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About a Tree & Tenacity

Among the many hundred books lying unread in my TBR, there are many gems and some which make for a good read, some which makes me wonder how did it get in my list and then some that sing to me! The June Read for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith sang to me in sonnets, of tenacity, hope and the power of knowledge that alone can save complete deprivation!

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The novel is set in the turn of century Brooklyn, where a quiet, shy child of 11 years,  Francie Nolan lives with her younger brother Neely Nolan, her mother, Katie Nolan, who works as a janitor in the building where they live and her singer-waiter father, Johnny Nolan. They are poor and food mostly consists of many variations of stale bread, and yet a penny is always saved in the a small tin bank and joys are to be found, in reading a book by the window with a snack and lemonade. Their lives are crowded with challenges and etching out a bleak living, but they are still lives full of living and small success, of chalking out a scheme to go a better school outside of your district and of managing to wangle the biggest Christmas tree through sheer grit. There is a family of aunts who are always, there to support and spoil, especially on those days when father, comes home drunk, unable to hold down a job and neighbors who come around to pull you through when needed. But then comes one of  those full stops of life, which change the directions and make Nolan’s reassess the way they had mapped out their lives and force them to find new paths, until the make it to the desired end!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a wonderful coming of age book, that is not pedagogic or didactic and yet does not sentimentalize the harsh realities of poverty and deprivation in some noble glow. The novel just tells a story of things as they were, without any moralizing or martyrdom. The characters are all uniformly likable, and even when you start losing patience with some,  you are remained of their redemptive traits and made to recollect, that men and women are just that, men and woman; struggling to the best of their abilities to make better lives, one generation to another, sometime, succeeding and sometime failing! The marvelous feature of this book is that almost every reader, will find a piece of themselves in one character or the other, with their believable portraits of people in flesh and blood! The plot goes back and forth, to explain the coming together of Katie and Johnny, giving insights into some of the character traits and contradictions and then moves forward, as Francine grows into a young woman, on the eve of US joining World War 1. 500+ pages may seem a bit tedious to follow, but the story, albeit not crowded with epoch making events, nevertheless gently flows and one is never really bored, though the scenery change slowly. The book also touches upon several subjects that were pertinent to the early 20th century and in some way and form remain relevant today – the projection of certain images for women in the society, gender politics, socialism and the role of Unions in taking care of their own etc. which add an additional layer of enrichment to the writing, making it both a deeply personal narrative and strong universal story at the same time.There are many many good things about the book, but the one that I feel is the  primary achievement of this book was the sense of tenacity that comes out from all the characters and which I feel is the underlying theme of the book. The sense that if you hang on, just hang on, you will live one day and thrive! Whether, it is Francine’s conviction that one day, she will go to college and be a writer or her aunt’s Sissy’s firm belief that one day she will have a baby, despite 10 miscarriages. The book resounds with a sense of hope, especially stemming from education – the absolute faith that books and education are key to a better life and hold the promise of a brighter tomorrow. Grandma Rommely ensures, all her children except one can go to school atleast until the age of 14 and the three Rommely sisters, Katie, Sissy and Evy all in difficult circumstances are committed to the fact that their children will graduate from High School. This especially felt close to my heart – my parents filed for bankruptcy when I was very young and never really got ‘the groove’ back and it was a childhood of starvation on one too many nights and choice between fees for school or shoes to wear for school and of books which made those days pass. It was education and books that blocked out a lot of harsh reality, and instead allowed the mind to travels to far off places with many interesting companions. It was also that very hard earned education and books that sang of a promise that life will be better one day! To end this novel to me is a true testament on the power of books which has borne evidence through my own life!

The End of June

June has finally come to an end and 6 months of 2018 are already over; time does pass, whether we like it or not and I can for sure say for this year, Thank Goodness for that! Monsoons have hit some part of the country and the expectation of rains, definitely makes life more bearable, especially when we remember that, rains will be followed by the glorious Autumn! To summarize, end of June brings much hope and the reading that happened this past month, just added on to the sense of enrichment and sanguine calm, which makes the terrible times pass and help you see through a better tomorrow! So what did I read in June?

White Flock by Anna Akhmatova, Translated by Andrey Kneller

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We thought: we’re poor and don’t have anything,

But as we started to lose one thing after another, 

So much that each day became

A remembrance day, 

We began to write songs

About God’s immense genrosity

And the wealth, we once had.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittian

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When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: ” We’ve won the war! ” They only said: ” The War is over.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography.”

The Lady of the Basement Flat by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey

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I have been here a week and am already endorsing the theory that you can never really know a person until you have lived together beneath the same  roof.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

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We all recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like. It is like this with nearly every aspect of his life and character: He is at once the best known and least known of figures.

This then was my readings for June and now here’s to a new month and new books!

Losing & Finding During The Great War

Carl Sagan in his essay “The Path to Freedom” co-written with Ann Druyan, said that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” If there is book that stands for understanding the world and a democratic society, then it must be Vera Brittian’s Testament of Youth. This book which has been in my TBR list for many years now and was supposed to be my December Read for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge 2018; until Jillian came along with her Read Along and her enthusiasm and some amazing pre-challenge activities that tempted me to move this book up in the TBR Challenge pile and start on it on priority!

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Testament of Youth is a memoir of Vera Brittian’s life capturing the years, from 1900 to 1925. Ms. Brittian who would achieve great success with publication of this work, was a nurse, a writer,a lecturer, a pacifist and a feminist and in this book, we get a glimpse of of events and happenings that went into her making of all the above! The book opens with a brief overview of Ms. Brittain’s family history – a well to do, upper middle class family. Her father, a Paper Manufacturer, and her mother a home maker as were most women at that time. Two years after her birth, her brother Edward was born and he would remain her closest companion through the years! The first Chapter captures her growing years and her schooling at St. Monica’s where she was introduced to History, feminism and politics through an energetic teacher. Chapter 2 continues the narrative where Vera describes her “coming out” year and her dissatisfaction with the lot of young women in those days that limited their lives to home and hearth and her battle with her father to go to Oxford University, in an effort to escape such a future and see more of the world. It was during this stage of her life she would meet Roland Leighton, a senior and a close friend of her brother Edward and with whom she would eventually become engaged. Chapter 3 follows Vera’s first year at  Somerville College, Oxford,  studying English Literature as England is drawn into World War 1 and both Edward and Roland and her other close male friends join the army to support the British war effort. As the fighting gets more and more intense and the hope of a quick victory diminishes, Ms. Brittain decides to delay her degree and starts to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. The next few chapters deal with her VAD years, which takes her to Malta and France, her personal struggles and both her own and her peer’s griefs; those who belonged to that “war generation” as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their youth, idealism and what was supposed to a promising future and finally the deaths of their loved ones! The final chapter of the book, deals with the close of the War, the after effect on the survivors and Ms. Brittian’s evolution as a writer and lecturer, the friendships that helped her heal, her completion of her delayed degree and finally her ability to close the door on the traumatic years and moving on to finding happiness.

There are some very few books in this world, that effortlessly draw you in, force you think and then, challenge you to be a better person. To me, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one such book and now Ms. Brittain’s Testament of Youth, joins that rank! Rarely does one come across writing that is strong and fierce and at the same time so poignantly heartbreaking; but Ms. Brittain achieves this feat and more. In some of the most powerful prose ever, the author takes us through some of the most transformative events of her life, from school years, to her college life to her engagement and the war and her final evolution as a Feminist and Writer; we are moved as readers, we are concerned at the well being of all involved in the narrative and when we close the book finally, we know we have an obligation to feel grateful, that our generation was spared of the searing pain and loss that our predecessors went through first 100 and then 80 years ago. In yet another marvelous first for me, this is the only memoir I have read, whose writing carries a “what-happens-next” feeling with the close of each chapter. Despite being relatively verbose, the pace of the books never slacks and the reader never feels bored with the events as they come through, one after the other! The characters are beautifully drawn and brought to life by Ms. Brittain and you cannot help but wish that you had known them in person. They are all realistic and wonderful, portrayed without any rancor, even the German POWs or the more difficult Matrons, and mankind is shown in some of its most minute lights, with all the kindness, joy, brilliance, anger and vulnerabilities! This book has often been described as a War Memoir, but I felt that it was too narrow a definition; for this book is so much more – it is a history of things we must never repeat so that lives are not needlessly lost, it is a history of epoch making events in Women’s Movement, it is a story of love and friendships and finally it is the story, that once again affirms that even in our deepest, darkest, most traumatic moments, we are not alone and what we are going through has already been experienced by someone else and from that experience also comes the final assurance, that things do pass and get better! To end, all I can say, is that this book makes us attempt to be more more humane and to read it, is critical in our evolution to be better! Read it!!! Read it now especially in this era of mindless chest thumping overt and agrressive nationalism that goes back in time to distinguish between Us and Them instead of an all encompassing understanding that we are all linked and my brother’s loss is my loss!

P.S. Adam I hope you will forgive the disruption in the order list of my TBR, but this one was just too good to pass up!

All About a Film….

Wener Herzog in his masterful book on art and filmmaking, A Guide for the Perplexed, referring to the filmmaker’s broader cultural responsibility said that, “We need images in accordance with our civilization and innermost conditioning, which is why I appreciate a film that searches for novelty, no matter what direction it moves and what story it tells….”  In an era of increased flash and dash and superimposed imagery, regularly churned from the mills of Hollywood or even from the shores of Bollywood, films which captures such ideals of reflections of civilizations and its conditioning are far and few to come by. If they do, they are often slotted under the broad category of” Cinema” or “Parallel Films” making one wonder, what is the true difference between “Cinema” and a “Movie” and what is parallel to the this parallel films. Rarely, does one come across, a film that combines the reflections of societal norms with a narrative, comparable to the plot lines of the more popular and what is termed as “Commercial Cinema”.

Panchaali, a film made under the flagship  of Pumpkin Entertainment, produced by Shweta Saraf and directed by Saurabh Bali, seems to fulfill this balanced nuance of reflecting the masochist tribal norms that still inflict, the Indian society in many parts as well a gripping narrative, that leaves the viewers breathless with a “what-happens-next” feeling. The film opens with 5 men waiting, for someone, on road, just off the main thoroughfare, of the big metropolis. Through their banter, it unfolds that they are all brothers and deal in land and politics. A white vehicle is then spotted by one of them and within a few minutes, all its passengers’ albeit one are killed due to non-payment of an old debt. This one survivor, the daughter of the family killed is taken hostage by the brothers and taken to their home. There the mother of the five brothers decides the faith of this girl, setting off a chain of events that would forever change this family and its history!

For those familiar, with Indian mythology, the resonance of the Draupadi’s tale from Mahabharata is very clear from the onset; however, that is where the parallel ends! The story then takes on a life of its own, wonderfully combining the details of an ancient myth and the modern day settings and reaction of both society and individual. It conveys the still traditional society of northern India, where a woman count for little and guns and violence still rules the day and makes for what is deemed as powerful.  At the same time, the film smartly in less than 40 minutes takes the viewers through a cataclysmic narrative, all the while clearly delineating the characters of plot, something many fail to achieve even in full length cinema! It is to the credit of the magnificent cast that this nearly impossible feat is achieved and despite an exceptionally talented ensemble, that competes for the viewers’ attention, by turns, outshining one another, with their talent, some callouts are necessary! Manav Mehra, who plays the eldest of the 5 brothers, is an experienced theater actor, who brings all his mastery of the craft to the screen; one cannot quite describe the eerie feeling, every time he looks into the camera. Bhanu Rana is yet another worthy talent and in his portrayal as the second brother, displays such strong raw raging emotions that come through palpably and the viewer feels both sympathy and irritation with him in turns. Nitin Rao as third of brother gives a strong controlled performance as the man, who knows he is better than his brothers and destined to be the king, but cannot quite bring himself to unhinge from the filial binds, though, he knows he stands to gain the most! However, the star of the film remains Nishtha Paliwal Tomar, conveying all the range of emotions that a woman torn from her moorings can convey. She is an absolute genius using  who is able to express a range of powerful feelings sharing with her the viewer her fear, angst and anger, making them cheer her on to survive, as she navigates through the most traumatic experience, that a woman can be forced into. The settings of the film convey exactly what it is meant to convey – vastness, desolation and captivity. The sights and sounds of a semi-rural culture in India, not too far from the metropolis, caught between ancient traditions and modern greed, assaults your senses, in every fine twist of the plot. While, there is much to appreciate in the film, there are some weak chinks in what can be seen as solid armor; most of the cast is tenured and bring all their expertise to camera, but some of the actors fail to emote anything and one wonders, that except for the one standard sly grin, which is expected to showcase everything from anger to lust, what does this particular character want to say to the audience. Also due to the duration of the film, some of the transition and changes of sentiments are not given enough time and the viewers expected to adapt to the changing psychological landscape of the character within minutes, which may make it slightly difficult to follow. But, despite some these minor shortcomings, the film is a brilliant effort, which is a testimony to the fact that with creativity, vision and a talented crew, an old story can be reinvented into a gripping modern tale.

The End of May…..

5 months have already gone by and suddenly, we are in the middle of the year! 2018 is passing and I cannot say I quite regret it; but I must also own, that the Summer has brought much peace and much needed calm to what had been a hectic Winter/Spring! And while the earth is baked under the powerful sun, that blazes down with all its fury in this part of world, I was able to sit quietly at home and read through several nights, drinking glasses of “Shikanji” (Indian Lemonade) and Buttermilk, in an effort to stay cool! Thus, I present to you, a snapshot of all my readings for the month of May –

From Persuasions by Jane Austen

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How quick come the reasons for approving what we like.”

From The Sign of Four by Sir Author Conan Doyle

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The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

From The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

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Deeds may speak more compellingly than words,but I believe words have their place too. A man who has both is gifted indeed.”

From Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

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“This was the great truth of life, that fact and fiction were always merging, interchanging.”

From The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

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Really, this man seems to have been considering the difficulties very intelligently. I wonder if he had an aunt?

From The Uncommon Reader by Allen Bennett

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Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.

From The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan

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It confirmed Mother’s secret conviction that the world had enough trouble without insisting all worship God the same way. There was room before the Throne for everyone who served Him – Baptists and the Hindus, Seventh Day Adventists, Muslims and Jews as well as Catholics.”

That’s my round of May books! Another Summer month beckons and hopefully, it will bring more books and great readings for all!

 

 

 

 

The Attempt ……

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction is considered to be the interwar periods, when such stalwarts as GK Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Micheal Innes and many more, who wrote, what can be termed as “whodunnit’; murder mysteries, with a cast of characters, a certain Upper Middle Class English setting, most likely in a English Country House. These novels were mainly written from an entertainment value and were kept simple, direct and without too much complexity or depth. Despite it’s decline in popularity, especially with the on set of World War II and criticism by many including Edmund Wilson, as non intellectual reading, this genre, for many remains a go-to, that helps them escape the real life and provides much needed amusement!

The Murder of my Aunt by Richard Hull is one such piece from this era. Published in 1934, it soon was celebrated as something special in the genre and hailed by  authors and newspapers alike including Dorothy L Sayers, Times Literary Supplement and New York Times. Yet today, this novel, remains virtually unknown with  only 120 ratings and 29 reviews on GoodReads. I myself stumbled on this book by chance, too lazy on a Saturday afternoon for any heavy reading, I found this little novel in Kindle Unlimited, with a very interesting premises and began reading it on a whim!

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The book begins with the narrator, Edward Powell, describing his life in a small village town, Llwll, in Wales,  where he lives with his Aunt, Mildred, on whom he is financially dependent. Early into the novel, it unravels that Edward is a weak, pompous individual who looks down on everybody and everything. His aunt, however comes across as an excellent woman, who is kind to her neighbors, popular in the society, a just and considerate human, who goes out of her way to take care of her orphaned nephew, though he seems little deserving of the same! The two personalities naturally come into conflict with each other, and often, with Edward constantly feeling that his aunt, was stifling him, because she holds the purse, despite Edward’s overall superiority. One such clash over delivery of some novels for Edward from the post office soon escalates, leading Edward to formulate a plan, which will once and for all take care of all his concerns and ensure he is never held in contempt by his aunt!

The book blurb says, that  “this classic mystery is considered a masterpiece of the inverted detective story, in which it is known “whodunit.”  I could not have described it better; turning the whole concept of “whodunit”, Mr. Hull, from the beginning keeps the reader is in confidence of the who, but is left wondering on how and what finally did happen. In what I consider a most innovative narrative of such genre, the author manages, what is often deemed impossible, a mystery, with dollops of humor. In Edward, we find a reprehensible, good for nothing and not to bright, but thinks he is bright character. While the readers, cannot help but dislike him, at some level, he manages to create a connection, nevertheless, where one is left wondering, what does happen to him. In the character of the the Aunt, we have a portrait of all that is solid, responsible and good. She endears, because she does not always know the answer but she tries to the best of her abilities! The supporting cast is equally magnificent, with all drawn true to life and many who must have resided in the 1930s small village towns, doing their bit and leading good lives. The plot is tightly drawn and though at times, the details of the planning may get tedious, they do not essentially take anything away from the narrative and the story flows along wonderfully! Quirky, witty and intelligent, this is one of those lost gems of the genre, that need to be read, if nothing, for its sheer originality!

The Archbishop of New Mexico

Yet another late post; a book that should have been read & reviewed in April, finally trundles into mid May and I go with the philosophy, that truly, some things are better late than never! As part of The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, an event hosted by Adam, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, was my TBR book for April, and though I managed to finish the novel within the month, but just never got to posting a book review!

Death Comes

Death Comes for the Archbishop chronicles the life and works of Archbishop Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his Vicar, Joseph Vaillant , as they attempt to establish a Catholic Diocese, in the newly captured New Mexico territory of United States. The novel begins with the Bishop and the Priest travelling from Ohio though difficult terrain to establish their Diocese in New Mexico. After some initial setbacks, including a trip that took a year and on arriving, realizing that the local Mexican Clergy, refuse to recognize the authority of Jean Marie Latour, the two worthy settle down to tame the wild elements of the Church which so far had been in lackadaisical fashion managed by the Mexican priests, and bring true piety and relief to the inhabitants, whether European or American or Indians. Over the years, they develop friendships with the local Indian leaders as well the American Businessman and Mexican Ranchers; they rescue an abused woman from the tyranny of a violent husband and convince yet another, to give up on her pride and declare her true age, so that she does not lose her wealth. They try and overcome the acrimony that exists between the local Mexican Priests and the new wave of leaders that Vatican was sending forth and enable the building of  a Romanesque Church. Finally they both end their days, in this land, Father Valliant pre-deceasing Father Latur, as the Bishop of Colorado. Father Latur now retired chooses to stay in New Mexico instead of returning to his homeland in France, dying in the company and service of the people with whom he worked and whose devotion to him till the end was unstinting and complete.

Ms. Cather remains as usual her brilliant self. The dry, difficult land of New Mexico, with its parallel institutions of the Indians, Mexicans and Americans cultures and politics comes alive in this slim novel. In sparse, but succinct prose, Ms. Cather manages to convey, not just the atmosphere, but also the depth of the characters and their past history, all the while, moving the plot along, in such magnificent manner, that leaves you in awe both as a reader and a writer. The lives of Father Latur & Father Valliant, Wikipedia, advises is based on the life and times of Jean-Baptiste Lamy & Joseph Projectus Machebeuf respectively and I am not sufficiently well read to comment on how true to life the portrayals are; however in the characters of Father Latur & Father Valliant, Ms. Cather, created the epitome of spiritual leaders, who like all humans were beset with doubts and weaknesses, but still lead their people, providing comfort, support and spiritual guidance as and when needed, with minimum interference and with a lot of respect for different cultures and practices. The ensemble cast is equally good, providing much needed “materialistic” and “earthy” props to the religious/spiritual narrative of the main protagonists. The thing that really stands about Ms. Cather’s writings is her sense of humanity; writing in 1927, she made it clear in her quiet writing style that the government’s practices against the Navajos, who were exiled to the Bosque Redondo, killing many of its population was unacceptable and defined the very principles of humanity! To end, I can only say, this is a beautiful, lyrical book, that seems to sings songs of the land and lives of the New Mexico Deserts!

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