Mamaji – The story of a girl’s longing for the love of her deceased mother is palpable on each page of the book. Amidst the various hurdles the immigrant Haqq family faces in the Minnesota of 1970s – racism, harsh weather, culture shock, etc., the mom’s untimely death affects the children, especially the youngest, the most. The father remarries, compounding their problems as the new mom justified the step-motherly epitheth perfectly well. Time and tide change, personalities evolve, fortunes are made and lost, deaths and births affect behaviors, even wills, and through it all, we the readers, continue to miss the mom with Elishebha.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is akin to the threading of a quilt worn out not by time but by circumstances.
A passionately woven tale of stirring, deep, inseparable love. In the true Shakespearean style, an event as trivial as Roy helping an elderly lady take an ice bucket to her room completely upends the lives of the newlyweds – Roy and Celeste.
Jones weaves a moving pattern of Celeste’s visit to meet her husband in jail. These visits dwindle with time as Celeste finds success in her doll making business, the dolls ironically being fashioned after Roy’s face, and finding a tether in Andre, the best man at their wedding.
Written in an epistolary form, An American Marriage portrays quiet devastation of families. The lives of Roy and Celeste, their families’, and Andre’s are all affected by an allegation of rape, a crime Roy did not commit.
Time has a tendency to be erratic. For some, it ambles, while it gallops gaily for others … and in its unpredictable gait, it sure corrupts LOVE to follow suit.
How fate works: Roy meets his birth father in jail.
Vivian Morris, a would-have-been-straight-laced Vasser graduate ends up being a promiscuous and down-in-the- pits kind of girl – but she is not without merit.
An exceptionally resourceful and skilled seamstress, she also becomes an adept seductress with her partner-in-crime Cecilia Ray. Both leggy beauties explore the underbelly of the bustling metropolis night after night.
Events transpire as events do! A kiss under a lamppost shared amongst these two girls and the husband of a famous actress leads Vivian to leave town in utter shame, get engaged to a guy she doesn’t love, break up with him, and return to life in NYC.
Except … the NYC on her return is full of the effects of the war. There is rationing everywhere, men have left for the frontlines, and the general mindset of people is ripe for helping the country than indulging in hedonistic pleasures.
This is where the amelioration of Vivian begins. She seizes what is available. She works in the Navy Yard, evolves as a person, develops and invests herself in friendships, starts her own boutique, and remains unmarried while being in love with a veteran.
Sexual escapades, cigarette smoke, bottomless glasses of liquors pepper the story but under all these carnal activities, lies crisp human emotions, steadfastness under adversities, an upbeat attitude towards life despite failures, and an edgy and worth memorizing treasure chest of phrases uttered by Edna Parker.
Alice escapes her drab life in England by marrying the handsome Bennett Van Cleave, son of a wealthy businessman, and comes to rural Kentucky. Her dreams of a glamorous life are dashed when the America she hoped for turned out to be cold, lonely, miserable, and immensely boring. She soon realizes that her husband can’t seem to go beyond a kiss with her and she has nothing to do the whole day except socialize with a bunch of stuck up ladies. To add to her distress, lack of purpose, and uneventful life, she finds that her father-in-law is overbearing and intrusive.
When she meets Margary, a woman slave only to her free will, she immediately grabs the opportunity of delivering books with her as part of a Packhorse Library project, a unique initiative to spread literacy in the 1930s.
Alice just does not distribute books, she delivers hope, acts as a soothsayer to a dying man, instills the spice in dull marriages with a particular blue book that is eagerly awaited by the ladies, and brings happiness to children. She, along with the other librarians, dots the vapid skies of the small town with small hope-riddled clouds.
What began as Alice’s need to get out of the claustrophobic Van Cleve household, transformed into an impactful undertaking.
To me, the book stands out as an example of woman empowerment in a peculiar way, in the America of the 1930s. This is a story of how Elenor Roosevelt’s Packhorse Library Project gave 4 women in rural Kentucky a purpose, strength, and an ability to carve their own path without following the norms of the times.
‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This true story is about Hirsi Ali’s physical journey from Somalia to Amsterdam to the United States. Emotionally, she engages the readers to experience the dust, poverty, clannish rules, political upheaval of Somalia, and her movement from one country to another. Readers heave a sigh of relief when she runs away from her marriage and instead, chooses to be a Dutch refugee eventually becoming a Dutch citizen. Her religious beliefs as a Muslim to questioning her faith to denouncing her religion, have been discoursed well by the author. There are countless videos of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on YouTube where she advocates having faith with reason.
‘Palace of Illusions‘ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Mahabharata retold through Draupadi’s eyes. It would be good to have some knowledge of the epic story before reading this book as it has anecdotes within anecdotes, misfortunes, promises, unbelievable feats, divinity – basically all things of epic proportions. It is nicely excerpted from the original and given a new coat but as I said, the book may bog one down if one hasn’t been introduced to Indian mythology first.
‘Too Much Happiness’ and ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munroe. If you want to read a heart, read her short stories. Not a single story is written with the intention of making up a story. Seems like she lived through each story that she has created. The characters feel like they are all known to you or have come across you at some point or the other and the stories don’t all have an ending – just like some of life’s episodes don’t.
‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zuzak. Writing that penetrates your soul, sits in your heart like a bittersweet relationship – forever, tucked in there. Told by the point of view of Death, the book tells about the lives of Liesel in Nazi Germany, talks about the accordion singing foster-father of hers’ and the extremely foul-mouthed but equally large-hearted foster-mother and how this German family hides a Jew in their basement in the war engulfed Germany. Liesel’s thievery starts with picking up a book at her brother’s funeral before she comes to Himmel Street to be with her foster parents and continues with siphoning it from the public book burnings and from the Mayor’s house. Other characters like Liesel’s friend Rudy with his lemon-colored hair and perpetual hunger leave us struck by the writer’s ability to wield the crushing power on his readers to feel every pang that he feels. He is forever asking Liesel for a kiss which he only gets when he is dead. Max, the Jew hidden in Liesel’s basement paints on the torn and recycled papers of Mein Kompf and writes a book for Liesel to read. Words are important in the book as are the other characters. A must read book!
‘Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowlings. Before I talk about the book, I met a lady who told me that she was disappointed having read it. She said she did not want to know about what happens in the small town of Pegford. She had all the Harry Potter books to compare this one with, I didn’t. I never got tempted to read any of them but I did finish this one contrary to her suggestion and I must say, Rowlings does know how to evolve her characters. Every character goes through a transformation and I was invested emotionally in almost all the teenage characters of the book. I liked the ending the most, not your usual hunky-dory ending – characters face disappointment; their well-laid plans fizzle out; their viewpoint changes and not always for the positive and they somehow can’t disentangle themselves from the web that small town casts over them. The book starts and ends with a funeral – talk about coming full circle.
‘The Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn is a fabulous read. The protagonist is a sociopath who is in control of the world around her even though posing to be an ingenue. The writing is crisp, the insight into the main character’s mind is absolute yet the reader is shaken when her real character comes across. The ending to some readers is controversial although not to me. I have always felt that the ending should satisfy the story, not the readers. It can be positive, negative, or left to the imagination of the readers. The story is gripping, fast-paced, and gives an insight into human psychology and the ending is befitting the protagonist’s character. Read it before the movie comes out.
‘The Snow Child’, a fantastical novel about a child who comes to an older couple’s cabin in the wilderness of Alaska with the snow and goes away in Spring. These farmers who left their families behind to escape the constant reminders of their childless state, create a snow child one night and in the morning see little footprints in the snow. Eowyn Ivey beautifully expands on a Russian fairy tale similar in theme where the child comes alive and just like the fairy tale this story does not end on a happy note but a very satisfying one indeed. The couple experienced parenthood, its’ heartaches, its’ need for strictness and the realization to let go and its’ pleasures in getting her married to her love. So beautifully has Mrs. Ivey described the child’s creation and her constant retreats into the dangerous, frozen mountains that the reader oscillates between believing that the child is real and then shaking their heads at the improbability of it. The snow falls constantly in the reader’s mind as the story moves, the snow is all-encompassing, all promising, all merciless, and all peaceful entity.
‘Little Bee’, a brilliant novel by Chris Cleave. Set both in Nigeria and England, it tells of a teenager’s journey as an illegal immigrant from her country to England. Quirky sentences, complex characters, interwoven stories – a very interesting read, indeed!
‘The Paris Wife’, a novel by Paula McLain is about the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. Hadley Richardson, the heroine of the book is decent and very much in love with the young and eccentric Hemingway. It was great to read about the various literary greats of those times like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and their shenanigans and how they helped boost Hemingway’s literary career. Hadley, the wife supported and tolerated his excesses in the background. She is sacrificial but a little bore too. The book is written well but goes on and on about bull-fighting in Spain and endless rounds of drinks in Parisian cafes.
It does read interestingly if you know when to skip a few paragraphs about the gory sport and the boxing matches.