Tag Archive | 2015 Reading Challenge

Coraline- Neil Gaiman: 12/52 (Book a friend recommended )

In what twisted universe is this a ‘children’s book’?

Ok. Reading more about the book, it looks like the author started this off as a children’s book and then it turned out to be a children’s book for adults. And apparently, it scares the daylights out of only us adults, not children. And coming to think about it, all those Enid Blyton books where the toys in the nursery coming alive at midnight seemed so delightful at age seven, but the very concept does sound creepy now.

So. Coraline. The book that gives you disturbed sleep that’s filled with dreams of pale women coming at you with a needle and thread, trying to sew a button into your eye. Coraline is a strong, independent, inquisitive child. She doesn’t like it when people get her name wrong and she doesn’t like ‘recipes’. So on one bored rainy day, she explores her house and finds a door that opens into another world. A world where everything is the same, yet different. And different like you would never imagined.

In any situation, when you have two elderly spinsters living together, there is always a little room for crazy. The two ladies, the delightfully named Miss Forcible and Miss Spink who read Coraline’s tea leaves, give her a stone with a hole and later perform for dogs in the alternate universe, don’t disappoint you with the crazy. The mouse man, for some reason, I pictured as Mr.Heckles. But both him and talking cat I found to be a tad too predictable.

Towards the end, I felt sorry for the other mother though. All she wanted was a little girl of her own, one she could love, cook for and sew button eyes on. But I felt worse for the other father. Somehow, the father seemed to play the same role in both universes, a person just living life and going through the motions.

I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie, I liked they way I pictured things in my head while reading the book and I don’t want to spoil that. But I’ve finally discovered Neil Gaiman and the Ocean at the End of the Lane has come highly recommended as the next Gaiman that I should read. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet, but soon.

Growing up, I did live out my quota of Fantasy World. Like when I tried to stay up past midnight to see if the dolls come to life and such normal things. But this book reminded me of the creepiest thing I did as a kid. I beheaded a pretty little imported doll, a golden haired one named Bonnie that came with a tiny feeding bottle ( a gift from Mrs.Martin, a missionary, whom I remembered when reading about Miss Mitten in GOST) and buried the parts in a wooden chest while the road was being dug up and tarred. I don’t know why I did it, maybe I wanted the doll to go live in some alternate universe or maybe it was some repressed psycho killer tendencies that I was exhibiting. I should make that into a creepy little story like this someday.

PS: Thanks for the recco, The Visitor. I’m ticking this off my reading challenge now.

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Salvation of a Saint-Keigo Higashino: 9/52 ( Finished in a day)

The whole state is abuzz with Papanasam this week. Papanasam is a remake of Drishyam which was allegedly an unofficial lift of a book by a Japanese author. So to keep up with the theme of the season, I thought I’d read the book. But then I got confused about which book it was lifted from and started reading the wrong one. But this is a book that once started, will not allow the reader to put it down. So I felt that Devotion of Suspect X can wait and it was Salvation of a Saint Sunday for me.

Warning: Possible spoilers

Coffee. The real protagonist of the story is coffee. How did the arsenous acid get into the coffee? You know who put it in, you even know why she put it in. The mystery is how she did it. And whether she will get away with it. A wronged wife, a pregnant lover, detectives with ego issues, an eccentric scientist a dead man and a coffee cup. The formula for a thriller. There are no twists and turns here, just gentle curves that take you till the last few chapters where everything slowly falls into place. It did get a bit tedious with all those trips to the kitchen and repetitive analysis of the coffee, the water and the filters. A few kitchen trips could have been cut out of the narration. But then as the mystery unfolds, you realise why there was emphasis on some really mundane stuff throughout the book. Like the wall of mineral water bottles in the fridge and the flowers in the balcony.

I would have liked a little back story about why Kusanagi and Utsumi have ego issues. Also, the physicist seemed a bit boring. Though he was the one who finally solved the mystery, he was not a likeable character at all. To be honest, I found it a bit difficult to accept the final explanation. It did seem farfetched. I also felt that the connection between the two deaths was a bit anticlimactic. I would have loved it if Ayane was the one responsible for the other death too. But then,yes, that would have been cliched.

Going by all the other reviews, it looks like this book hasn’t lived up to the expectations created by the previous one. So it is a good thing that I read this first.

I won’t be reading The Devotion of Suspect X next. The taste of the movies may need to fade away first before I can actually enjoy the book.

Youth (Scenes from Provincial Life #2)- J.M. Coetzee : 8/52 ( Memoir)

A few years ago I went on a date with an aspiring writer. He was the stereotype. Tall, lanky, unshaven, badly dressed and smelling of stale cigarette smoke. He had that faraway look on his face while he spoke about the book he wanted to write. He then told me that he had just quit his job the previous day to focus on the book and was in no position to take what we had to more than just one date. I nodded. On the train back, I realized that if I had met him this way when I was 20,  I would have totally fallen for him. ‘Write me like one of your French girls’ I would have said to him. And he would have. And then dedicated the book to me. And thanked me in his Booker acceptance speech… I Google him once in a while to check whether he made it. He still hasn’t.

A few weeks ago another crush,again an aspiring writer who is going through the motions in a regular desk job, mentioned this book to me. ( Yeah. Looks I have a thing for aspiring writers. And not without good reason ) A book about a poet stuck in a dead end computer programming job at IBM and how he could totally relate to it. Though the crush itself didn’t last for more than a week, the book recommendation did.

A white confused South African who wants to escape his homeland,one he feels is not rightfully his, to become a poet in the land of the artists and writers. While he would love to go to France, he settles for England. And there, he is again forced to settle for less. He settles for a job that puts food on his table but eats away his creative soul. He settles for women who aren’t the muse he is desperately looking for. But that poet in him does not settle down. It flits from thought to thought, aimlessly drifting through the days and nights, summers and winters hoping that his dreams will somehow find him.

The prose is beautiful. It just moves from moment to moment, feeling to feeling in a rushed, haphazard way. It makes you feel helpless and while you keep hoping for something good to happen, you somehow know that nothing is going to happen.There are so many poets and authors referred to in the book, most of them whom I haven’t read or even heard of. Makes me want to try them, maybe I’ll start with Ezra Pound, our hero’s hero. While the political situation across the world in the early sixties isn’t the main backdrop, it is the undercurrent that drives the narration forward. I realized that  know so little about South Africa. There’s a touch of India too. Satyajit Ray makes an appearance and so does Indian curry. And it also appears that Indian computer programmers living abroad haven’t changed their habits over the decades.

‘”At 18 he might have been a poet. Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a 24year old computer programmer in a world where there are (yet) no 30 year old computer programmers. At 31 he is too old to be a programmer: one turns oneself into something else – some kind of businessman – or shoots oneself”

Words that hang heavy on me. Different contexts, same implication. Scary. Very scary.

Had this book not been labelled a ‘fictionalized memoir’, it would have made it to my dark and twisty shelves. But no. Our hero went on to win the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature. If Astrid or Caroline or Jacqueline Google him, they would know that he made it.

Go Ask Alice- Anonymous Beatrice Sparks : 6/52 ( High School)

There’s so much worse now that things have gotten better.

I’m not an American teenager nor am I a parent of one. And this is not the seventies. So I’m not moved by this. And there seems to be a lot of cynicism about the whole ‘true story’ part of it. I just picked it up to meet my ‘Book set in high school’ part of my 2015 reading challenge.

Anne Frank wrote a diary that made the whole world cry. Bridgette Jones wrote a diary that made 30 something women feel hopeful. This unnamed teenager wrote this diary that was supposed to shock the hell out of you and make the world stay away from drugs. I hope it did have some kind of effect back then and saved atleast a handful of teenagers from the addiction.

She’s just another fifteen year old schoolgirl with all the problems of a fifteen year old schoolgirl. An imagined weight problem, a crush who doesn’t reciprocate, nagging parents, irritating younger siblings. The works. And then one day at a party, someone slips her a drug laced drink. And the downward spiral begins. There’s drugs, sex, more drugs, rape, and more drugs. She runs away from home and lives the most disgusting life that a fifteen year old could ever live. But then she also starts a mildly successful business which sounded very filmy impossible. And then she reforms, gets pushed again, runs away again, does disgusting things again,  reforms again and is pushed again . And this time, she reaches breaking point. That part was disturbing, the one in the rehab center where she meets fellow teenage drug addicts.

Since it was supposed to be a ‘true story’ from an actual diary, it was written exactly how a fifteen year old high school dropout would write: Very badly.

The drug menace even today is real. And more dangerous. But I don’t think society is as ‘free’ as it was in the seventies when this book was written. So I’ll give it the benefit of the era, and let it go.

 

 

 

 

The Colour Purple- Alice Walker : 5/52 (Colour)

Such a feel good book.

Whaat? Yes. To me, it was a feel good book. Because, read it to know why.

Celie. Young, traumatized, lost, helpless Celie writes letters to god because she has no one else to write to. She tells god about how she got big after her Pa visited her at night. She tells god about the babies she gave birth to, the babies that disappeared, the baby she saw again with the pastor’s wife. About how she was made to marry Mister___ just to look after him and his horrid kids because her father refused to let her younger and prettier sister Nettie marry him. Through these letters,she tells god the story of her life. She doesn’t complain, she doesn’t ask him for anything. She just tells him.

Her closest relative is her sister Nettie who suddenly leaves her life, and then Shug enters. Shug, her husband Mister____’s mistress. Shug who had children with Mister_____.But again, Celie just takes it in as what was meant to be. She nurses Shug back to health and the two women form a bond that is so tender, so beautiful and oh so disturbingly twisted. All the relationships in the book are so strong and beautiful. Celie and Sophia, two women at the opposite ends of the spectrum. While Celie submits to fate, Sophia punches fate in the nose, be it her husband Harpo or his new girlfriend Squeak or the mayor’s wife. The women and men are so different, but so much the same. They love, they live, they laugh, they bond. And inspite of everything, they stay together as one big happy family. There are round houses, there are pink houses and there are pretty pants. Yes, it is a happy book because not once did I lose hope. There was always something that kept telling me that things will change for everyone, and it did. Maybe it was the way Celie looked at life with no expectations. Such and attitude shames god and he feels guilty and so, he gives.

I usually don’t highlight much, but in this book, I highlighted almost an entire chapter. The one where Shug and Celie talk about god. It was such a stimulating discussion and it gave me an answer that no one has been able to give me all these years. That is god to me.

The book moves to Africa and gives you a glimpse of life in an African village through the eyes of a black American woman. Something quite the opposite of Americanah. Much of that reminded me of Things Fall Apart. How the white man makes inroads into the continent in the name of civilizing the heathen natives, bringing progress and development and taking away the little bit of life that they have.

There’s graphic sex and violence, there’s deep racism, there’s capitalism, there’s chauvinism, there’s a wide gender divide. But it also overcomes. Everything.

I really don’t understand why this book was so controversial. Maybe those who outraged about it didn’t read it till the very end.

One Part Woman- Perumal Murugan : 4/52 (Translation)

tl;dr : Vyasa- Ambika-Ambalika.

What better way to make a book popular than to demand a ban on it. This isn’t a book that I would have picked up if it hadn’t been for the whole controversy around it. I’m not sure whether I got the sanitised version or the original ‘scandalous’ version of the book. I would have loved to read it in Tamil, but it would have taken me much longer to finish the book and my curiosity got the better of me. But the translation is quite good. And since those of us from Tamilnadu can relate to the overall setup, it worked for me. (Note to self: Stop picturing every book you read as a movie these days)

Kali and Ponnayi are a childless couple living in a society where the taunts, insults and innuendos are free flowing. Help and advice come in many forms to them, some well intentioned, some plain sadistic. Ponna is made to drink bitter infusions made with neem leaves that are handed to her by an ‘auspicious’ widow. (Isn’t neem a contraceptive?) She has men making not-so-subtle suggestions offering their services. She does a Fear Factor level walk on a dangerous rock near a temple to bribe the gods. She is deemed unfit for motherhood because she found the stink of a baby’s feces repulsive. Surprisingly, she isn’t the only one to be ‘blamed’ here. Though Kali is constantly under the pressure to take a second wife, he is also equally taunted for his ‘impotence’. He has everyone from cousins to random neighbours hoping to dip their fingers into his heirless property after his death. More than his love for Ponna, it is the fear of confirming this impotence that doesn’t allow him to marry again. Afterall, it was his ancestors who raped a tribal girl and incurred her curse. Yes. It is a difficult life being childless in such a society in that era. Any society in any era actually.

So what does one do when the gods want more than rooster blood and arrack? What does one do when the gods want more than a dangerous walk around their temple? What does one do when the gods want more than your prayers? You have to look beyond god. You have to look at man. Another man. Do it with him thinking of him as god. Kunti did that, Madri did that. Oh wait. That was vice versa. But anyway. Apparently, the results are guaranteed here. And this is what Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law finally suggest.

Does she do it? On the fourteenth day of the temple festival, that day when all married women above thirty get the sanction of the gods to lay with random strangers and bring forth ‘god’s children’ into the world. Does she do it? Does she manage to look beyond the face of her husband, look beyond her fears, look beyond society’s taunts and find a god to do it with?

Since I was waiting for the ‘controversial’ part, I did not take the time to savour the book as much I should have. The narration went back and forth a lot, sometimes confusing. Characters like the bachelor uncle Nallupayyan who gave the whole drama the much needed sane voice and Muthu, Ponna’s brother, who took Kali to the same temple festival years ago to ‘offer their services’ give you an insight into the hypocrisy of it all. Small but sharp references to the caste equations in that society add a dash of sting. During the build up to the climax, when Ponna sits in the cart looking at the Chakkli man’s baby with so much longing, I hoped that the story would take a more ‘scandalous’ twist. But I was disappointed.

A good book. Not a great book, and in my opinion it was not a shocking book.  But a good book, so read it. If not for anything else, atleast  for the sake of supporting freedom of expression. Because is a thing these days.

‘Whenever I pass a temple, I touch my throat and then touch my lips with my index and middle finger. That is how my two babies were born’ I just remembered someone tweeting that long ago.

And whenever a topic about childlessness comes up, I can’t help but remember We Need to Talk About Kevin. Unrelated to this book, but the thought just crossed my mind.

There are two sequels to this book. Would love to read them soon. Someone please translate.

 

 

 

The Feast of Roses- Indu Sundaresan : 3/52 ( A Trilogy)

And the soap continues…

Actually, this book ran in my head as a Rajnikanth movie. Rajni is Prince Khurram and Mehrunissa is the classic arrogant female antagonist who stands up against him. And in the end, Khurram wins the story and mouths a punch dialogue ‘Adhigama aasai padra pombalai nalla irundhadha sarithram illai’ and rides away into the sunset on a white horse, with Arjumand clinging onto him. But Mehrunissa has the last laugh anyway. Read the book to know why.

The romantic Mehrunissa from The Twentieth Wife becomes the power hungry Empress of Hindustan in this book. She has Jahangir under her thumb and is the Sonia to Jahangir’s MMS now. She rules the empire from behind the veil. I’m not sure if I should like such a woman though. I liked her competitiveness at first, the way she was determined to become an expert hunter after that failed hunting trip where she lost to Jagat Gosni in shooting a drugged lion ( ugh. *that* was how those people hunted? What bravery ) I even liked that junta she formed, clever woman. And the way she got her way with the Portugese and sided with the English too. But when she pimped her daughter out to marry Khurram, Khusrau and finally Sharyar, she crashed from that pedestal I had put her on. Woman, is power that important to you? Ok. Maybe such relationships were allowed in that era, but your daughter marrying your husband’s son , the one who is the husband of your own niece? Ewwww. I felt sorry for Ladli, such a gentle thing , resigned to her fate. Who in the end just wants her baby to be a girl so that it will not be involved in the ugly game to the throne. And when Mehrunissa expressed such resentment when the baby turned out to be a girl, a fresh wave of anger swept over me. I hated her a little more.

Two scenes in the book that were so big budget that I would love to see them on the big screen. The live chess scene with baby elephants where she checkmates a nervous Mahabat Khan had so much attitude. Whatte woman, I thought. And the Feast of Roses scene where she walks on a bed of rose petals and allows Jahangir to forgive her ( apologise). That reminded me so much of a certain politician who had the roads paved with flower petals when she visited the Nilgiris in 1993, bringing traffic to a halt. I saw the same ego, arrogance and god complex in Mehrunissa in that scene.

The book got a little draggy when the Portugese and English came in. It took away the beauty of the Mughal empire and became dry and political. (Would history have been different if Nur Jahan hadn’t supported the English like she did?) Same with the wars, I rushed through those parts. But it got back on track again with the unintended coup and the final chase to the throne. Survival of the fittest. Who would have thunk that the romantic Shah Jahan could execute his competitors in such cold blood. But hey, all’s fair in love and war.

I’ll give it a short break before I start the third book, The Shadow Princess. I don’t want to OD. But I’m ready for a Darlymple again now. Mughal history has me hooked.