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Archive for August, 2020

Lakshmi’s was one of my mom’s favourite Tamil writers. Many women from my mom’s generation grew up reading Lakshmi’s books. Though my mom loved other writers too, there was a kind of veneration, a reverence that my mom and other women from her generation felt for Lakshmi. There was a reason for that. Lakshmi wrote books which had strong women characters who were inspiring. She singlehandedly increased the female readership in Tamil by many times through her stories which were published to much acclaim. She did it in the late 1930s / early 1940s, when a woman Tamil author was rare or unheard of. In addition to all this, she was a doctor. She started writing stories during her student days in medical school and continued till the end. My mom had told me about this memoir of hers, many times, and I had wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Before I read the memoir I thought that Lakshmi was from a privileged family and that is how she could go to medical school, and after finishing college, she got married and became a homemaker and she started writing as a hobby and became successful. Every one of those assumptions turned out to be wrong, of course. There was a reason I thought that, because I have seen many highly educated, talented Indian women – doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers, PhDs – do this. But still, I was an idiot to believe in those assumptions. Lakshmi shows in her memoir why.

Lakshmi’s memoir has two parts. The first part starts from 1921, when she was born, and continues till the time she finishes high school and pre-college and enters medical school. The second part covers her years through medical school and ends a little after that, sometime after the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the first part Lakshmi talks about how she grew up in her grandparents’ home and how her grandparents brought her up during her childhood, because her dad was away studying. This part of the book depicts a beautiful, fascinating picture of the India of that time, an India which was conservative, kind and casteist, an India which was filled with patriarchy, misogyny, colourism and love at the same time. It is the kind of world which defies modern simplistic descriptions and definitions. To share an example from the book, when Lakshmi’s father wants to send her to school, her grandmothers and aunts vehemently oppose it, saying that a girl doesn’t need an education. Lakshmi’s father defies them and sends her to school. That is, the women oppose the girl’s education, while the man encourages it. When Lakshmi finishes elementary school and has to go to middle school, there is only a middle school for boys nearby, and that school has never had a girl student and so refuses to take her in. Lakshmi’s father fights for her cause, and somehow gets her into that school. This battle for education continues till pre-college, and Lakshmi’s father fights every step of the way for her. Then Lakshmi gets into med school, which is a huge accomplishment for a woman from her generation. But after that, her father flip flops. One day he is encouraging, another day he asks her to wind up things and come back home and take care of the family. Lakshmi’s life is very uncertain during this period, as she doesn’t know whether her education will continue or end suddenly. Her father, from the supporting champion he was, turns into the opposite and tries to undermine her.

Through the course of the two volumes, Lakshmi tells us about her family members, friends, teachers, inspiring people she met, strangers who were kind to her. She tells us things, as they are, in a non-judgemental way, but in a gentle, loving tone. She describes how she became a writer – because she wanted to support herself when she was a med school student, as her dad couldn’t afford to pay the fees – and how writing stories and connecting with people through them has enriched her life. She also describes the Madras of her time, and it looks very beautiful and glamorous, filled with cool people that we would like to meet, very unlike the Madras of today’s time. It almost feels like the film ‘Midnight in Paris’. She also talks about the Independence movement and how things were during the Second World War.

The book ends with Lakshmi graduating from med school. She was a successful writer and a doctor for more than forty years after that, but that is not covered in the book. The end of the second volume seems to imply a third volume, but unfortunately that was not to be. I wish we had atleast one or two volumes after this which described her literary career, her years in South Africa, how she got married (her two younger sisters got married before she did, which is rare in India even today, but almost unheard of during her time), her experiences with the movie industry when her story was adapted into a movie. Unfortunately, that is not to be, and this is all there is. I feel sad.

I loved Lakshmi’s ‘A Writer’s Story‘. It gave me goosebumps, and it is one of my favourite reads of the year. I wish my mom was still around so that I could discuss it with her. It belongs up there with the memoirs of R.K.Narayan and Kamala Das, among Indian memoirs. I wish it gets translated into English. It deserves more readers.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation’ Month.

Have you read ‘A Writer’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read ‘Nada‘ by Carmen Laforet for years, since I first discovered it. When Emma from Book Around the Corner suggested a readalong, I was excited. What started as a readalong for Spanish Literature Month in July, ended up becoming a book I read for Women in Translation Month in August, because I got into a deep reading slump in the second half of July and couldn’t read the book. But I am glad that I finally got to read it and finished it today.

In ‘Nada‘, a young woman called Andrea, who is our narrator, arrives in Barcelona by train, in the middle of the night. She reaches her relatives home and it is not at all what she expected. Andrea has come to Barcelona to study at the university. Her relatives receive her well, initially, but soon Andrea discovers that there are complications. Her aunt Angustias seems to be the matriarch of the family and is a person to be feared and obeyed. Then there is Andreas’ grandmother, Angustias’ mother. Then there are two of Angustias’ brothers, Andreas’ uncles, Juan and Román. Then there is Juan’s wife Gloria and their child. Then there is the cook and maid, Antonia. With so many grownups living together, and the time being just after the Spanish Civil War, when life was hard, there are constant conflicts, tantrums, slanging matches and fights everyday. In the midst of this chaos, Andrea starts going to university, and after the initial shy start, she makes new friends. How Andrea navigates this complex home life with relatives and her friendships at university, the beautiful experiences she has, and the ups and downs her emotional life goes through is depicted in the rest of the book.

Most of the characters in the book are fascinating. I loved our narrator, Andrea, of course. Her best friend Ena is wonderful too. Then her artist friends who paint everyday are fascinating too. Her grandmother is kind, Gloria is a friend and like an elder sister to her, and Aunt Angustias is scary. Juan behaves like a madman half the time, beating up his wife and threatening to kill her. Román is the enigmatic uncle, who seems to be charming and menacing at the same time, and it is hard for us to decide whether to like him or hate him. Andrea’s best friend Ena’s mother plays a minor but important part in the story, and there is one whole chapter dedicated to her, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. Ena’s mother was one of my favourite characters in the story.

Carmen Laforet’s prose has the perfect balance of beautiful sentences and easy flow. The pages are filled with beauty but they also speed by fast, and we wonder how. Carmen Laforet’s descriptions and the images she paints are so exquisite and such a pleasure to read. There are beautiful sentences strewn like pearls throughout the book. Laforet was twenty two or twenty three when she wrote this book. I wondered what I was doing when I was twenty three. Mostly being useless, I think. While Laforet created this beautiful work of art.

Edith Grossman’s translation is beautiful and pitch perfect. Sometimes it is hard to tell where Laforet’s prose ends and Grossman’s translation begins.

Towards the end of the story, the mad uncle Juan says to Andrea – “Well, niece, I hope things go well for you. In any case, you’ll see how living in a house of strangers isn’t the same as being with your family…” I laughed when I read that, and I thought, “Yeah, right!” 😁 When you read the story you’ll know why.

Thought I’ll share one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Tell me, don’t you want to make some music today?”
Then Román opened the little cabinet at the end of the bookcases and took out the violin…At the moment when, standing next to the fireplace, he began to move the bow, I changed completely…My soul, extended like my own hands, received the sound as if it were rain on dry ground. Román seemed a marvelous, unique artist. He wove in the music a joy so fine that it went beyond the limits of sadness. That nameless music, Román’s music, which I’ve not heard again since that time.
The small window opened to the dark night sky. The light of the lamp made Román taller and more immobile, only breathing in his music. And it came to me in waves : first innocent memories, dreams, struggles, my own vacillating present, and then, sharp joys, sorrows, despair, a significant contraction of life, a negation into nothing…the feeling of my total despair turned into beauty, an anguished harmony without light.
And suddenly an enormous silence and then Román’s voice : “You could be hypnotized…What does that music say to you?”

Nada‘ is a story about a dysfunctional family and how the past always keeps impacting the present and the future. It is also a beautiful story of friendship. I loved it. It is one of my favourite reads of the year and one of my favourite reads ever. I can’t believe that it took me so long to read it, but I am glad that I finally read it.

Nada‘ seems to be the only book of Carmen Laforet available in English translation. Hope other books of hers get translated into English. Edith Grossman, are you listening? 😁

Thanks to Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ for hosting this readalong and inviting me to join. You can find Emma’s review here.

You can find other reviews of the book here.

Claire (Word by Word)

Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

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

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After reading Colette’sChéri‘, I decided to read her first book in the Claudine series, ‘Claudine at School‘. I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Claudine is a fifteen year old girl. She lives in a village and is in high school. She is the narrator of the story. In the story Claudine tells us about her adventures in school, her friends, her teacher, her love for nature, events that happen in her school and how it impacts her and her friends, her love for her dad, her love for books – these and other things are narrated in the book.

When I first heard of Claudine’s story, I thought it would be the story of a girl at school and the adventures and fun she has. I thought it would be Colette’s French version of a Judy Blume book. Part of the book is that, but there is more to the book than that. Claudine falls in love with her teacher, but her headmistress is also in love with her teacher, and there is a three-way lesbian love story there. It is amazing because Colette wrote this book in 1900, and I don’t know anyone else who wrote a lesbian love story in 1900. Even if there was, things would have been described in vague language, so that it could be open to different interpretations. Colette will have none of that nonsense and she describes things as they are. Colette was brave and she was a pioneer. After reading more of her work, I am able to understand why she has been revered by readers and writers of her time and since.

Claudine is a charming narrator and from the first lines – “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there” – she grabs our attention and never lets go. Claudine’s voice is somewhere between that of a child and a grown-up and she describes the hypocrisies of the grown-up world as she sees it. There are no bad characters in the book, atleast I didn’t feel there were any. There were just imperfect human beings with flaws, and Claudine describes them perceptively through her fifteen year old voice. There are people she likes and people she doesn’t like, and she herself is not nice sometimes, but she doesn’t shy away from describing things as she sees them. One of the things I loved about the book is the way it beautifully describes the real world of children and teenagers – how they are nasty and fight one day and exhibit kindness towards each other the next, sometimes even in the next moment. Claudine keeps treating with contempt, one of the girls in the class who likes her, but fights for her when she is in trouble, and helps her when she needs that. Reading that took me back to my schooldays. My favourite part of the book is the one in which Claudine tells us what happens when she and her classmates go to write their final exams. Claudine takes on one of the tough professors during the oral exam and she has her own opinion on history based on her wide reading and he disagrees with her strongly, though he respects her for holding on to her opinion and standing up to him. At one point when Claudine’s headmistress tries to intervene and cool things down he says – “Let her alone, Mademoiselle, there’s no harm done. I hold to my own opinions, but I’m all in favour of others holding to theirs. This young person has false ideas and bad reading-habits, but she is not lacking in personality – one sees so many dull ones.” I smiled when I read that 🙂

The book has an introduction in which Colette describes how she wrote the book – her husband asked her to write the book and then published it in his name. It was one more case where the husband took credit for the wife’s work, and it makes us angry when we read it, and we are glad to read how Colette came out of that situation and how the books were later published in her own name.

I loved ‘Claudine at School‘. It was almost as if Colette’s was speaking in Claudine’s voice. I don’t know how much of the book is autobiographical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Claudine is one of the great charming heroines and one of my favourites. She made me remember Ronja and Pippi, Astrid Lindgren’s great heroines. I can’t wait to read the second part of the series now, ‘Claudine in Paris‘.

Have you read ‘Claudine at School‘ or other books in the Claudine series? What do you think about this book?

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This is the third book I read for ‘Women in Translation‘ Month. I have had Colette’sChéri‘ with me for many years. I finally took it down from the bookshelf and read it.

Léa is a courtesan. She is forty-nine years old. She is in love with twenty-five year old Chéri. They have been together for a few years. Now Chéri’s mother decides that it is time for him to get married to a rich young woman. Léa reluctantly accepts that this is the end of their relationship. But both she and Chéri find it hard to let go. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked very much, the first part, which runs to around fifty pages. Léa is the main character in that, she is my favourite character, and we see things from her point of view. Then she disappears from the story for around thirty pages, and we see things from Chéri’s point of view. In my opinion, this part wasn’t that appealing. Then Léa comes back into the story, but for some reason the story isn’t as good as it was in the first part. The ending is heartbreaking.

The book created a lot of waves when it first came out in 1920. Interestingly, this year is the book’s centenary. There are other books which tell the love story of an older woman and a younger man. But I think ‘Chéri’ must have been the first story or one of the earliest ones with this plot, written by a woman writer. The blurb says that this is Colette’s finest novel. I liked the book in parts, but I feel that the book hasn’t aged well. I think it will make a great movie though, and I want to watch the movie adaptation.

Colette’s prose is beautiful. There were beautiful sentences and passages sprinkled across the book. I am sharing one of my favourites here.

“She took a thermometer from the drawer of her bedside table and put it under her arm. ‘My temperature’s normal, so it’s nothing physical. I see. I’m just unhappy. Something must be done about it.’ She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known : grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living : years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless.”

Colette was one of the great French writers and someone who defied the conservative world of her time. She once gave this advice to a young writer – “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” That always makes me think. I have heard great things about her Claudine books. I want to read them sometime.

Have you read ‘Chéri‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Colette book?

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This is the second book I read for ‘Women in Translation’ month, hosted by Meytal, which runs through the whole of August.

Clara‘ by Cecile and Lemoine is a surprising beautiful discovery for me. It is a comic / graphic novel.

Clara’s favourite time of the day is when her mother comes to her schoo in the evening to take her back home. They walk the streets, feed the ducks in the park, play in the swing, go to the bakery and try some treats, go home and play the guitar and take a bath together. This is a time Clara looks forward to everyday. One day her mother doesn’t come on time. Clara stays for sometime at the daycare centre at school. When her mother finally arrives, she doesn’t speak much. She looks worried, distracted. That day, they don’t indulge in their usual adventures. That evening Clara’s father comes home early and he and her mother have a long, quiet conversation which Clara is not able to hear. We, the readers, of course, feel a dark premonition.

Well, I can’t tell you more. You have to read the book to find out what happens next.

Clara‘ is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about love, loss and grief, seen through the eyes of a young girl. It puts into pictures the nightmare that every child has, and it also shows how one particular child handles it.

Cecile’s artwork is beautiful and charming and tries to lessen the weight of the grief for us. I read that Cecile never attended art school and is a self taught artist, which was fascinating to know. I have shared a few pages so that you can experience the beauty of her art.

I loved ‘Clara‘. I can’t wait to read more of Cecile’s work.

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

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This is the first day of ‘Women in Translation Month‘ which happens in August every year and which is hosted by Meytal Radzinski. This is the first book I read for this year’s edition. I discovered ‘The Dog‘ by Kerstin Ekman through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) review of it. I read it today in one breath.

A man goes out of his house on some work, and his dog follows him. This dog has a puppy which follows her. But then it rains, there is a storm and the puppy gets lost in the forest. What happens to this puppy, as it navigates the hours, the days, the weeks on its own, is told in the rest of the story.

I have read many dog stories, but this is a story, the likes of which I’ve never read. Kristin Ekman tells us the story in the third person, but we are taken into the puppy’s mind, into his heart, and we see things through his eyes, we smell the new smells he does, sense the dangers he feels, feel things through his skin, and before long it is us in the forest, feeling the cold and the hunger, and the danger. Ekman doesn’t anthropomorphize the dog, doesn’t make it human, but takes us into the dog’s mind, into the dog’s heart, and makes us see how the world looks from there. It is fascinating. From the first passage,

“When does something begin? It doesn’t begin. There’s always something else before it. It begins the way a stream starts as a rivulet and a rivulet starts as a trickle of water in the marsh. It’s the rain that makes the marsh water rise.

Where does a tale begin? Under the root of a spruce, perhaps. Yes, under the root of a spruce tree. A little grey fellow was lying there, all curled up, his muzzle tucked under his tail. A dog. But he didn’t know that.”

the book grabs our attention, and refuses to let go till the end.

I loved ‘The Dog‘. It is one of my favourite dog novels, up there with ‘Dogsbody’ by Diana Wynne Jones, and ‘The Poet’s Dog‘ by Patricia McLachlan. I am glad I read it. I want to read more of Kerstin Ekman’s books now. She is one of the great Swedish writers and I discovered that she has a long backlist. Hoping that more of her books are available in English translation.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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