In case you’ve forgotten it’s the CROCUS time of year again. We have a fabulous theme and a great selection of books for kids as usual.
And to keep you going until then, my thoughts on a few books for grownups.
The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf
Someone somewhere said this would be something like Jodi Piccoult – an author I love to hate. So I picked it up and have to say, she’s nowhere in that league. That said, it’s an interesting read. Seven year old Calli doesn’t speak – she has selective mutism. She stopped speaking at 4 and no amount of therapy or coaxing can bring back her voice. Ben is Calli’s 12 year old brother, devoted, gentle and basically everything one would want in a son. Their mother Antonia is full of life and fun, and their father, Louis is full of alcohol and bullshit. Petra is Calli’s best friend and her voice. She knows just what Calli wants and guides her through home and school. One morning Petra and Calli disappear, seemingly, from their beds. As their families come together to hunt from them, a lot of skeletons tumble out of the closet. Ex-flames, violence and what not.
As a debut book its fairly good, but I wish I’d not begun by reading about the comparison to Piccoult. That always kills a good read. I thought the plot was slightly weak and could have come together better. The author tries to be compassionate to her characters which doesn’t work with me. I’m a hard woman where kids’ welfare is concerned and I don’t have any compassion for people who leave their kids in harm’s way. Or who look away from what might be a potentially dangerous situation for kids to be in. Recently a friend and I got into a huge debate over the toddlers whose parents forgot them in their cars (in the US) until they boiled to a slow death over 9 hours. No compassion here, at all. So anyway, interesting story, but nothing I’d be less of a person for not having read.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – Rebecca Miller
Now *this* book, I’d have been sorry to have missed. PippaLee is a submissive, perfect wife to her husband of 30 years, who also happens to be 30 years older than her. Herb Lee is a publishing hero, a huge towering man with presence, who is madly in love with his (comparitively) young wife. At close to 50, Pippa is nowhere near retirement, but Herb decides it might be a good idea to sell all his assets and settle Pippa in with a nest egg, should something happen to him. Which is how they end up in a retirement community, where Pippa is by far the youngest. They still have their parties and fun, and then something strange happens. Someone is breaking into their home every night it seems and pigging out. They wake up to half eaten plates of food on the table, scrambled eggs on the stove and what not. A mystery indeed.
I love the twist the story takes and I love the way she brings out the history of Pippa, fleshes out the character and takes Pippa from a flat, colourless trophy wife to a woman with a past. If anything, it teaches you not to judge people by appearances – sometimes they have a lot more depth. Must, must read.
Saving Rafael – Leslie Wilson
I somehow go through phases of a certain type of book without even trying, and this summer was full on Holocaust and slavery fever. Saving Rafael is at the core about belief. The Jakobys are Jenny’s neighbours. And she loves their son Raf. Oh, and the Jakobys are Jews in Nazi-ruled Berlin. Mr Jakoby dies early in the narrative, as does Jenny’s father. And the rest of Raf’s family. The survivors, Jenny and her mother, hide Raf in their home and risk Nazi wrath.
It’s not a new story but no matter how many times you hear it you can’t help but feel your blood boil. On the face of it hiding one boy might seem simple, until you realise the neighbours count how many times you flush, how often you buy groceries and how many lights are on at night. Eventually the Germans suspect them of being sympathetic to Jews and Jenny is taken away to a camp, even though Raf is not caught. Read on to see what happens next.
No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, it’s never enough. I could pick up the next book and be shocked anew. It always shocks me to see the depths that humankind can fall to. I keep thinking of the Godhra riots and the child being ripped out of its mothers womb on the end of a trishul and I feel the bile rise. What makes us so … evil? Vile? Please read. Please read to see how low humankind can fall and how that makes yet others reach within themselves for reserves of courage.
The Child’s Child – Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
Grace and Andrew are siblings who get along uncommonly well. This bit reminded me of my brother and the short but happy time when we shared a flat in Delhi at the beginning of our working lives. Some of my happiest memories are from then. But I digress as usual. So, anyway, their grandmother dies, leaving them her house. They could easily have sold it and split the money, but it didn’t even occur to them, so natural was it to share the place – which was also big enough to be shared. What they hadn’t counted on was one of them bringing in a significant other. When Andrew’s partner James moves in things begin to fall apart. Grace is teaching at University in London and working on a PhD on a topic that no one in her social circle has much contact with – unmarried mothers. Luck drops in her lap an old unpublished manuscript set in between the wars. It remains unpublished because it touched upon two taboo topics in those days – illegitimate children and homosexuality. As Grace begins to delve into it, her life begins to slowly begin to ape the book.
I picked this up because I enjoy the pace of Ruth Rendell mysteries. I was a little disappointed by the writing though. It dragged unmentionably in places and at certain points she entirely lost my interest. I plowed on doggedly because I wanted to see where it went. I have to say in the interest of being honest that it’s a great way to contrast attitudes to the same two issues across decades. A very interesting topic and a plot that I felt fell apart because of the writing. What happened, Ruth?
To my daughter in France – Barbara & Stephanie Keating
I find it amazing that two siblings collaborated over the writing of this book and created such perfection. The power of siblings, again. The novel opens with Richard Kirwan’s death. And in his wake he leaves behind shock and anger when his family realises that he has another daughter, far away in France. They all deal with it in their own ways. His wife by locking herself in her studio, his elder daughter by trying to help sort out this mess by writing to the other daughter and connecting with her, the two younger siblings by taking off to France to find out more about their father’s life there and try and understand him. In all this, the daughter in France is the most devastated by the letter that announces to her she is illegitimate, that the father she loves is not her birth father and that her mother betrayed her father. Set in the early 1970s, the story takes you back to the second world war and Germany’s occupation of France to understand where the roots of the betrayal lay.
My only exposure to the French Resistance, before this was through the TV comedy show ‘Allo Allo and that took the sting out of it. But reading about it here, just made me realise how privileged we are, as a generation, to never have lived through war, through danger, through rationing, fearing for our lives, bombs falling as we walked down the road and watching our country being destroyed. Actually its being destroyed by our own politicians even as you read this, but that isn’t the same. A beautifully written book, telling a heart breaking love story. Telling of courage, faith, of thinking of people other than yourself, I loved this book.
The Ingredients of Love – Nicolas Barreau
Aurelie Bredin wakes up one morning to find she’s been dumped unceremoniously by her boyfriend. It’s Paris, she’s gorgeous, she runs a restaurant, so there will be food in the story. Moping around, she picks up a novel called The Smiles of Women and realises that it is – about her!
Determined to find out how this story came about, Aurelie hounds the publishers to get her in touch with the reclusive British author. The publishers seem equally determined not to give his identity up. For a short while there is a sense of mystery and then the answer comes all too soon. This would have worked a lot better if the author had played his cards closer to his chest and drawn the suspense out a bit longer.
I wish I could sound less blase about this story, but I really had high hopes when I picked it up. If not a sensationally new plot, I expected good writing. A little let down on both fronts. I blame myself for picking up a book with a title of this sort.
Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
I thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book. I picked it up because the blurb reminded me of another much-loved book I wrote about – The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno. Jacob Jankowski is a promising veterinarian student at Cornell when his parents die in a car accident and he finds himself shattered and penniless. He jumps on to a passing freight train and wakes up to find that providence has landed him on a circus train. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love books that take us away to another world. And this one lands you with a ringside view of the big top.
I love stories set in the Depression and Prohibition era. Either I’m morbid or it’s a reminder of how lucky we are to take all this wine and money for granted. Or perhaps its a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. I love the sound of speakeasies, the smoky bars (our generation would worry about second hand smoke), the beaded dresses, the will to celebrate even when there was no reason to.
Jacob falls in love with Marlena but the bad news is that she is already married. To the most mercurial and powerful man on the show. But it’s not their love story that fascinated me. It was the glimpse into the circus that had me spellbound. The last time I did this was with Mr Galliano and Enid Blyton. This is just a little deeper and darker. The elephant who is too stupid to take instruction, the toothless tiger, the almost human chimp – apparently you’re never too old to hear about them. The supporting characters weave a very interesting backdrop and you want the author to write subsequent novels featuring them.
Our generation really hasn’t known want and every time I read a book on the Depression, I am shocked anew. Here too, there is a struggle between the working class and the bosses. Wages are held back. Hooch isn’t. People take their pleasure where they get it. Violence is a way of life and being physically tossed out of your place of work is par for the course.
This was a fast and fun read and exactly what the doctor prescribed as I sat out ICUs and blood banks. It took me away from my own cares and woes and I enjoyed the flight of fantasy. The end is especially uplifting, particularly for readers like me who have no discerning and hate unhappy or open endings.
The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno – Ellen Bryson
I was hoping to link back to my review of this book for the book above and I realised I hadn’t written about it. I’m shocked and disappointed in myself – how did I deny you this gem? But of course its set in the mid-1800s and of course I fell in love with the blurb. And of course its about a way of life and a place we know nothing of, unlike the endlessly tedious novels set around contemporary times and lives and lacklustre events. Bartholomew Fortuno is the thinnest man in the world and – a freak at PT Barnum’s American Museum, Manhattan. It’s amazing to think of a seedy, dirty New York with horse driven carriages. And politically incorrect enough to have people pay money to see the fattest woman and the thinnest man. What is amazing is the pride the performers take in their oddity, their unnatural gifts as they like to call them. Like the book above, this one too has theatrical performances and then the risque ones, the ones ladies can’t and won’t be allowed to watch. Each character is so carefully etched that you almost forget who the stars are.
Into the midst of this comes Barnum’s ticket to fame and fortune – a genuine bearded lady, Iell Adams. I was fascinated by her relationship with Bartholomen, who of course is smitten by her. Does she want him, does she not, why is she messing with his head… It was really very true to life because so often relationships are amorphous and strange and you don’t realise how you’re making a mess of them until it’s too late to redeem yourself.
I recommended this book to everyone for the period, for the writing, for the interesting love story. What I didn’t like was the way the last section dragged. It’s almost as though the author was still thinking her plot through and made you endure the hemming and hawing as she related the tale. I say it should go back to the editing table to make it at truly superlative book.
If it’s not one thing it’s your mother – Julia Sweeney
Comedienne, scriptwriter and author, Julia Sweeney wears many hats, including that of mother. In this one she bares her soul and I grabbed the book the moment I read the title. It was laugh out loud funny.
Julia did what many single Caucasian women of a certain age seem to do – at least as viewed from our corner of the little world. She adopted a baby girl from China. And named her, wait for the cliche – Mulan. Of course the book explains the story behind the name, but it doesn’t change the way I felt about it! Julia talks about her failed relationships, her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, her desire to become a mother, and how she grew into being a mother. In the midst of this process she also acquires a husband.
I’m rather torn over how I feel about this book. It has all the ingredients that usually work for me. Humour, parenting, honesty, memoir. And yet I walked away from it left cold. But I’d like it if you didn’t go by my review. I have a feeling I missed something.
The Almost Moon – Alice Sebold
I really enjoyed Lovely Bones which is why I picked up this book. I read it outside the ICU on the floor. It was a tiring, stressful time and in retrospect I think I should have chosen something lighter and happier. But the OA has a theory that I tend to read dark books just when I shouldn’t. I read a lot on female genital mutilation when I was expecting the Brat and about the plight of women in Afghanistan when I was expecting the Bean.
Helen Knightly is her mother’s sole caregiver and as any caregiver will tell you, it is a draining role. Her mother is severely agoraphobic and her father who loved her for it eventually put a bullet in his head as his way of dealing with it. Helen’s mother was a model and Helen too is a nude model for art students. The book opens with her murdering her mother, and then systematically putting an end to any normalcy in her life, right from her relationship with her daughters, grandchildren, ex husband and best friend.
I tried really hard to relate to her, to understand why she was on the path to self destruction, but I failed utterly. She was just a very dislikeable character. Although the novel only spans about a day in her life, it weaves back and forth into the past, dredging up memories and fitting in pieces to the jigsaw that is her rather insane life. I could have moved past the murder of the mother as the fine line between love and hate. But she just goes on and on, ruining every relationship she has. By the time I got to the end of the book I was in a funk and grateful to put it down.
Going Out – Scarlett Thomas
Luke is a twenty five year old who is allergic to the sun – the same premise as this one I’d reviewed, by Elizabeth Graver, Awake. Once again there is an over-protective mother whose life revolves around keeping her son healthy and alive. I use the term over-protective loosely – if I had a child so sick, I’d be doing the same. But yes, from the child’s perspective it is smothering and flashbacks show him threatening his mother with running out into the sun if she doesn’t give in on some matter. Children are so quick to threaten you with their own mortality.
Luke’s friends are other equally ‘weird’ young people and it reminded me a lot of my own youth. I seem to have mostly sane friends now. I’m still mad though, as the name suggests. Anyhow, Luke spends a lot of his time online and watching TV, his only way to experience the real world. One day someone mails him and offers to cure him of his disease. The catch? He has to go and visit the person.
Plans are made to whisk Luke away without his mother knowing, and a van has to be acquired and sun proofed, and he needs to be put into a sunproof suit that they build on the lines of a space suit. The person driving, is his best friend Julie, who has a fear of accidents, crashes, bacteria and highways.
It’s a coming of age of course and since I’ve come of age myself, I have no idea why I was reading it. I was sort of amused through the greater portion of it and at times disappointed by the cliched way in which they were each made to confront their fears.
A quick interesting read for a boring flight.
Following Fish – Samanth Subramanian
I’m used to disappointing myself but this one is big. I just searched the blog and realised I’ve never written about Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish. A series of nine essays, each one examines one aspect of fish – through culture, medicine, food, sport, society. The famous Hyderabadi fish treatment for asthma ( how my parents begged Tambi to go for it, but he hated fish enough to suffer a lifetime rather than agree – his best friend, also asthmatic, and vegetarian, took it and was miraculously cured), the Catholic fishing communities in Tamil Nadu, fishing boast in Gujarat, he strolls around the coast and takes you along with him.
I fell in love with the book. It was fish, it was history, it was reportage – it was written for me. I love his prose – simple, unaffected, clean. Of course I proceeded to have one of my sapiosexual crushes just as I have on Baradwaj Rangan and Samar Halarnkar. The OA who is used to me doing this, just patted me on the head while other wicked friends promptly tagged him on my Facebook wall mentioning that I was crushing on him. As you can see, I have no need for enemies. Read the book, do. I’ve been gifting it to everyone.