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I have had Phil Ball’sThe Hapless Teacher’s Handbook‘ with me for a long time. It looked like a comic memoir, and I thought that it was written by someone who was new to the teaching profession and it looked like he had taken all his new experiences and spun it off into a fun memoir. I thought I’ll read it when I was in the mood for something comic, and so it rested in my bookshelf for years and gathered dust. A few days back, I decided to take it down and read it.

First things first. My perception of the author was totally wrong. It was Phil Ball 100 – Me 0. When I read the book, I realized that Phil Ball was no green horn, he was no spring chicken. He has been a teacher for decades and after starting his teaching career in England, he has taught in many different countries. He has written books on teaching. He was an experienced hand, he was a veteran. So the comic nature of the book, the humour, springs from the weight of experience, and it is not a newbie’s attempt to sound cool. I was surprised and happy when I discovered that.

In the book, Phil Ball describes the first four years of his teaching career, starting from the time he applied for a certificate in teaching course after finishing university. He gives more weight to the initial years in the book – they occupy more pages. The time when he joins a school for ‘Teaching Practice’, which is part of his course, and when he tries teaching for the first time, is covered in considerable detail. It was one of my favourite parts of the book. He also talks in detail about the initial months and year when he first took a job as a teacher in a school. In these two parts of the book, we are able to see the teaching profession through a new young teacher’s eyes and it is fascinating, because we discover that however much one prepares for it, reality is always more complex and different. Through the book, Phil Ball also tells us about teachers who inspired him, teachers who were eccentric, students who were interesting and students who were eccentric outsiders. The music teacher in his school is one such character – his piano playing is divine and he should have been a concert pianist, but as he is introverted and shy, his fellow teachers make fun of him, and his students bully him. There is a student who thinks that he is the reincarnation of the poet Andrew Marvell, and he rarely listens to the lessons in the class, because he is composing poetry. There is an elementary school teacher with whom he worked with, who brings a lot of joy to the class, and his own high school teacher who takes the class textbook and throws it into the dustbin (makes us remember Robin Williams’ character in ‘Dead Poets Society’) and then proceeds to do something very inspiring. It was wonderful to read about all these amazing people.

From its first lines –

“There are proactive people and there are reactive people, and that’s basically it. It took me a long time to realise that I belonged to the latter group”

– ‘The Hapless Teacher’s Handbook‘ is captivating and it refuses to let go till the end. Phil Ball’s understated British humour is wonderful and in many places we can’t stop laughing. I loved this memoir – it was comic, insightful, fascinating filled with wonderful real-life characters. It is one of my favourite books of the year. It is a shame that it is not more well known. It deserves more readers.

Have you read ‘The Hapless Teacher’s Handbook‘? What do you think about it?

I rarely go to literary festivals these days. Almost never. This is very odd, because I have read books since I was a kid and my favourite fantasy was always to meet a writer in person and have a nice literary conversation and get a signed copy of a book. But after going to book launches and standing in queues trying to get my copy of a book signed and feeling that the whole thing was being rushed and the crowd was too much, the romance of book launches and literary festivals disappeared for me. But there was a time I loved literary festivals, in principle, without having attended one. I discovered Célestine Vaite’sBreadfruit‘ during my visit to my first ever literary festival, which ended up being my first and last one. Célestine Vaite was scheduled to give a talk at this particular litfest, but I somehow missed that. But I got this book of hers, when I discovered that she was a Tahitian writer. I had never read a Tahitian writer at that time (still hadn’t before I read this book) and Tahiti always sounded like a fantasy place for me, after reading Somerset Maugham’s novels and discovering Paul Gauguin. This book lay on my shelf for years and a few days back I decided that the stars have aligned and the time has arrived.

Breadfruit‘ tells the story of Materena. Materena is a professional cleaner. She lives with her partner Pito and they have three kids. The book is divided into many short chapters, and each chapter describes an anecdote from Materena’s life or about someone she knows, her family members, cousins, friends. Tahitian extended families are big and so Materena has lots of cousins, and so there are lots of fascinating stories. Célestine Vaite’s prose is simple and spare, and the stories are charming and are filled with humour. But as Optimus Prime says, there is more to the stories than meets the eye. Within that deceptively simple style, Célestine Vaite tackles fascinating topics – the themes covered include family life, the relationship between mothers and daughters, love, the importance (or unimportance) of marriage, the relationship between native Tahitians and French expats, the complicated politics in Tahiti and the resentment some people feel against the French government, the Tahitian economy and how hard it is to get a good job, how Tahitians straddle between Catholicism which they practise now and the ancient Tahitian religion which was practised by their ancestors – these and other interesting themes are explored in the book. The author says in the interview at the back of the book that many of these stories were inspired by actual happenings. It shows when we read the book.

Breadfruit‘ is a charming depiction of Tahitian life from an insider’s perspective. Célestine Vaite rips away the tropical fantasy image we have of her homeland and shows us the real Tahiti. It is beautiful. I loved it. Célestine Vaite wrote two more sequels to ‘Breadfruit’. I can’t wait to read them. The last book of the trilogy came out in 2007. I was hoping that Célestine Vaite would have written more books since then. But it appears that there are no more books after that. None. Nada. It is like Célestine Vaite just disappeared. I don’t know what happened. Three books is just a very slim body of work. I hope she comes back one of these days and writes a fourth book. And then a fifth one. And more.

Have you read ‘Breadfruit‘? What do you think about it?

I read my second Bohumil Hrabal book today – ‘Closely Watched Trains‘.

The time is towards the end of the Second World War. Germany is losing the war, but Czechoslovakia is still under German occupation. Milos works in a small, sleepy Czech railway station as an apprentice. His work involves keeping an eye on the passing trains and showing the right signals. He has a boss who is more like a colleague and is an interesting character, and they both report to the station master who almost behaves like their dad – affectionate and expressive in equal measure. Milos is in love with Masha. The story is related by Milos and we get to know more about him and his family (I loved Milos’ depiction of his own father, who is a very fascinating person) and the interesting happenings in that town and that station, and the interesting things about his colleagues. We also get to know about the different kinds of trains which pass through the station. Things are all going well at this point for Milos and his friends, but one day Milos and his boss receive a strange errand. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story.

Closely Watched Trains‘ depicts beautifully the small-town Czechoslovakia during the war. Bohumil Hrabal’s prose is filled with charm and humour and the story is lots of fun to read. Towards the end the story takes an interesting turn and kicks to another gear which was totally unexpected. I didn’t see that coming. I was expecting that the story will end with humour and charm with everyone living happily everafter, but the author had something else in store.

Other reviews

Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Marina (Finding Time to Write)

Kaggsy (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings)

I enjoyed reading ‘Closely Watched Trains‘. Have you read it?

I have wanted to read Bohumil Hrabal for a long time. I finally got around to reading my first Bohumil Hrabal book, ‘Cutting it Short’.

The story is narrated by Maryska, the wife of the manager of a brewery in a small Czech town. Maryska’s husband Francin is a nice person, he works hard and he loves her very much. He is also quiet and in some ways old-fashioned, though he tries to change himself to be a better companion to her. Maryska is cool, stylish, flamboyant, likes enjoying life. She and her husband contrast each other in a huge way, but they love each other very much. In this context, each chapter in the book describes an event in their lives, what happens in the brewery, what happens when Francin’s brother Uncle Peppin comes visiting, what happens when Francin visits Prague and gets Maryska a present – these and other stories are narrated in each chapter. Each of them could be read individually as an independent story, or they could be read together as a series of interlinked short stories or as a novel. Maryska is a charming, adorable character and is almost childlike and we can’t stop falling in love with her. One of my favourite scenes in the story is when Maryska inspires some grownups to behave like children and other grown-ups frown at this behaviour, but the childlike behaviour is infectious, and before long, all the grown-ups become children. It is one of my favourite scenes in the book. Francin is a quiet person but very likeable and his love for his wife is so beautiful to see. When Uncle Peppin comes on the scene, the story is filled with rip-roaring laughter – it is hard not to laugh aloud looking at Uncle Peppin’s antics and listening to his wild, unbelievable stories. Maryska and Uncle Peppin become friends and the kind of adventures they get upto make us laugh aloud.

There are many beautiful scenes in the story starting from the first chapter which describes the beauty of lighting lamps in the evening. Some of the most beautiful passages are those in which Maryska describes her hair – when the hair dresser combs it, when her hair flows in the wind.

I loved ‘Cutting it Short’. It is a slim novella at around a hundred pages, but a very pleasurable read. I don’t think I have read many Czech books – I can think of only ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ by Milan Kundera and ‘Don Juan : The Life and Death of Don Miguel de Manara’ by Josef Toman. So I am very happy to read my third Czech book. I can’t wait to read my next Bohumil Hrabal book.

Have you read ‘Cutting it Short’? What do you think about it?

I got ‘This is Paradise‘ by Kristiana Kahakauwila as a present from one of my favourite friends, when she visited Hawaii. I finally got around to reading it.

This is Paradise‘ is a collection of six stories. Three of them are around 40 pages long, two of them are around 20 pages long, and one of them is around 70 pages long. So, they are not really short. Just stories. The stories take the title and turn it on its head, and show us how the real Hawaii looks like beyond the tropical fantasy imagination that tourists have. The title story is about three groups of women who are from different parts of Hawaiian society. It was my favourite story from the book. ‘Wanle’ is about a young woman who follows her father’s footsteps and trains roosters for fights. Another story is about two lovers, there is one story about a father’s love for his daughter, there is one about a man struggling to come out to his family and reveal to them that he is gay. The stories reveal aspects of Hawaiian life, culture and family that we may not be aware of. It was fascinating to read.

Kristiana Kahakauwila came out with this book seven years back. Since then she has maintained a Donna Tartt-ean silence. Readers are looking forward to finding out what she will come up with next.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“She always spoke of history in the present tense, which never failed to unsettle him. To him, history was not available for reintroductions and reliving but accessible only via careful and protracted study. For Becky, however, the past and present existed in the same moment. In her memory the two met, and through their meeting, she layered them, until the past and present were like ocean and sky, without noticeable boundary.”

“As the light bled from the sky, Harrison became a watery outline, a shadow, and if no one put on the porch light, he eventually disappeared from view altogether. This dissipation scared and thrilled Pili, for to lose sight of his father was to be closer to him, to feel rather than see him.”

Have you read ‘This is Paradise‘? What do you think about it?

There was a time, when I went through a YA phase and read many YA books. Then one day, suddenly, like a switch was flipped off, my YA phase got over. I still read a YA book occasionally, but such occasions are rare. I make an exception, when one of my favourite YA writers, Gae Polisner, publishes a new book. A new book from her comes out once every two years, and it is a time I look forward to. Gae Polisner’s new book ‘Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me‘ came out recently and I was excited to read it.

The story is narrated by fifteen year old JL. She talks about her life, her parents, and her best friend Aubrey. At some point it looks like something happened between her and Aubrey and things are not the same now. The story moves back and forth between multiple time periods as we discover how JL and Aubrey become close friends and how things get complicated. At one point, JL meets Max, who is tall, dark and handsome, and they both are deeply attracted to each other. Max is older than JL, doesn’t care much about school, reads a lot, and quotes poetry. He is cool and sophisticated. He makes us think of Jesse from ‘Gilmore Girls’, whom, many of us, TV show addicts, fell in love with. While JL and Max are going strong, there is trouble brewing at home, as JL’s mother’s health keeps deteriorating and her father is not around. How all these strands come together and what happens in the end, forms the rest of the story.

Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me‘ is about navigating a complex life as a teenager, about friendship and love and heartbreak. It is also about the relationship between parents and children. It is also about butterflies. One of the things I loved about the book is when JL talks about how she raises different kinds of butterflies in her home. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the book. There is a Jezebel butterfly which is one of the cool characters in the book. Another beautiful thing about the book is the gorgeous cover. I wish I had got the hardback edition to see that cover in person. But unfortunately, because of the times we are living in, with the mail system suspended, I had to settle for the Kindle edition. The ending of the book was surprising, even heartbreaking, and I didn’t see that coming, but there was also a ray of sunshine in the end.

I enjoyed reading ‘Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me‘. Have you read it? What do you think about it?

The Heartsick Diaspora‘ by Elaine Chiew is a collection of fourteen short stories. They were written in a ten year span, and each of them is beautifully sculpted, and most of them cover unique themes. The stories explore the lives of Singaporeans, many of whom belong to the Singaporean diaspora and have migrated across the world. The stories are mostly set in Singapore, London and New York. There are all kinds of Singaporean characters featured in the book – some of them are glamorous and play it cool and others are maids and construction workers. There are stories which focus on Singaporean history and they are fascinating to read. There is one ghost story too, which was one of my favourites (at one point the ghost says “Feed me, or you die“, to which the narrator replies “That not even scary. What kind of ghost are you?” I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 😁) and there is another story which is a modern take on mythology which was quite fascinating. Some of the stories are about food – there is a beautiful description of tomato and how it is cooked, which was one of my favourite passages from the book. Elaine Chiew has edited a book on food fiction and her stories with a food theme are some of the most beautiful in the book.

The stories in the book touch on many aspects of Singaporean culture – the relationship between parents and children, the importance of being filial and the lengths to which people will go to do that, love (there is a beautiful story set during the Japanese occupation in which two people bond over food), migration and its complexities, friendships between women which cross ethnic lines and the beauty and complexity of such friendships, Tiger moms, how immigrant women worked hard in construction in the ’60s to help build the country, the beauty of Singaporean art – these and other themes are explored beautifully in the book. There is even one story, which is a kind of meta fiction, because it takes some of the other stories under its wing. I loved all the stories in the book. Each one was beautiful in its own way.

I loved ‘The Heartsick Diaspora‘. Elaine Chiew’s prose is beautiful and is a pleasure to read. I highlighted many beautiful passages in the book. I think this is the first book by a Singaporean author that I have read, and I think I can say that this introduction to Singaporean literature has been spectacular. I can’t wait to read Elaine Chiew’s next book.

Have you read ‘The Heartsick Diaspora‘? What do you think about it?