The Choices We Make…..

A few weeks ago I read this wonderful review at Heavenali about a novel called “Which Way?” by Theodora Benson. The review was as always brilliant, like all of Ali’s reviews and it was available on Amazon Kindle without costing me a kidney and the central theme of “sliding door moments” i.e. of of inconsequential or unimportant choices result in momentous effect on the future path of life was intriguing. I was deeply impressed to know that this book was written, well before 1998 film of the same name, i.e. in 1931. On further research I found that it even preceded, J. B. Priestley’s 1932 play, Dangerous Corner, where apparently this concept more popularly explored. The final clincher was that this very innovative piece was written by the author when only 25 years old; this novel I needed to read!

Theodora Benson was born in England in 1905 and had published over a span of 30 years. She was a prolific writer and wrote everything from short stories, to novels, to essays and humor pieces, to writing speeches for the Government during World War II, where novelist Elizabeth Jenkins was her assistant. She spent her later life writing several books in partnership with her childhood friend Betty Askwith including travel writing about Europe and Asia, where she travelled with Askwith. She was never married and died at the age of 62 in 1968.

Which Way was Ms. Benson’s fourth novel and traces the parallel narrative of the novel’s protagonist, of Claudia Heseltine’s future, returning to the same moment with three different actions of Claudia, that would chart her life. Till this moment, Claudia is a bright young 20 something girl of her times (late 1920s?) she has doting parents, has been well educated in terms of intellectual as well as social needs , like attending a finishing school in Paris and has a host of amazing friends with enough money and a good life. She then reaches this moment, where she has three invitations – conflicting invitations, a stay at her good friend’s house over his birthday, another from a society friend, to meet an actress and her husband, both of whom Claudia finds very interesting and yet another from one of her highly intellectual friend to a weekend at the latter’s house where she was hosting some people including a popular polo player whom also, our heroine wanted to meet. The novel then follows her life as it unfolds driven by the which of the invitation she chooses, three times over. We meet Claudia, in a different setting each time, with different choices and a wholly different life from the other. There is no happy or sad ending per se, only life as is, bittersweet , simple and extremely complex, all at once.

There was so much to like about this novel; to begin with the main protagonist, Claudia Heseltine. She is neither a ravishing beauty nor an intellectual giant nor is an angel of mercy. She is a bit of everything, just like all of us in everyday life and just like all of us makes decisions based on what she feels best at that point in time and learns to live with its consequences, which may be whatever. She comes across as real and the brilliance of Ms. Benson lies in making it all seem so possible; we as readers may know what other choices Claudia could have had, but Claudia at that moment, choosing to accept one invitation over the other, seems as clueless and as innocent we are before we realize what the result of that choice is. Other characters in the book do equal justice, and again, the brilliance of Ms. Benson comes forth in being able to beautifully articulate, how a certain person may act when placed in the same circumstance, but with a different context. One of the outstanding qualities of the novel, among many others, is the absolutely authentic depiction of female friendships; there is strength and there is support but there no romanticism in them. They may change when life circumstances change or they may continue to be the very mainstay of your existence, but regardless of how they alter, they are always present in your life, always something for you to consider and sometime even seek permission from. The plot slowly unravels without any tense moment or “climax”. There is strong sense of irony at play through the book, but especially at the end of the first part, where Claudia wonders, how different her life would have been if she had made a different choice. On the face of it, this may seem a simplistic light novel about love and romance and marriage, but it is deeper than that; it is to great extent a feminist novel; where our protagonist, uses the herself, her inner happiness, her everyday cares and concerns to live a fulfilled rich life, no matter what curve ball life throws at her. She finds her worth and her value in simple everyday things despite off and inspite of the roads her life leads her onto. Personally to me, her first narrative felt the most real, though the other fates, were equally possible, in the social context of 1920’s-1930’s. It felt more heartfelt, more real and more simpler than the other narratives and I could not help but feel, there was a touch of personal history in there. Of course, I could be over imagining everything, and no such thing ever occurred except in my highly imaginative mind!

On my own personal note, I was super excited to read a thoughtful and insightful afterword by Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book and who is the series consultant for these reprints. Simon’s essay gave me a lot of additional details to think about and helped in making the whole reading more enriching. Chuffed to know a celebrity, even remotely, as in really remotely!

Strongly recommend atleast one reading of this book, for its novel approach, for its very illuminating description of the life and times of this era and I would add, the woman’s movement. I for sure will be looking up her other works and also read Priestley’s play on the similar theme.

Once Upon a Time in Russia…..

It was a cold December Saturday afternoon, and I was hunting around for a substantial read. I wanted to read something in-depth, something fulfilling with layered narrative but could not find the right book. I was reaching for a Austen but then changed my mind and tried reading Selected Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and though this was a book I had been really looking forward to, it was not working for me. So I was sitting blankly and gazing at my Black Penguin Classics shelf and for no reason I suddenly picked up and started re-reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The idea was that it will not work for me either and I can probably stop in a while. But somehow I kept turning page after page and yes, there were days when I would not pick it up because I needed time to process it all. But every time I went back to it, I was again turning page after page!

The tale is too well known for me to add anything new. But for those may not have read it, here is brief synopsis. The story opens with chaos reigning supreme in the Oblonsky household; Dolly Oblonksy has discovered the affairs of her husband Stepan Oblonsky and is preparing to go back to her parent’s household. Stepan is apologetic but incapable of doing anything else and is greatly relieved when his sister Anna, married to Alexei Karenin, a senior and a powerful statesman to help mend the rift. Anna is a beautiful, graceful, intelligent and a glittering star in the St. Petersburg society, has traveled to Moscow in the company of Countess Vronskaya, a rich old lady, whose son Count Alexei Vronsky, a friend of Stepan Oblonksy is at the station to receive his mother and meets Stepan and Anna, the latter for the first time. Count Vronksy is a cavalry officer and the star of the Moscow society who many think will go far. He is currently a favorite in the Shcherbatskaya household, especially with the youngest daughter Kitty who is also Dolly Oblonksy’s sister and their mother. It is hoped that Count Vronksy will make a proposal to Kitty who believes herself to be in love with him and turns down the proposal of Konstantin “Kostya” Levin, an old friend of Stepan Oblonsky and a landowner and farmer and a radical thinker. Anna in the meanwhile is able to convince Dolly to stay on and give Stepan a chance and having restored the equilibrium of the household attends a fashionable ball where she meets Count Vronsky again which leads to a tumultuous results.

I had read Anna Karenina the summer before I started college. I was all of 17 and very sure of everything and a mistress in understanding of one and all. I read the book and all I remember at the end of it was wondering why is it considered such a literary masterpiece? I did not like Anna and could not find sufficient reasons to dislike her husband and was irritated by Levin. This was one book I was not going back to and I stuck to that resolution for over 20 years, until the December afternoon. I still do not like Anna, I get that she in a loveless marriage but I did not and still do not understand why she married Karenina in the first place. And while he was not the love of her life, he was still a good husband, a good provider and I could find no reason to dislike him. But now I am less judgmental, I can understand her anguish and insecurities about Vronksy , though I am still not fully reconciled with her act of vengeance. But what this re-reading brought me was the understanding that this novel is so much more than Anna and there are so many complex layers to this narrative and an very immersive but non romanticized but gentle telling of the the then Russian society and state.

I loved the story of Kitty and Levin and felt sad for Dolly. I rejoiced in the humor of Prince  Shcherbatskaya and found much to appreciate in the nuanced characters of the secondary actors like Varvara Andreevna, who becomes Kitty’s friend at the German Spa and Agafya Mikhailovna, Levin’s former nurse. I was caught up in their tales and felt myself restlessly turning the page to know what finally happens to Varvara at the mushroom picking. Most of all I loved the rich socio-politico narrative of Russia that is presented. There are no high flown virtues attributed the newly freed serfs; they like every human being are a mix of good and bad, resistant to new changes but opening their homes and hearts. The same could be said about the noblemen, especially the new ones growing up in the light of European enlightenment, who want to bring modern education and farming to their former serfs, thinking of these actions as a moral obligation on their part, without wholly understanding their people or their customs. There are no black villains or white heroes; just people in grey who are trying to do their best per their understanding or even despite their understanding. This is especially evident in the way Tolstoy describes Anna’s downward spiral and final breakdown. While I still did not like her, I found sympathy for the way a charming and confident woman devolved into despair and irrationality. This kind of narrative is the testimony of the brilliance of Tolstoy; you don’t like her but you cannot help feeling sad about her. And woven into all of this is the gentle telling of some basic human values – of love, of camaraderie, of human happiness and perhaps its ephemeral constantly changing nature and finally that happiness cannot really be built on grounds made of other’s sufferings.

I now want to re-read War and Peace again; I had loved it everytime I read it and now feel will do so even more!

The House….

I read Susanna Clarke’s much acclaimed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in September of last year. ( Yes, I was late to the party!) While I found a lot of great things in the book, I felt it to be needlessly verbose and the character’s problematic and once I finished reading it, there was nothing but a sense of relief that I survived till the end! Naturally this foray into the fantasy world left me convinced that Susanna Clarke was not for me and there are some books and authors that do not work for and you should not spend your limited time on them.

Then I heard that the author’s second novel had won the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction and this book was not as cumbersome as 1000 plus pages and instead was a mere 200 something; again belonging to the magical-fantasia genre. I heard great things about the book from everyone but I was once bitten, twice shy and I was NOT going to attempt a Susanna Clarke so soon. I needed recovery time

The one bright morning, around the last few days of 2021, I stumbled upon Brona’s excellent review of this book. I really respect Brona’s tastes when it comes to reading and her ability to discern a good narrative from an average pretending to be excellent type of writing. Besides being an excellently nuanced review, there was particularly one phrase that stuck to my mind –

In our Covid-19 pandemic world, where isolation and solitude have become the norm, Piranesi’s approach to living in his infinite world can be enlightening. His deliberate day-by-day living, paying attention to every small detail, caring for his environment and honouring those who came before him provide him with sense of peace and connectedness.

In the last 2 odd years, I have closely come to understand what this feels. First COVID and then Cancer confined me to my house and made me appreciate the simple joys of everyday things, around me. I was always a homebody but these years taught me the value of sitting in the sun in my balcony, of crisp fresh sheets on the bed, a perfectly boiled egg for the breakfast and finding contentment in them, beauty in them. This part therefore resonated especially strongly and before I knew it, the books was bought and I began reading , what I never thought I would read atleast not at such close quarters after the Mr. Strange reading .

Piranesi lives in a huge house with infinite halls that are filled with all kinds of statues. The house is divided into 3 layers; the lowest being that of oceans, the second of living beings and solid land and third being the level of the sky and the clouds. Piranesi leads a peaceful and an engaged life, fishing fish and seaweed for his sustenance from the lower levels, taking care of the other being of the house, birds or dead humans, documenting his journal and in enjoying the process of discovering the house. There is another human inhabitant in the house, The Other, who is Piranesi’s colleague and together they are in the quest of A Great and Secret Knowledge that will give them power and immortality. As Piranesi works through the halls of the house, calculating the tides and documenting the stars, that will help in the discovery of this Great and Secret Knowledge, he begins to realise that there may another person in the house. Soon he starts finding evidence of another life, finally unraveling a past and forcing choices that Piranesi did not even know existed.

I loved this book! I loved its themes of kindness and generosity and of finding joy and fulfilment in everyday life. I loved Piranesi’s character which seems to embody all that is sincere and honorable and most importantly the child like wonder that he has towards the house. His gratitude for what the house gave I think can serve as an example for many of us, stuck in a constant consumerist, where we do not stop to appreciate what we have or all the wonderful things that nature provides us. I also appreciated the moral struggle that Piranesi experiences against doing evil to someone who has done him the same; a dilemma that many grapple against everyday and not many who are able to make the right choice. There is not a usual defined plot arc; there is plotline and a sense of suspense, but there is so much more to this book that to say it is a thriller or a fantasy book. The prose is lyrical and there are philosophical insights as to what is meaningful life. This is multilayered book, that like Brona says needs a re-read, maybe several, to fully appreciate it’s narrative, beyond the obvious.

This was a magnificent start to the bookish adventures of 2022! There are very few modern authors who have provoked such sentiments in me, but this book is a keeper, an almost metaphorical tale on some of the essential truths of life!

The French Girl & The German Boy

After much deliberation and delay, I finally delved into All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Yes, I am aware I am really late for the party, but atleast I got here. This is especially significant, considering, I usually give prize winning novels a wide berth. Anyhow, I spent the two weekend nights all being super comfortable in my bed, drinking cups of Rose tea and reading this 2014 Pulitzer prize winning work!

The book is set during the World War II, briefly covering the year of 1934, before delving into the events that occurs 1940-1945. The novel tells the story of Marie-Laurie, a young blind girl, the daughter to the locksmith to the Natural History Museum in Paris. Marie-Laurie spends time in her father’s museum, talking to the curator and reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, knowing of her father’s love and care for her. Her orderly life is shattered and brought  to a standstill, when Hitler’s Germany invades France and she and her father are forced to flee Paris, in wake of the occupation. In search of refuge of some kind, her father finally reached Saint Malo, the home of her great uncle. Her great Uncle, an erudite brilliant man, has shut himself up from the world, being afraid of shadows, since his experience in World War I. The father and daughter are however kindly looked after by the house keeper and days begin to melt into month, as Marie-Laurie tries to adjust herself to her new surroundings. Across the border, in a orphanage, Werner and Jutta, the orphaned children of a mine worker, listen to distant voices in a hand made radio, made by Werner,that tells them of miracles of science and wonders of the world. Wener’s brilliance with radio sciences and engineering is soon discovered by those in power and he is sent to an elite school to get trained to mold the future of Aryan Germany. It is at this school, that in the angst to ensure, he does not end up with a life like his father, he makes choices, that he knows Jutta will never forgive and which in his heart he knows is never acceptable. However, these choices seem to drag him down until he ends up in Saint Malo, with one chance to redeem all his past.

Now come the part about how I liked the book…well, I liked it a lot!! I thought the descriptions whether of the sea or of being stuck inside the rubble was mesmeric. The prose of the novel, lifted me and seared my soul and painted some breathe taking pictures. I loved how each character was drawn out, not by the descriptions that the author wrote but by their actions and how each of the character was etched out and stood out clearly and independently of others. I loved how Marie-Laurie’s life was made independent of her visual inabilities and made her do brave things, without any dependency on any other character.  I loved the subtleties in the characters like Etienne LeBlanc and Frank Volkheimer. It was wonderful getting to know them and see their lives unravel. The plot deviates from the usual boy meets girl phenomena and delves into relationships that are just as rich and yet cannot be defined by the standards set by the society. However despite all the brilliance of the book, I cannot help but feel that in the end, Werner’s fate was a bit of cliche; like he had to made to pay for all the betrayals in a de-la grande style. I could not help but feel that Mr. Doerr, kind of treads on the line of Flaubert and Tolstoy in making the fatal flaw, the unforgivable flaw. I somehow cannot help but feel that Werner’s fate had it been a bit different, would have been less maudlin and made more sense. Finally, speaking of fatal flaws, I have a one – that is never of quite liking a historical fiction, if it is inaccurate in its facts. Mr. Doerr unfortunately ends up making a minor error, but to me, it glares like a red hot iron, taking away much of the credibility of the book. In page 135, Kindle Print, Etienne talks about listening to broadcasts from Pakistan. The chapter is set in 1940, full 7 years before Pakistan came into being!!! How can the author not check his facts? How can his editor ignore such a blatant mistake? Or is it to the North, events of the South do not matter? Mr. Doerr should know that while many French, American and German soldiers died, there were more than 2 million Indian troops who also fought defending a nation, that was not theirs, fighting for a cause they had no say in, all because as a country they belonged to the Great British Empire. Their identity and their heritage is disparaged by such errors, and their efforts negated, by the complete ignominy that is assigned to them by the careless stroke of the pen!

Exceptional Women and More Exceptional Women and Some More Exceptional Women….

A very Happy Women’s Day to all the ladies and a special mention for all the gentlemen across the world who display sensitivity and generosity, supporting equality and standing by us while we fight our battles! While I don’t believe in “particular day” based celebration, but considering we as women, have more than 5000 years of bondage to throw off, a special boost does no harm, I guess!

Naturally, I wanted to a do special post on focusing on woman, and considering I draw all inspiration from books, I decided on strong women characters – I don’t mean to go down the road and list some of the strongest heroines and do a regular cliché cataloging; but rather I wanted to take this moment and identify top 10 women in “supporting cast” across various works of fiction, who are more humane and identifiable than the central heroine ( because most ‘heroines’ have it all – beauty, brains, courage, etc etc) and yet a critical to the plot, without whom the novel would fall apart, pretty much like life. After all life does imitate art…

Here we go then…

  1. March from Little Women – I have mentioned about her in one of my previous posts as well and while the book is about her five daughters, there is no getting away from the fact that Mrs. March is what holds them together; her kindness, fortitude and silent courage in face of extremely distressing circumstances, keeps the March brood together. She is not perfect and she claims to have struggled with her unbiddable temper for a long time, but what makes her stand out is her innate ability to overcome this shortcoming.
  2. Jane Bennett from Pride and Prejudice –True Jane seems to have it all – beauty, kindness and a cheerful disposition; but it cannot be fun constantly living in the shadow of a brilliant and witty sister, who is her father’s favorite and with a mother, who favors her only for her beauty. But Jane Bennett rises above all that is petty; to appreciate the good in all and feel blessed for the love she gets, in whatever form or manner. When Bingley leaves her without a word, she promises Elizabeth that she will not regret or pine over her loss for the sake of all those who love her. In an age of increased awareness about individuality and the “I” factor, it is still worthy to honor sentiments of others and do something for their sake!
  3. Rosa Hubermann from The Book Thief – Outwardly Rosa Hubermann is brash, aggressive, nagging and pretty much a termagant. But she is also the pillar of the Hubermann family, providing food on the table, taking good care of her adopted daughter and standing by Hans no matter how difficult the circumstances. While Liesel has a far more bonded relationship with Hans, there is no denying that Rosa Hubermann acted as good strong surrogate mother to her foster child.
  4. Mellissa Hallam from Lucy Carmichael – The best example of a girl best friend; she describes Lucy as – “She taught me how to enjoy myself … Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don’t expect I’d have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn’t been for Lucy.”It’s not just about what she says about Lucy that is significant, but what it says of her own character – strong, devoted, loyal and brave enough to admit her flaws and get past them. Mellissa and Lucy’s friendship endure various test of time and all the natural emotions of knowing that friends see you through when they see you through. Mellissa stands by Lucy through all her ups and downs, with maturity, sensitivity and the everlasting knowledge for the other that she will always be there for her!
  5. Mrs Burden from My Antonia – Generous , kind and supportive, she is there even when she is not wanted, (Remember how the Shimerdas react when she first comes over to their farm to help them) helping in all the little ways so that those whose fortunes are less than hers, can better their lives and become more complete individuals. She knows that her good nature is often exploited but she lets it be, if there is some good in the end. She is the principle person who helps Antonia in attempting to shape a better life for herself beyond the farm. If you ever need a model mentor, Emmeline Burden is a shining example of that!
  6. Molly Weasly from Harry Potters – She is perhaps the most unconventional of the great mom’s literature. She yells at her children when they step out of line; she is generous in her love when she adopts an orphaned Harry in her family, caring for him like her own sons and a roaring tigress when anyone harms her brood! (Remember her battle with Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.) She is one fierce woman demonstrating the best of motherhood – pride, kindness and protectiveness.
  7. Ellen O’Hara from Gone with The Wind – Ellen’s life revolved around Tara and the O’Hara; the perfect mistress, she took care of her family, the plantation and the dependents with kindness, wisdom and determination. She embodied the very best of what was considered the highest standards of a “lady” and seemed absolutely contended with her life, never letting anyone know the very depth of her heartbreak and despair, when she lost Philip, the one man she truly loved.
  8. Cheery Littlebottom from Feet of Clay and other Discworld Novels – No one knows she is a ‘she’ until she decides to step away from the paradigm of what constitutes a female dwarf. What makes her really endearing is that her rebellion is not without angst; she is afraid of breaking away from the mores of traditional societal norms, but she still marches ahead and thumbs the nose to the world, while quaking in her boots! And oh! yes! She is a brilliant chemist, a contradiction in itself – brilliant and a Chemist? Now who would have thought of that???
  9. Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables – Marilla is a traditionalist, a conservative and she seems to have absolutely no room for imagination. Yet as the book progresses, we are touched by all that is kind, warm and filial in Marilla as embraces Anne’s unusual look of life with a strong sense of humor and resilience for all the upheavals that life throws at her!
  10. Sita from The Far Pavilions – The iconic Ashton Akbar Pelham Martyn would not be Ashton Akbar Pelham Martyn had it not been for this uneducated, poverty stricken woman. With no resources at her disposal and only her subsuming love for her surrogate son which drives this humble woman to a display of courage, strength and intelligence; the end being only to ensure the survival of young Ashton, through the mayhem of 1857 Mutiny and the intrigue of 19th century indigenous kingdoms, even if it cost her, her own life!

There are so many more I want to include in this list, but space constrains along with time limitations, force me to end here. However before ending, one last virtual toast to all these and other brave women, both in fiction and the  real world, thank you for inspiring us and paving the road for the future generation of women.