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Posts tagged ‘Reading’

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 Fourth Attempt at the 24hrs Madness

Many moons ago (actually over 1.5 years ago; excuse the dramatics!) I was casually meandering over my fellow blogger’s post, when I stumbled upon Brona’s post on Dewey’s 24hrs Hours Readathon – a reading event, that happens twice a year, where a bunch of book crazies across the world come together and read for 24hrs. Its not literally 24 hrs, but as much as you can and of course, the idea is to bond with fellow bookish people, discuss books, food, running (anything that keeps you awake!) and have fun! I started on a whim back in the October event of 2016 and have ever since looked forward to the event with great anticipation and eagerness! This year is no different and on April 29th, I embark with all my fellow book crazies on this 24 hour madness!

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The big question is what books do I read? The organizers this time have come up with a very unique and intriguing  concept of a Scavenger Hunt and the idea is to match books to some of those categories; nothing is mandatory, but it is  a lot of fun to compare and discuss and talk when we participate in such group efforts , so here goes –

  1. Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather – This is part of my Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge’s April Read and also neatly fits in the category #25 Bust the TBR – (on the TBR shelf for more than a year)
  2. Shakespeare – The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson – I think it’s high time I read some biographies and I love Bryson’s writing, so I am really looking forward to this one. This also fulfills category # 10 – Learn something new (Read a non-fiction book, be that self-help, biography, autobiography, etc) of the Scavenger Hunt
  3. The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn – I cannot do a 24 hour reading event without 1 Historical Fiction; ok, make that 2! This one comes highly recommended by Helen, whom I have much faith in! This one goes towards category # 16  – Visit 50 countries of the Scavenger list! Set in Scotland!
  4. Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce – This is the second historical fiction for the reading list, and yet another recommendation by Helen. Goes towards category #6 – Unknown Books (Read books with less than 1,000 Goodreads ratings) of the Hunt
  5. Persuasion by Jane Austen – I live by every wise word of Ms. Austen and in this arduous attempt, will not be abandoned by her! (Yes! Dramatics again! The pre-madness effect!) This addresses Category #5 –  – Popular Books (Read books that have more than 100,000 Goodreads ratings)

Cautionary Warning – Just because I have made this list, does not mean, at the last minute I will NOT change my mind and add or delete some book from the list!! But for now, this is the plan to kick start with!!

Now for those who may be new to this sort of thing, I do not in anyway consider myself an old hand, but I did learn a thing or two, over the last couple of events,  which I am happy to share –

  1. Start with shorter books; they get the momentum going and keep you pumped up when you are at your reading best, which is usually the initial hours!
  2. Choose books which you are really looking forward to reading and have a set of options; if one does not work for you, switch gears and pick another up, so that the interest keeps flowing
  3. Stock up plenty of food and drinks; whatever works for you and you like. It is already very very hot in my part of the world, so I avoid caffeine and instead go for cooling  and nourishing drinks like Buttermilk, which I drink by the gallon!
  4. Interact with your fellow readers. For me, personally, one of the most enjoyble part of this event is when I get to in and chatter with all my fellow book readers. There are host of mini challenges and hourly events which help flow the conversation and exponentially increase the fun quotient! It’s like a virtual all night party!
  5. Have Fun!!!!!

I am also playing a host for an hour over at the Dewey’s GoodReads page! The organizers do such an awesome job, each time, every time and this is a small way for me to help out. I am still waiting for Gabby to confirm which slot, but I will be around for sure!

Well, that’s about it for now!! I am really really excited and cannot wait for Saturday to come around and finally get started! See you all, in 3 days!!!

The Eternal Question –

On this 23rd year celebration of the World Book Day, I want revisit an old question, a question which has been asked to me and to many other readers, more times than I can recollect and a question, which till date, I struggle to find an apt answer for! For every reader, convinced of the sacrosanct nature of words and their power, nothing is more difficult to answer than to explain, Why do we read? Why do we read so much? Why do we read so many books? Why do we read the same books so many times? Why do we read?

Neil Gaiman, in his remarkable essay on “Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” describes reading as “getaway drug”. The urge to know what happened next keeps the reader going and in the process forces them to read new words and exposes them to new worlds and new thoughts! He further says that reading builds empathy in the world. The reader is forced to create a world of his/her own out of the prose and that investment in building this world and characters creates a connection and thus empathy, something which does not exist in a cinematic medium. L.M. Montgomery, writing several years before Gaiman, made the same succinct observation about books being kind of a addiction. She wrote about being “book drunkard” and about books having the same temptation to her that alcohol has to a drunkard and further, a temptation that cannot be resisted! Rebecca Solnit said reading allowed her to build and then disappear into her imaginative world, in her essay “Flight” in the book The Faraway Nearby. William Nicholson in Shadowland, took a bit of a different route when he called out that “We read to know we’re not alone”. And Kafka of course took it to a whole new reasoning when he wrote to a friend that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

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The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770

There are many others who say many of these things and more and wiser minds than mine have tried to better understand the “addiction” to books and reading! So when I am asked, why do I read? I feel stumped, ill qualified and overawed at thought of explaining something that is fundamentally inexplicable until experienced by self! I have observed and I could be absolutely in the wrong here, that most deep readers, have had a childhood which was had limited or completely devoid of companionship. Children need companions, people their age or atleast people who understand them to keep loneliness and confusion at bay! In the absence of that, if you are lucky, you may get books handed to you by a sensitive and intuitive adult, and after that, you find a world which is really no comparison for the everyday dull life. You never need friends, because your mind is populated with a host of them and this circle is ever enlarging! You find that your emotions and your vulnerabilities are not unique and you are not a freak, but just someone going through the motions of “growing up”. You may also find yourself doing better at school, or at minimum knowing more than most around you, giving you a bit of early edge!  All of this may happen if you are fortunate enough to discover books, via an adult or school library or a friend or some other means! Once you are hooked as child to reading, then of course, the “addiction” comes in easily. Though to be fair, I have had friends who have taken to books as an adult and become equally obsessed converts to power of books, but when you start early, like all arts, it’s easier and you do not realize that this has become a “habit” or a “hobby” or how much words mean to you; as Scout Finch recounted “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing”. Either way, once the “addiction” develops, you can, as reader never really rest, your imagination is far too much of an exciting place and you keep adding on to it, because, real life just cannot keep pace and you need sustenance for your intellect.

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Mother & Child Reading a Story by Carlton Alfred Smith

You also discover reading widely without actually realizing until much later, that this has had a significant impact on developing your “skill sets”. More than a decade ago, in an attempt to get through to one of best Graduate School of this geography, I discovered the blessing of the power of reading. Having graduated with Honors in English Literature, I was convinced that if I wanted to keep reading, I needed to stop pursuing Literature, academically. In a 180 degree career switch, I decided to go for a graduate degree in International Politics and to get through to the said Graduate School, one had to write an admission test, of 5 essay answers on various questions of International Politics and pass it with a rank among the top 50. The entrance examination is held countrywide and at any given moment, more than 20,000 student attempt to crack the code! That day in the the examination hall, surrounded by the most brilliant peers who had first class undergraduate degrees in Politics and Economics, I felt out of depth, like never before. However the question paper seemed simple enough and the question which to me cinched my attempt was to compare the Western Allied powers war against the Taliban regime’s with the Anglo Afghanistan wars of 19th century. Everyone knew enough about Taliban and the Allied forces. CNN and BBC had brought the war inside our houses. But what of the Anglo-Afghanistan wars? Unlike my peers, I had read “The Far Pavilions” by MM Kaye, an author whose family had served the British Raj and the Afghan wars with distinction and whose authentic accounts can be relied upon. I had not only read it once but several time and I could fill the examination pages with copious reference to Dost Mohammad and the shameful British retreat of 1842 and so forth! Needless to say, I not only got the admission, but thrived in my double Masters! My peers with all their first class degrees in relevant subject did not and I discovered many of my classmates, some who have been my best friends for years now, too did not have the requisite subject undergraduate degrees, but had spent their young lives, reading and reading voraciously! Later when I entered the corporate world, I found much to my amazement, my colleagues struggling to find the right words for the right emails/presentation, while I could easily find the right word to sound, enthusiastic, assertive or diplomatic all over emails as the situation desired! So much so at one point, one of the senior leaders, used to call me in to review his really important emails for better presentation! Finally the more I read, the more I find myself becoming a more sensitive, more tolerant and more humane person! This is I know is sweeping generalization, but I find people who read to relatively kinder than their peers. Of course there are a number of exceptions, and I must mention as footnote, that one of most selfish person, I have the unfortunate honor of calling a relative, is also a voracious reader. However, despite this, I do feel that reading liberates the mind and the soul!

But all of this does not really answer to why we read? For as a child starting out with Corduroy by Don Freeman and then slowing graduating to other books, I did not know, that I was seeking companionship or a liberal mind or even skills which will enable me later in life.  As a child the only thing, I understood was when I looked at my illustrated book and then looked out of the window, the illustrated world, seemed exactly what it was meant to show me – a bright, colored, happy world; a world that drew me in and kept my company and made everything so much more merry!  By the time, I realized consciously the power of the books and words; I knew that this is some secret, joyous habit that cannot be let go, at any cost! So like many I kept on and today, cannot even begin imagine a life devoid of books! But these are thing which a non-reading “Muggle” can hardly understand, so every time when I am asked why do you read, the answer that actually comes to me is “how can you not read?”

10 Reads For That Lazy Sunday Afternoon….

A friend of mine is trying to develop a habit of reading and naturally is finding the process a bit rough to get going with, since she is starting at the ripe age of 35; never having developed the kind of attention span that requires when reading a book! But it is always better late than never and really, there is no age for starting something as enriching as reading! Therefore I was all excited as a missionary who has just secured another difficult convert and of course supportive; and when asked me for insights to help her select some best suited for ability and interest! Her best time for reading is the Sunday afternoon and she asked me to refer to her to a couple of books that will get her hooked, was not very in-depth or philosophical and would keep her interest flowing till the end!  After much trawling of the Internet for a good reading list, I found absolutely nothing I could recommend and instead decided to come up with a plan of my own. Having come up with my plan, I naturally had to share it with all of you and get your thoughts on what you would want to read when, the time for a while, stops still, especially when starting at very edge of the reading curve –

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An Evening at Home, by Sir Edward John Poynter,1888

  1. The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – If I am getting started in reading and I am not motivated by fiction as much as I am by facts, in that case, this book for sure is for you! I cannot think of a more all encompassing, easy to read and yet funny book, on a subject, (Evolution) usually considered very dry and prosaic!
  2. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery – I know this is often considered a”young adult” book, but I feel there is much to love as an “older adult” in following Anne in her journey from a impetuous dramatic little girl, to a kind and gracious young woman, to a teacher and then as a wife and a mother, with all the gorgeous beauty of Prince Edward’s Island, that Ms. Montgomery brought beautifully to life!
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – The ultimate book on fairness, morality combines with a very very good yarn. I do not care about the controversy and I do not care what “Atticus” was originally meant to be; all I know is, in its current form this book is perfection! The narration of Finch Scout takes the reader through the innocent past times of children in deep Southern America in 1930’s, which is suddenly and irrevocably disturbed, when their father takes on a case defending an African American man accused of raping a white girl!
  4. The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window & Disappeared by Jonas Jonnason – A fun ride into the fallacies of 21st century, at once a laugh riot as well a deeply thoughtful read! International Politics comes to life as never before as we follow Allan and his merry band as they take to road, and travel to discover the events of history and themselves, in this brilliant joyride!
  5. The Diary of Nobody George Grossmith – It is late 20th century England and the Pooters have moved into a new house and in a inspired moment, Mr. Pooter has decided to keep a diary! This diary that deals with domestic issues, life in high society and a wayward son, the effort of the Potters as they try their riotous best to keep it all together is a treat and provides undiluted, absolutely liberating hilarity to the readers!
  6. The Remains Of The Day by Ishiguro Kazuo – A more somber work than the ones listed above, this slim novel, is however a perfect start to for some soul food reading. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall decides to take a 6 day trip to West England and through the journey, he revisits the past, both of Darlington Hall and himself, and choices made and unmade! Lucid, succinct and rich in sparse prose, the way only Kazuo can write, this novel about lost moments in life and memories, takes one’s breath away!
  7. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy – This comparatively lesser known work is one of the prime examples of clear prose and strong character development, around an age old morality  tale! The collapse of the cliff, killing some of the residents of Pendzac Hotel, while sparing some is a tragedy, but as the reader travels, back to the 7 days, preceding the collapse, there are reasons galore, why some lived, while others did not!
  8. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – Cliched, I know but I also know the efficacy of this book in getting readers, especially new readers going. This heart wrenching tale of World War II Germany and the desperate effort 9 year old Liesel to learn to read, and her growing bond with her adoptive parents and the eventual tragedy, draws the reader in with its plots and characterization!
  9. A Rising Man(Sam Wyndham #1) by Abir Mukherjee – I am not much of a fan of modern whodunits.  But this murder mystery set in 1920’s Calcutta is really something else! Mr. Mukherjee deftly brings the time, the politics and the social mores to life, at the same time, keeping a strong hold on the characters and the plot! Easy prose and just right amount of history, make this a perfect reading for that afternoon, when you want something to give you an escape from the everyday and mundane!
  10. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels & Stories, Volume 1 &2 by Arthur Conan Doyle – I cannot pick one, so all I can say is if you are a beginner wading in the waters of English Literature, trying to find out, if you can swim here or not, you will have no better coach the Dr. Doyle and his brilliant creations in form of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they solve crimes of blackmail, theft and political intrigue!

There you go, that’s my take, for all those trying to get reading or for those looking for one sumptuous read on a lazy afternoon! What are some of the books, you would add or recommend, in similar circumstances?

The Mysteries of Last Week…

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the week after vacation will be stressful! The events at work once again proved the very obvious theory accurate and to say I was glad that the week passed is an understatement. After 16 hrs day at work, I could not summon the courage to read Daniel Deronda or The March of Folly; great books but hardly something to lessen the exhaustion! Casting around for something easy to read, which gave a break from work reality, I found GoodReads hosting The Thriller & Mysteries week and among the various activities, they had planned, they also had listed the most popular Mysteries/Thrillers per Reader ratings! Reading through I found, Book#3 was apparently sitting in my many unread collection and this seemed a good time to get started. I finished that and wanted something more and found Book # 28 which I recollect my father had really liked and was part of his collection, so naturally, my selection for the second read became Book#28!  Now at the beginning of the brand new week, I present two mini reviews of my reads of Book#2 and Book#28!

Book#3 was A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George, published in 1988 and winner of Anthony Award. The book is the first in series of now famous Inspector Lynley series and the reader is introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eton/Ozford educted Peer of the Relm, who is also one the best inspector of CID. He is drawn from the wedding of his best friend, by Sargent Barbara Havers, the infant terrible of the police department, who has finally been paired with Lanley in the last hope of having her investigative mind brought to the fore, instead of her aggressive, belligerent attitude, which got her suspended from CID and back in uniform 8 months back! Lanley and Havers make their way to Keladale, in North Yorkshire, where the body of William Teys, honorable member of the Church, devoted father and successful farmer is found, decapitated, with his daughter, the 19 year old Roberta Teys, sitting on an upturned bucket, with an aze on her lap and with the only words spoken “I did it, I am not sorry!”. It seems like an open and shut case, ezcept there are parts to tale which does not fit in, including a cousin who gets the farm on the event of William Tey’s death, a finance, a artist and the daughter of William Teys who ran away, years ago! As Lanley and Havers dig for the truth, they discover all kinds of unholy secrets, that the quiet village of Keladale holds, which not only challenges them professionally, but also confront their personal demons, to find the killer!

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Book# 28 was Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. This book like the previous one is the first in the series of Arkady Renko, the Chief Investigator of Moscow’s homicide squad. The novel introduces us to Arkady Renko, one of the finest and most honest investigator’s in Moscow’s Prosecutor’s office. He is the son, of a decorated War General and grew up in the privileged circles of Moscow, attending the best schools, University and Law School. The novel opens on a cold day in April in Soviet Russia, in the northern end of Gork Park, the amusement Park of Moscovites, where the militiamen, have discovered three dead bodies, now that the snow is thawing, and Arkady has been called into investigate the corpses. Two men and one woman lay dead and  their faces have been mutilated and ends of the thumbs chopped off to ensure, there is no identification whatsoever! Arkady Renko  sets off on a trail to find the identity of his victims as well as their killers and as he slowly unravels the mysteries, he confronts, the KGB, an American Business man, a New York City Cop and happenings much closer to home, and the chase for the killer will take him to the exiled land of Shatura and then America until he finds the very truth, that lay hidden among the obvious!

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Some 100 pages into The Great Deliverance, I realized that at some point, I had read this novel and I began to vaguely recollect the end, though I hung on because of the hows and simply because it was written very well. The taut plot of the novel, is the strength of The Great Deliverance. I did not much care for the main characters – the absolutely perfect Lanley and the constantly snotty Havers (I wanted to throw a book at her), but the ensemble cast made up for the insipidity of the protagonists, who were much more life like, confronting confusion, trauma and much more, and still chalking out better lives for themselves! The ending was kind of cliched but my guess is in 1988, when such things were still not so much in the open, it must have created quite a stir and again based on the fast paced and through narration, the book must have been one  thrilling read!

Gorky Park was much more to my taste! Firstly, it is set in Russia, which predisposes me to like it. The plot, unlike The Great Deliverance was not of sensationalist nature, but ran with with an equally tight narrative, which made the reading, as interesting and kept one hooked on. In Arkady Renko, the author had created a wonderful hero, who with all his flaws, comes through as someone, you would want as a hero of a novel. Wikipedia states that Renko has been called a Bryonic Hero and he may be, but I really liked the character that was capable of great intuitive thinking but at the same time having blind spots that enables them to fall and then rise again! The book was banned in Soviet Union after its initial release and I can quite understand why; the author captures the tense, suspicious atmosphere of the last years of Socialisim beautifully. Despite the change of regime and new laws, to guarantee freedom of rights and liberty, the citizens till live in the fear of losing jobs, of suddenly being denounced as dissidents and landing up in Siberia or worse dead, for as simple case of being religious. Even if you do your job and keep your head down, you may still fall under the scanner and your promotions thwarted because, you are not an “active” party member. The dull, grey lives of the Soviet citizens is wonderfully captured which brings out the psychological as well as economic deprivation succinctly!  What really set this novel apart, from other books set in similar settings is lack of the chest thumping glory of Capitalism; Soviet Russia is bad, but the glorious land of free is no better. So called Radicals are put under surveillance, racism exists and there equal amount of incompetence in the institutions! Well crafted, with meticulous attention to detail and a believable cast ensemble, this book was a great read, through and through! I am so impressed that I went and bought Book#2 of the series, Polar Star!

To end, let just say, the both the book, not so good and very good, helped me make it to a stressful week and to that end, they fulfilled their aim of taking me away from reality!

The End of March….

Well, winter is officially over and the mild spring is about to end, and soon we will have the onset of the horrible Indian Summer. But for what it’s worth, March turned out slightly better than the first two months of the year; this was the first hospital free month for my father and though he is far from fully recovered atleast the litany of hospitals, tests, surgery is over and we are now in what seems like recuperating phase! Here’s hoping things continue in the same directions. This turn of events gave me more time to read and in fact, I was able to sneak away for a quick road trip to the mountains for a much needed break. Therefore, the end of March, needless to say, seems more peaceful than her predecessors and fingers crossed it should stay that way!

Now for my March wrap up post, which as you all now by now is a combination of combining from Helen’s monthly post of Commonplace Book post   and O’s ideas of  Wordless Wednesday . Here goes –

From My Date with History by Suman Chattopadhyay

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Such was my initiation to Kolkata ’71, which was neither just a city nor just a year, but a vivacious culture that bore within it everything that represented Bengal in an era which seems almost fantastic today!”

From The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson

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I tell you, everything is melting. The Sun is shining, I swear it! The sun indeed shining, the track wet; the world running with glittering slushy water, and himself evidently, tramping through it, boots turning an endless treadmill, some inevitable burden at his back, constant arching light in his eyes!”

From The Dairy of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

IMG_20180311_171526482_HDR“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot 

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“The daylight changes the aspect of misery to us, as of everything else. In the night it presses on our imagination—the forms it takes are false, fitful, exaggerated; in broad day it sickens our sense with the dreary persistence of definite measurable reality”

From The Provincial Lady in London by  E.M. Delafield

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Pamela, very splendid, announces that I am writer and very literary, statement that has the usual effect of sending all the gentlemen right to the remotest corner of the room, from where they look at me over their shoulders with expressions of the purest horror

From The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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You don’t know what it’s like trying to eat enough to live on and at the same time avoid fats and carbohydrates.”

From The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux

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“There seemed to be nothing special any more about the enchantments of fiction. On the contrary, in every area of human life, someone was trying to tell a story. Sports commentators, politicians, revolutionaries, religious leaders, business people, accountants, advertisers, actors – all were peddling selective and self-serving interpretations of the world.”

That is all for the month of March! Here’s wishing everyone Happy and peaceful April!

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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