Category Archives: Book Review

Notes on a Scandal – A Review

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It is not often that a book moves me to the extent of writing a review while I’m still halfway into the book. Most of my reviews are written after a mulling over of the text and culling of my emotions so that I can truly focus on the things that mattered. It also helps me decide how I really feel about the book as compared to how I felt about it when I finished the book.

However, Notes on a Scandal, demanded a different treatment. For a book that I’d thought of as  a light read, this book is a whirlpool of psychological nuances. In this work of fiction, Zoe Heller forced me to look beyond the obviousness of most human interactions into the constant stream of thoughts that go on in the person’s head. If Woolf’s To The Lighthouse embraces the stream of consciousness that persists in our brains at any point of time, Heller’s Notes on a Scandal depicts how thoughts define our actions and how our perceptions are more of an insight into us than the person we are perceiving in a certain manner.

While the premise of the book is that of adultery committed by a woman with her student, it is not the most compelling, or even entertaining, part of the book. Barbara, the narrator of the story, is the real protagonist of the story. While it would be incorrect to blame her for Sheba’s transgressions, she is the reason the story unfolds the way that it does. Zoe Heller has done a remarkable job of creating a friend who seeks nothing but her “friend’s” destruction. We’ve all felt envy towards our friends at some point of time or the other and occasionally, we’ve all met people like Barbara in our lives. This novel gives an all new dimension to the word “frenemy.” Notes on a Scandal is a story of how one wrong person’s influence can shred a tapestry of life woven over the years. The novel highlights the importance of understanding the people we choose to let into our inner circle and constantly weighing their impact on situations and relations that are important to us. It is a cautionary tale of how easily we can misread people’s intentions and ignore their obvious effect on our lives – to disastrous ends.

What really comes through is the honest portrayal of characters, all of whom are shades of grey that veer heavily towards the black. We’ve all held the moral high ground when people around us have erred. Our righteousness stems from our cowardice to accept how we may have made mistakes ourselves. We allow others’ mistakes to justify all of our transgressions and this book unflinchingly portrays that. We see Sheba as merely the mirror for all of everyone else’s hypocrisy instead of being the catalyst for their behaviour. Notes on a Scandal is simply a narration of people and their lives. A narration we would be foolish to ignore.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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Before I started with this book, I had heard of Neil Gaiman in passing and was unacquainted with his body of work. Yes, I was living under a rock. I’d read various articles on various forums about his brilliance and I’d added him to my list of ‘authors-to-read-sometime-in-my-life.’ Now that I think about how long it took me to pick up one of his books, I am surprised by my stupidity. Before I delve into the world of Lettie Hempstock and our 7-year-old protagonist, let me be done with my disclaimers. This was my first Gaiman and I had little idea of what his work was like. I’d heard his praises but I’d never even read the blurb of any of his books. I also have very limited exposure to fantasy and magical realism in literature. With that out of the way, let me begin…

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book I picked up when I was going through a book slump. I’d looked through various books on my shelf and while I wanted to read all of them, I didn’t feel the connect to pick any of them up immediately. But something about a girl floating under water, breathing out and seeming to reach above the dark, royal blue waters had me marveling at the cover. It’s rare to find such beautiful artwork on a book cover these days. To say that the cover spoke to me would be a cliché and yet, that is precisely what happened.

I hadn’t read the book blurb before starting the book and went in with no idea of what to expect. The book begins with a ‘Chapter 0’ before the prologue and this ‘chapter’ was barely a hundred words and I knew I wouldn’t be putting the book down anytime soon. The voice of the narrator was etched out clearly and precisely in a mere hundred words. I kid you not; I cannot get over this flagrant display of masterful writing.

In less than 200 pages, Gaiman has managed to create a magnificent childhood story with supernatural creatures, a wonderfully described pastoral setting, the fight between shades of grey, the emotions running through the mind of a young boy and wisdom of the ages encapsulated in the brain of an aging grandmother. He has also added in a subtext of how all evil is a manifestation of our wants.

I enjoyed Gaiman’s portrayal of a lonely, 7 year old boy and his quaint friendship with Lettie Hempstock. I loved how he described Old Mrs. Hempstock and Ursula Monkton. It’s easy to forget the tone of your protagonist when describing things that happened years ago but never once did Gaiman fail to make it sound like the little boy was talking to me.

The story flowed effortlessly. There wasn’t a single line of text that I felt was avoidable or fluff. This was crisp, clear, and very condensed. I enjoyed reading a 7 year old boy’s easy acceptance of magical moments and his incredulity at the mundane, non-magical experiences. This book had its moments of solemnity and levity but both were sparse and merely peppered the incredibly fast paced narrative. Watching the Hempstocks deal with the evil creature and their interactions with the narrator as well as each other, one could almost feel a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos. I was frequently left smiling at their dialogues.

This book is a recounting of a childhood adventure that was forgotten by the narrator until he revisited it. But under this pretext, Gaiman has offered us a wonderful opportunity to make the journey from our adulthood to the remembrance of our childhood. This entire story seems to reiterate the futility of the human mind to remember past occurrences and it makes me wish I’d started writing a journal years ago. I wonder just what memories lurk within me that are “obscured under the things that come later…but are never forgotten for good.”

To say anything of the story would be tantamount to giving away crucial plot twists. I will however quote a passage that shows off Gaiman’s writing prowess in the hopes that if you’ve been living the same rock I was, then this passage will urge you to turn it over and read Gaiman.

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all.”

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The Wanderer by Kahlil Gibran

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Few writers approach writing with the simplicity that is Gibran. When I have children and I seek to imbue in them, a sense of ethics and morality, I shall turn to Gibran for their bedtime stories. His parables are sparsely worded and yet, each one of them carries a far greater wealth of wisdom than your average novel.

Unlike other philosophers that I’ve read, Gibran doesn’t explain his ideas or thoughts. Infact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for me to say that he doesn’t even state them. He picks up common, everyday occurrences of life and weaves into them, the wisdom of the ages. His ambiguity is what makes him suitable for re-reading. Based on the reader’s current perspective and cognitive abilities the stories can transform from mundaneinstances of life to springboards for analyzing human fallacies and emotions.

Many of his tales in The Wanderer are centered around seeking oneself. Gibran doesn’t stress on how we should focus on understanding ourselves; he simply redirects ones thoughts towards finding oneself. He writes a tale of a child playing hide and seek with his nurse and by the end of the tale, you’re not just smiling at the childish game being played, or remembering instances from your childhood – you’re doing all of that as well as being led down the path of spiritual enlightenment. And that is how Gibran redirects you from a moment in the present to a memory in the past and a pensive future.

The Wanderer also stresses on the abundant human emotions and our inability to distinguishone from the other. He personifies love and sorrow and in less than a hundred words, he tells you their entire story and encapsulates all their ambivalent emotions. He also leads you towards a leap of understanding of how they’re different faces of the same coin.

Gibran doesn’t stress on religion or religious ideas. He stresses on humanity, emotions and the contradictions that exist in the vast spaces of a human mind. He forces you to look within and find the answers that are hidden in the pages. And if that isn’t enough of a commendable endeavour, he tops it off by leaving you calm and at peace with yourself.

Read this when you’re looking forward to hours of musings and introspection. It’s the perfect book for a solitary holiday.

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The circus arrives without warning…

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Some books just call out to you. With it’s beautiful cover that reminded me of a dark, cloudless, starry night, The Night Circus beckoned. Before reading this book, I’d flirted with ‘magical realism’ somewhat but it was never serious. This book changes that.

The Night Circus is a common enough story of a battle between two sides in the uncommon environment of a circus. Given the constraints – of a battle where the victor is the last one standing and a budding love between the two fighters, Morgenstern has managed to create a story that doesn’t focus completely on the star-crossed lovers but rather on their journey. It’s hard to keep an audience captivated when the ending is so brutally clear and yet, Morgenstern manages to do just that.

Under her vivid imagination and literary genius, the circus comes to life. When you read the text, you enter the circus just like the circus goers in her book. You see the sights they do, you experience what they experience. And here is where you’re truly lucky. You get to revel in the circus through the eyes of each of her circus goers and unlike them, you can return to the circus at any time and as many times as you please. The narrative flows effortlessly and is peppered with detailed descriptions of the circus and its attractions so much so that all your senses are overwhelmed.

What I particularly loved about the book was the fluidity of the story. It’s easy to get mired in the descriptions and forgo the story but Morgenstern keeps a firm grasp of the tale and never once does the story suffer at the hands of the narrative. An admirable feat for a book so detailed. Marco and Celia’s love story doesn’t come off as unrealistic or too intense. It feels as destined as the circus feels real. There isn’t any over the top description of their attraction to one another, and this could easily have been done given the magical elements. But it is the sheer simplicity of their love that grows on the reader.

All the characters are well-defined and their stories have as much to contribute to the overall tale as do the main characters. It was wonderfully nice to meet some of the secondary characters and see them take on a life of their own. I was a little off put by the ending because that seemed somewhat abrupt given how languidly the rest of the text progressed. And yet, on further reflection, it didn’t seem completely impossible. Clearly, it had been worked into the text very, very subtly.

There isn’t a sense of urgency or theatricality to The Night Circus. It is a story that occurs over the years and is told with the same kind of pace. This isn’t your book if you’re looking for a quick read or a thrilling story. But it is precisely what the soul needs when its suffering from a lack of beauty and a sense of tranquility amidst a frenetic life.

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How I Braved Anu Aunty…

 

If you were to look through my bookshelves (they fill up an entire room and then some…) you’d find an eclectic mix of books from an equally eclectic range of writers. You’d find quite a few Indian authors but barely any of the fluff fiction that passes for writing these days. Truth be told, there are less than 10 of them. And apart from one or two, they’ve all left me miserably disappointed. Some, I haven’t read beyond the initial chapters and the forever loved ‘A thing beyond forever’ was so particularly painful that I lasted a mere half page. I wanted to gouge my eyes out over that compilation of paper I wouldn’t wipe poop with. Which is why I’m always filled with trepidation when someone recommends a National Bestseller. But then, I saw a friend of mine promoting “How I braved Anu Aunty” on facebook and I was intrigued.

For one, the cover page had no crappy insinuations to love or engineering colleges. And then, the caricature of Anu Aunty was just hypnotic. I wanted to pick up the book just to look at that big head with a bigger bindi! 😀  But I didn’t. I thought this would be another one of those fluff fiction books which would have poor grammar, crappy writing and absolutely nothing worth my time. Even though the name of the book alluded to an entrepreneurial story, I was sceptical. But then…I read reviews – good ones. And I still didn’t pick it up because I needed to trust the reviewer. I’d read waay too many good reviews of far too many abysmal “writers” (and I use this term in its most loose connotation here). I know what you’re thinking…and yes, I am a snob. After the massive heartburn that was Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone,(shudder, puke, puke some more) the more hyped a book was, the more cynical I’d become. But then, I saw that Rupa published it. And a teeny voice inside me said, “well, they have good sensible editors. Maybe the story won’t be good but atleast there will be no pathetic language being written off as how youngsters talk.” You see, what Mr. Bhagat had failed to recognize was that when he came out with five point, I was a youngster and I was the exact age of his protagonist and no sir, I did not talk like that. Nor did my friends or their friends. Anyhow, with good reviews and a good publisher, this book made its way onto my reading list.

It was a massive headache to source this book and I think I have to sever my long standing relationship with Flipkart because of their shoddy customer service. So when, after almost 3 months of scouring for the book, it made its way into my hands on Saturday night, I just had to start reading it. And what a read it was.

I loved this book. The last time an Indian author had made me laugh out loud as much as he did was when Anuja Chauhan came out with The Zoya Factor back in 2008! I started reading it today, sometime in the early evening and I was faced with a dilemma. This book is such a simple read and it flows so effortlessly that even before I realized, I’d polished off half of it and I felt cheated. I wanted to slow down and savor it and yet, I had to speed up because I was eagerly awaiting the next Anu Aunty dialogue. This book just swooshed past and made my day so very cheery.

It’s not like I found nothing wrong with the book. I can almost always find flaws. And I did. But the most refreshing change was that the characters spoke in a language which was identifiable. The dialogues weren’t stilted or forced. There was no spelling error or glaring grammatical offence. Even the sprinkling of Bollywood music and thunder and lightning was done very cleverly. Even before the author commented on them being present, because of the narrative, I was always expecting it and I would always pause to wonder just which tune would be more apt. What was also very refreshing was that there was no moaning or sighing for a woman. There was, however, a lot of it because of a woman (adorable anu aunty). Friendships were real and not glossed over. Crises were also relateable.

My only tangible regret is that the situation with Aahaana could have been more interestingly explored and Devika’s date was almost like a third forelimb. Awkward and quite frankly, I didn’t see the point of it. I don’t get that tangent at all.

But the one thing this book managed to do, was to change my opinion. I might not pick up every fluff fiction out there even now, but if it sounds intriguing, I might atleast pick up the book to read the back cover. I’m not sure fluff fiction is exactly where this book stands but I know for a fact that it isn’t literary. And I think, therein lies the beauty of Anu Aunty. It isn’t trying to be anything. It isn’t pretending to be a mass produced book, nor is it trying to be transcendental.

The author says that he’s not a writer but a story teller and frankly, I have to disagree. His story is fabulous but what stood out was his narrative. His writing has potential. After all, did I mention that it changed my opinion? That of a self proclaimed, proud, extremely critical literary snob? That counts for a lot.

And there you go people…my first ever book review!

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