blame. As if she’s reading his mind, Mum says, “You ‘ll make sure that he doesn’t go up there won’t you  Maxi?” He stands up and flings his satchel over his shoulder. “ Maxi?” She’s let go of Peter and is staring at Max, her eyebrows dipping into a V as she frowns.
     “ Yes ,yes .”
“Because he’s not been well Maxi.
Doesn’t he know it? Peter’s kept him awake with his coughing.
    “ Maxi !” She repeats loudly.
   “ Okay Mum. I get the message.” 

The story is about a missing child and  sibling rivalry. It is about how jealous Maxi had felt as a ten year old  when his mother constantly fussed about his brother, Peter who was five years younger than him. In  trying  to suppress and conceal his past from his partner Eleanor, Max Rivers puts his new role as a parent at risk.

The past is an integral part of us and it cannot be reversed nor forgotten. While we cannot re-write the past,  we need the strength and grace to accept that the past cannot be changed but to  move on.

Pippa Kelly's novel explores the complex emotions about loss, guilt and caring for an aging parent. The prose is well written and as the author cleverly mixes the narratives and in describing  the conflicts that are within Max, the reader is  offered images of how Maxi and his younger brother Peter used to play together on the trapeze and climbing into their hiding places. A commendable debut.