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Archive for June, 2020

I discovered Natsu Miyashita’sThe Forest of Wool and Steel‘ through one of my friends who highly recommended it. The book was about the piano and its music and I couldn’t wait to read it.

Tomura is in high school. One day one of his teachers tells him that a man will arrive in the afternoon at school, and asks Tomura to take this man to the gym. When this man arrives, Tomura takes him to the gym and leaves him there. While Tomura is leaving the gym, this man opens the piano there, presses down some of the keys and plays a few notes, and something beautiful, magical happens in Tomura’s mind. It is like someone opened his heart to a Narnia filled with music, in which when each musical note is played, Tomura sees the warm earth, whispering leaves, the forest, the trees. And Tomura comes back while this man is tuning the piano. And that is the end of life as he knows it. The boy from the mountains, Tomura, now wants to dedicate his life to the piano, he wants to become a piano tuner. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

The Forest of Wool and Steel‘ is a beautiful love letter to pianos, piano tuning, music. I loved it. I am happy that I discovered a new favourite book, a new favourite writer. I love how Japanese writers take delightful things, sometimes even everyday things, and compose a beautiful book around them – the way Yoko Ogawa wrote a book about mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa wrote about the pleasures of food, Banana Yoshimoto wrote about the seashore and the beach, Hiromi Kawakami wrote about the thrift store, Haruki Murakami wrote about running, Sayaka Murata wrote about the convenience store, Shion Miura wrote about the dictionary, the way Takashi Hiraide, Hiro Arikawa and Genki Kawamura wrote about this beautiful being called the cat. Natsu Miyashita’s book is a beautiful addition to this wonderful list of Japanese books which sing a song in praise of all this beauty that surrounds us.

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

“And here was another thing : ‘beautiful’, like ‘right’, was a totally new word for me. Until I’d found the piano I’d never been aware of things that you might call beautiful, which is a little different, of course, from not knowing they exist…The delicate frown lines between the brows of a crying baby. The bare mountain trees beginning to bud, and the ecstasy of the moment when the tips of the branches reflect a reddish hue, casting a warm glow across the mountain. The mountain on fire with these imaginary flames would stop my breath and fill my heart to bursting.
It liberated me to have a word for these things – for the trees, the mountains, the seasons. To call them beautiful meant I could take them out any time I wished, exchange them with friends. Beauty was everywhere in the world. I had just never known what to call it or how to recognize it – until that afternoon in the school gym, when it flooded me with joy. If a piano can bring to light the beauty that has become invisible to us, and give it audible form, then it is a miraculous instrument and I thrill to be its lowly servant.”

Have you read ‘The Forest of Wool and Steel‘? What do you think about it?

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I am not sure how I first discovered Rafia Zakaria, but I clearly remember the first time I read something by her. It was an article by her in ‘The New Republic’ called ‘Sex and the Muslim Feminist‘. It was a fascinating article and I loved it. I have wanted to read more by her since. I finally got around to reading her first book ‘The Upstairs Wife : An Intimate History of Pakistan‘.

The Upstairs Wife‘ starts with the story of Rafia Zakaria’s aunt, Aunt Amina. When Rafia was a child, one day Aunt Amina visits their home and stays there overnight and for the next few days. It is something unthinkable during that time, because married woman don’t stay overnight in their parents’ homes in Pakistan. Over the next few days, the story slowly emerges – that Aunt Amina’s husband Uncle Sohail had decided marry again and get a second wife (which was allowed according to the law, but almost never happened) and he had come to ask her permission, but she had refused, and inspite of that, he had decided to go ahead. Aunt Amina had got upset and had gone to her parents’ home. After the elders from both sides meet and discuss the situation, at some point Aunt Amina goes back to her husband’s home, to share her house and her husband with a second wife. At this point Rafia Zakaria goes back in time and tells us the story of her grandmother when she was living in India in Bombay, before the partition. Then she narrates a third story about Pakistan as a newly independent country. Zakaria weaves these three story strands together – her aunt’s story, her grandmother’s story and Pakistan’s story – and we get this beautiful book called ‘The Upstairs Wife‘.

The Upstairs Wife‘ weaves personal story and historical narrative together into a fascinating book. I loved reading the personal stories and experiences of Zakaria’s family members and the stories about Pakistan as a new country. I think the love story of her grandparents Said and Surrayya deserves a separate book. I knew about some of the events of Pakistan’s history, but it was insightful to read it in detail in the book and understand the way it impacted Zakaria’s family. Zakaria’s packs in so many historical details into this 250-page book, that it is hard to believe how she managed to do that. The story that Zakaria tells is sometimes beautiful, sometimes moving, sometimes heartbreaking. There is one place where she describes how her grandfather goes to the government office to get something called the domicile certificate for his grandson. This certificate proves that one belongs to a particular place. To prove that one belongs to a particular place, it seems one has to prove that one’s father belongs to that place too. And to prove that one’s father belongs to that place, it seems that one has to prove that one’s grandfather belongs to that place too. It was so absurd and almost Kafkaesque, that I laughed when I read that. And then it made me sad and angry. But this is not the situation just in Pakistan. Immigrants from time immemorial, in every country, have faced this question on where they are from and have been asked in increasingly absurd ways to prove that they belonged to a particular place. It is sad and heartbreaking. Zakaria’s grandfather doesn’t give up though and is unfazed by these bureaucratic mountainous obstacles. He pushes ahead with dogged determination, and we cheer for him, and he wins in the end, and we want to hug him and give him high-fives. I hated Uncle Sohail at the beginning of the book, but towards the end I felt that he was not as bad as it looked, and things were more complex than I imagined. I think that was one of the great things about Zakaria’s writing – it was unsentimental, non-judgemental, and she followed the golden rule, ‘Show, don’t tell.’

I enjoyed reading ‘The Upstairs Wife‘. It is a fascinating look into Pakistani history of the last 70 years seen through the eyes of a few individuals. I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘The Upstairs Wife‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’ since the time it came out. I finally got around to reading it.

Roxane Gay’s book is a collection of essays, many of which she had written for literary magazines and literary websites, and some essays that she wrote for this book. I thought that the essays were mostly on feminism and gender and though there definitely were many essays on those topics, the range of the essays were wide and they covered race, and other topics of contemporary interest. The essays are collected under different sections – Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics Gender & Race. There is a section at the beginning which is autobiographical in which Roxane Gay tells us more about herself and her family, her initial days as a professor, her love for Scrabble. The Scrabble essay was one of my favourite essays in the book. The section titled Gender & Sexuality was probably the core of the book and that is where Gay explores most of the burning topics of contemporary interest. I liked many of the essays here. One of my favourites was one about three coming out stories. The section, Race & Entertainment, has essays on film. Gay mostly picks up a film and tears it apart 🙂

At the beginning of the book, there is an introduction in which Gay says feminists are placed on pedestals and they are knocked off and she is a bad feminist because she is imperfect and we can already consider her knocked off the pedestal. At the end of the book, Gay continues this theme and says why – though she loves the colour pink, she loves listening to thuggish rap with misogynistic lyrics, though she wants to be independent but also wants to be taken care of, though she considers some domestic tasks are gendered and should be done by men, though she is human and imperfect and is filled with contradictions – she loves feminism and considers herself a feminist, though a bad feminist. I loved what Gay said.

There are many things that Gay said that I agreed with. There were also things that she said that I disagreed with. One of my biggest disagreements happened with her essay on the movie, ’12 Years a Slave’. Gay found many reasons to criticize the movie, and it was hard for me to agree with her (I haven’t seen the movie yet). The movie was based on an actual memoir written by a black slave, the movie was faithful to the book, it was directed by a wonderful director and talented actors and actresses played leading roles with acclaim. The movie won awards. I think these are all good things. Sometimes a movie is just well made and good and there is nothing wrong in acknowledging that.

I enjoyed reading ‘Bad Feminist’. It was interesting to read Roxane Gay’s take on feminism, race and other contemporary topics. I want to read her memoir ‘Hunger’ sometime.

Have you read ‘Bad Feminist’? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read E.R.Braithwaite’s classic memoir ‘To Sir With Love‘ for a long time. I finally got around to reading it now.

Rick Braithwaite has just come out of the Second World War. During the war he was in the RAF (Royal Air Force). During his time in the RAF, he enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow airforce colleagues. People treated him well, everyone was equal, there was no racism. When the war ends, Rick hopes to get a job in the field in which he is trained and educated – electronics engineering. Rick has got a masters degree from Cambridge university. When he applies for jobs, he is immediately invited for an interview, because of his impressive education and experience. But when the interview panel members see him in person and discover that he is black, they refuse to hire him. One interview panel member is frank – he says that he can’t ask white employees to report to Rick, but he also cannot hire Rick for a low-level position, because Rick is overqualified for that. Rick is frustrated and remains unemployed for eighteen months. When Rick says –

“It is possible to measure with considerable accuracy the rise and fall of the tides, or the behaviour in space of objects invisible to the naked eye. But who can measure the depths of disillusionment?”

– we feel like a knife has been plunged into our hearts, and it hurts us deeply as much as it does Rick. A kind stranger gives Rick good advice and asks him to apply for a teacher position. Rick does, and is immediately hired and asked to join an East End school. His fellow teachers are all white and mostly women and they all welcome him. His students are an unruly bunch though and they test and challenge him everyday. Whether Rick is able to gain their respect, and whether the students accept him is told in the rest of the book.

To Sir With Love‘ is a beautiful, inspiring memoir. The racism in post War London and the many subtle variations in which it manifests itself is so insightfully portrayed in the book. In one place Rick compares the way black people are treated in America and in Britain and it is fascinating to read. It will be interesting to find out whether what he says holds true even today. The way Rick tries to tame his students and the way they resist his attempts are also very fascinating to read. Rick even manages to fall in love with his fellow teacher who is white, and she invites him to meet her parents, and what follows is a scene straightaway from ‘Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner‘, with the father telling Rick how difficult it will be for Rick and his daughter if they get married – we can almost hear Spencer Tracy speaking there. The book has a wonderful introduction by Caryl Phillips. I did some research and discovered that Caryl Phillips is himself a Caribbean novelist and has a huge backlist of award winning novels. It is so exciting! I can’t wait to read some of them.

I loved ‘To Sir With Love‘. I can’t wait to read more books by our favourite Rick. Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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It is not often that one of your favourite writers publishes two books in the same year. But that is exactly what happened, when Gae Polisner’s second book came out a few days back. It felt that Christmas came a second time, and we need all the Christmases we can get during these extraordinary, challenging times. This time it is a book which is jointly written by Nora Raleigh Baskin. This is the first book by Nora Raleigh Baskin that I am reading, and I was very excited.

The story told in ‘Seven Clues to Home‘ goes like this. It is Joy’s thirteenth birthday. Her younger sister and brother knock her door and enter and jump on her and kickoff the celebrations. Joy is happy for a brief while. But then she remembers the same time last year when her best friend Lukas was still around. Something happened to him at that time (I won’t tell you what) and it has been a tough year for Joy. Lukas and Joy play a scavenger hunt every year on her birthday, during which Lukas leaves clues for Joy to discover and one clue leads to another and at the end there is something beautiful waiting for Joy. Lukas left the first clue for Joy the previous year and Joy had still not opened it. She decides to open it now and goes where it takes her and what follows is many beautiful discoveries for Joy and for us.

The story is told through the voices of Joy during the present time and Lukas during the past. The prose moves the story beautifully. In books jointly written by two writers, I don’t know how the two writers divide their work and whether they like their individual styles getting reflected separately on the page or whether they develop a composite style which merges their individual styles. In this book, the writing flows so smoothly, and the transition between Joy’s and Lukas’ voices happens so seamlessly, that it is hard to tell that two writers have written the book. It is so beautiful.

And the ending – I am dying to talk about it, at the very least I want to say whether it is happy or sad or bittersweet, but I can’t do that. It is for you to read and find out.

I loved ‘Seven Clues to Home‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I have read all of Gae Polisner’s books till now – there are six of them including this one – and I loved them all. This is my first Nora Raleigh Baskin book. I am happy to discover a new favourite writer. I am excited to find out that she has written thirteen other books. It is always wonderful to discover that a new favourite writer has a big backlist. I can’t wait to read them. I also heard that Gae Polisner and Nora Raleigh Baskin are collaborating on two new books. I am excited and I can’t wait to read them.

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

“Lukas once told me that there is an infinite number of moments in every second, that every second you can halve, and then halve again and again and again. There is still time left. It might be too small for our brains to comprehend, but it exists simply because of the math of it. And it is in one of those fractions of a moment of a second that I let myself get my hopes up.”

Have you read ‘Seven Clues to Home‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Helen Lewis‘ ‘Difficult Women : A History of Feminism in 11 Fights‘ when I was browsing in the bookshop last week. There was only one copy in the bookshop and the book looked very fascinating and I couldn’t resist getting it.

In ‘Difficult Women : A History of Feminism in 11 Fights‘, Helen Lewis tries to gives us an unconventional history of feminism. She looks at feminism in the past 150 years through 11 different themes, or fights as she calls them. Many of the themes are familiar to us, like the right to education, the right to vote, the right to equal pay etc. But the fascinating thing about the book is this. Though Helen Lewis mentions some of the feminist pioneers, she mentions them mostly in passing. What she does is, she goes and searches for and discovers the feminists who were well known or who played important roles during their time, but who are forgotten today, either because they have complex, inconvenient histories, or they fell out with other prominent feminists and so have been written out of history, or they were not considered feminists during their time, or they have just been plain ignored. These are the difficult women that Helen Lewis writes about.

What follows is an wonderful list of amazing women and their inspiring achievements – like the footballer Lily Parr who was so famous for her football skills that she and her team used to draw crowds of 50,000 during the 1910s, Jayaben Desai who led one of the biggest worker strikes in the ’70s demanding better pay and benefits, Erin Prizzey who has been written out of feminist history today but who during her time ran the first refuges in Britain for victims of domestic violence, Maureen Colquhoun the first ever lesbian MP from Britain whom everyone seems to have forgotten now, Sophia Jex-Blake who alongwith six other women fought for the right of women to pursue a medical education and inspite of the universities trying every trick to deny them that education, how she and her friends finally won and became the first female doctors in Britain – the book tells the stories of these and other amazing women. When I read what Colette Devlin – who as a 67-year old, fought for abortion rights alongside two other friends, in Northern Ireland – said :

“I believe that I have a legal duty to uphold good law, but I have a moral duty to disobey bad law.”

I got goosebumps.

Difficult Women‘ is a beautiful, wonderful, inspiring book, which is guaranteed to make you angry and happy, and give you goosebumps. I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘Difficult Women‘? What do you think about it?

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After nearly two-and-a-half months, I got a taxi today and went out. Got some work done and then went to the bookshop. I spent an hour browsing. I realized I missed these browsing sessions so much. There was a time I used to go to the bookshop every week. Then when I started to buy books online, and later when my book buying went down because of the hundreds of unread books at home, I stopped my regular visits to the bookshop. Today, I felt that I had travelled back in time. It was so beautiful. I got a few books, and a chocolate, and had the chocolate on the way. Then went to a nearby restaurant, got a piping hot coffee through their takeaway service and enjoyed the coffee outside. Then I came back home. It was a beautiful day, filled with simple joys 😊

These are the books I got.

The Forest of Wool and Steel‘ was recommended by a friend. It looks beautiful and I can’t wait to read it. I am also excited about ‘Difficult Women‘. It promises to be a fascinating take on feminist history. ‘Parker Pyne Investigates‘ was recommended by another friend, who said that it had unusual stories with happy endings. I can’t wait to read this unusual book by Christie. I didn’t know that Dickens wrote a history book. I read the first page and it looks very interesting. Can’t wait to get started on these books.

How was your day?

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‘Tennyson’s Gift’ is the second novel featured in ‘The Lynne Truss Treasury‘. The story takes place in 1864 in a place called Freshwater Bay in the Isle of Wight. The poet Tennyson lives there with his family. The famous pioneering photographer Julia Cameron also lives there. Julia’s dream is to take a portrait of Tennyson’s, but Tennyson keeps avoiding it. One day Charles Dodgson, more famously known as Lewis Carroll, drops by. Then the painter G.F.Watts and his wife Ellen arrive on a visit. Then more people drop by and more and more interesting things happen. We are provided a glimpse of Tennyson’s poetry and some of the crazy things happening in the island start resembling the events described in ‘Alice in Wonderland‘. Soon the events start spiralling out of control and the book, in typical Lynne Truss fashion, ends up as a screwball comedy.

I found ‘Tennyson’s Gift‘ quite interesting. Lynne Truss says in the preface that the characters in the book are all real people, even the two maids of Julia Cameron. The story though, is imaginary. I love the way the book is interspersed with passages from Tennyson’s poems. I have read ‘In Memoriam‘ and ‘Ulysses‘ and probably ‘Maud‘ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘. It made me want to read more of Tennyson. Julia Cameron was a likeable character and I loved her. Ellen was also a wonderful character. Lewis Carroll was not at all the way I expected him to be. He looked very creepy. Tennyson was interesting and complex. I learnt interesting things about what these real-life artists did during that time. But as a comic novel, I liked Lynne Truss’ first book more. There was, however, one very fascinating thing in this book. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting conversation between Ellen and Tennyson, about being an introvert, guarding one’s privacy, and the less desirable aspects of fame. It was beautiful and fascinating to read. I loved that conversation. I am giving it below.

Conversation between Ellen and Tennyson

Ellen : “Why don’t you pose for Mrs Cameron? It would make her so happy.”

Alfred Tennyson : “Happy? But, my dear, Mrs Cameron’s happiness in this matter is neither here nor there.”

Ellen : “It isn’t?”

Tennyson : “Consider what she does when she has a person’s photograph. She exhibits it, she gives copies to anybody who calls. She gives away albums.”

Ellen : “She has a generous nature.”

Tennyson : “And I have a desire for seclusion. Why do you think I live on the Isle of Wight?”

Ellen : “Because the Queen likes it? And she once said she might visit you? And then you might get a Knighthood?”

Tennyson : “Yes, but aside from that. I simply will not accept that, just because I am a poet, people should know what I look like –”

Ellen : “Well, everyone knows what I look like.”

Tennyson : “Take this point, my dear. On a walking holiday last year, my companion shouted “Tennyson!” in the hotel, and the price of our simple lodging was doubled at once. Already visitors come to our house, pushing their noses at the windows, frightening Emily, disturbing the boys. People send me their poetry to read. They want to intrude on my private life in a most unseemly manner. I fear for this development, my dear, especially if the railway comes to Freshwater. Even in death I will not be safe. For there is a fashion for writing lives of poets, publishing their diaries and letters.”

Ellen : “Yes, but that’s to show how important they are. Poets are dreadfully important.”

Tennyson : “But such scoundrels might tell the world that a man was mad, or dirty, or worse! And he has no defence!”

Ellen : “But don’t you agree that fame has its price, Mr Tennyson?”

Tennyson : “It has a price. But I firmly believe that no one can make you pay it.”

Have you read ‘Tennyson’s Gift‘? What do you think about it?

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