Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Name is Mary Sutter: Robin Oliveira

Image Credit: Seattle Times

Choices. Some of us have one too many and we end up regretting it or loving it. Again that’s a choice made unconsciously most of the time. This is the predominant theme in Robin Oliveira’s “My Name is Mary Sutter.” Summary from the book jacket:

Mary Sutter, a brilliant young midwife, dreams of proving herself as capable as any man. But medical schools refuse to teach women. So when her heart is broken, she heads to Washington DC to tend the Civil War wounded. Assisted and encouraged by two surgeons, who both fall for her, and ignoring requests to return home to help her twin sister give birth. Mary pursues her dream of becoming a surgeon and saving lives – no matter the cost to herself or those she loves and no matter the harrowing conditions she has yet to face.

This book was, for quite a while, a constant in book club discussions and topping best books charts. Plus, history, a strong woman protagonist, war. Do I need more reasons to pick it up? The first few chapters give a background on Mary and her family and about Mary’s passion for the medical profession. Mary is an accomplished midwife, beginning to gain more acclaim than even her mother. But she nurses a strong ambition to become a surgeon, which is quite outlandish for women at the time.

Initially, disappointment is Mary’s companion. She loses the one man she develops more than a like for to her twin sister, is rejected by several medical schools purely on the basis of her gender and turned away by Dr Blevens even though he had heard that she was exceptional. But ironically, Mary’s luck turns with the onset of war. To be more specific, the circular from Dorothea Dix the Female Superintendent of Army Nurses, calling for “ladies to serve in (hospitals) in the tradition of Florence Nightingale in her recent successful work caring for British soldiers in the Crimea,” is what inspires Mary.

Mary sets out the very next day to meet Dorothea and later on encounters Dr Stipp who gives her preliminary training to be a surgeon. From here the story winds through Mary’s trials not just as a doctor but as a daughter.

I liked the way Oliveira portrayed Mary – a strong willed woman who appears selfish and heartless but is essentially just torn between giving in to sentiment and chasing her dream. Mary and other women doctors are modeled on real Civil War nurses who went on to become physicians after their experiences in the war. What is different in the book is the way the ravages of war are shown from the perspective of medical care. There are graphic descriptions of legs being sawed, bones being set and of course, childbirth, which are not for the faint of heart. Oliveira also makes the book quite atmospheric with descriptions of the stench, of amputated limbs piled up at the hospital and of the moaning of wounded soldiers.

What I really appreciated and liked was the amount of research that Oliveira has evidently put in to understand the Albany of those times, the attitude of people and the lay of politics. Through it all it's Mary who stands out, with her resolve and passion to follow her dream. However, after the initial stubbornness and pluck that Mary displays she becomes comparatively subdued. It could be that her experiences wear her down or that she is just tired of fighting. I didn't get much clarity on that but the book slows down along with Mary. The ending was also not too different from what I thought might eventually happen. But make the choice. Do read about Mary.

Verdict: Read it for the delightful historic descriptions and for Mary

Rating: 3/5

Friday, December 20, 2013

The End

The end of the year is approaching. It's been a year that has teased, taunted and scalded in equal measure. I don't think there was ever a year that I wanted to end. So fast. So soon. I have made mistakes this year that I wish I can learn from. Will I? I have learned I can be pretty mean. Be a bitch. Be kind. Be compassionate. Get angry. Be calm. Throw words. Hold back words. I have been through the washing machine, and wrung myself out dry. At the end, I wonder where I will be. I wonder if this is the best and the worst. I have no answer to it.

But as 2013 draws to a close, I can only thank the year. It hardened me. It toughened me. It made me cry. And shatter little glass pieces deep inside my self. I can thank the year because I am grateful I am still standing here to see the wreck of myself. This year has been a slow one for writing - I don't know if I will write more in the coming year. But this is my open letter to the world to let them know that change is coming. And as with all change, we need to move with it. I will be in the Himalayas, closing my eyes to the cold and breathing in the beauty of the mountains when the year ends. I wish all of you a beautiful year, a 2014 that will offer something of hope and redemption in the power of friendship and humanity. To those of you who stuck by me this miserable year, no amount of gratitude is enough. To those who chose to leave, thank you for that as well, till we meet again. Those who offered me words of wisdom and consolation, thank you. You know that you are blessed in the best that life can offer - compassion.

May the coming end be one that sinks to the bottom so that the most beautiful moments can rise again.

Thank you.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette : Maria Semple

Image Credit: A Little Blog Of Books

Let me give one simple piece of advice to myself. "Don't ever wait months to review a book!!" "Don't ever wait months to review a book!" "Don't ever wait months to review a book!" Ok. I think that's around 3 pieces of advice. But well, I have to shout. And scream and instil this in my little fried head. I read one of the best-sellers of the year, Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple months ago on my Kindle. I think almost more than 6 months ago while I was on holiday in Taipei. There was no way I could have written a review from there. I thought let me come back and write a review, and just like everything else this miserable year, it just drifted away. So I am trying my best to remember this book - not the book, but how I felt about, and I am failing.

So I turn to wise old Amazon for the book blurb:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

This was readable. I couldn't say though that I found the book overwhelmingly so. There was just a little something that stopped me from completely getting into the book. That's because I couldn't really get too much into the skin of the character Bernadette Fox. She is a woman who so hates socializing or being in touch with the outside world (having seen so many pitiful specimens of humanity in my previous office, I can understand why!), that she hires a virtual office assistant to do everything for her. Things come to a head when her daughter Bee is promised a trip to Antartica, and Bernadette decides to just fly away. Other reviewers have raved about the crafty construction of the book - it's pieced together from emails, letters and other correspondence. It's apparent that Bernadette is the sort of person you would really want to meet though. She seems witty, loyal and fiercely protective as a mother. And here's where I stop digging into the roots of my memory.

And I can only hope and pray that I finish reviewing the rest of the books that are sitting on my memory's shelf before this year ends. And I am so waiting for this year to end. Over the course of the next year, I plan to revive this blog a little bit more. Infuse it with more life. And that's kind of what I want to do with my life as well. I will be going to Dubai this coming weekend with my parents and then on my own to Nepal. Now, that's a trip I am really looking forward to - the mountains of Nepal. I will look over the mountains as this horrible year slips away. Or perhaps, it hasn't been so horrible - but it has just shown me the worst of people, and in a lot of ways they have seen the worst of me too as a result. Some good friends. Laughter. Good health. Luck. Joy. Reading. Those are the things I wish for next year. And why do I get the feeling that is asking for a lot?

Verdict: A readable book that is funny and eccentric

Rating: 2.5/5

Monday, December 9, 2013

English Bites!: Manish Gupta

Image Credit: Penguin Books

Have you been intimidated by English? Do you find yourself searching for words often while in conversation for fear of making a mistake? Then Manish Gupta promises to soothe all your fears about the language. I was intrigued about the book and immediately set about reading it. But before I go ahead, the summary as usual from the book jacket –

Is the English language your biggest nightmare? Until he decided to cheat and beat the system. Today he is a smooth talking banker and has written a unique English learning guide that is easy to read, super effective and hilarious. So, whether you’re a vernacular speaker, a GRE/GMAT/CAT/XAT aspirant or just a language nut, English Bites! will expand your vocabulary and improve your verbal ability.

Manish begins by giving a background on how he came to learn English with unbridled passion. While in school, students and teachers alike often slipped into the vernacular, which made it difficult to practice speaking the language. As a result there were multiple occasions where he would struggle to string sentences together without fumbling. When he joined Punjab Engineering College, he “came across several long suffering specimens of (his) species.” Alongside, he nurtured ambitions of getting accepted into universities in the US for which he would have to take various exams in which knowledge of English plays a big role.

In this way, by placing words and their stories in the context of his personal experiences, Manish packs quite a bit of information in these 300+ pages. I must say I learnt a few odd words but I was more fascinated by the history of words, concepts and even brands. How many of us know that Pepsi comes a Greek enzyme called ‘pepsin’ and that Coca-Cola is derived from its original principal ingredients which are cocaine and caffeine?

“Cocaine comes from the Peruvian coca leaf and caffeine from the West African kola nuts, hence the name Coca-Cola.”

Or that the word ‘eavesdropper’ comes from water dropping off the eaves of a roof?

“…the story goes that, centuries ago, houses in England didn’t have any facility to dispose of rainwater falling from the roof. For fear of water dripping into the very foundations, the roofs were made with wide overhangs, called ‘eaves.’ So, the first ‘eavesdroppers’ literally stood in the shelter of those overhangs to overhear private conversations.”

Yet, as much as I relished these tidbits of information, I felt the pace of the book beginning to slow down incredibly. It began to shrink into a compendium of random facts, words and ideas that were very loosely held together by events in Manish’s life.

It was then that I realized that my approach to the book was wrong. I was expecting the satisfaction of reading a novel but this book is aimed at people who are looking to hone their knowledge of English. Looked at from that angle, it’s more than satisfactory because Manish nudges the curiosity of the reader rather than bore him/her with plain vanilla explanations. Manish includes words that can be classified in the range of easy to intermediate and even gives the meanings of these words right on the same page.  So, if you fall within this audience then by all means give it a read. If not, read it not as a novel on a continuous basis but as a book of facts that can be read bit by bit.

Last but not the least, thanks much to Manish for sending us this book to review!

Verdict: A lighthearted and less dry version of “Word Power Made Easy.”

Rating: I won’t give a rating because there is no story/writing/plot to evaluate.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Firefly Lane : Kristin Hannah

Image Credit: Rachel

I am trying to get back to my old habit where I review a book as soon as I finish reading them. So, it was around 2AM on a Friday night that I finished the weepie friendship saga called Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. Yet, it's 8AM now on Saturday, and I tell myself that I must write the review now, even though I have to be out somewhere doing the things that we think we ought to be doing on a weekend.

I was wondering how many books have been written on friendship over all these years of literature. I stumbled across Firefly Lane on a list on Goodreads that captured supposedly the best books on this complex relationship. Umm, Harry Potter was on top of that list, so I am not sure how to judge this list. But of late, I have been thinking a lot about this often neglected corner of our lives - friendship. You move through life, and they say that if you have at least 2 or 3 really close friends then you have done very well in life. It seems like a small thing. 2 or 3? Come on, don't we all have 500 friends on Facebook? Yet, we know what they mean. There are few more perpelxing yet abused relationships than friends. They are supposed to be there when we need them, and also supposed to be easily abandoned. It always surprises me the ease with each friends break off. There are no complex contracts as in a marriage. And no ties of blood as in a family. So when things go bad in a friendship, it's easy to cut the cord. Or so it seems.

But not for Katie and Tully - friends of more than 30 years. Bonded through years of seeing the best of each other and the worst in each other. Kristin Hannah has written a novel that rarely flags. We follow Katie and Tully through their tumultous teens and then the whirlwind of adulthood. She treats us to the little promises that friendship sticks its glue on. Do you trust me? Tully asks. And that's one of the motifs of their friendship. Because Katie always replies that she does. "What would I ever do without you?" she questions at another time. "You wouldn't have to find out," replies Kate.

Tully is the firebrand. And Kate the patient one. There is tension between them - many times - and that's where I like the fact that Hannah keeps it realistic. There are no roses and apples and BFF nonsense all the time. An undercurrent always pulls these very different personalities. They have different ideals and desires from life. Yet, they know one thing - when the chips are down, they are there for each other.

“Sometimes being a good friend means saying nothing."

"I'm just supposed to watch her make a mistake?"

"Sometimes, yes. And then you stand by to pick up the pieces.” 

It's obvious as the novel lurches to an end that it's poor Tully that you root for. The one who makes the mistakes that matter. There were times when the storyline seemed weak, ridden with cliches. And it could have done with some slicker editing. On two consecutive pages, we are told that Tully rides in with her "brand-new" VW Beetle. I was dreading the end of the book because I thought that is where we will be treated to the classic 'career woman' loses out to the 'candle-lit family is everything' argument. Hannah, to her credit, does this subtly. And also makes sure the novel turns out to be a weepie.

"I guess no one stays friends for more than thirty years without a few broken hearts along the way," says Kate near the end of the novel. I have to agree. For these thirty years, we are treated to a rich and complex relationship that is no less fulfilling than any other in our lives.

Verdict: Very readable. Well, read it. Really.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mystic River : Dennis Lehane

Image Credit: Tech4u

I just counting down the days now when I will resume life within the work world. It's been a good break for me and one that I think I can get very comfortable with. I have spent much of the day wondering what I am doing with life, but then having not found any answers I decided to read. And well, that's how I ended up finishing Dennis Lehane's thriller Mystic River. 

I liked the sound of it. No, not the murder mystery plot of the book, but the title. Wouldn't it be nice to say that you grew up by the Mystic River? It brings up thoughts and images of gently flowing streams, tinkling brooks that smile their way into the Mystic River and all around it an idyllic setting - white-fenced cottages, manicured lawns, the perfect families that will be barbecuing their Sunday brunch. Ah, but Mystic River has none of it. No. Imagine dreary settlements filled with the stench of human poverty and the lure of crime. There is despair, darkness and damp all around. The pervading damp that infiltrates the human spirit and forces it to commit the most unspeakable acts. I haven't seen the movie that was made out of this book, and I am glad I didn't because there wouldn't have been any sense in reading a crime thriller and a whodunit.

But in case there are a few readers who don't know what Mystic River is about - the lives of Dave Boyne, Jimmy Marcus and Sean Devine become intertwined with each other all over again after a fractured friendship in childhood when Marcus' daughter is found brutally murdered. Sean is now the cop who is leading the murder investigation, and slowly the hidden lives of Dave and Jimmy begin to unravel and reveal themselves to the reader. Somewhere down the line, I stopped caring. There were a few beautiful lines that really I must share with you, but none of the characters really seemed to be worth caring about. I am not sure why - we may read a book differently depending on the mood in which we read it in.

"The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your live is. Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves the burden of it either. You'll be let down. You'll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of real sucky days. You lose more than you win. You hate the person you love as much as you love him."

''Happiness comes in moments, and then it's gone until the next time. Could be years. But sadness'" Val winked - '"sadness settles in.'"

And how true is that. I find that too often these days. I keep trying to battle this sadness that seems to have settled in myself, and you really wish that there is some mystical river of happiness that can wash away all that despair and darkness we store inside. But back to the book. I stopped caring for the characters - really, the most interesting one was Katie, and she dies way too early. The ending became a bit of a farce to me - it didn't make much sense, but perhaps that's what all murders are - they make no sense.

Verdict: A classic thriller that didn't move me much

Rating: 2.5/5

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Into The Darkest Corner : Elizabeth Haynes

Image Credit: Barnes&Noble

It's not often that I stay up late. My friends know that it is almost impossible to call me after half past ten in the night. But sometimes, give me a good book, and I might be tempted. I downloaded Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes after reading Jovenus' wonderful review on Bibliojunkie. I rarely go wrong when she gives a high rating to a book, and I didn't go wrong here either.

I think the last book that came close to this kind of a genre was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.That I remember reading in Jordan. It was the last night of the year. We were in the middle of the desert of Wadi Rum. Piping Arabic music. People dancing around a fire. The night nips with a light chill. And I was speed-reading my way through Gone Girl. Sigh. The memories we sometimes carry in our head. So much has changed since then. My job. People I thought were friends. My perspective on life. It was still nighttime when I read Into The Darkest Corner though. If you would reading so-called psychological thrillers, then you would like this one. I don't necessarily slot myself in that genre, but there was something intriguing about this story that kept me awake.

The novel begins with a courtroom scene and before long we are taken into two time narratives - one in the past where we see Cathy or Catherine Bailey fall in love with the luscious Lee. And a continuous shift into the present where we see the same Catherine struggle with OCD and a growing attraction to the handsome psychologist who happens to move into the flat below. Between these two time pasts and present, the narrative shifts. Not always seamlessly. It did have me confused. Hidden beneath a lot of sex is the tumultous past that Catherine is running away from - or to be more precise from Lee. We always wonder why women stay in abusive relationships. She is uncomfortable with Lee after a point, and there is an explanation to it somewhere in the novel, but I wasn't convinced. None of Catherine's friends believe that Lee is the monster she is telling them he is - not even her best friend Sylvia. The descriptions of abuse are rather graphic and you can't help but cringe. And in the present - there is the shadow of Lee - about to be released from prison.

In most thrillers, you can guess the ending. At least for me. It wasn't difficult here either. Elizabeth Haynes wrote this novel as part of the NanoWriMo endeavor. And for a novel that was written in a month, it's fantastic reading. I was lost in the story, never mind the bad sex. I wished that there hadn't so much of it to populate the book! But as a compelling story on abusive relationships and on the psychological consequences of it, I wouldn't look much beyond this story.

Verdict: Compulsively readable. Ooops! Did I say compulsive?

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Dinner : Herman Koch

Image Credit: Literary Minded

"An European Gone Girl." That's what the Wall Street Journal described Herman Koch's The Dinner as. I have to say I agree. There is something so ludicrous about this novel when it describes violence in all its banality that you are almost agreeing with the narrator. Surely, killing solves all problems, doesn't it? Why didn't I just think of this? Boyfriend troubling me too much? Oh! Bugger! Chop head off, I say!

That doesn't necessarily meant that The Dinner is full of blood and gore. No. Do not mistake it for some zombie novel. It ain't. It's beautifully written, and in its sparse use of location, a brilliant satire on the human mind. I love food - and the entire novel is set in a pretentious restaurant where it appears that to call a baked apple a baked apple would be a crime. No. You must call it ' an exquisite hand-plucked hand-grown apple straight from our backyard that is simmered in a French oven dating back from the 12th century." Well, those are not words from the book, but you get the drift. There is not much that I can say 'happens' in this novel. All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This first line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is often quoted through the book. And that's what is the heart of this novel - unhappy families laboring under the illusion of happiness. Or is it the other way around? Paul and Claire Lohmann meet for dinner with Serge and Babette Lohman. It's clear from our narrator Paul that he doesn't like much his brother Serge, who is a successful politician in the running to be the next president of the Netherlands. They have to discuss a problem with their children - Paul's kid Michel and Serge's kid Rick have together committed a terrible crime.

You wonder as you listen to Paul's diatribe against the kind of food that the restaurant serves what kind of happiness this family is trying to preserve. Are they like any other parent just concerned about their children and ready to protect them at any cost? It reminded me a little of We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Throughout the novel, there are hints to not just Michel's personality but Paul's own violent streak. And a build-up to a climactic end that frankly was a bit disappointing, but then I think the build-up was so good that there couldn't have been an ending that could have justified it. I think that this is where the novel falters a little bit - I was prepared for something, and it wasn't quite the same. It left the book feeling a bit hollow. But just because the dessert wasn't great doesn't mean the rest of the full-course meal wasn't good! I enjoyed it...ran through the book in a day, and would highly recommend it for anyone who is hungry for this kind of a book.

Verdict: Satisfying and dark...

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Sense of An Ending : Julian Barnes

Image Credit: NPR

"I use Grammarly for free proofreading because you never really no if you are write in what you right."

Well, there are things you do in life. Over the years, we have desisted from using ads on this site. Usually, because the earnings were far too pitiful. Couldn't even buy a coffee from a local chai shop in India these days! And then there are exceptions. I consider myself no linguist - only a pitiful peddler of words. And I was surprised when a site I use so often approached me with an offer. It's one thing to promote bracelets that promise to turn your wrists into flashing swords of steel, but quite another to promote a site that I really honestly love.

I have had a strange week. I left my job. And no, I don't have another one. I was gloriously happy till the time I was reminded of all the bills that will keep coming in. But, I think I will remember for a long time the feeling of an ending being an beginning - of knowing that we chain ourselves only so much but there is always a choice, and even then a choice that is for the better. It can only be so. Our lives are relentless in moving forward, not ahead. It seemed kind of quaint that I ended up buying Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending precisely this week. I couldn't resist - it was priced at less than a dollar on the Kindle store! There is a poignancy to this Man Booker prize-winning novel that is kind of reflective of how I feel right now in life. Memories. Our interpretation of it. The sense of it all being so very different then. The remorse and the guilt. I know. There are things I wish I could have done differently. Perhaps, then the sense of each ending in different phases of my life would have been better. But we have nothing to guide us by. It is kind of symbolic that The Sense of an Ending opens with Tony and his friends discussing history. In a way, through Tony the narrator we remain mute spectators to the history of his life. There can be no corroboration to the story he tells just as they are no witnesses to the truth of my story.

What's about the novel about? That old irritating question! I am not sure. Is it about friendship? Who was Adrian Finn? He is almost eulogized through the novel. The kind over who a mystique seems to shroud itself in deathly silence. "That is philosophically self-evident," he would say, probably. And what of the ordinary Tony? What are these memories that he is left with? An old flame? No. From the description of it, it didn't even seem that. "You still don't get it, and you never will," I can hear Veronica Ford mocking me. I didn't 'get' this novel. But I get the sense of sadness. Of something lost. Of the sense of an ending. There is so much in life that I feel I have lost. And I wonder now as Anthony did if any of these memories shift in time and become comforting...a blanket to wrap us in the winter of old age when we are left with nothing else but the end.

Verdict: Beautiful writing. Evocative. But really left too many gaps in the story to one's imagination.

Rating: 3/5