This was a book which I had reserved for ages thanks to a work-related book club listing. It was so readable and engaging in tone that it took one sitting to finish reading although it was approaching the wee hours of the morning by then. I didn’t realise it encompassed the perspectives of different characters (Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter) until the fourth chapter – I was too engrossed in the unfolding plot. This is a book written by a writer who has paid attention to suspenseful build up of plot with teasers – in my experience, those books are the page turners. Each character also has a unique voice but while I’m sure it helped the reading, I didn’t exactly dwell over it.
So here’s the summary: The Help by Kathryn Stockett is the story of Skeeter Phelan, Aibileen Clark, and Minny Jackson. Skeeter has graduated from college and has returned to Jackson, Mississippi. She feels unsatisfied by her small town, Wednesday bridge club and working as the editor of the Junior League, because she wants to be a professional writer. She has her fair share of troubles because unlike her friends she has not found a husband yet and her mother is always trying to remind her to find dates. She wants to obtain a publishing position in New York but she has only received rejection letters. Inspired by her fondness for her former maid, Constantine — who left without a word before she returned — and annoyance with her friend Hilly’s “Home Sanitation Initiative” (a scheme for white people to set up bathrooms for their colored help), Skeeter sets out to write the stories of the black maids in her town. Naturally given this story is set in 1962 and given the setting, they are embarking on a fairly dangerous mission.
I’m not white, I’m not African-American and I’m not a citizen of USA. While I knew some background on civil war history, I liked the angle this book took on the Jim Crow laws and maids working for white women that they once raised as babies. There were two readings which struck me: Skeeter, a white woman gives a voice to “colored” maids who are silenced by the laws governing their state about race. On the positive side, it represents a simple college girl finding courage to stand up for the oppressed race. On the negative side, this is a story about mastery and race – the maids could not have done this without Skeeter’s assistance. At least, those are the two sides of the coin to me.
What was most beautiful to me was the relationship between Aibileen and motherly affection-starved Mae Mobley. I loved how the racist first grade teacher was changed when Raleigh Leefolt saw her playing ‘Rosa Parks on the bus’ with her sibling after she lied to defend Aibileen. Celia Foote, Johnny and Minny also had quite interesting interactions. The book definitely has its share of dramatic and funny moments.
Well, as for my opinion? It is worth reading, though there is plenty of subject matter about racism in the Southern States, because of the perspectives from which it is written – especially that of Aibileen andMinny.
The Remains of the Day is a narrative that comprises of memories of Stevens’s service for the now deceased Lord Darlington as an English butler at Darlington Hall during and just after World War II. Told as a first person narrative, this story by Kazuo Ishiguro is mostly about regret and misplaced devotion.
Urged by his current employer, an American gentleman by the name of Mr. Farraday, Stevens decides to take a six-day road trip and leave Darlington Hall, where he worked as a butler for almost 35 years. While Stevens likes his new boss, he finds it difficult to converse with him because their personalities clash. The butler is set in his formal ways and is serious and prudent in what he chooses to say while Mr. Farraday, unlike his former employer, is not averse to indulging in some humourous and jovial “bantering”. The old butler wishes to acquire this skill of bantering and frequently expresses his desire to communicate better with his new boss. Stevens’s road trip was triggered by a letter sent by Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall who left twenty years earlier to get married. He reads into the letter that her marriage is on the rocks and that she wishes to return to her former duties. After the end of World War II, he had trouble retaining enough staff to maintain the manor so he regards it as welcome news.
We come to know through interactions that other characters have with Stevens, his former employer was manipulated into sympathizing with the Nazi cause. He even hosts dinner parties for the heads of British and German states so they can come to an amicable resolution. In the opinion of Stevens, who is blindly loyal, it is a shame the reputation of his former boss was destroyed because he misunderstood what was truly happening. During his road trip, he also talks about friendships with other butlers. It is also indicated that Stevens has inhibited feelings of a romantic nature for Miss Kenton as she comes up frequently as a subject. Although the two frequently have childish arguments over household matters, it is clear there is feeling between the pair, even if he fails miserably at being intimate and misreads her intentions.
The end of the novel reveals an obvious fact (at least to the discerning reader) about Miss Kenton, who has since become Mrs. Benn which upsets Stevens. He spent most of his life blindly trusting the choices of a man who made terrible errors of judgment and lost the one chance he had when love stared him in the face because he was blind to that too. He again chooses to be reticent and conceals how he feels and returns to Mr.Farraday, with a determination to master the art of bantering in order to please his new employer.
There is also a movie staring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson inspired by this book although the ending has variation to the novel. If you are interested in other works by this author, also check out Never Let Me Go.
I picked up this book by chance. It was the extra book you toss in your library bag when you are running short of good selections. All the books I wanted were on reserve so my last-minute choice turned out to be a surprisingly good read. Apart from Harry Potter and LOTR, I’m not a fan of anything close to science fiction (exception being Jules Verne) or fantasy.
Written by Taichi Yamada, In Search of a Distant Voice has a grim start with foreboding overtones. The main character, an immigration enforcement official by the name of Kasama Tsuneo, has to track down some Indian “illegals” without visas in a graveyard. Subtle references are made to his dark past in Portland, Oregon which gives the impression that there is a secret to unravel which drives the plot along for a while. It is made clear that he wants to put the past behind him and be ordinary. He was an illegal in the US himself so the job he has in Japan bothers his conscience. In the course of his work, something unusual happens – he gets overtaken by a “force of erotic pleasure” while he is about to capture his quarry in the graveyard and hears a woman’s voice in his head. I must admit that took me by surprise.
It seems some sort of telepathic connection has occurred between the mystery woman and Tsuneo. Then it starts getting bizarre but Yamada does a good job of persuading the reader to stick around to find out who the woman may be. Meanwhile Tsuneo tries to figure out whether he is crazy or if this woman actually exists and how such an occurrence can happen. In description, it sounds silly and unfathomable but the handling of punchy dialogue, prose and skillful interweaving of side plots such as an arranged marriage and the revelation of the secret bothering Tsuneo intrigues a reader enough to continue to the end. The narrative voice also switches between subjects and tenses in a clever enough way to make the content of the book seem distinctive in style since it could be either one or all of the following: a story about truth, a story about repentance or in the most basic sense, a ghost story. But when we reach the end, we are as illuminated by the identity of the woman as when we began.
Well, I know I was out of commission for a while but when you pursue a full-time working life on weekdays and use weekends for socialising like me, time just flies. I did make time for reading a few books though and as I have a glorious long weekend ahead (thank goodness for Labour Day in Vic), I can actually be not too tired to write. So I did manage to read the tome that is Shantaram despite my time poorness.
In 1978, the author of Shantaram was sentenced to nineteen years in prison after he was convicted of a string of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Pentridge Prison miraculously in daylight, becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for several years. Written by Australian Gregory David Roberts who did actually live in the slums of Bombay, Shantaram is a unique novel that blurs the boundaries of fiction and autobiography.
The real story begins after our protagonist arrives in Mumbai with a false passport under the alias Lindsay Ford. The city impresses Lindsay and his stopover soon turns into an extended and dangerous stay on borrowed time. His chance meeting with an enigmatic taxi driver, Prabaker, who has an infectious smile, whom Lindsay hires as his guide to India shapes the rest of the narrative. They soon become fast friends and Prabaker takes to calling him Lin. Lin is taken to the village of Sunder, where the family of Prabaker resides. Prabaker’s mother decides that Lin’s character is of a happy and peaceful nature and renames him Shantaram (Man of God’s Peace).
So now the story of where the title comes from is over, the pace of the plot increases after Lin gets drunk, is robbed and decides to live in the Mumbai slums and thanks to a first aid kit and a fire ends up as the “slum doctor”. This experience makes him almost local and his fluent mastery of Hindi as well as Marathi, a popular language in Mumbai, opens up new avenues of earning money to him. He also interacts with other foreigners living in Mumbai, involved in all sorts of criminal circles, and then ends up involved in some shady situations, including a stint in theArthur Roadprison. The two foreigners that play a crucial role in Lin’s life is Karla, a Swiss-American woman and Afghan mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan. The former introduces him to true love and the latter inspires him to abandon his path of crime and return to living an honest life.
It’s funny but Lin is a villain that you want to see succeed. The writing in Shantaram is sometimes a bit too cliché and full of sentimentality, possibly to display the tender heart of the guy who looks tough, so if the plot is what interests you and not how the prose is written, I recommend you give it a go.
So I finally have some breathing space to actually sit down and write a review. I have been reading but just haven’t had the time to write since my reading is mostly done during my one-hour train commute to work. Well, I was fascinated by The Collector’s cover and the vintage classic which was the first effort of John Fowles (better known as the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) was an unexpected treat.
Here’s the basic overview of the plot: Dull and ordinary clerk Frederick Clegg has an obsession. The object of his obsession is a woman, namely a pretty art student named Miranda Grey. After lucking out on the lottery, he moves out from his aunt’s and purchases an old estate with a cellar in country England. This is where it starts getting bizarre. Deciding he has to have the company of Miranda at all costs because he “loves” her, he kidnaps the poor girl and keeps her captive in the cellar which contrasts with his hobby of collecting different butterflies. Essentially Miranda is a human specimen.
The first half of the story is narrated from Frederick’s point of view while the second half is gleaned through Miranda’s diary. It is obvious that these two are far from being a perfect match because their opinions conflict and their individual perspectives are at odds with the beliefs of the other party.
but I have left the best part for last. With the last of Miranda’s diary entries, we come to a plot twist that will shock you about Frederick for whom, nine times out of ten, you would have felt sympathy so far because of his lack of social skills. Reeling with that, we are treated to an unexpected ending which is very ingenuous for book written in 1963. There was a movie made in 1965 but seriously don’t miss out on the prose. I thought Miranda’s rambling went on for a little too long for my liking since I found her own obsession with an older paramour grating but other than that I have no quibbles with it. It is in the face of what happens, I would say, a horror story in the sense of psychological suspense.
Based on Irish expat Frank McCourt‘s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, this 1999 film adaptation shows us how he grew up in the wretched slums of Limerick during the Depression. It is clear from the start food is as scarce as employment, poverty is rife, disease is a precursor to death and squalor is everywhere. Nevertheless despite all the tragedies that befall this family including their pathetic alcoholic father figure who uses even welfare money for the drink instead of feeding his babies, Frankie seems to find some joy in life and builds his dreams on escaping to America while even managing to love his irresponsible dad. It is the rich variety of characters and experiences he has along the way to achieving this that makes this story so poignant and moving. Frank’s Irish Catholic upbringing is given a lot of focus on the film as well as the rank hypocrisy of the church.
The film is brutal in its depiction of the bleak and sad life that was had to be in Ireland with the drab brown and grey tones pervading it. Nevertheless it is still injected with doses of optimism and humour, sometimes from the most unexpected quarters. Robert Carlyle does a great job as the laconic and irresponsible Malachy while Emily Watson seems to bear the patience of a saint as she portrays the self-sacrificing woman who was Angela, Frank McCourt’s mother and the namesake of the film. The three boys who portrayed Frank were all great actors in their own right so kudos to the casting people.
Despite Angela having a husband who rarely if ever fulfilled his obligations as a father, she is the rock who made Frank determined to achieve his goal and move on from the past. It is clear she was a good-hearted person who coped with immense hardships that were thrown in her way. Ultimately while this is a tragic movie about the pain and suffering one can undergo for the love of one’s children, the ultimate triumph at the end eclipses it all.
While this is a good movie, it is possibly because it stays true to the heart of the book most of the time. If you want to watch it but haven’t read the book yet, I suggest trying it out first. Angela’s Ashes may be an uplifting story in its final message but it is not a happy one. After seeing this, you might want to think twice about complaining about your lot in life and eat humble pie instead!
When Alice wakes up, her first concern is about her the first baby she is to have with her husband Nick. The problem is that baby was born in 1998, Nick is in the middle of a divorce hearing with her and she has had two other children. As Alice starts to recall the events that led to her collapse and eventual memory lapse, she realises that the person she has become isn’t someone she likes very much and starts to sets things right again.
What Alice Forgot is light reading material – it’s the kind of book with which you would read a couple of chapters before leaving the rest for another day. This chick lit offering by Liane Moriarty deals with a 40-year-old protagonist called Alice Love who collapses at the gym one day and forgets the past 10 years of life. This would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact a lot has happened to Alice in the past 10 years. The amount of drama in her life in that span of time could have made a full season of a television sitcom.
The narrative is provided to us readers via two perspectives – one by the Alice who is trying to fit bits and pieces together after her memory loss and rest in journal entries by her sister, Elizabeth, who has enough troubles of her own. So we enter the lives of these two women who are struggling to keep their lives in order while learning some life lessons along the way. As Alice starts to recall the past, she can’t help but wonder if she should have started mending bridges when she recalls the drifting apart had been her own doing. This is one of those tales that ponders the What If question in an interesting way even if predictable.
While the prose is easy to read, the clever tactic of revealing tidbits of flashbacks without giving much away helps in making it to the end. Unfortunately while the journey to the destination was nice, reaching it was a disappointment as it was rather abrupt.
In Breath by Tim Winton, we have a gripping tale that is simple and profound in the topics it tackles – adolescence, the need for heart-pounding and risk-filled excitement, a yearning to outshine and outdo the competition and how old wounds affect the passage of life as time passes. This book which is mostly about the friendship between two boys and their daring surfing exploits is melodic in its use of written language and deserved the Miles Franklin Literary Award it won in 2009. As an immigrant Melburnian, surf culture is alien to me but as Winton paints such a vivid verbal picture of that world, and how the ocean could be both enthralling and toxic, Breath is a captivating read.
The most touching moment was when or coming of age protagonist had to admit that he was ‘ordinary’ after all. You realise it is a melancholy book as the trajectory of events clues you in that this is no flowery ode. Since it’s structured from the start as a reflection on past events, you can’t help but feel for Bruce Pike, the main character and later on his love interest. It did surprise me that the amount of time spent in learning about his present was very miniscule.
Set in Western Australia where surfing beaches abound, Breath gave me enjoyment in reading about the landscape. Sometimes authors overdo it to the point that it becomes a pain to read but Winton avoids relying on description and infuses his tale with enough dialogue and dramatic tension to sustain interest. You need to realise beneath the story surface story evoking nostalgia, there are other themes such as addiction, dreams vs reality and growing old integrated into the plot as an undercurrent.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is about accident-prone soldier Billy Pilgrim who does not happen to like war and consistently bungles his duties. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he and his comrades are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse known as “slaughterhouse number 5”, hence the title. During the bombing of Dresden during WWII, both Billy’s fellow prisoners and the Germans hide in the cellar and manage to be some of the few who survive. Sounds OK so far but now get ready for the arrival of some sci-fi detail.
In addition, Billy is also an optometrist in a dull marriage who claims he was abducted by aliens from Trafalmadore; these aliens can see four dimensions and have witnessed their futures but are powerless to change it although they can choose to relive and reexperience specific moments continuously. These creatures, we are led to believe, exhibit Billy in a zoo with a B-list film actress Montana Wildhack selected as his “mate”. He even knows and expects when he is to die. So time travelling Billy moves forward and backward in time, while he relives occasions of his life, both real and fantasy.
The experiences Billy relives again includes being a captive zoo exhibit in Tralfamadore, Dresden during the firestorm, Germany just before his capture, his dull post-war life in USA and the moment of his murder. Billy’s death is caused by a chain reaction of events that precipitate his death. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets soldier Roland Weary, a bully who picks on Billy due to his lack of zeal about war. When they are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has including his boots and gives him wooden clogs to wear. He dies of gangrene brought on by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary convinces petty thief Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge his death by killing Billy. But while Billy knows how, when and where he will die, he can’t do anything to change his fate. He relives these experiences in fragments of bits and pieces in no particular order.
Still as protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller, who experiences random events of his life, with no idea of what part he will live again — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time (just like Time Traveller’s Wife although this is more of a absurdist postmodern book rather than a romantic novel), like another experience mingled with his other experiences which seem to have a sharper edge to them in any case. While the book is interesting in its exploration of free will or lack thereof depending on how you choose to interpret the underlying message, I found that I’m one of those people pigeonhole Slaughterhouse-Five as belonging to the science fiction genre even if it’s an anti-war novel but please keep in mind I tend to hate anything that references aliens of the non-immigrant variety as much as I dislike Jane Austen. So for a different point of view, check this review out.