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Posts from the ‘Humanity’ Category

Tis That Time of the Year…..

Here we are, on the very last day of 2018 and it’s time to reflect and wonder, where did the year go? Of course, you may have already done this and that shows you are more practical, attuned to the demands as well value of time and over all circumspect in your approach. If that is so, then I hold you in admiration, if not, well, you have my company in the last minute reflections!

I cannot quite say I will miss 2018; I have always held the belief that even years are better for me, however 2014 and 2018, seem to really challenge this hypothesis. 2018, was in every possible way a horrid year, filled with all kinds of disagreeable happenings. In fact it was so bad, I went headlong and rushed an event, just so I can get it over and done with it this year, rather than let it fester in what I would like thinks is a brand new page. With an exception of one desperately sought professional movement, this year been blackest of black, with not even a tinge of grey to break the blackness. Thankfully, there were friends and books to see me through, yet again!

And this brings me to what is actually at the heart of this post, the 18 best books that I have read in the year! As is my tradition, based of the year number, I select that many books from my reading repertoire, in what can only be termed as one of the bestest reflections of the year. Therefore without further ado, here we go, in no particular order-

  1. Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva – This 11th century collection of Indian short stories was a significant departure from the traditional scholarly/spiritual texts of Sanskrit. In this earthly collections of tales, Kings and Courtiers, Queens and Maids, Priests and Merchants, Lions and Jackals, all battle it out for material gains of love, money, power, without managing to sound didactic or moralizing
  2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – I cannot, simply cannot enumerate the brilliance of John Steinbeck or how wonderfully he translated it all in this book – the saga of the Hamilton and Task families in the turn of the century Salinas Valley, where the most vile is redeemed, by the sheer power of choice.
  3. The Diary of Nobody by George Grossmith – My second re-read and what is there not to love about this middle aged bumbling man in his new house and old wife and friends, as he meanders through his own life, while trying to steer the lives of his loved ones, in a most hilarious, uproariously funny writing ever!
  4. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – In this now celebrated and seminal writing, Ms. Woolf put down the very basic needs that remain unfulfilled for women, making them economically dependent and thus weaker, among the sexes.
  5. Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot – I have never been a fan of Ms. Elliot and though her novel, Middlemarch is considered by many the best possible English Novel; she is one author, I just could not get through and constantly struggled with. Until on a whim, I picked up The Scenes of Clerical Life and fell in love with the three short novellas that constitute this novel. The prose, the plot and the characters, all wove together, to create one of my best reads of the year. This book was powerful enough to goad me to try another Elliot – Daniel Deronda, through which I am still plodding!
  6. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield – This funny, ironic and downright crazy narrative of a Lady living in Provincial England in between the two wars, is an absolute delight! While our narrator battles the various requirements of the Lady of the house, to various persons, including her laconic but practical Land Agent husband,the Cook who rules the household and itinerant round of parlor maids/menservants, not to mention her demands at the Woman’s Institute, as a reader, your are swept away by the  everyday life  and challenges which are as real now, as they were in 1930s and cannot help but appreciate Ms. Delafield’s ability to them on their head, and make it all look like one gigantic joyride. This was such a wonderful read that I ended up reading this twice in the year! 

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  7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith – I discovered Arkady Renko very late in my life but having discovered him, I wasted no time in falling in love with this fictional hero. Set in 1980’s Soviet Union, the story follows the investigation by Renko, an investigator in Moscow’s Prosecutor’s office as he hunts for the identity of the three murdered victims, whose bodies are found in a cold April afternoon in Gorky Part and their killer, taking him across USSR and US, and changing the very complexion of his life so far!
  8. February by Boris Pasternak; Translated by Andrey Kneller – Boris Pasternak was another non favorite. I could not, simply could not make myself like Dr. Zhivago or his unending whining about Lara. But while reading Gorky Park, I realized that Pasternak was appreciated in Russia more as poet than a novelist and that prompted me to try and read some of his poetry. This turned out to be one the best literary decisions of my life as I can now understand, why Russians love Pasternak. I quote directly from my post on this collection, as I simply have no other way to describe the sheer power of these poems – “Pasternak in this collection of 27 poems brought the Russia that he knew, with all its beauty and tragedy to life, painting on a vast canvass, touching upon the key notes of everything that constitutes mankind. And while I am wary of all translated works, simply because one does not know exactly what is lost is translation, even in essence, there is enough in this work to enrich your soul and your mind!”
  9. Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. PearceHelen has introduced me to great many books and Dear Mrs. Bird is one such book for which I will be eternally indebted to her. This novel about a plucky, funny and sometimes clumsy heroine, who dreams of a job as a Lady War Correspondent only to end up working for a woman’s self help column, that brings her success, challenges and one of the ultimate tests of life, is one the best new books of the year, according to yours truly.
  10. The Murder of my Aunt by Richard Hull – This little gem is something I stumbled upon sheer chance and what a find it was! The author in a reverse narrative, actually let’s the reader on who is going to murder whom and then leads us on a merry ride of adventure, fun and a unique take on English life and times in early part of 20th century! An absolute marvel.
  11. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittian – If I had to pick one book which elevated me, made me cry and enriched me as a human being, teaching me some important lessons, it would be this absolutely scintillating memoir by Ms. Brittian tracing her youth, her struggle for education and finally the heartbreak of war. This book is a lesson of things we must NOT do as people and as responsible adults, who should bequeath a better world to the younger generation. This book forces one to think and challenge one’s belief system and then no matter how hard, work to better the world, in whatever small way we can!
  12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – Another book which came very close to Testament of Youth and enriched me as a being! This story of coming of age of Francine Nolan, her struggle for education, the constant challenges of poverty and an incapable, albeit bright father and a fierce mother, to her final tryst to college on the eve of US joining the Second World War, is more than a story of young adult. It is about determination, it is about dreaming and of never letting go what you truly want, no matter how daunting the obstacles.
  13. I, Claudius by Robert Graves – Yet another author I was wary of reading, but I finally managed to read and of course love. I, Claudius traces the early years of Claudius, the future Emperor of Rome, nephew to one Ceaser and brother to another is hardly a typical hero but Robert Graves with his deep research and brilliant writing, makes him a memorable character, with kindness and intellect, who could be a straight arrow or a diplomat as the situation demanded and whose these very skills, and not one of physical poweress will make him survive one of the most difficult and suspicious history of Roman History, to become one of the longest ruling Ceasers.
  14. The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – There are books, that really do not have a nail biting plot or a sensational character or an epoch making historical event to serve as a background. Yet, in the setting, the characters and in the narrative, things come to together so well, that they are just right and tug at your heartstrings! The Flowering Thorn is one such book.  Lesley , the young woman about town, has everything that she wants, but is somehow unhappy. On a whim, she adopts an orphan and begins life in the country with all the challenges of keeping a cook, managing a house, not becoming and then becoming friends with the Vicar’s wife and of course taking care of young being, leading to a life that comes in an enriched full circle. Beautiful, poignant, and just lovely, I will forever be grateful to Jane for introducing me to this book!
  15. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – One of those highly cried up books of 2017, that I meant to read, but did not want to, because mostly such books are such disappointments. However I am glad I sloughed on this one.This story of Count Rostov an unrepentant aristocrat, who is punished by the Socialist Government in 1917 Russia to be confided in an attic room of the Grand Hotel overlooking Kremlin as the most volatile era of modern Russia evolve, is more than just another historical fiction. It is a deep insight into the Russian society, the changing of the guards and love that comes from the heart, without any blood bonds. I do not have enough words to describe this intellectually and emotionally illuminating book. You have to read to experience it!
  16. Final Meeting by Anna Akhmatova; translated by Andrey Kneller – Yet another book of poetry picked from the reading of Arkady Renko series. Anna Akhmatova’s poetry shines and glitters through the desolation and heartbreak, both at what happens to her personally and to her beloved Russia. It is often said, that the best poets experience pain, to write the very best poetry. I cannot even begin to fathom, the amount of pain, Ms. Akhmatova must have gone through, for such amazing works like Final Meeting, Epilogue etc. Mr. Kneller’s translation as always is appreciable in keeping the integrity and the essence of these poems very close to the originals in Russian
  17. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Torton – All stories after a point are more or less similar, and there can only be so much one can do with a murder mystery….right? Wrong. You need to read this absolutely shocker for I have no other word to describe this completely mind blowing work of Mr. Torton’s. Innovative, twisted, with a punch at the end of each chapter, only a book as this roller coaster could have helped keep me doom and gloom at bay, and help me get perspective back. Very rarely do I use this sentiment, but this book definitely calls out – Vi Va Mr. Torton!
  18. High Rising by Angela Thirkell  – I usually love most of the woman authors and their works who published some of the best pieces of fictions between 1870-1950 and am greatly indebted to many of my blogging friends for introducing me to their work. But Angela Thirkell despite all the commendations, I held back, because of what appears to be slight class consciousness in her writings. However on seeing this book listed by Cleo as a Christmas read, I decided to take the plunge. And am I glad that I did. Laura Moorland is a successful author of paperbacks for woman readers which has enabled her to raise her 4 sons, the youngest of whom, Tony is now the only one in school. Her work has also enabled her to get a flat in London and a cottage in the country, where she is headed with her son, this Christmas, to get some rest, write her book and meet old friends in High Rising. But there is a newcomer who is upsetting the serene settings of this countryside and Ms. Moorland must gather her wits, to ensure, peace continues to reign. In this she is ablely aided by many of her friends, including the village doctor, her publisher, her secretary and her formidable housekeeper Mrs. Stokes.  Unique character, uproariously funny dialogues and a plot that without being outstandingly different, neverthless holds your attention and flows smoothly! Great book to end the year with.

These then are my 18 favorites of 2018. A special shout out to Adam whose challenge,  The Official 2018 TBR Challenge, helped me read a lot of books that have been lying in my TBR forever, but from one reason or another, I did not venture forth. While I was not able to finish the entire planned 12 books, 5 of the 18 books listed stem from this challenge, which goes to show you need a friend to give you a push, always!

I cannot think of better ending for this long post and and even longer year than this piece by Ian Frazier, published a couple of years back in New Yorker  –

Dear friends, this year was not real great.
There’s no need to enumerate
Just how gloomy it’s appearing.
But 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.” 

A peaceful, happy and bookish or whatever ish makes you happy 2019 to everyone!

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!

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 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!

Of Seasons, Longings & Despair in Soviet Russia

Allen Ginsberg, in his biography, Ginsburg : A Biography by Barry Mills had explained poetry as something which was “not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”  This meaning of poetry and the work of the poet comes out in all its vivid forms in a collection of Boris Pasternak’s poems, February, translated by Andrey Kneller. Boris Pasternak, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner who declined the honor under pressure from the Soviet Government, and whose work, Doctor Zhivago has been immortalized in every possible form of media,  was born in a well to do Jewish family (though the Pasternaks had assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church for years) and had lived through the most turbulent years of Russian History – World War I, Russian Revolution, World War II and the Great Purge, had captured all this changing history of the land and her people and thought about it and then poured it into words of great beauty and resonance, in an act of making a private world, public!

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Boris Besides the Baltic Sea, by Leonard Pasternak, 1910

February is a slim volume of only 110 pages but within it, are 27 pieces of powerful poetry, that touch upon a variety of subjects ranging from politics, the faith of Pasternak’s beloved Russia, Nature, Christianity and Love! The compilation begins with the said poem February, first published in 1912, and in sparse, terse words, Pasternak manages to blend in the pathos of the last dregs of winter, with mankind and poetry. I fell in love with the simple but powerful opening lines of the poem –

Oh, February, To get ink & Sob! 

To weep about it, spilling ink

One poem that especially was singed into my imagination, is apparently nameless, and powerfully captures the rule of Stalin and its destructive forces on a person and his soul!

The cult of personality is stained,

But after forty years, the cult

Of gray monotony and disdain

Persists like the day of old

Each coming day appears lackluster

Until, it’s truly hard to bear

It brings but photographic clusters,

Of pig like and inhuman stares.

The cult of narrow minded thinking

Is likewise cherished and extolled.

Men shoot themselves from over drinking,

unable to sustain it all.

There is a soul searing piece called Noble Prize, written, after he declined the honor which captures the raw anguish and pain of Pasternak on the stands he was being forced to take, by the very same country and government, he did not choose to abandon or flee, while all his family and friends left, believing in the ultimate good of Lenin led Socialist society! And here in lies the greatness of the poet, that despite all the angst and heartbreak, he ended the poem in hope and faith –

Even now as I am nearing the tomb

I believe in the virtuous fate

And the spirit of goodness will soon

Overcame all the malice and hate

Yet another poem titled Hamlet, captures the need to walk away from a predestined plot, to address something more urgent and ephemeral!There are lovely play of words in his poems about nature, from White Nights to the one called Spring Flood, to yet another work called Easter. His love for Olga Ivinskaya comes through in all the glory of meeting, falling in love and then when Ivinskaya was sentenced to Siberia, of longing, guilt and memories, in the poems titled as Meeting  and then, Parting. The fact that Pasternak was a student of philosophy is a fact that is never really far off in his poetry and in many of his writings,  he touches upon ideas of what is tangible and what is transcendental, especially in his poetry of nature. In Autumn, he says, 

The Lodge’s wooden walls now gaze

At us with grief and hopelessness.

We never vowed to break the restrains’

We will decline with openness. 

There are many powerful and moving things in this collection that shines like a beacon of what poetry is all about! Pasternak in this collection of 27 poems brought the Russia that he knew, with all its beauty and tragedy to life, painting on a vast canvass, touching upon the key notes of everything that constitutes mankind. And while I am wary of all translated works, simply because one does not know exactly what is lost is translation, even in essence, there is enough in this work to enrich your soul and your mind!

 

The Parish of Milby

Despite years of long and extensive reading, there are some authors, with whom I could not become friends. I have no idea why, because they write about subjects and settings that immensely interest me and are often much loved by many whose tastes and opinions I admire. But for whatever reasons things simply do not come together and they simply do not work for me! George Elliot is one such author. My grandmother, whose bookish tastes, my family says I have inherited loved, all her works. Many of my friends, both from the bloggish and non blogish world have often pointed out to the nuanced writing that her books brought forth. But I remained,  unmoved. Mill on Floss, made me want to throw the book at something and I gave up on Middlemarch, like 100 pages into the book. I was not meant to appreciate Ms. Elliot and there was not much I can do about it. Then last week, casting around for something Trollopian to read, but not Trollope, GoodReads threw up a suggestion of Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot. I was about to pass on and then for some reason, decided to give it a shot. It seemed like a short novel; only 200 pages (My error; I misread the 404 pages!) so it was not like I would lose much. Thus I began my journey around the Parish of Milby, the first ever novel by Ms. Elliot!

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Set in the last 20 years of 18th century, the book, which consists of 3 separate novellas, interwoven through the time and place and common characters, takes the reader through many different ideas of Church, Local Politics, Spirituality, and Domestic Abuse. The first narrative called “The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton” tells the tale of an ordinary Curate in the parish church of Stepperton, near the the village of Milby. Amos Barton, has lofty ideals but neither posses brilliance of oratory or a commanding personality to morph his ideas and to make them palatable to his Parishoners and develop a following among them. He is married to a wonderful and devoted woman, Milly, who has borne him 6 children and their circumstances are strained due to the ever increasing family and the small stipend derived from the Curacy. However, Reverend Amos Barton, goes about his work with much zeal as he is convinced that he has an obligation to imbue his congregation with what he believes to be the Orthodox Church views! More troubles are however fated for the Bartons as their worldly and pretentious friend Countess Caroline Czerlaski takes up residence with them after quarreling with her brother, making the financial situation even more difficult and hurting Milly’s health as the latter is stressed physically and mentally in trying to make everyone around her comfortable, culminating in an terrible tragedy for the family! The second novella, “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” begins with the death of the much loved  Maynard Gilfil, who was the Vicar of Shepperton many years before Mr. Barton. Mr. Gilfil however unlike his successor was much loved and much mourned on his death. He had lead an admirable life fulfilling his duties and sometimes, going beyond it, never afraid to laugh and find amusement at whimsical nonsense, always concealing a deep personal tragedy that marked his life, at a very young age. Around 1788, when he was a young Chaplin at the Cheverel Manor, he fell in love with the Caterina Sarti, an Italian orphan brought up by Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, who took her into their care following the death of her father. Tina, as she was called, while having a very affectionate regard for Mr. Gilfil, was however in love with Captain Anthony Wybrow, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher Cheverel. Captain Wybrow, was a man of selfish principles, whose only aim was to secure Sir Christopher’s good humor and consequently his wealth and had no qualms, in abandoning his “feelings” for Tina, when Sir Christopher, unbeknownst of the feelings of Tina, directed Captain’s Wybrow’s attention and hence approval to a suitable match. This engagement, broods no good and leaves behind a slew of tragedies, destroying the happiness of all directly and indirectly involved. The third and final novella, “Janet’s Repentance” is set in the town of Milby.  The first chapter advises the reader, of the brewing storm between the people of Milby, who are divided in two fractions – one supporting the traditional teachings of Mr. Crewe and the others, supporting the newly appointed Curate at Paddingford Common, Mr. Edgar Tryan, who is an Evangalican preacher and whose opponents view him as a dissenter. The strongest opponent of Mr. Tryan is Richard Dempster, a shrewd, strong tempered lawyer, who in companionship with others comes up with schemes to destroy Mr. Tryan’s  plans. Mr. Dempster is supported by his wife Janet, who however opposes Mr. Tryan out of her affection for Mr. and Mrs. Crew who have been her oldest and kindest friend. Beautiful and kind Janet has not had a easy life, especially after marrying Dempster, who turns out to be an alcoholic with a violent temper, who has been subjecting Janet to domestic violence for 15 years of their marriage. Deprived of children and constantly subject to severe physical violence, with no support system except an old mother, Janet, herself turns into an alcoholic to numb herself of the mental and physical degradation. As things, take a turn for worse for Janet and she falls further into the abyss, rescue, comes in the most unexpected manner, giving her back, hope and spiritual sustenance.

George Elliot finally weaved her magic on me and I am still reeling from her talent, her insightfulnes and her ability to write prose as if she was painting a picture through words! I have no idea, if and when I will read her other works, but for now this first novel of her’s has rendered me speechless. I do not like reading tragedies, but her tragedies, are woven in hope and the rejuvenating spirit of love, that sustains us, even when we lose the loved ones! The first novella, requires patience as it is one of her less confident works and does not do much to keep your interest from wandering. However, it is a short novella and by the second one, you are for sure hooked. The brilliance of Ms. Elliot  I think lies in the characters she drew – in short novellas, where there is only limited ability to bring out the protagonists, she not only brings them to life, but she makes us feel that we have known them, and known them well for a very long time. Another thing that really really impressed me was her prose, her wonderful description of gardens, and chapels and homes! Here’s a sample of what I mean – the castellated house of grey-tinted stone, with the flickering sunbeams sending dashes of golden light across the many-shaped panes in the mullioned windows, and a great beech leaning athwart one of the flanking towers, and breaking, with its dark flattened boughs, the too formal symmetry of the front; the broad gravel-walk winding on the right, by a row of tall pines, alongside the pool—on the left branching out among swelling grassy mounds, surmounted by clumps of trees, where the red t of the Scotch fir glows in the descending sunlight against the bright green of limes and acacias; the great pool, where a pair of swans are swimming lazily with one leg tucked under a wing, and where the open water-lilies lie calmly accepting the kisses of the fluttering light-sparkles; the lawn, with its smooth emerald greenness, sloping down to the rougher and browner herbage of the park, from which it is invisibly fenced by a little stream that winds away from the pool, and disappears under a wooden bridge in the distant pleasure-ground; and on this lawn our two ladies, whose part in the landscape the painter, standing at a favourable point of view in the park, would represent with a few little dabs of red and white and blue.  Despite the somber subjects, Ms. Elliot also carefully manages to add in humor and satire at the then society and its follies – “What a resource it is under fatigue and irritation to have your drawing-room well supplied with small mats, which would always be ready if you ever wanted to set anything on them!” Most importantly, Ms. Elliot seemed to have been blessed with a deep understanding of man’s heart and the ability to express it to the T – “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself—it only requires opportunity“. There is so much I can say about this book and so many things I can quote and  in spite of all my enthusiasm, I know these works are not perfect – there are some cliched events and convenient deaths and sometimes, things get too much descriptive. Yet such is the power of the writing of Ms. Elliot, that you only want and only will remember the brilliant parts, making you feel, that this is a work of absolute marvel!

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