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Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Children’s Literature’

I can’t remember how I discovered Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’. I have had the book for years. I must have got it during one of my weekend bookshop visits. I used to buy a lot of Bantam classics those days and I think I got it then. I normally remember the bookshop from which I had bought a book, but I can’t remember the bookshop from which I had got Kate Chopin’s book. By some deductive reasoning, I have narrowed down the suspects to two. And that is where it will stay, I think.

I don’t know why Chopin’s book was lying unread on my shelf for so long. It is not too long and the story is interesting. Well, fortunately for me, the stars got aligned this weekend and I picked the book to read. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. I put down everything else I was doing – tasks, chores, TV – and read it till I finished it. Here is what I think.

The Awakening By Kate Chopin

‘The Awakening’ is about Edna Pontellier, who is in her late twenties, happily married by conventional standards, has a husband who is successful in his profession and takes care of her and two children who are delightful and undemanding. She has all the material comforts that a woman of her era would need. She also has a wonderful circle of friends, especially Adèle Ratignolle, who is her closest friend and Robert Lebrun who is always there with her during the summer. Once, while spending the summer holiday near the sea, with Robert for company during most days, something happens to Edna. Her heart opens up and she sees something new and it is the end of life as she knows it. She starts falling in love with Robert. She wants to do something new – like painting. She starts yearning for more independence. She wants to move away from her husband and her family, though she loves them, and get her own house and paint in that house. All these new thoughts and emotions explode in her heart at around the same time. As Chopin says while describing this event :

“But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in this tumult!”

Things become complicated for Edna after that. Is Edna able to leave her home and chart an independent life path successfully? What does her family feel about it? Can Edna part from her husband, whom she likes, and her children, whom she loves? What does her best friend Adèle have to say about it? Does Robert return her love? And if things don’t work out what would Edna do? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

‘The Awakening’ has been frequently compared to ‘Madame Bovary’. I haven’t read ‘Madame Bovary’ and so I am not able to compare. On its own, I think it is a story of a woman who is trying to discover herself and her relationship to the world around her and in the process how her heart opens up to new vistas and she strives for freedom and an independent expression of her vision which contradicts with the social norms of her era and the complexities which arise from that and how it affects her and how she copes with them. It is a beautiful story, though with a tragic ending, and I loved it. It is definitely one of my favourite reads of the year. (The introduction said that the book was banned in America, when it was published, for its ‘indecency’. I couldn’t believe it when I read that. The book didn’t deserve to be banned. It deserved literary awards. I can imagine how heartbroken Kate Chopin must have been when the literary world spurned her masterpiece.)

The edition of the book I read had a beautiful introduction by Marilynne Robinson, she of ‘Housekeeping’ and ‘Gilead’ fame. It also had eight short stories. I liked most of the stories. My favourite was ‘Désirée’s Baby’. (If you are curious about it, here is the story – an orphan girl is adopted by a childless couple. When she grows up, a young man from a distinguished family meets her one day and falls in love with her at first sight. They get married and a year later she becomes a mother. Puzzlingly, though our heroine and her husband are white, the baby is not. The husband starts hating his wife after that. What happens after that? What is the truth? – you should read the story to find out. It read like a Heinrich von Kleist story to me.). I also loved ‘A Reflection’ and ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’.

There is a small, interesting story behind ‘Désirée’s Baby’. I first discovered ‘Désirée’s Baby’ through a book that I read years back called ‘River Town’ by Peter Hessler. It is Hessler’s account of his time in China when he spent a couple of years teaching English in a small town in Sichuan province near the bend of the Yangtze river. Hessler said in the book that he frequently read and discussed ‘Désirée’s Baby’ with his students in English class. I am happy to have finally read it. Now I wonder what Hessler discussed with his students on the story. I should go back and read ‘River Town’ again.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. Kate Chopin’s prose is beautiful and brilliant.

 

    The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude, to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

     The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

 

She missed him the days when some pretext served to take him away from her, just as one misses the sun on a cloudy day without having thought much about the sun when it was shining.

 

The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned newly awakened being demanded.

 

Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing.

 

     There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.

     There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why, – when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.

 

“There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the impression of an oar upon the water.”

 

Have you read ‘The Awakening’? What do you think about it? Have you read ‘Désirée’s Baby’?

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I discovered ‘Flora & Ulysses’ by Kate DiCamillo through Ana’s (from ‘Things Mean a Lot’) review of it. The book featured a squirrel who wrote poetry and who can resist that? Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t stop. Here is what I think.

Flora And Ulysses By Kate DiCamillo

‘Flora & Ulysses’ is about Flora, our heroine, who is an introverted teenager who likes reading comics. She sees her neighbour, Tootie Wickham being dragged around the lawn by a vacuum cleaner which seems to have a life of its own. Accidentally, the vacuum cleaner sucks in a squirrel. Flora runs out of the house and tries to find out what happened. She pulls the squirrel out. And suddenly the squirrel gets up, starts dancing and even does super-squirrel (that is the squirrel equivalent of ‘superhuman’) stuff like carrying the giant vacuum cleaner with its tiny paws. Flora realizes that the squirrel has had a transformative experience and it has become a superhero now. She talks to the squirrel and it seems to understand her. Flora calls him Ulysses. Flora takes Ulysses to her home and Ulysses suddenly jumps on her mother’s typewriter and starts composing a poem. And thus the fun starts. The rest of the book is about the adventures that Flora and Ulysses have, the coming of the arch-nemesis (there has to be one in every superhero story, isn’t it?), Ulysses excursions into writing poetry, Flora making new friends and how Flora and Ulysses defy the arch-nemesis. Do they live happily ever after? You should read the book to find out.

 

I loved ‘Flora & Ulysses’. Kate DiCamillo prose is easy and smooth and flows like a river, the story glides along beautifully, there is humour sprinkled throughout, the characters are interesting (I loved Tootie Wickham, William Spiver and Dr. Meescham), the book’s narrative style is innovative (using text, pictures and the comics form to move the plot along)  and the ending is perfect. And, of course, Ulysses, the poem writing squirrel who can also fly and is a superhero, is totally adorable. The squirrel is one of my favourite animals. I watch one sometimes in the afternoon when it comes to eat the food that I keep on the wall (for birds typically, but the squirrel stops by sometimes as a delightful uninvited guest). When it uses its hind-leg to scratch itself, it is cuter than even a baby kitten. Well, when a squirrel composes poems, loves people and flies – who can resist that?

 

In conclusion, I have to echo what Flora says in the book, when she encounters something unexpected but wonderful – “Holy Bagumba! Holy unanticipated occurrences! What a book!” 🙂

 

If you enjoy children’s literature, you will love Kate DiCamillo’s book.

 

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

 

On Poetry

 

      Life was dangerous, particularly if you were a squirrel.

      In any case, he wasn’t thinking about dying. He was thinking about poetry. That is what Tootie said he had written. Poetry. He liked the word – its smallness, its density, the way it rose up at the end as if it had wings.

 

The Giant Squid

 

Dr.Meescham – “The giant squid is the loneliest of all God’s creatures. He can sometimes go for the whole of his life without seeing another of his kind.”

 

(Later)

 

William Spiver – “I meant what I said. I’m here because I was looking for you. I missed you.”

 

      Flora’s heart, the lonely, many-armed squid of it, flipped and flailed inside of her.

 

Good News

 

      She never believed it when someone said there was good news. In her experience, when there was good news, people just said what the good news was. If there was bad news that they wanted you to believe was good news, then they said, “Good news!”

      And if there was really bad news, they said, “Good news, Flora Belle!”

 

Holy Unanticipated Occurrences

 

“It is what I love about life, that things happen which I do not expect. When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, we left the window open for this very reason, even in the winter. We did it because we believed something wonderful might make its way to us through the open window. Did wonderful things find us? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But tonight it has happened! Something wonderful! A window has been left open. A squirrel flies in the window. The heart of an old woman rejoices!”

 

Have you read ‘Flora & Ulysses’? What do you think about it?

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