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Archive for May, 2019

I got Paul Gallico’sJennie‘ a few years back, because the story looked beautiful, but somehow never got around to reading it. I finally decided a couple of days back that I should take it down from the bookshelf and give it the love it deserved.

In Franz Kafka’sMetamorphosis‘, a man gets up in the morning and discovers that he has been transformed into a giant bug. What happens to him and how he handles that transformation forms the rest of the story. It is dark and bleak. Kafka seems to have been an intense, serious person, and his imagination seems to have flown into dark alleys. In contrast, Paul Gallico seems to have been a happy person. Paul Gallico wonders what will happen, if instead of something dark and bleak like a giant bug, a human being gets transformed into something adorable, like a cat. What happens then? A beautiful book called ‘Jennie‘ happens.

Peter crosses the road to pick up a beautiful kitten. He gets knocked down by a truck. When he wakes up, he discovers that he has been transformed into a cat. His nanny is shocked when she sees a cat in the bed and she throws him out. Peter suddenly finds himself on the street and he discovers that life on the street, as a cat, is hard. Peter discovers that he can be stepped upon by people on the sidewalk, crushed by vehicles on the road or bullied by other cats and sometimes dogs. He tries to find a place to stay, but a big cat which regards that place as his territory bullies him, attacks him, and injures him. When Peter wakes up, he discovers that he is lying on a cozy bed, but he is still a cat. And someone is peering at him. She is a tabby cat with tiger stripes and she says that her name is Jennie, and she rescued him from the street. Before long, Peter and Jennie become close friends. Jennie asks him to tell her his story. Peter hesitates, but decides to tell the truth, that he is a boy who has been transformed into a cat.

Does Jennie believe Peter’s story? What happens to their friendship? What is Jennie’s story? What kind of adventures do Peter and Jennie have? How does Peter find his life as a cat? Does he love it more than when he was a person? Does Peter continue to be a cat at the end or does he get transformed back into a human being? If he does get transformed into a human being, does his friendship with Jennie survive this transformation? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Jennie‘. Peter’s story was fascinating. But my favourite character in the book was Jennie. Jennie is one of coolest, most stylish, awesome cats in literature. I loved her. Though I loved the whole book, my favourite part of the book was the middle part which runs to around six chapters in which Jennie and Peter board a ship and go to Glasgow. The ship has got a motley crew who are hilarious and inefficient (the captain hates sailing, one of the sailors writes cowboy stories, another sailor is big and intimidating but he likes doing embroideries), but the crew members are warm, affectionate and beautiful in surprising ways. The way they take in Jennie and Peter and the hilarious, wonderful adventures that happen during the course of the trip is beautiful to read. I also loved the parts where Jennie inducts Peter into the life of a cat and teaches him survival skills. Paul Gallico’s descriptions of cats and their lives is quite detailed and it looks like they were based on real observations. He had twenty three cats at home and it looks like that gave him a lot of opportunities to observe cats and their ways. Towards the end of the book, I thought that something heartbreaking would happen – either Peter or Jennie would die, or Peter would become a human being again and that would be the end of their friendship. But the author springs up a third ending which was very surprising. I cried after I read the ending.

Jennie‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I am glad I read my first Paul Gallico book and loved it. I can’t wait to read more of his work. If you love books featuring cats or animal characters, or even if you love books featuring beautiful friendships, I will highly recommend ‘Jennie‘.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“He had wanted a cat ever since he could remember, which was many years ago at the age of four – when he had gone to stay on a farm near Gerrards Cross, and had been taken into the kitchen and shown a basketful of kittens, orange and white balls of fluff, and the ginger-coloured mother who beamed with pride until her face was quite as broad as it was long, and licked them over with her tongue one after the other. He was allowed to put his hand on her. She was soft and warm, and a queer kind of throbbing was going on inside of her, which later he learned was called purring, and meant that she was comfortable and happy.”

Have you read Paul Gallico’sJennie‘? What do you think about it?

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I was eagerly looking forward to Nandini Sen Gupta’s second novel ‘The Poisoned Heart‘, ever since I read the first part of the Gupta Empire trilogy, ‘The King Within‘. I finally got the chance to read it and finished reading it yesterday.

The story told in ‘The Poisoned Heart‘ starts more than forty years after the events of ‘The King Within‘. There is a new emperor on the throne, Skandagupta, and it appears that there was some kind of trouble with respect to the succession, because Skandagupta was not the eldest son of his father. So eventhough he is the emperor now, his own relatives and brothers and uncles are doing things behind his back to bring him down. We learn that something had happened a few years back and it had had a huge impact on the emperor’s life and the way he was now and the way he thought now. The book then takes us back to those years and immerses us in the events of that time. This is what happened.

Skandagupta is on a campaign at the edge of his empire to beat back the Hun threat. One day a woman walks into his camp. She is half Hun. Her name is Rohini. She says she ran away from the Huns to save herself. She catches the eye of the emperor. People in the emperor’s inner circle suspect her. Is what she says true? Or is she a Hun spy who has been planted in the camp to do bad things, including maybe to kill the emperor? As events start moving at a rapid pace, the characters in the story try to find out the truth about Rohini, while we the readers are not sure whether she is a good person or a spy and an assassin, and we love her and suspect her and it is hard. What happens after that and what is the nature of the truth that is revealed in the end – you have to read the book to find the answers to that.

I loved ‘The Poisoned Heart‘. The story moves at a wonderful pace and we can’t wait to turn the pages to find out what happens next. The palace intrigue and the plotting behind the emperor’s back are fascinating to read. One of the things that Nandini Sen Gupta’s fans have come to expect now is that there will be a strong woman character in her books. Nandini Sen Gupta delivers on that front brilliantly by creating Rohini, who is cool and calm and stylish, doesn’t suffer fools, is a warrior and can wield her sword as well as anyone and sometimes even gets the better of the emperor in a swordfight. I loved Rohini. How does Rohini compare to Darshini, the main character in ‘The King Within‘? It is hard for me to tell. Darshini will always have a special place in my heart, but I loved Rohini too. There is a scene in which she and Skandagupta fight together in the middle of the mountains and keep the enemy at bay. It is one of the wonderful scenes in the story. One of the other things that Nandini Sen Gupta’s fans have come to expect in her books is wonderful descriptions of sword fights. There are quite a few in ‘The Poisoned Heart‘ including the playful joust between Rohini and Skandagupta which is charming to read. The dialogues in the story are cool and stylish when the characters are verbally sparring or trying to seduce each other, and they are filled with intrigue when they are plotting against each other. I loved most of the characters in the story. Rohini and Skandagupta are wonderful and complex characters, of course. And Supriya, who is the emperor’s confidante and takes care of him, is wonderful and very likeable too. But even some of the minor characters, who make brief appearances, have unique personalities and are beautifully fleshed out. The story ends with a huge surprise which I didn’t see coming.

I loved ‘The Poisoned Heart‘. It is a beautiful, insightful, poignant story set during an important period of India’s history. I will never forget Rohini – she was a beautiful, haunting character. I can’t wait to read the third part of the Gupta Empire trilogy now.

I will leave you with one of my favourite conversations from the book.

Scenario : Ghatotkacha Gupta is the brother of the emperor. Govind Gupta is his uncle. They are discussing some intriguing, dangerous things which I can’t reveal. This is what happens at the end of the conversation. Govind Gupta is a cool character – when he speaks, it is almost as if Long John Silver or Tyrion Lannister is speaking.

‘Isn’t this a dangerous game?’
‘Politics is a dangerous game.’
‘What if it goes against you?’
Govind smiled. ‘I am an old man. I have lived my life, for better or for worse. I don’t have a future to care about. But I understand your concern. You’re scared it could go against you.’
Ghatotkacha looked away in embarrassed silence. Finally, he mumbled, ‘That’s not what I said.’
‘It’s what you meant,’ said Govind. ‘Don’t be embarrassed, nephew. Self-preservation is a fine thing. Everyone needs it, especially a prince.’”

Have you read Nandini Sen Gupta’sThe Poisoned Heart‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Gary Paulsen’sThe Island‘ years back, when I was browsing at the bookshop. I got it because the theme of the book appealed to me. For some reason, I never got around to reading it. Then in the last two weeks, when I was flitting from one book to another like a butterfly (I read 100 pages in one book, 75 pages in a second one, 15 pages in third one, and 45 pages in a fourth one – if I had read all these pages from one book, I would have finished reading that book!) and my heart told me that I am getting into a reading slump, I wondered which book I should start next which would retain my attention, and Gary Paulsen’s book leapt at me. I read the first page and immediately knew that this was the one.

The story told in ‘The Island‘ goes like this. Wil Neuton is an introverted fifteen year old boy. One day his father comes home from work and tells Wil and his mother that they have to move to a new town in the next few days as he has to take up a new position there. After some initial shock and chaos, Wil’s mother and Wil accept the inevitable and move to the new town which is a four-hour drive away. This new town is a small rural town, everyone knows everyone, people are warm and friendly, and there are lots of farms nearby. Wil becomes friends with a girl called Susan, whose parents run the dairy farm. There is a river nearby and Wil discovers an island in the middle of the river. He finds a boat in the riverbank and one day he rows to the island. Wil loves the solitude in the island and he sits there and observes the herons, the loons (a bird which looks like a duck), the fishes and the frogs and before he knows magic starts happening.

I will stop here. You should read the book to find out what happens next.

The Island‘ is a YA (Young Adult) book. But it is no ordinary YA book. It reads like a cross between Henry David Thoreau’sWalden‘ and Tove Jansson’sThe Summer Book‘. Contemporary YA books these days have a romantic story at the core and explore other themes around that, which are based on a contemporary issues or on one of the big universal questions. ‘The Island‘ veers so much away from this model that one could almost guess that it didn’t come out recently. When I checked the publishing year, I discovered that it was 1988 – that is more than thirty years back. That was a time when YA literature wasn’t what it is today, and a writer could write a contemplative, introspective novel like ‘The Island‘. I can’t imagine a YA novel like this being written today – the landscape has changed so much. I am thankful that Gary Paulsen wrote this in a different era. Gary Paulsen’s prose is incredibly beautiful – there were beautiful passages throughout the book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. Every chapter starts with a small passage written by Wil and many of the chapters have a story or an essay by Wil at the end. They both are beautiful. I loved most of the characters in the book. Of course, Wil towers above them all, because this is a novel about an introvert after all, but I also loved Susan, Wil’s friend, (Susan’s and Wil’s friendship is depicted so beautifully in the book), Wil’s parents, and a few other people who make an appearance.

I loved ‘The Island‘. It is one of my alltime favourite YA novels. I am ashamed that I didn’t read it all these years, though I have had it in my shelf, but I am glad I finally read it. It might have been even a good thing that I read it only know, because I think I understood the story and appreciated it better now than I would have done if I had read it all those years back when I first got the book. I am hoping to read more Gary Paulsen books now.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Part of our problem is that we run around naming things without asking them if they want to be named. Then after we name them, they don’t know they’re named anyway. A tree doesn’t know it’s a tree; a fish doesn’t know it’s a fish; and if the fish did know, it would probably be upset by it. Who wants to be called fish?”

“Part of him wanted to see her, and part of him wanted to be alone, but the parts were like two separate people and did not seem in conflict.”

“Wil took out the notebook and worked more on the piece about his grandmother. He could remember her so well, he thought, and yet when he tried to write about her and being with her, it would come out wrong. Not wrong, exactly, but just not complete. The words worked, but they didn’t work right because he didn’t know enough about how to use them. After an hour of writing, or trying to write about her, he put the pencil down and leaned back against the side of the boat.
The images that came to him were so clear, but when he tried to describe them – no, explain them…and there it was, there was the trouble with it. He wasn’t writing about his grandmother. He was explaining her. And that, he thought, was not a way to learn about her, about what she had been to him.
He took up the notebook again and started to write, and this time he didn’t explain or describe; he simply wrote what she meant to him, what she was as he saw her, and it thundered out of him. He could not stop it, and as he wrote he remembered more about her, small things, and he wondered, wondered that he could remember them now and have them be so real but not have known he was seeing them at the time.”

“We sat at Susan’s house in the kitchen and Susan’s mother brought us lunch, what they call dinner, and I didn’t pay so much attention to her, the way you do with adults you’ve just met because usually they aren’t all that interesting, but the light came in the kitchen window over the sink. It was a pale light because it came through the curtain and the curtain was yellow and so it made the light gold, a pale yellow gold color that had little bits of dust riding in it and the light but her face, hit Susan’s mother’s face, and set it to shining gold right at the cheekbone and up into her eyes.
It lighted her face to make it glow, and when she turned it moved into her hair, which was a gentle brown but turned into gold with the sun from the kitchen window and it was pretty, more than pretty, but still not so much. I saw it, but didn’t think so much of it except that the light seemed to make her more than she was, maybe; set her off the way a frame sets off a painting.
But later at the island I saw the evening light which was gold and it hit Susan, gold coming through the air hit Susan, and made her face shine and moved into her eyes and into her hair and it made me think of her mother, made her look like her mother.
No. That’s not quite right. It wasn’t that she looked like her mother so much as that she and her mother had the same…same core. The light hit them and made them the same. Not just made them look alike. But made them the same.”

Have you read Gary Paulsen’sThe Island’? What do you think about it?

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I was looking at the television listings a few days back (Yes, I am a dinosaur like that. In this age of Netflix, I still look at television listings) and I discovered that a movie called ‘The Seagull‘ was playing in the evening. Without doing any research, I knew immediately that it must be the film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play. It was a new film, from last year (2018). I was surprised because I didn’t know that a film adaptation of a Chekhov play had come out recently. Why didn’t it get to the theatres? Why haven’t I heard of it before? Why haven’t any of my friends watched it before and recommended it to me? – I wondered. I was also very excited. Very very. I saved the movie when it played, and decided to read the play first before watching the movie. I read the play yesterday and watched the movie today.

The Play

The story narrated in ‘The Seagull‘ happens in a countryside estate. Konstantin is a young man who lives in the estate, which is owned by his uncle, Sorin. Konstantin is planning to stage a play in the evening for his friends and family members who are around. His beloved Nina, who lives in the nearby estate, will be playing the role of the main character in the play. Konstantin’s mother Irina, who is a famous actress, is present with her lover, the famous writer, Trigorin. There is the estate overseer Shamraev and his wife Polina, and their daughter Masha, who is in love with Konstantin. There are also Dorn, the doctor, and Medvedenko, the teacher, who is in love with Masha. The play starts and it is beautiful and powerful and Nina plays her part wonderfully, but Konstantin’s mother laughs and mocks at the play, and Konstantin gets so discouraged that he stops the play halfway. Meanwhile, Nina, who is a big admirer of Trigorin’s works, meets him for the first time and is totally smitten by him. It appears to be love at first sight. So, this day, which starts beautifully, turns out to be a fateful day in the lives of these characters, and this fateful day impacts their lives in unexpected ways. Does the love of Konstantin and Nina survive the attraction of Trigorin? What happens to the relationship between Irina and her son Konstantin? What happens to Masha? Is she able to get together with Konstantin or does she accept Medvedenko’s love? Do the characters in the story find happiness, or is it all unrequited love? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

So, what do I think about the play? I liked it very much. It has the typical Russian setting – people staying in a countryside estate where the events start nicely and pleasantly, when suddenly all kinds of things happen and there are deep undercurrents in the story. There are some beautiful lines in the story, which I went back and read again. One of my favourites is a conversation between Nina and Trigorin about being a writer which was very beautiful. I read somewhere that this was Tolstoy’s favourite part of the play, and it was definitely one of my favourites too.

This is the second Chekhov play I have read after ‘Three Sisters‘. I liked ‘The Seagull‘ very much. It grew on me as I continued reading and I liked it more and more, as I read and re-read my favourite passages. I liked most of the characters in ‘The Seagull’ but Nina was my favourite. She was so beautifully portrayed by Chekhov. But Chekhov was democratic and he gave good lines to every character to speak – even the doctor Dorn speaks some beautiful lines.

The Movie

So now, about the movie. The movie is mostly faithful to the play. A few scenes and some of the dialogue have been rearranged to improve the dramatic effect, but otherwise, it is like watching a faithful film version of the play. The movie has a stellar cast. There is Annette Bening (as Irina), Saoirse Ronan (as Nina), Elizabeth Moss (as Masha), Mare Winningham (as Polina), Corey Stoll (as Trigorin). The casting is so perfect and each of the members of the cast delivers a wonderful performance. Annette Bening is brilliant as Irina and it is hard to love her and it is hard to hate her. Saoirse Ronan is perfect as Nina – I don’t know whether anyone else could have played that role better. Corey Stoll as Trigorin is wonderful and that conversation that Nina and Trigorin have is beautifully depicted in the movie. Billy Howle as Konstantin is very good too. When towards the end of the movie, Nina tells Konstantin, “Remember how good it was before? Everything was so simple and clear. Humans. Lions. Eagles and partridges. Horned deer” and he repeats that after her, it pulled my heartstrings and I cried. It was heartbreaking.

I loved ‘The Seagull‘, both the play version and the film adaptation. This is one occasion where I can say that it doesn’t matter whether we read the play or watch the movie, because both of them are essentially the same thing. In some ways the movie might be better because the performances are rich and exquisite, and the story comes alive beautifully on the screen.

I will leave you with one of my favourite conversations from the play, between Nina and Trigorin. It is quite long and so if you are planning to read it now, get a hot cup of coffee or tea or hot chocolate, sit down and relax, and get started. Happy reading!

Nina : I would like to be in your shoes.

Trigorin : What for?

Nina : To find out how it feels to be a famous talented writer. How does fame feel? How do you realize that you’re famous?

Trigorin : How? Nohow I suppose. I never thought about it. It’s either-or : either you’re exaggerating my fame or there’s no real way to realize it.

Nina : But what about seeing your name in the papers?

Trigorin : If it’s praise, I feel good, and if it’s a scolding, then I’m in a bad mood for a couple of days.

Nina : The world’s amazing! How I envy you, if you only knew! People’s fates are so different. Some people can barely crawl through their boring, obscure existence, the same as everyone else, all unhappy; still others, like you, for instance – you’re one in a million are granted a life that’s interesting, brilliant, meaningful… You’re happy…

Trigorin : Am I? Hm…You stand here talking about fame, happiness, a brilliant, interesting life, but to me it sounds sweet and gooey, sorry, just like marshmallows, which I never eat. You’re very young and very kind.

Nina : Your life is so beautiful!

Trigorin : What’s so especially good about it? …You’ve stepped on my pet corn, as the saying goes, and now I’m starting to get upset and a little bit angry. All right, let me make a statement. Let’s talk about my beautiful, brilliant life…Well, now, where shall we begin? Some people are obsessive compulsives, a person who thinks all the tine, for instance, about the moon, well, I have my own particular moon. All the time, I’m obsessed with one compulsive thought : I have to write, I have to write, I have to…I’ve barely finished one story, when already for some reason I have to write another, then a third, after the third a fourth…I write nonstop, like an express train, and I can’t help it. What’s so beautiful and brilliant about that, I ask you? Oh, what an uncivilized way of life! I’m here talking to you, I’m getting excited, but meanwhile I never forget there’s a story of mine waiting to be finished. I see that cloud over there, that looks like a grand piano. I think : have to refer to that somewhere in a story, a cloud drifted by that looked like a grand piano. I catch a whiff of heliotrope, I instantly reel it in on my moustache : cloying smell, widow’s color, refer to it in describing a summer evening. I’m angling in myself and you for every phrase, every word, and I rush to lock up all these words and phrases in my literary icebox : some time or other they’ll come in handy! When I finish work, I run to the theatre or go fishing; should be able to relax there, forget myself, oh, no, a heavy cannonball has started rolling around in my head – a new subject, and I’m drawn back to my desk, hurry, hurry, write, write. And so it goes forever and ever and ever, and I know no peace, and I feel that I’m devouring my own life, that to give away honey to somebody out there in space I’m robbing my finest flowers of their pollen, tearing up those flowers and trampling on their roots. Wouldn’t you say I’m crazy? Surely my friends and relatives don’t behave as if I were sane? “What are you puttering with now? What will you give us next?” The same old same old, and I start thinking that this friendly attention, praise, admiration – it’s all a plot, they’re humoring me like an invalid, and sometimes I’m afraid that they’re just on the verge of creeping up behind me, grabbing me and clapping me into a straitjacket, like the madman in Gogol’s story. And years ago, the years of my youth, my best years, when I was starting out, my writing was sheer agony. A second-rate writer, especially when luck isn’t with him, sees himself as clumsy, awkward, irrelevant, his nerves are shot, frayed; he can’t help hanging around with people connected with literature and art, unrecognized, unnoticed by anyone, afraid to look them boldly in the face, like a compulsive gambler who’s run out of money. I couldn’t visualize my reader, but for that very reason he loomed in my imagination as hostile, suspicious. I was afraid of the public, it terrified me, and every time a new play of mine managed to get produced, I thought the dark-haired spectators disliked it, while the fair-haired spectators couldn’t care less. Oh, it’s awful! Excruciating!

Nina : I’m sorry, but surely inspiration and the creative process itself must provide sublime moments of happiness?

Trigorin : Yes. When I’m writing it’s nice enough. And correcting the proofs is nice too, but…it’s barely come of the presses when I can’t stand it, and can see that it’s not right, a mistake, that it shouldn’t have been written just that way, and I’m annoyed, feel rotten inside…Then the public reads it : “Yes, charming, talented…Charming, but a far cry from Tolstoy,” or “Lovely piece of work, but not upto Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.” And so until my dying day all I’ll hear is charming and talented, charming and talented –, and when I die, my friends will file past my grave and say, “Here lies Trigorin. He wasn’t so bad as a writer, but no Turgenev.”

Nina : Forgive me, I refuse to accept that. You’re simply spoiled by success.

Have you read ‘The Seagull‘ or seen the recent film adaptation? What do you think about it?

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When I was discussing J.D.Salinger books with one of my friends a long time back, she told me that her favourite Salinger book was ‘Franny and Zooey‘ and she liked it more than ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘. I was surprised. I had read ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘ years back and I remember liking it, though I can’t remember much of the the plot now. I hoped to read ‘Franny and Zooey‘ someday and find out how I felt about it. I finally read it today.

‘Franny and Zooey’ has two stories, ‘Franny‘ and ‘Zooey‘. ‘Franny‘ is around 30 pages long and ‘Zooey‘ is around 100 pages long. The main characters in ‘Franny‘ are Franny and her boyfriend Lane. They are both students in college, and they meet during a weekend and have a long conversation. The conversation is about poetry, literature, theatre and related things. Reading this story is like watching the movie ‘Before Sunrise‘ – there is no plot and it is all conversation. But the conversation here is more sharper, less pleasant, making it very interesting.

In ‘Zooey‘, the main characters are Zooey, his mother Bessie and Franny. We learn at the beginning of the story that Zooey is the brother of Franny and Franny is the youngest at home. (In case you are wondering, because Zooey is such a unique name, the actress Zooey Deschanel, who used to star in the TV show ‘New Girl‘, is named after this Zooey.) They have other siblings too. The story ‘Zooey‘ is also mostly a conversation, or rather two conversations. In the initial part of the story, the conversation is between Zooey and his mother Bessie. During this conversation, we discover that Bessie is worried about all her children, especially about Franny, and wants Zooey to talk to her and find out what is happening. Bessie reminded me of the matriarchal characters in Anne Tyler’s books, especially ‘Breathing Lessons‘, who try intervening and intruding frequently in their children’s lives. Bessie is very likeable though. The second part of the story features a long conversation between Zooey and his sister Franny. They discuss literature, teaching, theatre, the educational system, spirituality, the meaning of life and other fascinating things during this conversation. We learn a little bit about their other siblings and the interesting, happy and sad things that happened in their family in the past. ‘Zooey‘ is clearly a sequel to ‘Franny‘ but the two stories can be read independently too.

So what do I think about ‘Franny and Zooey‘?

The first thing I want to talk about is the physical book. It has a simple plain cover, there is no blurb, no review excerpts, no description of the story on the cover, no description of the author, no notes in the end. Nothing. Nada. You open the book and just get started with the story. There is nothing between you and the story to distract you. All inessentialities which are not required have been cut out. I found this quite fascinating because I have found only French books (and some other European books) to be like this – minimalistic in design which let the book do the speaking. I have never seen an English book like this. It appears that Salinger might have personally wanted his book to be like this and his publishers continue to honour his wish.

The second thing I want to talk about is the structure of the book.I found the structure of the book – no plot, some descriptions, long conversations – very fascinating. Salinger says this at the beginning of ‘Zooey’ –

“To get straight to the worst, what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie, and those who have seen the footage have strongly advised me against nurturing any elaborate distribution plans for it.”

The experience of reading ‘Zooey’ is almost like reading a play, written in story form. I hope someone adapts it into a play and stages it, if it hasn’t been done already. It will work brilliantly, I think. The themes of the conversations are also very interesting. My most favourite part is when Franny and Zooey are discussing the purpose of life and the meaning of life and how to live an authentic life, and whether to pursue the path which leads to wealth, fame, power or take the intellectual path which leads to more knowledge or take the spiritual path which leads to more peace. Franny and Zooey have different points of view on this, which makes the conversation more fascinating. J.D.Salinger’s prose is beautiful, and the book is a pleasure to read. It is not to be rushed through but to be savoured, pausing at a beautiful sentence or turn of phrase when it makes an appearance, and lingering on for a while, enjoying its elegance and beauty.

I know now why my friend loved ‘Franny and Zooey‘ more. How can we resist loving a book which is just one long conversation? I loved it too and I am very happy and glad that I finally read it. I just wish I had read it when I was in my teens or early twenties – I would have loved it even more. There are two more slim Salinger books out there that I haven’t read. I hope to read them someday.

Have you read ‘Franny and Zooey‘? What do you think about it?

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As a reader, I am more a dip-my-toes-in-the-water kind. I read a book or two by a writer and then move on to a new writer. This is how it is even with my favourite writers. A.S.Byatt is one of my favourite writers and I have read just one book by her. Marlen Haushofer is another of my favourite writers and I have read just two books by her. I, of course, dream that one day I will read all the books written by all of my favourite writers, but that hasn’t happened yet. Though my reading is broad and wide because of this, I have some big gaps in my reading experience. The biggest of this is Haruki Murakami. I love Haruki Murakami and have read excerpts from his books in anthologies, but I have never read any of his novels or short stories. The only book of his that I have read is ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, but that is non-fiction and so I am not counting it here. Friends have been recommending Murakami to me for years and some of them have been kind enough to gift me Murakami books. I have a whole row in my bookshelf filled with Murakami books, waiting to be read on a rainy day. When a few weeks back one of my friends gifted me this Murakami book, I decided that the waiting should be over and I should get started. I read ‘Desire‘ today and finished it in one breath.

Desire‘ has five short stories. They are not new stories, but have been taken from other Murakami collections and collected together here because of their common theme.

The first story ‘The Second Bakery Attack‘ is about a newly married couple who get up in the middle of the night feeling very hungry. The husband describes a story from his past in which he and his friend tried robbing a bakery but the bakery owner was ready to give what they wanted if they listened to some classical music with him. What happens after that and what is the connection between that and the present form the rest of the story.

The second story ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning‘ is about what happens when one meets his / her soulmate in the street accidentally.

The third story ‘Birthday Girl‘ is about a waitress who works in the restaurant in her twentieth birthday and then strange things that happen that day.

The fourth story ‘Samsa in Love‘, turns the Gregor Samsa legend from Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ upside down and imagines what happens when someone or something gets up in the morning and discovers that he / she / it has been transformed into Gregor Samsa. It is a fascinating story.

The fifth and last story, ‘A Folklore for My Generation : A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism‘ is about a man who describes what happens to his high school sweetheart. It describes the atmosphere of the times, the 1960s, and Japanese culture and value system very well, and the ending of the story is poignant.

I loved all the stories in the book, but the last one was my favourite.

I am glad I finally read my first Murakami. Whoohoo! I can’t wait to read my next one now!

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“When you listen to somebody’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have s true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter – it actually might elevate the truth factor of the story. Turn this around, and you could say there are stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all. Those are the kind of stories you can count on being boring, and even, in some instances, dangerous. You can smell those ones a mile away.”

“The older you get, the more boring travelling alone becomes. It’s different when you are younger – whether you’re alone or not, travelling can be a gas. But as you age – the fun factor declines. Only the first couple of days are enjoyable. After that, the scenery becomes annoying, and people’s voices start to grate. There’s no escape, for if you close your eyes to block these out, all kinds of unpleasant memories pop up. It gets to be too much trouble to eat in a restaurant, and you find yourself checking your watch over and over as you wait for buses that never seem to arrive. Trying to make yourself understood in a foreign language becomes a total pain.”

Have you read ‘Desire‘ by Haruki Murakami? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Language of Kindness : A Nurse’s Story‘ by Christie Watson while browsing in the bookshop a few weeks back. I loved the title. Also, though I have seen many memoirs by doctors before, this was the first time I was seeing a memoir by a nurse. So I couldn’t resist getting it.

In her memoir, Christie Watson describes how she was an impatient teenager who wasn’t sure what she wanted and kept changing her dreams and career goals and life goals every week and how from there she got into nursing which demands a lot of patience and love, attention to detail, and being calm under pressure. She starts the book with how a typical day of a nurse goes and then she talks about how she got into nursing, the different kinds of departments she worked in and how they demanded different kinds of skills, the senior nurses who inspired and mentored her, the young nurses she mentored, the patients she cared for. Watson appears to have worked for a long time with children and a significant part of the book is devoted to her work in the paediatric ward. Watson doesn’t shy away from describing the everyday life of the nurse, as it is, and some of the stuff she describes is not for the faint hearted. But Watson describes it in soft, gentle prose which cushions the blow. I cried after nearly every chapter – sometimes out of joy and sometimes because of the heartbreaking things that Watson described. My highlighting pen didn’t stop working throughout the book and I highlighted passages starting from the first page to the last. Watson also shares some parts of her life with us which are not related to her work and they are beautifully woven into the narrative. My favourite part out of these is the one in which she talks about her two children, her elder girl who is her birth daughter, and her younger boy, who is her adopted son. When I read these lines at the end of this part –

“The two things of which I am proudest in life are my son’s kindness and my daughter’s love for him. His relationship with his sister is more powerful than anything I have ever witnessed. My son has swallowed all the goodness of the world, and my daughter loves him like the world has never seen love. Parenting them is the greatest privilege of my life.”

– I couldn’t stop crying.

Each chapter starts with a beautiful quote from a famous person and I loved these quotes too – they made me contemplate.

During the course of the book, Watson also delves a little bit into the history of nursing, and describes interesting facts like how the earliest text on nursing was compiled in India in the first century B.C., how the first professional nurse in the history of Islam, Rufaidah bint Sa’ad, from early 7th century was described as an ideal nurse because of her compassion and empathy, how the first hospitals were built by a Srilankan king in the 4th century B.C., how the first hospitals for curing mental illness were established in India during the third century B.C., how a psychiatric hospital was built in Baghdad in 805 A.D. Watson also quotes Florence Nightingale whenever the great lady has an important point to make.

Watson also spends considerable time describing her favourite nurses who inspired her and mentored her – Anna who mentors her, who is an old-school nurse and who is doing her Ph.D while working, in whose team younger nurses stay and work with for years; Tracy who refuses promotion and stays as a lifetime nurse at the same pay grade because she loves taking care of patients and who normally knows more about the medical condition of a patient than what the monitors or reports reveal; Cheryl who nursed Watson’s father when he was unwell; Jo, who treats the children under her care with love (This is how Watson describes her – “there is no objectivity in good nursing care. Jo was a brilliant nurse. She understood that to nurse is to love.“) These parts of the book are very moving and inspiring and we want to meet these amazing nurses who inspired Watson so much.

Watson also describes the challenges in the nursing profession today (and the medical field in general) and those parts are very insightful and eye-opening to read.

I was sad when the book ended – it was so beautiful. ‘The Language of Kindness‘ is one of my favourite books of the year and I recommend it highly.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Nursing is a career that demands a chunk of your soul in a daily basis. The emotional energy needed to care for people at their most vulnerable is not limitless and there have been many days when, like most nurses, I have felt spent, devoid of any further capacity to give. I feel lucky that my family and friends are forgiving.”

“In another life – along with my many other career aspirations at school – I’d have been a sonographer. But I don’t study heartscans, as a nurse. I watch the scans happening on the computer screens, as a writer. The sensory experience of the sound of hearts, the beautiful colours of blue and red unoxygenated and oxygenated blood. The patterns we all have inside us are the most beautiful landscape you can imagine. The movement of our blood flow – we dance inside. I carry with me the sound of the whoosh of the heart scan, as some people carry the sound of a drumbeat from a favourite song. I remember beats. The smaller the baby, the faster and louder the whoosh. Babies gallop, racing to live. A scan of a baby’s heart reminds me that survival is instinctive, at birth perhaps more than ever – that will of a newborn, of a species, of survival. We run towards life.”

“Anna leaves early. Before going, she hugs me tightly and quickly. There is no emotion in her face, but I feel like holding onto her and never letting me. “Thank you for being my mentor” is all I can manage to say. I want to say much, much more. How I hope some day to be like her. That she has taught me kindness and teamwork and professionalism; how to be hard and soft at the same time. That I will always be grateful to her. Anna has taught me how to be a nurse. After three years of training, my learning to be a nurse really began on my first day after I qualified. But I still have no language to describe what I’ve learned from Anna. And she’s already rushing away.”

“The language of nursing is sometimes difficult. A heart cell beats in a Petri dish. A single cell. And another person’s heart cell in a Petri dish beats in a different time. Yet if the two touch, they beat in unison. A doctor can explain this with science. But a nurse knows that the language of science is not enough. The nurse in theatre translates ‘your husband / wife / child died three times in there, but today was a good day and, with a large amount of electricity and some chest compressions that probably broke a few ribs, we managed to get them back’ into something that we can hear. A strange sort of poetry.”

“Dying is not always the worst thing. Living a long life and suffering cruelty in old age is the terrible fate that waits for many of us. We will all get sick and die, or we will get old. We can only hope that those caring for us are kind, and that they are empathetic and altruistic.”

Have you read Christie Watson’s memoir? What do you think about it?

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