World War II, Victorian Art…some highs and some lows

Recently I read two back to back works of historical fiction set during World War II. The period of 1900 1950 has always fascinated me and any work set in that era, predisposes me to like the book, even before I read it. It’s a kind of a blind spot with me. Therefore with some pleasant anticipation I set out to read –

Let me first tackle The Shell Seekers. Most of the circumstances were in favor and had me predisposed to really like this book – it seemed like one of those epic family saga, with a story interwoven between present and the World War II era, with a lot of emphasis on paintings and the Bohemian era of British artistry. Besides, it was in my Lecito List and is part of BBC Top 100- The Big Read, along with such noteworthy works like The Great Gatsby and Catch 22 etc. How could I not possibly like the book??

Well there is an old adage – never judge a book by its cover! I have invented a new one – never judge a book by reading its inlay cover: it’s completely misleading.

The Shell SeekersDon’t get me wrong, the book was all that the inlay cover claimed – it traces the life and times of the Keeling family as they plan to make their way in the world by selling the last remaining works of their grandfather – Lawerence Stern, a great Victorian artist, whose popularity was getting revived again. However standing between their grand ambitions and the works is their mother – Penelope Keeling, the only daughter of Lawerence Stern and the primary protagonist of the book. The book evolves through her memories, each chapter focusing on an important figure in her life, sweeping between past and present. The past takes the reader back to the bohemian childhood of hers and then through the war time romance and brings the reader back to present where she develops a strong bond with two young strangers over her avaricious children.  The book ends with Penelope’s death and the disclosure of her will which leaves her inheritors astounded.

The book has some absolutely marvelous description of Cornwall and like many before makes the reader go and settle there for good and never come back.  There are some very fine details of costumes and food of the bygone era. It’s an easy read and will not stress the reader out too much.

But that’s where all the good stuff of the book ends!

This book is singularly one of the most disappointing reads of my life. I started it off with such expectation, but it was a letdown. I am not sure how this book came to be termed as one of the big reads of all times!!

The novel had so much potential, simply because of the historical backdrop and the subject of Victorian paintings, but it all seemed wasted.  To begin with, the book had such a superficial narrative of World War II: the heroine joins the war effort because she is moved by the story of some Jewish refugees from Germany. But she promptly then meets a man, gets pregnant and marries him, only to discover, Alleluia, the marriage is a disaster! Her parents are supposed to be completely free-spirited and are ready to accept her and her unborn child, but she still goes ahead and marries this man, for no clear reason. Then of course, during the course of the war she has a clichéd love affair with the perfect man – a man who understands art and reads poetry and can play with her daughter and is a paragon of virtue! (Do such men really exist? Also would it not be boring to be constantly with a man who is so PERFECT!!!! Besides shouldn’t opposites attract?) Not only she has an affair, but the town seems to bless it and by then 18th page of this chapter, you know this affair is doomed and when you reach the end of the chapter – surprise surprise – it’s doomed!! She is supposed to be this strong independent character, but until she becomes an old woman, I do not see any independence in her – she is constantly dependent on her parents and friends! Then come her children who all are supposed to be greedy and materialistic, except one Olivia and she also does not seem completely human and is constantly reminding herself to be human! I mean Duh! The day I have to remind myself to be humane and kind, well then there is something wrong with mankind. Even the references to the Victorian arts are artificial and inconsequential – with such prodigious material available on the paintings of that time, a little more depth would have helped the book.

In the end, I do not think it’s a work to be handed down to posterity nor should it stand with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and War and Peace. It’s one of those novels that you read on a flight and leave it on the plane!

The only impressive thing was not related to the book, but the author – Rosamunde Pilcher. She had written since 1950’s in various Mills & Boon Romance publications, but it was at the age of 60 that she wrote The Shell Seekers and gained worldwide fame. It’s remarkable how she shed her comfort zone at a very late age in her life and of course the risk paid off – though I still do not like the book!

No review of mine can be short and I bid adieu on this blog with a faithful promise that I will inflict my readers again with my take on The Baker’s Daughter.

Once upon a time in the Jazz Age…..

I finally finished reading The Great Gatsby and my first reaction is – why the hell did I wait so long to read this magnificent work??? Why the hell did I believe that this very stereotypical tale would be written in same trite manner set in an era and country that in itself continues to make people curious and on this lay the principal reasons for popularity of the book alone? I was so wrong!!

I think one of the main reasons which made me hesitant to pick up this book was the fact that at a very young and a very impressionable age, I had read Tender is the Night and really dislike it. Somewhere in my sub-conscience, I knew that as a connoisseur of literature, I should give this book a try and in fact had borrowed it from the library at least twice and bought a copy more than year ago…but until today, I just did not summon the courage to read it. But now that I have, I must own, I am blown away.  I am humbled and in complete awe of the immense talent of Scott Fitzgerald that he could take an oft-repeated tale and turn it into something beautiful, tragic and a cathartic experience.

the-great-gatsby-by-beckisaurusrexxI am sure almost everyone is familiar with the story of The Great Gatsby. The story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, an educated, wealthy and a sincere Mid-Western, and begins with his moving to East, New York to work for Bonds. He is soon re-acquaints himself with Buchanan’s, Daisy being his second cousin and Tom being his senior at college. The Buchanan’s are typical products of the Jazz Era, with loads of money and restlessness. They had travelled in Europe, lived in Chicago, before moving to New York. At the very onset of the novel, it is made clear that Tom Buchanan is a libertine and keeps a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who is the wife of the garage owner, George Wilson, who services Tom Buchanan’s car. Nick also becomes friendly with the mysterious Jay Gatsby, his extremely wealthy neighbor, with a reputation of having killed a man and a host to lavish parties, through which he hardly appears and is rarely seen by the party attendees. Nick soon discovers a past between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan and soon this past comes to become the present of the lives of the two, with tragic results ends with Nick moving back to the West, with the conclusion that Tom, Jay, Daisy and he himself, were all at the heart westerners and that’s why none of them could get completely comfortable under the skin of East.

What makes this book wonderful is the word portrayals and characterization. For instance when Nick first describes Gatsby “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”–it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”  Through the book, while Gatsby and Daisy are the principal figures, the author also subtly delineates the character of Nick Carraway, who is presented as a contrast to all the denizens of East, with his sincerity and true sophistication that comes through.  It is Nick Carraway’s own admission that comes as a proof of his honesty of character “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”. Fitzgerald is at his best as he masterfully creates verbal imageries and brings home to the reader the irony of the tale, with a gentle disapproval of his generation and their conduct. His description of George Wilson and Tom Buchanan making similar discoveries about their wives is presented with an illuminating insight “I realized that so far his suspicions hadn’t alighted on Tom. He had discovered that Myrtle had some sort of life apart from him in another world and the shock had made him physically sick. I stared at him and then at Tom, who had made a parallel discovery less than an hour before–and it occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well. In fact the book is filled with such piercing observation – “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead”.

I know I have quoted practically the complete book, but the very beauty of the book lies in the words – used so subtly, yet so powerfully as to make one speechless and instead quote forth the book. In the end, all I can say is, this is a must read and I am only sorry that I made my acquaintance with this masterpiece, so many years later! The preface, (which I always read after reading the novel, since they create half-baked ideas that intrude into the tale) describes how on its first publication, the book was deemed a failure and only after it was distributed to the soldiers during World War II that it began to rise in popularity! I am once again amazed how a worthy work, gains all the value, when it is deemed completely value less.

Poetry and Ballets in Russian Winters

So I picked this book while browsing randomly through Goodreads listopia and am I glad I got my hands on this one!

Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter is beautiful, historically rich, and lyrical with one of the most unusual characters in modern fiction – Nina!  The book begins with the auction of the jewels including some famous amber’s of the world-renowned ballerina Nina Revskaya. Now extremely ill and crippled, Nina is selling the jewels she had gathered all her life in an effort to close a chapter in her life that began in Stalinist Russia more than half a century ago. However, her past cannot be buried, as her life, love and its eventual betray reverberate in modern-day Boston, where she now resides and into the life of Grigori Solodin, a professor, who believes that the jewels that Nina is selling holds the key to his own past.

russian-winterNow for the great parts of the novel – Nina Revskaya is one of the best characters that I have come across in current friction. She is a beautiful and extremely successful ballerina, whose character portrayal comes more through her actions and interactions with others than what she says. Daphne Kalotay departs from cliché by not only making her central character very human – she falls in love, has close friendships and does have petty jealousies and is capable of overcoming those jealousies to do something kind. She is not better than an average human, and like all average humans, she is capable of making a gross error and then rectifying the same. What is wonderful and completely to the credit of the author is the fact that though the principal character is completely nonpolitical and distances herself as much as possible from the going ons of Stalinist Russia, the author still manages to convey a strong sense of the life and times in that nation, at the peak of its secret police’s power.  What is really wonderful is way, the author describes the simple daily rituals of the common man in a police state – whether it’s a watery dinner in a state-run restaurant, or the state poet buying a Russian make car or the simple pleasures of a writer’s community in the Ural mountains. The book is lyrical – it gives some of the most vivid and capturing description of white Moscow and the country’s rural beauty. The tale is interspersed with some lovely poetry on love and nature and I cannot stop myself from quoting the lines that moved me the most –

Black velvet night, pinned wide and high

By pinprick stars. Faces under moonlight.

Faint echoes float atop the river.

Our reckless splashes toss them here and there.

How very young we were, one floating year ago.

Wet tresses draped our ears.

And in the air, the hum of crickets chanting

Apologies we could not, did not, hear.

Gone, gone, the forest’s past perfection:

Patchwork shade, pine needle carpet,

Ocher-resin drops of sun. The air

Hums….Unseen, the nightingale, too late,

Thrums its stubborn sing-caught somewhere

Between the deep black water and the sky.

The story initially does test your attention, but from page 70+ or so, the pace picks up and you are hooked. It blends smoothly out of 1950’s Moscow and modern-day Boston, without jarring the reader. The end is unusual and after a long time, I have read something that goes beyond the obvious and ordinary.

There are some flaws in the tale as well – the character of Drew Brooke. The only thing I can say is why? I mean why did we have to create her at all; at least as a  principal character….Cynthia could have served the purpose of bridging and there would have been less confusion in the reader’s mind about why this poor little rich girl is the way she is!!! Even the story of her grandparents kind of hangs in the air and somehow I could not find closure to that tale. Then there are the obvious clichés – the brutal and lecherous Russian Secret Police, the blessings of capitalism versus socialism etc. Having said this, the cliché’s are minimal and she does have some of the principal make some original and interesting observations about Socialist Russia.

I would strongly recommend getting a copy if you want a good yarn which can also be called literature, without going round and round in surreal literary jargon! Compliments to Daphne Kalotay for writing such a wonderful book!

The spectacle of spectacles

I have an axe to grind (yes! I know I always have an axe to grind!) Anyhow recently two comments came up, quite unrelated in terms of events, but very much linked thematically, that it made me stop and think. The first one happened earlier in the week, about Monday when I was part of a group lunch. Some banal comments were flying around, when one of my colleagues turned to me and said “You know, for someone who reads so much and is so academically oriented, you don’t wear glasses…right?”  I corrected him there and introduced him to a wonderful accessory called “contact lens”. That was the end of that and I dismissed the incident without much thought. Then towards the end of the week, another colleague who is also a friend, came back from a meeting with the new Director and said “Boy! He sure is bright! Superb analytics and all; of course he is bright, one can make that out at once, he wears those thick glasses.” That’s when I stopped and thought ‘What in the world is the correlation between spectacles and intelligence?

I know in the bygone era, before the invention of electric light and advanced publishing, students and academics pouring over the hand written or badly printed scripts in the candle light would often lose their vision or at least seriously damage their eyesight. But how does that translate to the present day – to judge a person’s academic calibre by the thickness of his/her glasses is so in adherence to the stereotype that it makes me barf!!!(I know that whenever I grind an axe, I also barf) Our films of course go out of their way to reinforce this image – the protagonist is a geek and therefore will wear specs, the moment he/she become cool, off go the specs!!!!! I mean what? I mean really what the hell is this? Even our literature adheres to such connotations – remember the novel Robert Langdon of the Da Vinci fame? He is a professor who wears glasses. Had he been a CIA agent, I wonder if Mr Brown would have made him wear glasses!!

I am sure, all of us if we seriously think back have enough examples that defy this stereotype. I have a bimbo at work that will make bimbo’s feel inferior in bimbohood. She wears these really fancy glasses because she is trying to pass as an intelligent creature. Just wearing big round glasses will not make her intelligent. On the other hand I have my sister and brother-in-law. My sister has double masters from Boston University and worked as an Art Historian and my brother-in-law has a Ph.D from MIT in Mathematics. Yup they are bright and definitely have an IQ score above the average, but guess what – THEY DO NOT WEAR SPECS!!! They do not even have reading glasses….go figure!! My Dad who is hitting 70 and for years have read and read and read and is possibly one of the brightest men around, also does not wear glasses. I can go on and on about this list, but I think you get the idea!!

So what is the correlation between intelligence and glasses? I mean in medieval era, it was considered to be a sign of physical weakness and not mental superiority to wear glasses!!

As a foot note, my trusted and sacred source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, informs me that these days there is ‘in” thing called “Geek cheek”. It apparently refers to a person who wears black horn rimmed glasses and is comfortable with technically complex accessories. Apparently the brigade leading this “Geek cheek” look includes Justin Timberlake and Myleene Klass. I think I rest my case – glasses+ Justin Timberlake ≠ intelligence!!!!