Between This and That …..

After the brilliant kickstart to the reading year, March so far seems to be an off book radar kind of month. One too many things taking up time and energy, but mostly in the words of Mark Manson, these are good problems.

I am trying to diversify my interests and while it is enriching, it is also time consuming. I am exploring a few different opportunities within the local community, supporting local women entrepreneurs who do not have formal education through mentoring in management and helping them developing business models that are sustainable. I have also been involved in some Rising Cancer Awareness initiatives and that has also been keeping me busy. All of this along with BAU day job! 24 hours is really not enough!!!

There have have also been several mini home renovation projects, which are also eating into my non existent time. The water pipes of our apartment needed fixing as did the smaller bathroom and many such non glamorous home improvements that will never feature on architectural digest, but are critical for a comfortable living.

The Chinese Robe by Richard Emil Miller
Source http://www.artistsandart.org/2010/05/richard-emil-miller-american.html

Between these projects and the fact that I had several doctor appointments and tests lined up this month, reading has been really slow. I am trying to read In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova translated by Sasha Dugdale and there are parts I really like, but it is book that needs focus and focus is currently in short supply! I am also struggling to complete The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; I think the violence of the real world is making me shy away from a narrative set in similar conflictual backdrop! But I will get to it, sooner rather than later. I did manage to complete, The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and I hope to share a review soon. Every other reading is between this and that and the only thing I have been reading consistently and eagerly are Tintin comic books! I hope to find my reading groove soon and must at times remind myself, I read because that is my “thing” and do not need to stress about so called “lack of progress”. I am sure I will soon find “the book” to shake me out of my reading slump.

The highlight of these last 12 odd days has been that I had my first full body scans and extensive blood works done since I completed my Chemo cycles in Nov 2021. And the great thing is, it all came clean!! I have fatigue – sick days as side effects still, but overall I am doing very very well. This alone makes me so grateful and count my blessings.

So here’s to good health and good problems and good books!

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!

Those Women….

I am exceedingly aware of my immense good fortune in being born into an erudite and liberal Hindu family that not only did not believe in discriminating between a boy and girl, but were positively feminists, even before the term became mainstream. I know just how easily I could have been born into a traditional Hindu household where the woman is deprived of basic Human Rights and lacks even elementary empowerment; however, growing up as a young girl and an adolescent, I did not think in those lines. I was aware of my entitlement but my peers and I all had an idea of how our lives were mapped out – education (graduate school being the very minimum), career, and then inevitably marriage and its addendums. What however happened was that woman of my generation or slightly older and a younger age groups, got that primer education, powerful jobs in corporate, government and other key areas and ended up NOT getting married. Many did of course, but many did not. In my graduate school class, we were a student body of 60 students in our particular degree; of which about 35 were women, of which 7 or so remain unmarried in the age bracket of 37 -39. It may not seem a lot, but seen from the lens of a traditional Indian society where marriage and motherhood are considered the epitome of womanhood, this figure is startling and interesting. And it’s just not my graduate school class; I have colleagues, friends, acquaintances, very educated, very successful, either remining to chose single or even becoming mother via adoption rather than embrace marriage. It is a unique phenomenon among the urban educated high middle-class population of India and someone somewhere needs to look into socio-economic moorings of this development.

The Letter by Haynes King

It was thus an interesting surprise when I stumbled upon a work of non-fiction that seemed to address this, albeit in United States.  All the Single Ladies – Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. Ms. Traister is a well-known writer for New York magazine besides being a published author on several books about feminism and politics. Also Ms. Traister herself married later than her peers, I believe at the age of 35 and therefore from my perspective, she should know what she is talking about and with greatest curiosity I began to read this work. The book is divided into 10 Chapters along with a prologue and a conclusion. The author begins with explaining how her own experience and those of her friends coming of age as young adults in the shadow of Sex and the City and their subsequent lives, led her to study this group of young to middle age educated working women, who have not married and chosen to lead lives free of any such long term civil  or religious commitment, with or without a child. She begins by introducing the powerful phenomena that is the new age single unmarried woman. She then takes a look at history including events like Civil war and works of such feminists like Susan B Anthony that set the ball rolling for creating environments that fostered the growth of this group of women. She then studied this group through comprehensive lenses as urban single woman with financial independence as we well as women who came from economically weaker sections. She studied the process of female friendships as one of strongest support system among this group as well the support structures like grocery delivery, take out food and help from neighbors that is not only allowing this group to thrive but also take up single parenthood. She delves into the issues of violence and security as well as the emotion turmoil that these women face as single women in a culture that is still wary, suspicious and not completely bought in to this choice. She does not shy away from mentioning the positives that come from healthy happy partnerships including better home environments for kids as well as more secure economic status; but she also provides comprehensive data to show that such partnerships are not common and many make a compromise that ends in more unhappiness in the expectation of better lives.

Woman, Reading by Albert Bartholomew, 1883

There are simply not enough good things that I can say about this book! To start with the research is meticulous and deep; it is hard to believe that Ms. Traister is not a trained academic but a journalist and a writer. And yet despite all this research, the language is crisp and succinct and the message is clear! The balanced approach is yet another factor that is to be appreciated in the book – she celebrates the rise of single women, their success and empowerment; however, the author does not shy away from factors like security or even better home conditions for children when both parents are available. Even in the vast range of people she interviews, her epilogue comments, clearly call out that while many are doing well, some are not and that is life. There is no unrealistic expectation of happily ever after, only a promise that there are opportunities more than ever of a better life. The inclusiveness of the book makes it a major departure from books of other such genre; Ms. Traister tries to include all spectrum of women in her study and interviews – financially independent, those living on some state support, single women, single women with kids, Asians, African Americans, Whites, academics, clerks, writers – they are all there. Her narrative tries to include every kind of single woman and largely succeeds. The most interesting thing about the book is though it focuses on the rise of Single Women in US, barring certain regulations and political events, her story can be replicated to almost all single women across the world, who have some modicum of independence. Her story telling is universal and resonates across many cultures, with some caveats of course. Finally, despite being a serious study on women, the book is replete with wry humor, which makes for wonderful change of pace from a very thoughtful reading.  For instance, while speaking of financial independence of women, she quotes Susan B Anthony, to make a point of why women who earn their own money and buy things with that money, signals an epoch moment of liberation and empowerment – “When Susan B. Anthony began earning a salary as an elementary school teacher, at twenty-six, she had already turned down two marriage proposals in her quest to remain unmarried. She purchased for herself a fox-fur muff, a white silk hat, and a purple wool dress and wrote home, wondering if her peers might not “feel rather sad because they are married and cannot have nice clothes.” To end the book, nowhere is an anti-marriage or anti -men; the only thing Ms. Traister tries to do is de-stigmatize the notion of single women who in Mitt Rommey’s words “miss out on so much of life” and instead not missing out on life; she tries to showcase that such women with independent finances and support structures are making for good life for themselves, throwing over the yokel of the term of “spinsters”.

The End of March….

Time is flying, sometime I feel too fast and at other times not fast enough. I assume it is dependent on the objective; when we want something badly that is meant to substantiate in future, time cannot move fast enough; on the other hand when we dread something, well, time just seems to fly, until, we are at the eventual collision course! At this point in time, I cannot decide, what I like the most, the fast moving pace or the slow crawl; either way, life is just far too busy and reading and writing, despite best of intentions is slow. But I keep the reading going, in the hope that one day, I will find the precious equilibrium between, reading, writing, socializing and of course working!

In the meanwhile, this is what I read for the month of March –

Enchanter’s Nightshade by Anne Bridges

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I think beautiful mother’s are just a trifle vexed, generally, to have daughters who are not. Mama would have liked me more if I had been something of a beauty! 

Time Pieces: A Whistle-stop Tour of Ancient India by Nayanjot Lahiri

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This great enthusiasm for sarcastic verse in which no one, from the divine to the human, is spared, has a lesson for India today where poking fun at anyone in the public domain, especially gods and goddesses, ruffles all kinds of feathers

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

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I’d benefit too, I thought vaguely; a dog would keep me fit and allow me to meet other dog-walkers. Much better than a book club where there was always the danger that someone would suggest The Girl on the Train!

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

Garden Party

Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life–‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie

This then was my reading for March; I wonder what April shall bring? I am only sure that I am reading A Vindication of Rights of a Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft as part of a brilliant read along hosted by Ruth. For everything else, at this point, I can only say “Que Sera Sera”

The End of February

February has come and gone and it seems like just yesterday we were ringing in 2019 and now we are already in the 3rd month; something about time flies when one is having fun! And while I would not really describe February as fun, it was atleast, interesting, as usual busy and since the sky did not fall on my head, almost kind! I did get some reading done, though not as much as I would have wanted and I am woe fully behind in both my 2019Official TBR Pile and GoodReads reading challenges! Oh! Well! It is what it is and atleast, I am reading, which for a part of last year, had practically been non existent (an unheard of event in my adult life) and am grateful for these small mercies! So what did I read in February? Here goes –

The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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Even if we love them with our entire being, even if we’re willing to commit the most heinous sin for their well-being. We must understand and respect the values that drive them. We must want what they want, not what we want for them

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki

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I can remember a menu long after I’ve forgotten the hostess that accompanied it

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

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Recollect that we have been acquainted for less than a month! You cannot, cousin, have fallen – formed an attachment in so short a time!’
‘Nay, love, don’t be so daft!’ he expostulated. ‘There’s no sense in saying I can’t do what I *have* done

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

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I am not in a heat at all,’ Léonie said with great precision. ‘I am of a coolness quite remarkable, and I would like to kill that woman.

So that was all my February reading! One look and you can see, it was primarily what can be only described as Comfort reading, but it was good comfort reading so cannot complain! The high point of the month, however, was getting selected as the Clubber of the Month, by The Classical Club! I am honored and totally pumped at this recognition! We will now see what March unfolds!

And speaking of March, while I gave making reading plans for the month more than a year ago, I did make a small resolution for the month – I will only read women authors, in honor of International Woman’s Day! That then is the plan and I am off to get head start on this by reading Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridges!

India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

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If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!

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!

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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The Diary She Wrote….

These have been very stressful weeks and this last week was no different. By the time Friday was done, all I wanted was a good book to steer my mind from professional and personal challenges, smart enough to be meaningful and funny enough to distract me from past events! Now it so happened, in this frame of mind, I embarked on toggling through by favorite bookish blogs and I saw that O had just done a Nostalgia post – books  from which she sought comfort to take her mind off from the recent snow infested disasters around her home! Among the long list, one book, she referred to was Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield and the novel settings seemed like the most perfect read. I also remembered that Jane had couple of years back an enthusiastic review of the book and that kind of sealed the deal. I mean O and Jane are two people with irreproachable bookish taste and if they say its good, chances are it will be good! Oh! the joys of bookish blogs, none but the book obsessed understand – you find readers-in-arms who are completely supportive, empathetic and as added bonus, have the right book recommendation to get you away from the mundane reality!

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Thus began my tryst with the Provincial Lady, living in a country near Plymouth, in between the two wars, probably around 1930s. She is married to a laconic but practical land agent, Robert and has two adorable but handful children, Robin who is away at school for most of the year and six year old Vicky! The household further consists of the Mademoiselle, the sometimes high strung, but always sympathetic governess to Vicky, the Cook who rules the household and itinerant round of parlor maids/menservants. The Lady’s life is of course anything but “leisured” as wonders herself! When involved with managing  the servants, house, husband and children, her time is taken up with the Women’s Institute, writing for the Time and Tied magazine and the social life within the country. Then, there are interludes of visits to London, ostensibly to procure a parlor maid, but primarily spent in shopping, dinner and theater, with her best friend Rose as well trips to South of France and the English coast. Then there are her neighbors like Lady B, the Vicar’s wife and many others whose actions and conversations take up much time and thought in the provincial lady’s already busy life, which trundles along among  home, travel, bank overdrafts,illness and social activities!

I often agree, with my fellow readers, that all books have a time and a place and this book came at the most propitiate moment in my life and rescued me from gloom and doom! Through the eyes of the Provincial Lady, I found much to be satirical about mankind and further more, I found hilarious laugh out loud moments! Ms. Delafield took the everyday life and turns it on its head, to make it look like one gigantic joyride, despite all the challenges. Her struggles in 1930s are as real as now and her relief and enjoyments remains as much fun, nearly 100 years down the line. I loved the brisk pace and crisp writing of even some of the most complicated situations that life presented! The brilliance of Ms. Delafield comes across especially when narrating a wholly embarrassing situation in a self deprecating yet extremely humorous manner! I loved her tongue and cheek take on Orlando and Vita Sackville West as well as her dislike for “cultured recreations” like the Italian exhibition! But for all its witty sparkle, what I loved most about the book was the subtle vein of commentary on women’s equality and classless society, which she superbly weaves into the narrative!

To say I have become a devotee is an understatement; I am a convert, who will now go out to the world to convert more into the Delafieldian clan! Vi Va Ms. Delafield!

A Room of One’s Own…..

My February’s selection for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge was, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I know I have mentioned this previously, but here is one author who actually intimidates me and as a result, I have not read one of the foremost, literary geniuses of 20th century! Back in 2016, I finally mustered up the courage to read To The Lighthouse which blew me away and I vowed to read more of Ms. Woolf’s works but it took me two more years to finally get to her writing again and this time as I went with one her most sought after non-fiction writings!

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I am not sure how other folks have written a synopsis of this amazing work, which says so much and yet cannot be captured in a 4 line summary! The essay kicks off as Ms. Woolf explores the subject on which she has been asked to provide a lecture on – Woman in Fiction! She asks what the title in itself means – women and what they like? Women and fiction they write or the fiction that is written about them or how all these three elements are intrinsically linked to each other! From here on, she goes to explore the writings by men on women and why women have not left money for their daughters to help them find a room of their own where they pursue their art? She draws out parallel’s in form of fictive sister of William Shakespeare who despite being equally imaginative and gifted may not have ever had a chance like her brother because of financial and social limitations which would have either driven her to an early death or confined her to the borderlines of society condemned as a mad woman! She then moves on to examine the history of Women writing from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen to Bronte Sisters to George Sand and her own contemporaries like Rebecca West who are often cast as undesirable beings because of their abilities and intellect! She show how small this history is and yet how one generation of women are indebted to her previous generation for the relative creative freedom, that she has received, because of the efforts of her predecessor! She also visits the fact that men authors often neglect the relationship between two women themselves unless it is in relation to a man! She closes her essay with asking more women to take up writing so that they are able to bequeath a better inheritance on their daughters than the one they received themselves!

To begin with, once again, I am not sure why I waited for ages, literally, to read this work. It would have been great to have appreciated the brilliance of the prose and deep and sometimes disquieting thoughts of this book much sooner than 2018! Anyhow, I am glad I finally did read this work and needless to say, have found so much to like about it! I know this has often be slotted under a feminist work, but I cannot help but think this is so much more. This book tells women, what they know but in way forcing them to see it in the glaring sunlight. It brings consciousness and awareness to women about their plight and the kind of legacy we have been handed down to what will hand down. What really stuck me is that while Ms. Woolf was very optimistic about the future of her daughter’s in a 100 years’ time; today, 100 years later, her essay is still relevant as ever. While we really do have more options, things have not changed much  – West was decried as an errant feminist because of her abilities. Today in our much evolved language a woman is called “bossy” if she displays initiative and ambition; while the very same qualities are applauded in man and shows him to be “hungry for success!” Goes to show the more things change, the more they remain the same. But more importantly, something that really spoke to me in contrast with other gender politics writing was its ending – there is no “down with men” war cry, but rather a strong push to women, to pull their lives up so that they can better their and their daughter’s lot!

100 years ago, Ms. Woolf exploded to give us so many things, and I know I will revisit again and again to take up one kernel and explore it end to end before moving on to another idea. One of best thought provoking books I have read in a very long time!

A big shout to Adam for hosting this great event, which finally giving a chance to read authors and books that I should have read long back and without this challenge would not have gotten to even now!