Nearer to vital truth

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history ~ Plato

Since the beginning of this year we have been pleasantly surprised at the manner in which poetry readings have lifted world events to a new level. Perhaps because of the pandemic people are more willing to slow down and look at different ways of expressing. As a result there is a lot of appreciation of poems heard in the public space.

The most enduring visual image of last week was Queen Elizabeth II sitting all alone in accordance with Covid 19 restrictions at her husband’s funeral service. The news media may have talked ad nauseam about which member of her family are talking or not talking to each other and what they would be wearing and enough has been said about Prince Phillip himself as a royal consort, as a navy man, a promoter of charities and the tireless work done by him. But for us the real truth and emotional context was created by the elegy written by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage. We have always admired his poetry and readings but The Patriarchs: An Elegy really brought home to us how poetry written with the right sentiments can connect people across the world. Mr. Armitage very astutely wrote the poem about a generation rather than just one person since, as he said, he did not know Prince Philip personally. As a result he manages to strike a chord with whoever reads or hears his reading of the elegy. The sombre tone of his reading and the serious content has an underlying note of cheekiness which comes from fondness and affection. Anyone with older parents or grandparents will surely connect when he describes the hands of the patriarchs at rest which look like maps with “hachured valleys and indigo streams“.

Earlier in the year, after the hotly contested and denied results of the US elections, the standout image of the Biden inauguration, overshadowing everything else, was the 23 year old Amanda Gorman reading her poem The Hill We Climb. Those of us who have not gone through the fractious US politics of the last few years or their history of the last 200 years could still understand and appreciate the sentiments expressed. Because that is what poetry does, it brings to the fore human nature and human sentiments in an emotional context rather than in the dry facts, figures and dates that history deals with. As such, it really is nearer to the vital truth.

The price of a wish

“Be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark” (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue)

This quote pretty much encapsulates the story of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. In early 18th Century rural France, a young girl, desperate to get out of a marriage which would trap her and tie her down, makes a wish after dark and is granted that wish. The wish was to be free, to not belong to anyone else, to live on her terms and to have time to live like that in exchange for her soul when she is tired of living.

Addie soon finds out the hidden cost that no one would ever, ever remember her. She lives the next 300 years, moving from Europe to the US not being able to form any relationships or attachments since people promptly forgot her once their back was turned. This existence continues until Addie meets Henry in a bookshop in modern day New York. He seems to have no trouble remembering her. As a concept this story sounded fascinating to us and V.E. Schwab’s writing as always is amazing. The book is about loneliness and loss and desperately wanting connections. As such it could be pretty representative of how a lot of people feel at some point or the other in their lives. But there is a but – it is very difficult to identify with Addie for some reason or anyone else in the book for that matter. We just couldn’t find ourselves invested in the characters.

Perhaps because it is a stand alone book and there wasn’t enough time for character development that the reader never feels in sync with Addie’s attitude towards her situation. Plus the jumping back and forth in time takes away from any arc that could have been built up. Otherwise, surely a character like Addie’s should have aroused considerable sympathy as well as admiration from the reader but unfortunately it failed to. There was also that strange mutual Stockholm syndrome between Addie and Luc, the god/demon, throughout the book which keeps muddling up the emotional content of the story.

A book like this also reminds one that in most western fantasy novels the old gods are often portrayed as mischievous and unreliable, having their own agenda which is not necessarily for the good of their flock. A little too much conditioning perhaps that paganism is not good?

Worth reading for the basic storyline, V.E. Schwab’s writing and the last few chapters when the characters show greater depth

Baking

For those who got excited with the title of the blog post, sorry to disappoint but this is not a food blog. The food part did happen last year with people baking non stop in order to keep themselves going during the lockdowns. But that is all. Weather wise this time last year was fine, in fact it was great. The air was clear, no vehicular pollution, no sound pollution and the birds were audible. But being locked up with the entire family baked people’s brains and sent them reeling. This year we are back to being baked by the climate, resulting in brains being baked in a different way. Summer started for us in mid February. Some places even recorded 44 degrees in Feb itself ( we commiserate Bhuvaneshwar).

All the usual signs of summer are around but somehow it all feels excessive this year. The gentler and slower days of last year have spoilt us totally. It is almost as if the weather has to make up for last year’s clemency. The gulmohar trees have started blooming but the red which looks great any other year is a little too blazing this year. The jasmine is as lovely as ever to look at but the fragrance is a little too overpowering; the bougainvillea is excessively showing off, as are the hibiscus. The honge trees (Indian beech) any other year are lovely with their little lilac/pink flowers shedding all over the streets but this year even their subtle fragrance is getting on our nerves. It all feels too much in the face and nary a drop of rain. Not even on the 1st of April when it always rains in the city. Refrigerators are filled with varieties of watermelon and the freezers with ice cream. Dogs are lying about with their tongues hanging out and grumbling if you try to give them a hug.

And to cap it all, Covid is still here! And how. What happened to all those declarations that it can’t survive the Indian summer? Looks like it thrives in extreme temperatures. Instead it’s the humans who are struggling to survive the summer. There are months to go yet and we are thinking of shutting down. Might as well, since the state government is not going to lockdown and is behaving as if the pandemic is not happening. The worst part is that the reading has stopped once more and the dire situation with the daily numbers is cooking our minds so much that we are just not able to concentrate. If anyone has any suggestions about light hearted books ideal for baking hot, covidified days, capable of distracting frazzled minds, please do let us know.

Gullible or narcissist?

The Indian perspective on the biggest news of last week – the Meghan, Harry, Oprah interview- is pretty much one of mystified bemusement. People here are scratching their heads and wondering what the deal was about? It’s all so familiar that it just sounds like what any bride faces in joint family homes. All Meghan’s revelations which scandalized Oprah and most of the US populace just sound like a checklist of what newly married girls usually encounter.

In laws being overbearing and hideous – check.

Feeling trapped and not allowed to step out without ‘permission’ – check,

Being made to cry almost daily- check

Feeling like killing oneself at times – check

Feeling like killing those around you ( this one Meghan did not mention, the good girl that she is) – check, check , check

Discussions not just behind your back but also in your face about the colour of the baby’s skin – check. In fact here the discussions also extend to the colour of your skin.

What one wears, says or does being open to critical comment- check

So while we do sympathize with not just Meghan but everyone who has had to go through with this nonsense, we don’t see Oprah coming to interview any poor girl here, or sound scandalized about all that goes on. She did the wrong interview the one time she was here. True, no one wants to know about the problems faced by commoners but there are Royals galore littering our pavements and quite possibly the girls in those families face as much or worse. But they aren’t telling. Possibly they are better prepared to handle stuff because of the endless TV serials on this very subject. Besides, at least Meghan’s husband seems supportive. Which Indian husband would be willing to invite his family’s ire by supporting (shock, horror!) his wife? Not that Harry seems to be all there. He said he felt trapped in all the royalty and that his father and brother were also trapped. Really? What about the people who are not able to provide even one meal a day to their children? What about the children in parts of the world who have suicide vests strapped to them? Or, the little girls who are trafficked? Or even just the middle class persons working day in, day out at their mindless, boring jobs to pay off the mortgage, car loan, school fees etc. And he feels trapped by all the pomp, ceremony, splendour and expense! Something went wrong with the education perhaps. If you don’t want to be in the public eye, don’t give interviews to Oprah.

We would also like to emphasize the problem with not reading enough. Meghan needed to read up on her own mother-in-law’s experience and Google more on the Royals. Typical American that she is, her knowledge of British Imperial rule probably ends with the Boston Tea Party and a cutesy, sing song version of George III in Hamilton. Does she not know that she married into a family that colonized and subjugated lots of little brown and black people for centuries? It is difficult to get rid of genes like that in just a few generations. Somebody, somewhere in the family was bound to make comments that would raise her hackles. Besides, race is a much wider and bigger issue than just one person aiming to make Oprah’s s jaw drop theatrically.

And seriously they did not make money out of this interview? They needed to take lessons from Ekta Kapoor who has raked it in making TV serials on the same subject. Anyway, for the general public, jaded with the pandemic and bored out of their minds with lockdowns and social distancing, the interview came as a fresh breeze full of juicy gossip and entertainment. Who doesn’t enjoy the rich and powerful washing their dirty linen in public. That too in a dress and settings so beautifully staged. But on a scale of seriousness, over here, the general opinion is – much ado about nothing.

Whose age?

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid is one of those books which are an easy read but later on the reader starts to think of the layers and levels in the story and then the questions arise. Whose age does the title refer to? Is it the protagonist, Emira Tucker, in her late twenties and still finding her way around? Briar, the three year old who is Emira’s part time charge? Or does the title refer to the times we live in when there is more awareness about racism? Or is it the age of the smart phone and social media and it’s resulting lack of boundaries with the concomitant high jacking of people’s lives?

Emira Tucker, an African American, works as a baby sitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlain’s daughter, Briar. The two of them have a good connect, with Briar as yet unaware of her own whiteness. Not so with the parents who are are strange and very aware that the babysitter is different from them. One night, because of an emergency at home the Chamberlains ask Emira to take Briar out of the house. Emira and her friend, who were at a birthday party and dressed accordingly, take Briar to the upmarket grocery store nearest the Chamberlains’ house. Another shopper, observing them, reports to the store security that the little girl possibly might have been abducted. The following interaction with the store security is recorded by a third customer until Peter Chamberlain is called by Emira and comes to clarify things. Thereafter Emira is subjected to different view points on what she should do with the recording and the complaints that she should file. On the one hand there is Emira who doesn’t want to do anything and just wants to put the whole incident behind her and get on with her life. And then there are all the others who believe it is her duty to publicize the matter.

This incident at the store is the catalyst for the rest of the story. Kiley Reid has used it as the means to bring out everyone’s racial prejudices as well as supposed awareness. Instead of the characters reacting to each other on a person to person level, they always interact based on what they think their reaction to the other person’s race should be. The concept of overwhelming political correctness and being ‘woke’ dominates the book. As a result Emira and Briar are the only two people who come across as being themselves while everyone else is trying too hard or has an agenda.

How true a representation are all these reactions, we wonder? Is being ‘woke’, a fake awareness, such a big part of American society today? Are the people not capable of just being people? What does it say about a society where being unaware results in discrimination and hyper awareness results in people not being seen as another person but purely as representative of their race? Will there ever be a middle ground? As we said in the beginning, the more one thinks about the book, the more questions it raises. Emira is a unusual protagonist, she is contented, low key and just wants to have a peaceful time of things. Her lack of activism or ambition may be galling for those who suffer routine prejudice but it also makes her seem more normal in some ways. Which is probably part of the problem, that most people just want to let prejudice slide as making an issue of it could ultimately effect them adversely.

For the curious

Susanna Clarke‘s first book was huge in size and hugely successful but we found it was not for us. Piranesi, her second book, written after many year’s hiatus is a little book which lands the reader in a strange, surreal existence where one doesn’t know what is happening or who the narrator, the eponymous Piranesi is. And yet one keeps reading through additions to Piranesi’s journals, strangely dated with the days and months past the day the albatrosses came to some hall or the other.

Piranesi is apparently only one of two human occupants in a series of massive buildings and halls populated by innumerable statues with the sea having submerged the lower levels and coming in further up during high tides. The only other life is fish in the sea and birds in some of the halls. Piranesi wanders through recording whatever he sees and mapping not just the labyrinthine halls but also the stars and the tides. Twice a week he meets the man he calls the Other since he is the only other live person in the place. One gets the impression that the Other is a coldly, detached person in contrast to Piranesi who is quite affectionate and grateful to all the little things the Other brings him. The reader’s curiosity as to where the labyrinth is situated, who the Other is and why Piranesi is there, carries one through the first half of the book when not much is happening. In fact Piranesi is the one who seems contented and on home ground whereas the reader is lost and confused. Fortunately the book is short and this feeling of confusion doesn’t last too long else it might have gotten boring and we don’t know if we would have had the staying power to see it through.

The novel, published timely during various lockdowns, provided us with another perspective on the concept of isolation and how one can keep going with a sense of routine and maintaining an aura of curiosity and wonderment even with daily, mundane occurrences. There is also something to be said about making up stories in one’s mind. Piranesi takes comfort from the stories and connections he has imagined between himself and the statues.

A strange , mystical kind of book, which is one of those rare books that transcend genre. We can’t bring ourselves to call it fantasy as it is a weird mixture of history, magic , psychology and transgressive philosophy. The novel has received rave reviews and is certainly worth reading because it is so very different to anything one can imagine.

The truth hidden in the tale

“Proper witching is just a conversation with that red heartbeat, which only ever takes three things: the will to listen to it, the words to speak with it, and the way to let it into the world. The will, the words, and the way…” (The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow)

Nursery rhymes, fairytales, myths and urban legends are on the face of it just stories. But every story contains a grain of truth or some guidance or provides a direction. It’s a way of hiding knowledge in a simple tale, conveniently modified, where the unsuspecting would not think to look for it. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow is a story about the truth hidden in tales and that a story is not necessarily just a story but a camouflage. Set in an alternative reality the novel combines the repercussions of the witch trials in Salem with the suffragette movement a few centuries later.

Salem was burnt to the ground by the Inquisitors and a New Salem built as a counter, to be godly and everything else that old Salem was not. In this new Salem the three Eastwood sisters find themselves pulled together during a suffragette demonstration when a black tower momentarily appears out of nowhere and magic permeates the air. There is Bella, the eldest sister, a librarian and seeker of knowledge and collector of tales. The second sister Agnes, the most beautiful of the three works in a mill and tries initially to keep a low profile and resists the magic for the sake of her unborn daughter. June is the last sister, the wild and unruly one who seeks to raise hell at every given opportunity.

Everything important for magic comes in threes including the will, the word and the way required to let it in. The Eastwood sisters find themselves the focal point of a rebellion to re empower women. The rebellion attracts women from all classes, colours and orientation, waiting for someone to ignite the raw material within them. Fundamentally this is a book about the rage of women who have in many small and large ways been sidelined, suppressed and made to feel worthless. Any woman with some knowledge and capability, attitude or found providing support to other women is branded as dangerous and a witch. So ultimately it is also a book about the insecurities of men.

Harrow has beautifully interwoven all the stories and rhymes that we take for granted and shown that there is always more than meets the eye in every tale and there is always another side to things; that conventions must every once in a while be deconstructed in order to see what is really behind them. So it is in this story where there is a hidden truth about the centuries of subjugation which continue in some form or the other even in modern times and how hard fought is every drop of equality won.

The meaning of crazy

Thinking differently, being non conformist, having strange ideas, constructing strange houses, naming your child Balakrishna just because she is born blue are all symptoms of an artistic, thinking, intellectual personality? Or just sheer crazy? Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple makes the reader ask these questions over and over again. There is no doubt that Bernadette, the eponymous architect turned stay at home mum, an agoraphobic and social recluse is certainly on the far side of unusual. But does that mean she is a few pennies short of a pound? Or just a person requiring more understanding?

The book is narrated largely by Bernadette ‘s rather brilliant daughter Bee ( short for Balakrishna) who is on the verge of finishing middle school in Seattle but looking forward to moving to boarding school. The entire story is told through journal entries of Bee and emails, letters and notes of other characters. Bee’s adored mother is as unconventional as they get, raising the ire of the PTA attending, cookie baking mothers who cannot comprehend why a stay at home mother would not be interested in participating in PTA activities. The underlying tone in the entire story is also about the larger than life, all pervading presence of Microsoft (where Bee’s father works) in Seattle with the book constantly poking fun at those who work there.

Everything, including Bernadette starts to unravel when Bee picks Antarctica as a family holiday destination. The book deals with so many issues regarding mental health and its impact on family members in a light but not flippant way. What makes it really interesting is the thought that those who are rigidly focused on conforming could come across being as unhinged, if not more, than the non conformists. And those who claim to have pretensions to an artistic ability are not necessarily appreciative of art when they see it. So ultimately, what is ‘unusual’?

All the questions in our review itself are indicative of the questions raised in the reader’s mind during the story. Semple’s style of writing ensures that the issues in the book are never overbearing nor does the book come across as being preachy. In fact, it is far from it in the witty and satirical treatment of the story which is ultimately a feel good story. We read the book while coming into the new year and it helped us feel hopeful. A nice tone to begin the year with.

A solid mystery

At 900 pages Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith(JK Rowling), is a tome of a book and rather daunting in the physical form. It could easily serve the dual purpose of reading and weight lifting. But Rowling’s writing being what it is, the reader is immediately drawn into the book in a strangely comforting way. Even though a murder mystery is never really comforting. Perhaps it is the combination of a familiar writing style which many of us have become accustomed to over the years and the two detectives who we have become familiar with and whose story line has developed over the last four books. We have said this before and we say it again that Robin Ellacott is basically a grown up and muggle Hermione Granger. Only less bossy. But they are both equally down to earth, practical, intelligent and dependably capable people whom the reader can easily identify with.

It is very rare that an entire story (that too of 900 pages) is based around a cold case murder which happened 40 years previously. Strike and Robin’s firm have been hired by the daughter of a doctor who mysteriously disappeared without a trace one night when the daughter was still a baby. The police had concluded that she had been the victim of a serial killer who was caught but enjoyed playing mind games and did not reveal who all his victims had been. The doctor’s body was never found so the doubt remained as to what had actually happened to her.

The firm is much more busy in this book and has more employees which means there are a lot of other investigations going on which occupy both Robin and Strike. There is a lot more detail about their personal lives, with Strike’s aunt being unwell on one side and constant badgering from his father’s family on the other. There is also a lot more development of the two detectives’ inter personal relationship. None of it however felt out of tune with the book or the main story which keeps one engaged as there is a constant niggling in the reader’s mind of the need to know what had happened all those years ago. The book is typically well crafted in the sense that JKR. through Creed the serial killer, plays mind games with the reader.

We have no idea what all the controversy surrounding the book was about even before it was published. Some one has to be a killer in a murder mystery but how can that be considered a comment on an entire group, race, classification or gender of people? It seems to have become fashionable to do JKR bashing these days, that too by people who leave one star on their review without even having read the book or after reading one page. How is that a book review?

We certainly enjoyed the story and look forward to the next instalment.

Stacked lives

How often do we regret not having done something and wondering where our life would have headed if we had chosen differently? And what if all those lives with the different choices were stacked up on top of each other and we could access them to see how they had turned out? Matt Haig‘s The Midnight Library is all about visiting those lives where the choice had been different.

Nora Seed, who had studied philosophy at university but is working at a music store, in her thirties has reached a stage in her life where she no longer sees a point to it. One night on the cusp between life and death she arrives at the Midnight Library where time stands still and all the books are the lives she could have led if she had made different choices at each stage. Populated only by the librarian, a mysterious figure whose conversations with Nora gradually reveal to her what the library is all about as she confronts the regrets she has about her life.

This is a book to be read by everyone who has ever said ‘what if’, which is basically, well, everyone. A melding of physics and philosophy, the concept of parallel universes/dimensions and parallel lives, but woven through a simple story of human regrets and wondering. Which, when one comes to think of it, is really not that simple but therein lies the beauty of Haig’s writing because ultimately the book is eminently readable. After completing it we have recommended it to everyone we know and it has become one of our favourite gifting books. These days if someone is agonising over choices that they have to make, we tell them to read The Midnight Library. A book to make the reader sit and think and which provides a perspective that one might not necessarily have thought of. Lovely.