Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

It took The Secret Garden and TWO Narnia books to get me out of the...ahem...melancholy that I was plunged into after reading Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk.

I read (on a no-work-at-all day in the office) and read and reveled in the garden and in the robin and Mistress Mary Quite Contrary and Dickon and Colin and Martha and Ben Weatherstaff. There, I have given you almost the entire list of characters. The thing is, this is only the second time that I was reading The Secret Garden and it instantly transported me back to my eight year old self experiencing the first delicious high that this book gives. And, well, I am a fan.

Sallow skinned, ill tempered little Mary Lennox is sent from India to Misselthwaite Manor (her uncle's house) in Yorkshire, England, when her parents die of cholera. Mary is a dreadfully spoilt child who has grown up entirely in the care of her ayah and other servants. She does not know anything of a mother's love and in turn becomes cold, selfish and ill mannered. She arrives in Yorkshire and is put under the chief care of the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock and the housemaid Martha. Lonely, contrary little Mary initially feels lost in such a big house but the huge gardens and the Yorkshire moors soon draw her out. She slowly gains health and makes friends with the crusty gardener Ben and the in-house robin. But Misselthwaite Manor contains more than just servants and endless gardens. Why does Mr.Craven never live at home? Why is the house so shut up and gloomy? And what is that walled garden with the secret door that no one is supposed to go into?

In spite of herself Mary changes for the better and out of pure luck, one day the robin shows Mary where the key to the garden has been buried and where the secret door is. Mary is enchanted and hugs this secret all to herself except for Dickon (Martha's brother) who is a wonderful boy with an up-turned nose and round blue eyes. Dickon is friends with every animal and every plant and every bird and every tree and soon, Mary and Dickon start on a secret mission to revive this lovely Secret Garden that none should enter and none seem to talk about. But Misselthwaite Manor contains one secret yet: Whom does Mary hear crying at night?

The Secret Garden is pure magic. It is one of the most life affirming books that I have ever read; if I enjoyed it at eight, I know that I will enjoy it at eighty. It is delightful to read how fresh air, wholesome food and innocent frolic turns around the life of two miserable little children. The message that the book gives out is: it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor; just let love and magic grow. However impractical this thought might be in today's cynical world, it feels amazing to indulge oneself and just think of it really being true. And well, why not?

If I had a secret garden, I would retain many of the elements from the one in the book; mine would be walled and covered fully with ivy. It would have a little green door where one would have to bend to enter. It would be like a mad cottage garden with all manners of flowers in a riot of colour. I would have trailing vines and let squirrels and birds make friends with me and my garden. I would have trailing roses, a big shady mango or an apple tree (do they even grow in the same climate??) with a comfortable wicker chair below it. Oh, and I would have lots and lots of honeysuckle. If I had this garden, I would quit my job and just read there the whole day; because in my garden, time would stand still.

What about you? How would you like your Secret Garden to be?

Note: I have attached a picture of the author. I searched for a suitable picture of a secret garden in Google images but could not find any that really caught my fancy. Hence the verbal sketch. Feel free to give me your ideas :-) And do read this book if you already haven't. I went about with such a dopey grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Istanbul - Orhan Pamuk

I can't make up my mind about this book. Do I like it? Do I not like it? Do I think it is the genuine article or do I think it has affectations that let it down?

I guess what I think of this book is sort of like an amalgamation of answers to all the questions above. To me this particular cover (my copy has the same) evokes a lovely image; not just of the book but Istanbul itself. The monument, the car and the raven in the foreground: all covered by a soft mantle of snow. And you remember this cover throughout; whether he is describing the city or the beautiful Bosphorus in its many moods; glinting, shimmering, dark or moody. Istanbul and Istanbullus are besotted with this body of water.

This book is a personal journey of a man and the city with which he firmly believes his destiny is tied up. Pamuk's Istanbul is complex, varied and has a dignity that speaks to the reader. His Istanbul is not just a city of yesterday or today or of the future, it is a black and white kaleidoscope of all three. The book opens with a chapter about the boy Orhan, his family, his boyhood and what Istanbul meant to him at that impressionable age. As the book progresses, Pamuk grows with it and tries to give the reader a sense of the city as seen through his eyes. He paints before you, a city that is still living in the bygone Ottoman era and the place of importance it enjoyed while trying to come to terms with the new Republic and become westernized. In this vast world where does Istanbul really stand? How do its citizens view it? Do they live in the past too? Do they take comfort in what Pamuk describes as its acceptance of defeat and are comfortable to live in memory of the great empire it once was?

Pamuk's Istanbul is eloquent and almost poetic at times. Drawing deeply from literature and history he attempts to show you the city exactly as he sees it. Magnificent as it is at times, the pace lags in many chapters and I found accounts of Pamuk's puberty and several other similar instances unnecessary.

According to Pamuk, his city's main characteristic is its hüzün (melancholy) and that is the book's biggest weak point; Pamuk tries to connect entirely too much in his own life and in others' to the city's melancholy and vice-versa. Every chapter contains some mention of hüzün and it irritated me so much that I cannot bear to read this word in any other book for a long while. He seems to take a sort of comfort in the poverty and despair and faint sense of ruin that surrounds the city's poor neighbourhoods. It makes the reader wonder just how troubled his childhood was; how much the city influenced it and more importantly: how much does he think the city influenced it.

Maybe I am being unduly harsh because my own expectations of the book were not fulfilled. There are some lovely chapters; his retelling of his first love brought tears my to eyes and many others gave me a glimpse of the wonderful writer that Pamuk is.

So taking all this into consideration, could the book have been better? Yes. Unequivocally.

This melancholy thing though, I have no idea what to make of it. I have felt it; in Chennai I have felt it. But is it the primary characteristic and driving force of Istanbul? Perhaps one has to go to Istanbul and see for oneself.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain

I want to be a steamboat pilot. Or rather, I want to be a steamboat pilot every time I even look at the cover of this book. I want to stand inside the pilot room and grasp a wheel and be Lord (Lady??) of the river. I want to steer this grand, smelling of polished wood, gilt edged, all flags flying boat through the entire course of the river. And this river: I want to know it like Samuel Clemens a.k.a Mark Twain did.

That's what any good book, no, any spectacular book does to me: I immediately want to get into its pages and live it. And Life on the Mississippi was so spot on for me that after sixty chapters I was still sad that it had to end.

This is a loving memoir of the brilliant and jaw dropping relationship Mark Twain shared with the Mississippi river. Since it is non fiction, there isn't really anything to say in terms of a plot or a climax or characters.

All sixty chapters are reminiscent not just of his life on the river but of the river itself. With chapters that give you a small history lesson on the discovery of the Mississippi, its geopolitical importance, its influence on the people living along the thousands of miles of land through which it flows; life on a steamboat on the Mississippi, being a pilot and the enormous pressure, pleasure and responsibility that the job entails; the various experiences that go with it and to put it simply, the love affair one person has had with this river and his need to share it with the rest of the world - Mr.Twain just blows you away. And to think that this work preceded Huck Finn!

Among all the little nuggets of adventure, satire and insight there exists one precious extract from the then-in-progress Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain tells you of this little store that he has been writing and that he thinks it should be done in a few years time; not knowing the place of importance this book would enjoy even after more than a century of his writing it.

Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is long and delightfully so. With his trademark sarcasm and his disgust for anything ostentatious or pretentious, he gives you an honest account of exactly what the title says: his life on the Mississippi.

I can't recommend this book highly enough for anyone who loves the kind of refreshing writing Mark Twain provides. He leaves you pining for what he calls the "lost art of steamboat piloting" and almost hating (however foolishly) the advent of the railways.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Town Called Dehra - Ruskin Bond

What attracted me straight away was the lovely cover. So I was already sold by the time I turned it around to read what was written in the back: " There was a wild flower, a weed, that grew all over Dehra and still does. We called it Blue Mint. It grows in ditches, in neglected gardens, anywhere there's a bit of open land....I have known it since I was a boy, and as long as it's there I shall know that a part of me still lives in Dehra."

This charming book delivers exactly what it promises: an indulgent account of the Dehradun that Ruskin Bond knew and grew up in. This is a small collection of short stories and essays that are mainly divided into his childhood memories and those of his youth. Through them you learn about the life of the boy Ruskin; the aftermath of his father's death and the mostly lonely life of a boy who was at odds with his mother and stepfather. For Ruskin, his true friends live in the big Banyan tree: the squirrels and the birds and the white rat and the lady squirrel and their white squirrel babies! You learn to smile at the image of the boy Ruskin lounging up on the tree with an apple and a book in his hand on hazy afternoons, keeping an eye on the road below. He writes with fond memories of his various friends: Somi, Dipi, Dal and Bansi the tonga driver.

Reading this book it was possible even for me, a person who's never been to Dehra to picture the beautiful, sleepy town that it was towards the end of the British Raj. Ruskin Bond has so wonderfully described a town and a people that did not quite know what to make of themselves when the rest of the country was caught in the throes of the independence. Dehra in the late 1940s was full of English expats who were caught between worlds: they had nothing to go back to in England and they couldn't remain in India. As you read you get the sense that in this magical, Ruskin Bondy place, time has frozen and you can see the lichi trees and blue mint, lush woods and deep pools with clear pebbled beds.

There are stories that made me laugh and some so heartbreakingly longing that they made me quite weepy. There were funny ones; poignant ones that give you glimpses into the life of a man, who, even know lives within striking distance of his beloved Dehra. Some stories that I think deserve special mention are: "Dehradun - Winter of '45", "The Old Gramaphone", "The Photograph", "As time goes by", "Meena", "In search of a winter garden" and "The Dilaram Bazaar".

This is a book to be savoured slowly; in bed at night with the monsoon raging outside or on a long bus ride to while away time. The writing might lack finesse at times but it is more than compensated in the beauty of the pictures he paints and the emotions he evokes.

As I was reading, I asked myself about the Dehradun of today. What is Dehra like? Has it become like that other heartbreak story from down south - Ooty? I long to go to Dehra but I am scared because you see, I want to go to Ruskin Bond's Dehra. That place with the empty roads and lichi trees; when the pace of life was not so frenetic and when people were more forgiving.

I am in love with this book. With all its faults, yes, I am so in love with this book.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger

I loved Franny and Zooey. I LOVED Franny and Zooey. There were many moments in the book when I wasn't really sure what Franny or for that matter, what Zooey were getting at but they left me feeling pretty good about everything. I feel like speaking in Italics too. And Zooey, you have got a lifelong fan here.

Franny and Zooey are the two youngest members of the Glass family. The plot is not much really, it is basically a sort of meandering, reflective (discourse?) thing on the self. Whether that self is Franny or Zooey or Mrs. Glass. The plot opens with Franny meeting her boyfriend Lane for a weekend. What gets off to a seemingly perfect start complete with Lane's studied nonchalance and stymied eagerness and Franny's sheared Racoon overcoat, quickly degenerates. There is something wrong with Franny. She keeps picking on Lane; the fact that Lane is a pompous ass aside. Franny finally dead faints away at the restaurant.

Enter Zooey. Franny has come home and she seems to be having a nervous breakdown. Is she so disillusioned with the world? She is after some kind of religious fulfillment but what exactly does she want? She incessantly chants the Lord's prayer under her breath but does she understand the whole point behind it? The Glass family is worried about Franny; and Zooey with a little help from Mrs. Glass sets out to try and talk her out of what he believes is a self-imposed funk. Throughout the story, various other members of the family pop in and out. Especially the eldest two: Seymour (killed himself long ago) and Buddy (a somewhat reclusive writer/professor living in the country). Seymour peppers their thoughts and conversations almost constantly and the disquiet and the perplexity the family feel about his death is palpable.

So that is basically all there is to this really small (novella?) story. Now for the writing. This is my first Salinger and it has been a lovely introduction and getting-to-know. Salinger writes with an almost uncomfortable clarity of thought and cuts right down to the bone of things. Neither Franny nor Zooey are particularly likeable nor unlikeable. They are, if you think about it, just an ordinary guy and girl. It is Salinger's depth of writing, his getting under their skins and the stunning imagery he provides that makes one (and themselves) look much closer than is normally comfortable.

The message quite simply seems to be: disillusioned or not, do not feed your ego. Keep playing because that is all you can really do. Do it for the Fat Lady.

And me? I love that. Zooey gave me a sense of quiet towards the end just like he gave Franny.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Hundred Foot Journey - Richard C. Morais

This weekend I armchair-traveled to Bombay, London, flitted through most of Europe and finally landed in France courtesy of The Hundred Foot Journey. It could have been great too but somewhere between reading about the Mutton Korma at the family restaurant on Napean Sea Road and sewage smelling hair and finally, pretentious French food at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, Hassan Haji' story left me floundering.

The narration is by Hassan and the story opens with a recounting of how Hassan's grandfather came to Mumbai as a young man and became a dabba-wallah. He makes something of himself enough to build a tiny eatery in an abandoned plot of land on Napean Sea Road. The Haji family expands slowly into dad, mom and finally Hassan and his numerous siblings. They lead satisfied and full lives revolving around the food they prepare and their restaurant but tragedy strikes and the family forsakes Bombay and its terrible memories for London. From then on, Hassan and his family roam all over Europe before settling down, somewhat arbitrarily in Lumière, France. The Hajis buy a mansion and plan to open an Indian restaurant but they have formidable opposition from a renowned chef who owns a hotel just across the road from them. Madame Mallory views the gifted Hassan as her competitor and is out to do all she can to oust the Hajis from her town.

This story is basically the life journey of Hassan Haji and how he finds his destiny. In the course of his life the one constant is food. He and his family over come the odds and he finally establishes himself as one of the leading chefs in Paris with his restaurant Le Chien Mechant.

Sounds good doesn't it? Unfortunately the plot is not executed well enough. Many parts of the story are just plain unbelievable: for instance, the way the family goes traipsing all over Europe with a seemingly never ending flow of cash. Hassan Haji's attempt at insight and philosophy is a bit ridiculous and what are obviously meant to be deep soul stirring moments, fall flat.

The author has tried very hard to bring in all flavours Indian and that is precisely what doesn't work. They are not Indian. Describing in minute detail about pink sarees and gold lame sandals; hair smelling of sewage and the poor of Mumbai's slums does not mean it is authentic. In this case, the author has fallen into the pit all authors must try to avoid: don't present India, or any place for that matter in such cliched forms. It does not your story, hold. Some of the descriptive passages left me bewildered (like the above mentioned sewage smelling hair. Hassan and his family are about to board the flight to London and the lines that tell you that are something along the lines of, "There we were with our sewage smelling hair...." You see what I mean? It seems silly and nonsensical because nowhere in the book are Hassan and his siblings portrayed as so poor they don't have money for shampoo and soap) and I couldn't make out till the very last, what precisely was the point of this story.

Don't get me wrong: The Hundred Foot Journey is by no means a wholly unreadable book. I finished it quite comfortably all things considered. I loved Hassan's father Abbas's character as well as Ammi and Uncle Mayur and Madame Mallory. Just like how some descriptions are unacceptable, some others, especially about the food and the scenery were quite stunning. All the more is the pity because perhaps with a little more work this could have been a wonderful book.

The Hundred Foot Journey is in short, somewhat of a badly written fairytale. It's got all the elements but they inexplicably go missing every now and then.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Godiva - Nerys Jones

Note: Hey all, I am back after a long while, this time for good.Mom has been sick, I have been sick and I have had a hectic few months of it but now I am resolved to continue blogging here regularly. Wish me luck!

I love all Godiva chocolates. Especially their chocolate covered pretzels. And the figure of the lady atop her horse that is their logo has always intrigued me. Who was Godiva? Did she really ride naked and bareback on a horse in Coventry in Anglo-Saxon England? If that is the case, what is the reason? Wikipedia gives you the answers, as I am sure, do numerous other websites or books if one was to search for them. But from what little I have read, I decidedly prefer Nerys Jones's Godiva.

England, AD 1045. Edward the Confessor, the childless, half-Norman, Virgin King is holding England by the sinew of her neck. He is the puppet master. The Normans are closing in and the three powerful Anglo-Saxon Earls of England: Siward of Northumbria, Godwin of Wessex and Lovric of Mercia have to do all they can to prevent their country from falling into the hands of the Normans; even if it means going to war against the king.

Into this hotbed is thrown Lady Godiva, the beautiful wife of the Earl of Mercia. King Edward has targeted the Lordship of Merica for reasons known only to him and Lovric and Godiva are fast falling from the favour of the court. Godiva's sons are captured under various false charges and leaving behind an earldom that is falling into famine and cattle plague, Lovric and Godiva must fly to Winchester to try and placate the king. In 1045 AD England, there are powerful manipulators abroad, the influence of the church is immense and the King continues to play games with his earls, his people and the future of his country. What does the king want with Godiva? Why have her family and her people been singled out? The machinations of the court go on forever and Godiva finds herself on shaky ground as her hitherto solid marriage is undermined, her children are in danger, her lands and her people in misery. The king is playing games and if she has to survive, if she has to win, so must she.

Nerys Jones's Godiva makes a wonderful read. Her style of writing is lucid and one cannot help but be fascinated at the threads of history that were woven a thousand years ago. I loved Nerys Jones's interpretation of the legendary horse ride and to me at least it seems more plausible than the explanation that Wikipedia has to offer. Godiva might not be a particularly great mother to her daughter Millie, she might be blind and heedless, she may not realize the true worth of her husband most of the time, but she is a fighter. She has pluck and courage and never gives up on her people as she tries to beat the king at his own game and for her, I can read this book again and again. Fans of historical novels will love this one.