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Bookish Snapshots – 2014

2014 has finally come to an end and I cannot in all honesty say I will miss it. It’s been one of the worst years of my adult life and good riddance to bad rubbish is all I have to say for these last 12 months. Having said that, there is a need to qualify the previous statement with some home truths – this has been a year of loss of more than one kind and of illness; however it’s also been a year of wonderful friendships that have sustained me through some dark days. It’s been year of finally figuring out what really matters and going after it, even if I fall a couple of times on the way. Finally it’s been a year which I could not have survived without the therapy of books and more books. Through my difficulties, it was the friendship and care of both the fictional and non-fictional characters that kept me going.

This last post of the year is therefore nothing but a quick round up of the how my reading mapped out for the year with a listing of the best books for me in 2014.

To begin with, in my 1st January 2014 blog post, I had laid down a reading plan for the year; my score against this plan is well middling, with win some and loose some!

  1. 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – I was expected to read at-least 15 Historical Fiction works and I completed 18 (review for two yet to come). Phew! One thing done!
  2. A Century of Books – I read about 10 books between the stated time period of 1850-1949; at this rate it will be 2024 before I finish this project. I have therefore decided to extend the deadline by 2019, which makes it 5 years – 20 books per year, way more doable!!
  3. Books on History – I failed miserably – I had planned on 12 and I finished only 4. This is one area of serious improvement. I have been neglecting non-fiction for last couple of years and it’s time to get back to it!
  4. Poetry – I had planned on reading 4 volumes through the year and I managed 3 including Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Not bad at all for starters!

Now for the final round up of my top 12 books (I want to break all stereotypes in 2015 so I am not going with a top 10/15 kind of thing!)

  1. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope – The characters, the subtle irony and a vivid display of Victorian England in all her grandeur as well as her pettiness. Oh! Mr. Trollope, you remain the best among the best!
  2. The Source by James Michener – This was a re-read and with age, this book’s depth just keeps on increasing. Michener’s story telling is compassionate and as sympathetic as this book takes the reader through more than 2000 years of Israel-Palestinian history through her people. Historically accurate and completely free of judgment, this book discusses the definition of “God”, “identity” and “homeland” without any fanatic aspersions. Viva Mr. Michener!
  3. The Complete Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield – This was the first time ever I read Katherine Mansfield and I simply fell in love with her work! Beautiful poetic language, sensitivity to glean what is not so obvious and fun. Brilliant is the only adjective that seems appropriate!
  4. The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern – Innovative narration style together with deep understanding of mankind made this book a wonderful read! I mentioned this in my post as well that what could have been a clichéd story, has been very cleverly crafted into a lovely heart searing sometimes tragic and sometimes optimistic tale.
  5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Speechless – I decide to quote what I felt directly from my post on this book –“The book is SCARY!!! I am not someone who is usually daunted by supernatural plots, but for the last three nights, I have slept with the lights on!!!!!I am so glad that I read this book finally and I have to agree with Stephen King (whose books by the way I really dislike!) who wrote that this book was one of the finest horror novels of late 20th century!!”
  6. Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey – Gorgeous, sumptuous and absolutely delightful. More 17th century customs, to long forgotten cuisines to damm good story, Ms. Bailey pulls it all together to make this novel a scintillating read!!
  7. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy – Oh! Lovely! Simple and lovely – a morality tale for the modern world told with humor, honesty and some of most moving words. I can now say “Margaret Kennedy” devotee for life!
  8. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – Unique narrative, a very balanced approach to what goes in being bad without giving into maudlin sentiments and a very creative understanding including one of the most intriguing images of what heaven constitutes off!
  9. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell – What can I say about Ms. Gaskell that has not already been said? True picture of 19th century mill workers condition, with all its harsh realities does not make this book tragic. In fact, Ms. Gaskell, very finely teaches us to look beyond the obvious to discover true greatness of mankind!! Sheer brilliance!
  10. My Antonia by Willa Cather – Wonderful characterization, beautiful description of the land and relationships that go beyond the clichés, Ms. Cather captivates us in this early 20th century tale of friendship, generosity and human endurance in the frontier towns of US.
  11. The Narrow Road to Deep North by Richard Flanagan – Intense, difficult, and dark, yet this book is a marvel. Through deep moving and soul searing words, Mr. Flanagan brings forth a tale of surviving love and war, in the back drop of a Japanese POW camp during World War II
  12. The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric – I am yet to do the review, but one word, is enough – SPLENDID!!

That rounds up my year of reading. To end, I came across this poem in The New Yorker and I wanted to quote it last line as they seemed very apt!  It’s by Ian Frazier and goes something like this –

Dear friends, this year was not real great.

There’s no need to enumerate

Just how gloomy it’s appearing.

Ever-better days are nearing!

Though dark nightmares be distinguished,

Still the light is not extinguished

By the darkness crowding ’round it.

Find hope’s advent by the sound it

Makes somewhere out in the distance:

Bells that ring with soft insistence,

Hoofbeats, voices singing faintly,

Hymns unearthly, almost saintly,

Mailmen’s footsteps, babies’ crying,

Wings of angels quickly flying,

News worth calling from the steeple, “Peace on earth, good will to people.”

Here’s wishing all of you & your loved ones a brilliant, successful and joyful 2015!! Cheers!!

Surviving Hell….

I am usually very wary of all the Pulitzer/Booker Prize kind of things. Most of these books, with a few and cherished exceptions do not make sense to me or seem downright pretentious. The last “award winning” book I attempted was “The Luminaries” and post reading that I decided that the book was of incredible value should I take up weight training one day, as it’s only utility can be as a “dumbbell” – PUN INTENDED!! Ok, now that I have offended half the reading population, let me get on to the crux of the matter. My skepticism was at the highest therefore when I picked up Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” despite Stefanie recommending the book strongly and as anyone who is regular at my post know that I put a lot of faith in Stefanie’s book reviews. My friend Linda from Goodreads also had very high words about this book and for a history fanatic, it was even set during World War II, what more could I want? To seal the matters, the back cover informed me the main plot surrounded a Japanese POW camp in Burma; the subject is very close home as my grandfather was a doctor as well who served the British Army during World War II and was one of the allied POWs in the China Burma India Theater. But I was still not completely convinced; the wounds inflicted by the Luminaria Goldfinches were deep.

The book begins with the first very first remembrances of Dorrigo Evans, the son of a poor railway worker who works his way through colleges and university to become a doctor and a surgeon and finally as World War II erupts, a Colonel in the British Australian forces. Before joining the army, he had worked to make a place for himself in the society and was looked upon by the Melbourne upper class as an up and coming young man of great promise. His life is all set and he has even found a girl, Ella of an old Australian aristocracy and money to settle down with. During a visit to a book store, he meets a girl who suddenly disturbs his well laid plans and things begin to get complicated as he discovers that this girl, Amy is also his uncle’s second wife. As Amy and Dorrigo get more involved, the world heads towards the cataclysmic phase of the war and with the fall of Singapore, Dorrigo Evan, finds himself held as a POW by the Japanese in the Burma Railway project. Though he struggles with memory of Amy and his expected obligations towards Ella, he is forced to set aside his personal turmoil, in order to not only survive, but help other men, other soldiers survive the hell of “The Line” with shortage of food, medicines and horrific conditions and merciless treatment meted out by the Japanese, that makes each day a struggle to just exist. The war eventually ends and the POWs are liberated, but Dorrigo fails to find a personal peace, despite a successful career, marriage, children and eventually a resounding status as a war hero. As things come to a full circle, around him, he finally grasps at what matters, when everything is said and done and even when some of things are left unsaid in the end.

This is not an easy book to read. The descriptions of the POW camp conditions are enough to give one a nightmare. You cannot dismiss them as simple fictional work, because these things happened and to think that our grandparents went through this hell is enough to start syndromes of “survivor’s guild, 3 generations removed.” Historically the work is absolutely and succinctly accurate, there is absolutely no effort by Mr. Flanagan to embellish the reality; it is served to reader as is harsh, dark and difficult, in a take it or leave it style! The characters are all very human and though I could hardly relate to anyone of them and some of them completely lacked depth, they are all everyday people – people who walk /breathe/live among us. People, who vacillate on making any of the critical decisions of life, stand tall as heroes because they simply have no choice. People with pride and people with a love of life all come together simply because they have to survive, when surviving each day equates to “living”. There are lies, deceit and fecklessness, but there is also courage, love and a belief of good to overcome the bad. Finally what really really impressed me were Mr. Flanagan’s words – beautiful, soul searing poetic majestic words, that brought forth sensitivity, hope and feelings. Words like “He felt more soft raindrops, saw bright-red oil against the brown mud, heard his mother calling again, but it was unclear what she was saying, was she calling him home or was it the sea? There was a world and there was him and the thread joining the two was stretching and stretching, he was trying to pull himself up that thread, he was desperately trying to haul himself back home to where his mother was calling. He tried calling to her but his mind was running out of his mouth in a long, long river towards the sea” and “Amy, amante, amour, he whispered, as if the words themselves were smuts of ash rising and falling, as though the candle were the story of his life and she the flame”.

It is this power of words that makes this book, despite its immensely dark subject, beautiful and hopeful.

Odds and Ends!

I was seriously not planning to blog today; I am in-between books and nothing exciting had happened that needed to be declared! Well, that’s when I came across these two nuggets and I knew that not sharing these with my book obsessed fellow bloggers would be a cardinal sin –

The first is a children’s poem by David McCord called Books fall Open and I thought it applied well to us adults as well – here goes:

Books fall open, you fall in, 

delighted where you’ve never been; 

hear voices not once heard before, 

reach world on world through door on door; 

find unexpected keys to things locked up beyond imaginings.

What might you be, perhaps become,because one book is somewhere? 

Some wise delver into wisdom, wit,  and wherewithal has written it. 

True books will venture, dare you out, 

whisper secrets, maybe shout  across the gloom to you in need, 

who hanker for a book to read.

Sigh! The absolute and unadulterated joy of reading!

Then came this one and I have to admit to most, especially #1, #3, #6, #10,#15 (Big Sigh! Lost count of how many times I have done this!) #16 (My work place is FULL of these moments!) and Naturally #17!

17 Problems Only Book Lovers Will Understand

That’s all I have for today! Happy Reading!

The Joy of “Living”…

I first heard of “The Blue Castle” by L.M. Montgomery from Jane. The fact that Ms. Montgomery has written anything outside of the “Anne of Green Gables” series was in itself a revelation, but the fact that she wrote adult novels was a whopper! Any girl who ever read Ann of Green Gables in her pre-teen years must become a lifelong devotee of Ms. Montgomery (some even later- my flat mate for instance read “Ann of Green Gables” just recently in her mid -30s and now she is convert! Imagine Ms. Montgomery’s effect then on adolescent youth!! ) and when you are a devotee, you stick by your Icon in all their shapes and forms. Naturally, to not read “The Blue Castle” was out of question and I finally wound down to do all kind of indulgent reading over this holiday and this book was lying among the top, HAS TO BE READ label!

The book is set in early 20th century and located in the fictional town of Deerwood, in Ontario. The novel opens with Valancy Sterling, our protagonist, waking up on a cold May morning, shedding copious tears, on her 29th birthday, reviewing all the have-not-dones in her life. She has lived her entire life among the large and formidable Sterling Clan, who have set narrow standards of how life ought to be led and by those standards, Valancy is a failure. She is 29 and has never been sought by any young man and is going to spend her whole life living as an old maid, living with her mother and cousin. She is neither good-looking, nor rich and therefore no man has even been interested in her and is completely dominated by her mother and constantly compared to her more beautiful and more socially acceptable cousin Olive. On top of all this, she is nicknames Doss and no one seems to be interested in addressing her as Valancy. Things however take a turn when, constantly bothered by a chest pain, Valancy consults a doctor, who tells her unequivocally that her heart is in a dangerous state and she has only one year to live. Finally realizing that the sands of time are slipping by, Valancy decides to shed her old life and live for this one year on her own terms. This includes moving out of her mother’s house, getting a job working for a town outcaste and falling in love with the town’s reprobate and living a thousand life times in a year. However, the fateful year is up and it’s time for Valancy to face the truth…

It is a lovely, slow-moving funny and soothing book. The characters are well defined and everyone’s role is cut out. Valancy Sterling is a very much a flesh and blood creature, inhibited by circumstances and when those circumstances become difficult, she discovers an inner courage and resilience that makes her a wonderful heroine. Barny Snaith completely answers to one’s idea of a hero –the reprobate with a heart of gold. The Sterling clan is exactly what it should be – horrid to live with, but absolutely laugh out loud funny when one reads of them.There are many hugely humorous moments and a strong sense of everyday fun, which keeps you smiling through the very end of the book. There are not too many wisdom nuggets or profound life truths in the book; but I think Ms. Montgomery was exactly doing that – writing a simple book, that highlighted the simple and therefore often overlooked pleasures of life. The plot is linear and everything kind of rushes in together headlong in the end, but it does not really effect the book. It’s got a lovely, absolutely marvelous Mill’s and Boon touch to the story, without being ekky, clichéd, kitschy and tactless, something most of today’s romances are. It is indeed a lovely love story of not only a man and woman, but also about loving life and loving nature. There are gorgeous descriptions of Muskoka region of Canada and the wilderness is described in all its splendor and beauty through the four seasons. There is some lovely lyrical portrayal of Southern Canada that makes you want to take the first flight to visit the place.

It’s a book you take out with you when you have the whole day stretching ahead with no plans you can sit soaking the winter sun, and multi task at reading this book in a unhurried manner and watch the squirrels play. Trust me this book is best read in natural surrounding!

By the Cornish Coast….

After many days of waiting and never finding the moment, I finally managed to start and finish Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. As has been evident from my previous posts, this was one book I had been waiting to read for some time, but time and other matters intruded ; however I was determined not to let this year go without reading this one and I am very glad to say atleast that’s one tick mark against my very abysmal 2014 accomplishments!

The book is divided into 5 parts and commences in 1890 with the narrative of a young Mark Castallack who introduces us to Penmarric, an estate in Cornwall which was to be inherited by his mother Maud, but which instead went to her cousin Giles who in turn had warmed his way to Maud’s father affection, after the death of her brother. Maud herself was separated from her scholarly and gentlemanly husband Laurence Castallack and instead resides in London and spends her life in a legal battle to secure Penmarric for her son. Mark Castallack who is not fond of his mother and feels more kinship to his father’s quiet and scholarly taste has no interest in Penmarric, but rather hopes to become a historian like his father. He works hard and goes to Oxford to read history, while his mother continues to wage a battle for Penmarric which she ultimately loses. However with the death of Giles’s only son, Mark suddenly becomes the heir to Penmarric. It is at this time that his father closes his own house, an estate, in North Cornwall and comes to reside near Penmarric is a small farm which he inherited from his mother. While visiting his father, one day Marc meets a widow of a farmer, Janna , who is 10 years his senior, but with whom he is instantly taken. Janna however is not interested in Marc and angered by her rejection, Marc goes away to a sea side resort, where he meets, Rose, a daughter of a doctor who works as a Nanny after her father’s death. Spurred on my Janna’s rejection, he sets out to seduce Rose and then returns to his father’s farm. Rose however soon becomes pregnant and things come to a head as Laurence dies while seeking reconciliation with Marc, after a bitter argument, when the former comes to know about Rose. With the death of Laurence, followed soon by demise of Giles, Marc takes over Penamrric and sets out to conquer Janna, with turbulent results that reverberate through two generations of the Castallack family, spanning over 60 years.

The book from the very beginning calls out that it is more of a modern retelling of history of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the rise and fall of the Plantagenet family.  Each book begins with a brief synopsis of the Plantagenet family history, which vaguely gives the reader the idea of the premises of the chapters which would follow. It is the credit of the author that despite this synopsis, which kind of lays bare what is about to unfold, the grip of the plot is never lost and as a reader, you would keep turning pages to see actually what does happen. This fine balance of marking out the premises without giving away the solution to the suspense is a fine a delicate art and Ms. Howatch manages this with mastery and great finesse. Her characters are all capable of being generous, liberal, and honest and brave at the same time also behave in an unworthy manner. They are all well drawn out and each character stands independently and distinctly of each other and makes the plot more taut. However there are some inconsistencies – there is a sudden turning of really bad to really good without enough explanation; for one instance you are blackmailing your own father and next minute the same person is revered as a local hero. While I understand that man has many facets, goodness is often well rounded and while we all have moments of weakness, rarely have I seen a nature so contradictory. Having said that, these inconsistencies, do not take anything away from the story and the narratives plays out beautifully, doing ample justice to the lovely beauty of Cornwall as well the very unsettled history of England, 1890-1945. In fact this is another master stroke by Ms. Howatch, many historical novels have a tendency to become history books where history and not the story is main stay of the novel; but in this book, there is again a very fine balance where, one is constantly aware of the changing dynamics in the history and society of Engalnd without taking center stage. Breakdown of the old social order is brought out more by the conduct of the characters rather than a linear narrative. For instance, at the very onset it is clear Marc Castellack favors the traditional idea of women in vogue then where “intellect’ was not a lady’s forte, but rather home and hearth should be the core of her existence. Yet the same Marc Castellack some 35 years later supports his daughter’s education and sends her to Cambridge. This kind of story telling slowly and distinctly unravels the changes in the history while marrying it skillfully with the core theme.

I cannot say I am absolutely fond of this book, in fact I felt it would make a better film than a book, considering the father against son, brother against brother, blackmail, adultery etc. However I am extremely glad to have read it once and if nothing else, as a reader, you will be left breathless, with most glorious description of Cornwall that you could see, breathe and even feel Cornwall.

The Old World…

Finally Finally, the vacation has cometh!!! Oh!! How I love these holidays…birthdays, Christmas, New Year etc. etc. this is indeed the season to be jolly!!! My plans for vacation are naturally reading and reading and reading!!! But I thought it would be nice if I began this vacation blog series a little differently and share with you all some photographs and a quick historical snapshot of Old Delhi, where I went on a walking tour yesterday! Old Delhi, initially called Shajahanbad was built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1639. Situated on the bank of river Yamuna, this red sandstone fortress encompassed an entire city with its wall enclosing upto nearly 1500 kilometers. The main street is known as Chandni Chowk, literally meaning the moonlit square. This was established by Princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of the Emperor and served as the center of old Delhi trade and society in 17th century. Its street food is still famous and the restaurants have been run by the same families for the last 300+ years.  The Jama Masjid is the main mosque of this region and serves as the spiritual center of all Muslims in India. This Walled City is also home to one of the premier poets of India, Mirza Ghalib, whose songs are still sung and poems still revered. I will now actually stop being garrulous and just share the photos instead!!

Photo Courtesy : mentallynailbiting (AKA my flatmate and most awesome best friend)

Pioneering Relations…

I finished reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia two days ago and I wanted to wait and assimilate my thoughts before I began blogging about it. My Antonia fell very neatly into two my reading events for December – The Classic Club Spin #8 and heavenali’s Willa Cather Reading Week. When my friends from blogosphere got to know in my previous post that this was in my reading plan, there were lots of good words and encouragement about a book that seemed to be universally liked! Needless to say this added to my angst…I am not too fond of hail the frontier kind of books…I love history but somehow the frontier things, maybe because it has been made so hackneyed and clichéd by popular culture makes me wary. Adding on top of that was my experience that if a book is excessively liked, I will end up NOT liking it; case to the point, my readings of Madame Bovary and Rebecca.

However there was much support and such strong belief among the people I really respected, about this book that I could not give the it up and I ventured forth.

My Antonia” begins with a short introduction by the author about Jim Burden, now a successful lawyer and humane person, who as a boy grew up in Nebraska’s frontier town and country and whose close association with Antonia, made it fitting that it is his story of Antonia is shared with the public

The story then opens with a 10-year-old Jim Burden travelling to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents. On the same train, the conductor lets Jim and Jake, the ranch hand entrusted with getting Jim to Nebraska, that a family from Bohemia is also travelling to the same town of Black Hawk and no one in the family could speak any English, except for the little girl, who could hammer together a few words and was a few years older to Jim. The Shimerdas from Bohemia are Jim Burden’s closest neighbors, come to make their fortune in the new land through farming. On behest of Mr. Shimerda, Jim and his grandmother began to teach Antonia. Their days of childhood is surrounded by games and nature and sunshine and though the Shimerdas are struggling to gain their foothold in the new country, Antonia is the companionship of Jim blossoms into a vivacious, strong girl with sensitivity and delicacy. However the idyllic days come to a halt when Mr. Shimerda commits suicide, grieving over the loss of his place in society and the loneliness of the new country. Antonia then goes to work for her brother, doing hard farm labor, while the Burden’s move to the town of Black Hawk, retiring from their farm. Mr. and Mrs. Harling are their new neighbors and under the influence of Mrs Burden, Antonia starts working in the kitchen for Mrs. Harling. She is much-loved and treated as a family member until an inevitable break comes in this relationship. Antonia’s life then takes on various different paths until takes her almost to the very edge of the precipice, till life comes back to a full circle!

On the face of it, it is indeed a Pioneerish novel, but there is just so much more to it! The characters more than the plot moves this story forward and there is a whole ensemble of this cast, each more memorable than the other; each holding a place in the reader’s heart. Jim Burden is a wonderful, kind generous boy who grows up to be a down to earth generous man. Men like that with honor and care for others are more found in books than in life and more is the pity!!! Naturally the protagonist Antonia is a lovely, courageous girl full of life and though her life chances are often stunted by various events in her life, her duty and her principles raises her from the ordinary. But it’s not just Jim Burden and Antonia’s character that holds you spell-bound, but a host of others as they flit through the lives of these two – the kind and noble Otto Fuchs and Jake Marpole, the very distinguished and kind Josiah and Emmaline Burden and for all her faults Mrs.Harling. You love these characters and wish you had the honor of knowing them all. One of the underlying trait of all Willa Cather’s character is generosity – the ability to help not only when convenient, but even in your extreme distress, if others are in need, you lend a hand. May be it was part of the pioneer culture, may be it was the then sparsely populated difficult land that forced men to be generous towards each other, for if they did not look out for each other, who would have? The land and its culture comes out racing through the book…you can see, hear and even feel Nebraska. There are some lovely and lyrical description of the land and her seasons that takes your breath away!! But most of all I liked and loved the comradery between Jim Burden and Antonia. In today’s day of tagging all relationships and constantly placing a sexual relation in the mix, it’s refreshing to read of a bond of love and friendship and comradery between two people of opposite gender that went beyond the clichéd definitions of a relationship. The relation between Jim and Antonia was so much deeper and closely linked to the very land where they grew up and I am so very impressed that Ms. Cather in an age way before our times where even now friendships between men and women is looked at with skepticism, could not only fathom but also beautifully evolve a rich relationship of depth and platonic love. It is truly brilliantly done!!

Now I know all my friends were right.  As always, a big thank you to Ali, Stefanie, Jane and Cleo for encourging me to read this book!!! I am so glad to have listened to all of you once again and to have read this book!!

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