Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

I discovered Melissa Valentine’s memoir ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘ recently, through Olga’s recommendation, and I just finished reading it.

When Melissa Valentine moves back to Oakland after being away for many years, she gets in touch with her childhood friend and they catch up. Then this friend’s brother and their cousin also join and Melissa looks at this friend’s brother and remembers her own brother, whom she calls Junior, whom she loved very much, who was shot dead by unknown assailants when he was nineteen. The rest of the book is about Melissa and her family, and especially her brother Junior, the good times and the bad, and how things happened which ended in this heartbreaking tragedy.

Melissa is biracial – her mom is black and her dad is white. Her mom’s side relatives treat her and her siblings as one of their own, and they even accept her dad as a part of the family, while her dad’s side relatives attempt to show affection, but it looks like condescension. This adds to the complexity of her and her family’s experiences, because frequently they are treated as outsiders, both by the black and the white community, and so things are doubly hard and challenging for them. It is especially hard for the kids, especially Melissa’s brothers, and her favourite brother Junior gets beaten up in school for not being black enough. The book starts with this complex background and gives a perceptive and sensitive depiction on what it means to be a black teenager in today’s America. Melissa’s love for her brother Junior shines through in every page, and Junior comes through as a complex character, someone who is happy and cheerful to start with, but whom the system and society harass and pigeonhole into a box, and when Junior tries protecting himself by any means possible, it all ends in tragedy. It is moving, poignant, heartbreaking. I cried after I finished reading the book.

I loved ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘. I can’t wait to find out what Melissa Valentine will come up with next. This book is published by the Feminist Press and they continue to rock – this is the third consecutive amazing book by them that I’ve read.

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

“Dad is a poet in the way he believes in life, the growing of things, of children. But his poetry is the kind people don’t understand, maybe he doesn’t either, the way it grows out of control, the desire for life so great it escapes even him; he cannot control this life. He loves children, which are another kind of life. I have observed the way he admires babies. He holds them awkwardly, kind of like the way he dances, as if his joints do not easily bend, moving choppily to a rhythm only he can hear. Instead of the normal way of holding a baby—bringing it to your chest, rubbing its back, smelling its skin—instead of the cooing and pleasantries most people make in the presence of babies, he stares into the child’s eyes lovingly, with reverence, while holding its head in his sandpaper palm. I have seen him do this with my baby cousins in Alabama. I have felt the discomfort of the people around him, wondering what this white man is trying to transmit into the skull of this black child. It is usually a black child he holds up with this kind of reverence.”

“She warns us not to show our true colors, warns us regularly—before we go to the neighbors’, before we go to school, before we go to Grandma’s. What color is that? Sometimes it is the color of desire—don’t show hunger, don’t show need or want of any kind to outsiders. But often it is something else—the color of the city, the color of the cement, the color of the curse words that often slip from our mouths, the blackness of our bodies that mixes with the white to make us what the little Southern kids call bright. “Why are you so bright?” they ask in earnest, and I look at them bewildered, wondering with my literal city ears what brightness they see in me. Bright, but still very much not white. Is that the color Mom means? The not-white? Or is it another color? She would prefer we act like we don’t come from the city, like our feet were born dusty, like we came from roads, not streets. She would prefer we act full, satisfied. Junior doesn’t care; he always shows his truest colors.”

“I know by now that nice and good are myths. There is no good, no nice. And if there is, it is impermanent. There is proof all around me : a homeless summer and a burned-down house full of trash that was masquerading as good, as nice; a brother whose bad follows him wherever he goes, no matter how nice—there is no protection from black boyness. Good and nice are only illusory feelings, but, at least for a moment, I enjoy wrapping myself up in the illusion.”

Have you read ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘? What do you think about it?

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

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

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

From its first lines –

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

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

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

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I discovered Reema Zaman’s memoir, ‘I Am Yours‘, recently and I was excited to read it.

In the book, Reema Zaman tells the story of her life, by narrating it to her imaginary friend from childhood. She describes how her parents got married, how her mother was a talented, literary person before she got married while still a student, about her own birth, about how her father first moved to Hawaii and then to Thailand on work, taking his family with him, how Reema Zaman grew up there as a child and then as a pre-teen and then as a teen, how she moved to America for college, how she tried becoming an actress and an artist, how she fell in love and got married and what happened after that and how she ended up writing this book. During the course of this journey Zaman also describes her relationship with her parents and her siblings, the relationship between her parents, how she was bullied in school and how the people who bullied her found her attractive and tried to get close to her when she became a teenager, how her teachers inspired her, how one of her best friends assaulted her, how hard it was to be an aspiring actress when work was hard to come by, how children showed her the power of love.

I found many things fascinating in the book. For example, the description of her Bangladeshi family was quite interesting – how her mother made all the sacrifices but was mostly treated badly by her father, and how when she complained sometimes, he told her that she can leave the house if didn’t like it there. This is the typical, cruel line that patriarchal husbands, especially of the South Asian kind, tell their wives, to hurt them, and to make them realize on which side the power lay in the household. I have heard this line spoken so many times and it was interesting to see it described in this book too. Zaman’s mother threatens to leave her husband many times, but is not able to, because of the stigma attached to it. But at some point when she does it – the unthinkable, in Bangladeshi culture – we cheer for her. And when she flowers as a human being after she frees herself from the clutches of the patriarchy and finds happiness and joy and love, we all delight in it. There is, of course, a popular opinion, that if one moves out of South Asia (or a similar kind of region) and migrates to the West, life is hunky-dory and all dreams come true. Zaman contrasts this popular opinion with her own life. She falls in love and gets married to an American and after the initial honeymoon is over, we discover that her new husband inflicts pain on her in different ways, different from the way her father inflicts on her mother, but it is pain nevertheless. It just shows that patriarchy is alive everywhere, and if there is a kind of inequality among two partners and the power is on the man’s side, he might use that situation and inflict pain on his wife. There is a scene towards the ending of a movie called ‘Snake Eyes‘. A young woman and a cop expose corruption in a deal between an arms manufacturer and the Navy. The young woman then tells the cop that everything is going to change for the better. To which, our cop, who is a wise man, replies – “You know, they say back years ago… pirates put phoney lighthouses right out by those big rocks, right out there. Ships would set a course by the lights, crash on the rocks, then everybody’d go out and rob ’em blind. Only one thing’s changed since then – Iights are brighter.” I remembered this when I read the book. Marriages sometimes seem to be similar to this. It doesn’t matter which country one belongs to, where one lives in, the lights might be brighter, but the marriage is the same. It is the same age-old thing with the patriarchy inflicting pain and undermining a woman who is married. I don’t know why some married people continue to inflict pain on each other when a better option is available. What can be gained by inflicting pain? Atleast the pirates are getting some loot. What is the purpose of inflicting pain, especially the kind husbands inflict on wives? What can be gained from this? It never ceases to amaze me and puzzle me and anger me. Reema Zaman’s book offers a very perceptive commentary on the state of the marriage by exploring marriages of different kinds. To balance things out, she also depicts a happy marriage, when her mother falls in love and marries again and her new husband is gentle and kind and loving, and how Zaman and her siblings fall in love with him – it is so beautiful to read. When Reema Zaman tells her new stepdad during Christmas – “For my present, may I call you ‘Dad’?” – her new dad cries and so do we.

Another thing I loved about the book is the narrator’s voice – how it is a child’s voice initially, and how it gets transformed into a pre-teen’s voice, a teenager’s voice and then a young woman’s voice. It is beautiful to see this transformation across the book. Two of my favourite passages are narrated by the child, Reema Zaman, and they go like this :

“I am 3. I know some things, but I don’t know many. I know crayons don’t taste like their names. A name is a word, and a word is different from a promise. I know I don’t like loud. At home it is happy and quiet and then loud. Loud makes my head hurt. It is happy, quiet, loud, and then quiet again. Sometimes it is so quiet, it is loud. That hurts too.”

“Momma is crying again. She is trying to hide, but I am too good at seeing. I am small so I can see from everywhere. There are many places to hug her because I always fit. There are many ways to love Momma. Hugs, drawings, staying asleep until 7 a.m. and going to bed at 7 p.m. There are many ways to love me because I still need help with things like tying shoelaces and making the slanted leg on the letter R. Momma takes care of all that to let me know she sees me. I ask Momma who God is. She says, “The one who made all things and takes care of all of us.” This makes me laugh. I don’t know why Momma has two names. God and her real name, Momma. How silly.”

Reema Zaman’s prose is beautiful, soft, gentle, lyrical. Though the book deals with some heavy themes, the prose and tone are gentle and serene, and they soften the blow, and they calm the heart.

One more fascinating about the book is that Reema Zaman follows ‘The Transporter’s’ Rule #2 – “No Names”. None of the characters who appear in the book have names – or rather the author doesn’t reveal their names. This is another minimalistic way of writing, like Cormac McCarthy not using punctuation marks. It is really interesting because we may not really notice this while reading the book, and even if we do, it doesn’t really bother us. Though sometimes we wonder who Reema Zaman’s father’s cousin was, who was the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, and who was the tennis legend whose kids Reema Zaman babysat. It just shows that characters don’t need to have names in a story and people don’t need to have names in a memoir, and we can still understand the story, differentiate between the characters, and appreciate the book. It is a fascinating thing to ponder about.

Towards the end of the book, Zaman depicts the power of love through the eyes of children, and it is so beautiful to read. There is one passage, which made me smile. It goes like this :

“Although they’re exhausting, I love my toddlers. They care not a whit about my intelligence, attractiveness, talent, possibilities, or lack thereof. They desire only that I be present. That I give them authentic hugs and closeness, eye contact, and affection. Walking home one night, I realize why I’m so happy and fulfilled these days: giving is synonymous with my truth. With the children, with this book, I’m living as my complete self. Cheryl Strayed writes that her mother would say, to heal, grow, and nurture joy, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” I like to think that includes service—another manifestation of beauty.”

I loved ‘I Am Yours‘. It is a beautiful book about life, love, family, growing up, pursuing one’s dreams, heartbreak, healing and everything else in-between which is a part of life. It explores some important, intense themes, but it does that in a beautiful, gentle language, which is a pleasure to read. It shows the importance of speaking in one’s voice and depicts the power of love.

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

“The idiom everything happens for a reason has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt “everything happens for a reason” to a person who has just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer. “Everything happens for a reason” sounds passive, as though all the power in one’s narrative has been surrendered into the hands of others, or, to life’s harsh whims and winds, to decide one’s path, destiny, identity, and sense of self. The truth I prefer is only I assign my experiences their reasons.”

“The foremost and simplest reason we chose the heart as our symbol for love is that our mother’s heartbeat is our original song. Our first inkling that someone is here, with me, and I belong to her. Our mother is our first person in the dark. Perhaps it is off that sublime sensation and memory that we then search for a similar bond, with a future, special person. To be separate yet together, entwined while individual, hearts slipping into sync.”

“I have learned all individuals are beautiful on their own but certain combinations can be catastrophic. Like books and water. Both are vital and life-renewing, but together, they promise tragedy.”

“We tend to think deaths and events are all that require grieving, but selves, choices, habits, and relationships we’ve known, they need loving rituals of healing as well. The speed at which life demands we run, simply to make it to the next day, makes it difficult to see them through. Wounds tally. Addictions anesthetize the pain. We try to stitch while moving. But life’s racing pace continually tears open old scars and mangles the new ones. Mending-while-enduring is well meant but ultimately futile, the sutures never tight enough to hold.”

“Oregon boasts all kinds of rain. There is drizzle, so light it sounds like gentle static. It settles on your skin like the shyest kiss. There is lush rain made of fat droplets, so rotund you see them clearly. There is hail in the winter, chilling and aloof, paying me no regard as I run, delivering winds that lift me off the ground. Finally there are summer storms brought by clouds that pass and return swiftly, growing loud then soft with lusty arrogance, making the earth and me swoon, loving every second. The rain is right: if you are to do something, do it well and do it boldly.”

“Language births art, literature, dance, theater, and bedtime stories. Language, science has proven, shapes the way we formulate thoughts. Language sculpts the fables we mine for morals, the idioms that guide us, the jokes we tell to lift the rains. The speeches and anthems that teach us values, inspire our courage, and charge our souls. The lullabies we sing to our children to soothe their fears and make them kind. The poetry we weave around a lover. Words shape thoughts, thoughts breed action, actions create identity, identity directs legacy. We are our words.”

Have you read Reema Zaman’sI Am Yours‘? What do you think about it?

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Anne Fadiman is one of my favourite writers. Her essay collection ‘Ex Libris‘ is one of my alltime favourite books. But unfortunately her literary output is very thin. Anne Fadiman is like the J.D.Salinger or Harper Lee of our times. There are two essay collections, ‘Ex Libris‘ and ‘At Large and At Small’, and one non-fiction book about the Hmong community called ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down‘, in her backlist. She has also edited two essay collections, ‘Rereadings : Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love’ and ‘The Best American Essays 2003’. I have seen an introduction by her in another book, whose title I can’t remember. That is all there is. Three books, two edited collections, and one essay somewhere. It is slim. It makes Anne Fadiman fans like me yearn for more, everyday. So any new Anne Fadiman book is an event. When I discovered that Anne Fadiman’s new book was coming out, I was so excited. It was called ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ and it was a memoir about her father. When I got the book and held it in my hands, I was so happy. I read it slowly over the last week and finished reading it yesterday.


‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ is mostly about Anne Fadiman’s father Clifton Fadiman. Clifton Fadiman was a famous writer of his era. He mostly wrote essays and edited anthologies. He was the editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, a book reviewer for The New Yorker, was part of the Book-of-the-Month club, was on the Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was a radio host of a programme on books, and also anchored a literary quiz show on television. He was also a lover of wine. In the book, Anne Fadiman talks about how her father started from humble beginnings as part of an East European Jewish immigrant family, how he fell in love with books when he was a kid, a love affair which lasted for his whole life, how he faced discrimination at different times because of his Jewish background, how he tried to escape from his Jewish background and become a regular WASP intellectual, and which led to his fascination and love for wine, which became another of his lifelong love affairs. Anne Fadiman also talks about her own relationship with her father, about her own ambiguous relationship with wine, and during the course of the book she takes our hand and leads us into the Fadiman house where we get to hear private conversations between the family members, their thoughts and feelings and their points of view, and understand the fascinating, affectionate, complex relationships between them. On the way, Anne Fadiman dedicates a chapter to her mother, who was an accomplished person too and was a war correspondent in the Far East before she got married to Clifton Fadiman. That chapter made me want to read more about Anne Fadiman’s mother, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman. There are some anecdotes in the book involving famous people, including P.L.Travers, Ernest Hemingway and M.F.K.Fisher. They were all interesting to read.


Though the book is a memoir, it is also about the love for wine. It describes how Anne Fadiman’s father first discovered wine and how he developed a lifelong love for it. This is what the book says about the first time he tried wine.

He always said this first taste felt less like a new experience than like an old one that had been waiting all his life for him to catch up to it. He tried to describe it by analogy – it was like Plato’s doctrine of reminiscence, or like the moment when the hero of Conrad’s “Youth” reaches the East, or like Napoleon’s realization that he was born to be a soldier – but invariably fell back on the language of eros. The Graves spoke to him : “I am your fate. You are mine. Love me.”

In another place, Anne Fadiman talks about her father’s love for wine. Here is how it goes.

Aside from books, he loved nothing – and no one – longer, more ardently, or more faithfully than he loved wine.
      These were some of his reasons.
      Wine provided sensory pleasures equaled only by sex.
      Wine was complex. “Water and milk,” he wrote, “may be excellent drinks, but their charms are repetitive. God granted them swallowability, and rested.”
      Wine was various, both in its chemistry (alcoholic content, sugar, iron, tannins) and in its moods (champagne for celebration, port for consolation).
      Wine was companionable. “A bottle of wine begs to be shared,” he wrote. “I have never met a miserly wine lover.”

This list goes on for the next couple of pages.

In another page, Anne Fadiman describes what her father says about how wine ages across the years.

      My father wrote that wine is “not dead matter, like a motorcar, but a live thing.” It moves through the same life cycle as a human being : infancy, youth, prime, old age, senescence. Unfortified wines have shorter life spans than Madeira, but a great red wine, properly stored, can last a century, evolving with each passing decade. It’s not like a bottle of Coca-Cola or vodka, exactly the same no matter when you open it.

When Clifton Fadiman’s eightieth birthday was celebrated by his family and friends, the invite contained a facsimile of The New York Times from the day of his birth, with a news item about his birth ‘Clifton Fadiman born : Brooklyn stunned by great event.‘ Below that was this description :

“Fadiman’s mother, Grace, was heard to complain that her son had turned down a bottle of milk and asked instead for a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild ’29. His father, Isadore, explained that this request would be difficult to fill because it was only 1904.”

That passage made me smile 🙂

There are many interesting facts about wine in the book, most of them well known to wine lovers. But if you are like me, you might like these three.

“We can still drink port and sherry from the nineteenth century because they are fortified wines, infused with brandy to halt fermentation.”

“With the exception of sweet dessert wines, white wines are less durable because the tannin-rich grape skins are removed from the juice before fermentation – which is also why they’re white, since the juice of all grapes, both red and white, is nearly colorless; it’s the skins that provide the pigment.”

“We tasted the wine. I thought it would be strong and sour (a word shunned by wine connoisseurs – they call it dry).”

The book mentions many famous wines like Château Mouton Rothschild ’29, Château Lafite Rothschild 1904, Haut-Brion, Madeira 1835. It mentions Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines. It mentions Bordeaux and Burgundys. If you love wines and these names mean something to you, reading about them will give you goosebumps.

Though Anne Fadiman mostly says nice things about her father, and shares her love for him with us readers, she doesn’t shy away from his flaws. For example, in one place she says this :

“My father was a male chauvinist. He liked women – relished them, studied them, adored them. As a good progressive…he supported the Equal Rights Amendment…But that didn’t stop him from being reflexively condescending…He asserted that although they were better drivers…women are not as good at conversation and they know absolutely nothing about wine…he continued to make jokes about the bird-witted literary tastes of housewives; to call women “girls”; and, in both speech and writing, to use “he” when he meant “he or she”…My father believed there were certain things only a man should do. Earn more than his spouse. Pay the check at a restaurant. Hold the tickets at an airport. Be the last through a door. Tell the taxi driver where to go. Repeat an off-color joke.”

I admired Anne Fadiman for saying that.

Two-thirds into the book, Anne Fadiman spends a whole chapter on how her father became blind in his old age. When her father realizes that he wouldn’t be able to see again, he has a conversation with her. This is how it goes.

“He told me there were two reasons his life was no longer worth living : he would burden my mother, and he couldn’t read. He asked if I would help him die.”

When I read that, I cried. That is the worst thing that can happen to a book lover – losing sight. It was heartbreaking to read.

The book has notes in the end and a reasonably long acknowledgement section. Like in any Anne Fadiman book, these are beautiful, charming, informative and heartwarming. Fadiman writes the best acknowledgement pages.

Well, we have reached the end of this review now. Or nearly there. ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter‘ is a beautiful book. It is vintage Anne Fadiman. It is about love, family, parents and children, and friendship. It is also an ode to books and reading, and a love letter to wine.  If you like memoirs, wine, Anne Fadiman’s books, or some or all of these, this book is a must read.

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

“When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”

“Relationships with parents wax and wane, following their own natural cycles. I was fortunate to have loved both my parents, and been loved by both, but I sometimes felt closer to one and sometimes to the other. In college, when I was studying English literature, I felt closer to my father. In my twenties and thirties, when I was working as a reporter, I felt closer to my mother. In my early forties, when I started to write essays, the tide turned back in my father’s direction. Essays were his territory, and I might never have ventured over the border if I hadn’t been confined to bed during eight months of Henry’s gestation and obliged to find a literary genre that could be executed from a horizontal position. But something else had changed too. There comes a point when oaklings outgrow the diminutive and stop worrying about withering beneath the shadow of the oak. I no longer bristled – a slight sigh sufficed – when I was told, “You’re following in your father’s footsteps” or “You have your father’s genes.” He had my genes, too. There has been a time when nothing would have pleased me more than to be better known than he was, but as he grew frailer, I started to worry that someday this might actually happen. If my father were forgotten, the balance of my world would shift so disorientingly that I’d lose my footing. I still check periodically to make sure he has more Google entries than I do.”

Have you read ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other Anne Fadiman books?

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When I read Claire’s (from ‘Word by Word’) review of Diana Athill’s ‘Stet’, I made a mental note to look for that book and other books by Athill. Soon, I got a chance to stop by at a sale of secondhand books. Most of the books which were featured there were popular bestsellers. But as past experience has taught me that if I spend enough time at a sale like this, some treasures will pop out from unlikely places, I decided to look through the collection carefully. And, of course, the hidden treasures started popping out. One of them was Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’. I was quite excited when I discovered it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Somewhere Towards The End By Diana Athill

‘Somewhere Towards the End’ is Diana Athill’s meditation on old age. She starts the first chapter with these lines :


Near the park which my bedroom overlooks there came to stay a family which owned a pack of pugs, five or six of them, active little dogs, none of them overweight as pugs so often are. I saw them recently on their morning walk, and they caused me a pang. I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.


And she ends the book (this is not a spoiler, as this book is a memoir 🙂) with these lines :


I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.


In the in-between middle, Athill shares her thoughts on becoming old, on her past lovers and how her relationships with them changed with age, on taking care of old people, on having a family vs staying single, on how her writing picked up after she became old, on how she stopped reading fiction after getting old, on how old age has made her a stronger atheist, on the pleasures of gardening and driving cars, on having adopted daughters and grandchildren, on developing new interests and hobbies, on how some old people are lucky with their health (she includes herself in this) and on old age ailments and regrets. Each chapter is on a particular topic (though the chapters don’t have titles) and these are reasonably self-contained and so can be read independently.


Reading the book felt like sitting at the feet of my grandma and listen to her tell stories. The only difference is that though Athill was born in 1917 and at 96 years old (89 years old when she wrote this book) is an Ancient (she calls herself that – so don’t get angry at me 🙂), her voice is fresh and quite contemporary. Her life as she has described it is quite fascinating – graduating from Oxford in the 1930s (must have been comparatively rare for a woman at that time), staying single and never marrying for her whole life (though she had lovers at different times), being financially independent and working till she was seventy five, not being too attached to money and not trying to accumulate material possessions (she says that she didn’t own a house at the time she wrote this book a few years back). I know there are younger women (and men) today who defy the norm and live independent lives pursuing their careers and their interests (it is still rare to find them though – most people seem to be living similar lives, doing the same things, having the same interests, watching the same movies, even having remarkably similar opinions on social and political issues – nothing wrong in that though, it is part of the fun of being a human being), but for someone who lived through most of the twentieth century, when things were conservative for a significant part of the century, I think it must have required a lot of bravery and courage and a fiercely independent spirit to do what she did and live life the way she did. (It is fascinating to compare Athill with a few other great literary women of the 20th century – Virginia Woolf was still alive and writing novels when Athill graduated from Oxford and went to work; Irish Murdoch was two years younger (yes, younger!) than Athill. Simone de Beauvoir was just nine years elder to Athill, so practically they were from the same generation but it doesn’t feel that way when we think about it now).


There is only one place where where Athill betrays her great age and we feel that she was really born in a different era. It happens when she says this : “I depend so much on reading because I never developed the habit of watching television. I have never even bought a set.” It was absolutely unbelievable for me. It made me think of my father though – he never developed an interest in television other than watching the news. (My mother loved watching television, but mostly movies and movie-based programmes and not serials). I don’t think my grandparents ever watched television.


Athill says some interesting, quirky and sometimes contradictory things in her book. The contradictory things add to the charm of the book and make us like her more (we are all a bundle of contradictions, aren’t we?) In the early part of the book when she talks about her past lovers she says that at some point she started liking black men more than white men. When she talks about the time when she lost faith in romantic love and some men proposed to her, she says this : “During those years, if a man wanted to marry me, as three of them did, I felt what Groucho Marx felt about a club willing to accept him : disdain.” That line made me smile 🙂


When she compares popular books of today with those of her childhood, this is what she says : “even the run-of-the-mill novel of today is much more sophisticated and interesting than that of my early youth, not to mention those popular just before the First World War.” And she goes on to say this about the popular novels of her childhood : “The best of them seem ponderous and verbose, over-given to description, while as for the rest! Infantile tosh : that is what they so often are.” I have mixed feelings about what Athill says here. I think novels of an era are written for readers of that era and so the language and the story reflect the language and the value system of that era. If a novel is ponderous and verbose, it is probably because readers of that era liked that kind of prose. If I can mention a couple of examples here : Marie Corelli was a bestselling writer in the era that Athill is talking about (she outsold her contemporaries like Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells and Rudyard Kipling put together). Unfortunately, her books are out-of-print today. I have read some of her books and they are quite good – the central theme is powerful and the story is quite engaging. Another example I can think of is Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ which was published in 1902. It is quite gripping and fascinating and not at all ponderous. I find it strange that I am defending writers from the pre-First World War era whose works Athill calls ‘ponderous’, ‘verbose’ and ‘infantile tosh’. It makes me ask myself  the question, ‘Who’s the Ancient now?’ 🙂


Some of the things that Athill says make us want to have a debate with her. On her not wanting to have children, she says – “I have uncommonly little maternal instinct, a deficiency I think I was born with. As a child I was not just indifferent to dolls, I despised them.” It is, of course, a total contradiction to what she says in the first passage of the book – that she loves dogs and likes taking care of them and taking them for walks. I think at some level taking care of a puppy or a dog is as complex and as rewarding as taking care of a child. Also, having a dog is like having a child forever – it won’t grow up (it will grow up in a doggy sense, but not in a human sense), go to university, get a partner, find a job and move out of home. It is going to stay with one forever. And one has to take care of it forever. It is paradoxical that Athill loves that but doesn’t have a maternal instinct for children. Athill, of course, acknowledges what might be the real reason : “selfishness…which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler. It was that which prevented me from wanting a child for so long…” This and other honest, self-critical things that Athill says in the book made her more interesting and charming and made me like her even more.


Another thing which Athill says which might lead to debate is about loyalty, especially in marriage. She starts on the topic with this sentence – “Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine.” She then continues with – “Loyalty unearned is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system. When spouses are concerned, it seems to me that kindness and consideration should be the key words, not loyalty…”  It is a point of view which will lead to some interesting conversation.


One of the interesting chapters in the book is where Athill talks about atheism. I always thought that people became spiritual as they became older and even if they were atheists when they were young, they became spiritual in a secular or even atheistic way (I realize that is a contradiction in terms) when they got older. But not with Athill. She says that when she got older, her atheism became more firmly established. To John Updike’s attack on atheism :


“Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ambiguity, the ingenuity, the humanity of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”


She responds :


“Perhaps it is uninteresting intellectually to believe that the nature of the universe is far, far beyond grasping, not only by oneself as an individual but by oneself as a member of our species; but emotionally, or poetically, it seems to me vastly more exciting and more beautiful than exercising any amount of ingenuity in making up fairy stories.”


And she goes on to add :


“Surely the part of life which is within our range, the mere fact of life, is mysterious and exciting enough in itself? And surely the urgent practical necessity of trying to order it so that its cruelties are minimized and its beauties are allowed their fullest possibly play is compelling enough without being seen as a duty laid on us by a god?”


This is a topic which will make for a fascinating conversation on a winter evening, in front of a warm fire, with a drink in hand.


My love for the small quirky things sprang into full attention when I noticed the word ‘pernickety’ in the line – ‘old age has made me pernickety’. It sounded very similar to ‘persnickety’ and after a little bit of research I discovered that they mean the same thing – the former is the British spelling while the latter is American. It made me wonder how that extra ‘s’ came into the word in the American version. Doesn’t American spelling always remove redundancies and make it easier for one to spell the word (like ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’)? What is the story behind that ‘s’? Would you know?


I totally loved Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’. It is beautiful, charming, heartwarming and a pleasure to read. I loved this description of the book on the cover – “Jean Rhys said that literature was a lake, and what mattered was to contribute to it, even if only a trickle. She contributed a narrow boiling river. Diana Athill contributed a cool clear burn.” I would love to read all of her books now. I hope she lives to a great age, continues to drive her car, and continues to share her wisdom to readers through her writing.


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


Getting one’s hands into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable – it is a totally absorbing occupation, like painting or writing, so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self.


How successful one manages to get through the present depends a good deal more on luck than it does on one’s own efforts. If one has no money, ill health, a mind never sharpened by an interesting education or absorbing work, a childhood warped by cruel or inept parents, a sex life that betrayed one into disastrous relationships…If one has any one, or some, or all of those disadvantages, or any one, or some, or all of others that I can’t bear to envisage, then whatever is said about old age by a luckier person such as I am is likely to be meaningless, or even offensive. I can speak only for, and to, the lucky. But there are more of them than one at first supposes…


If this is smugness, and I can’t help feeling that it is, then I have to report that I have learnt through experience that, though repulsive to witness, it is a far more comfortable state to be in than its opposite.


…most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them seem to come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.


What is so good about it is not just the affection young people inspire and how interesting their lives are to watch. They also, just by being there, provide a useful counteraction to a disagreeable element in an old person’s life. We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so. We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead…It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into a general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier. Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder – indeed it enables us actually to feel again – that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings, new beginnings – are still parts of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children’s being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste out time grizzling.


Have you read Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ or any other book by her? What do you think about them?

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I discovered Emma Brockes’ ‘She Left Me the Gun’ through Claire’s (from Word by Word) review of it. Something about the book pulled me in – probably a combination of the main theme of the book, the subtitle ‘My Mother’s life before me’ and what I read in Claire’s review. I read memoirs only once in a while, but I thought I should read this. I finished reading it yesterday and here is what I think.

She Left Me The Gun By Emma Brockes

‘She Left Me the Gun’ is Emma Brockes’ memoir about her mother. Emma Brockes’ mother had come from South Africa to work and live in London in the ‘60s, and Emma has heard some stories about that from her mother while growing up. But she doesn’t know why her mother moved so far away from her family to live in a different country. She also gets to know that her mother has a large family – many brothers and sisters, some of whom visit England – and Emma doesn’t know how her mother managed to live away and apart from them for decades. Her mother hints in passing about some kind of dark secret about her past, concerning her father and the case she filed against him in the South African court and promises to tell Emma more about it in the future. Unfortunately, that conversation never happens and Emma’s mother dies of cancer. Later, Emma decides to do some research into the case that her mother filed against her grandfather and she discovers some shocking things about her grandfather. Emma decides to travel to South Africa and meet her uncles and aunts and find out more. The rest of the book is about Emma’s journey to the past and what she discovers there about her mother’s life before she was born and the secrets that she uncovers about her mother’s family.


I found Emma Brockes’ memoir quite interesting and at times depressing. At the beginning of the book she says,


“Like most children, the life my parents led before I was born was a rumor I didn’t believe in.”


This is a sentence which most of us would probably relate to and agree with. When Emma starts her journey into her mother’s past, she discovers a totally different woman and facets of her mother’s personality that she didn’t even know existed. She also gets to know the shocking secrets of her mother’s life and the way her mother has survived the trauma to reinvent herself and rediscover happiness. And during her journey to South Africa she also gets to know the country and its people and discover her relatives and learn to like and understand them in different ways.


I don’t know what else to say about the main theme of the book, because they will all be spoilers. I was quite disappointed with the book description on the inside flap, which was a summary of the book, which revealed most of the surprises. I think book descriptions and book blurbs should inspire the reader to read the book and discover more, rather than giving a summary of the book and revealing surprises for the reader. Earlier, introductions written for books used to do that – reveal spoilers – but now book blurbs are doing that. It is sad. Emma Brockes herself hints at the dark secrets in her mother’s life and we more or less know what it is. I wish the revelations had come out gradually and naturally. After around three-fifths of the book is over, the book takes a bit of a roller coaster ride because Emma Brockes starts talking more about her South African experiences – her exploration into South African history, her trip to Soweto, her meeting of Nelson Mandela – which weakens the main focus of the book. Luckily, after a while, the book returns back to its main theme – her mother and her family history.


Having given the bad news, now I have to state the good news. ‘She Left Me the Gun’ is a beautiful book. It is depressing and haunting, because of the events it describes and the secrets it reveals. But it is beautiful too, because of the way Emma’s mother comes out of the traumatic events which affected her to build a life which is filled with beauty and happiness and brings joy and happiness and camaraderie to the people who touch her – her family, her friends, her colleagues, her boss. Though the secrets revealed are dark and depressing, the book is ultimately life affirming and I loved the book for that.


I also liked other aspects of the book – the cover was beautiful, soft to the touch with a matte finish. The font was beautiful and it was a pleasure to read.


While reading the book, I wondered about something. Emma Brockes is British but I read the American edition of her book. I wondered how the spellings of some of those ‘problem’ words would be – will the editors include the ‘u’ or leave it out, in words like ‘colour’ (‘color’) and ‘humour’ (‘humor’), and will they substitute ‘c’ for ‘s’ in words like ‘practise’ and ‘advise’. I like doing such quirky things – trying to catch the editor off guard – and it was interesting when I started looking for such words in this book. I spotted three words and discovered that the spelling was all inconsistent and that made me smile and I stopped there. The three words I noticed were ‘humour’ (the ‘u’ is intact – British spelling), ‘practicing’ (the ‘s’ has been replaced by the ‘c’ – American spelling) and ‘demeanor’ (the ‘u’ has been left out – American spelling). It made me wonder whether the American editor missed out the first word during the editing process or whether this was the spelling adopted by the author herself and the editor had let them be. It also made me wonder what happened when a 19th century (or earlier) British classic was published by an American publisher – do they delete the ‘u’ and replace every ‘c’ with an ‘s’ in the concerned words? The tyranny of spelling variations 🙂


I enjoyed reading ‘She Left Me the Gun’. Enjoyed is actually the wrong word. It left a deep impression on me. It was depressing, haunting, inspiring and life-affirming. I hope to find out what Emma Brockes comes up with next.


Have you read ‘She Left Me the Gun’? What do you think about it?

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I got ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ by Julian Barnes a few years back. I haven’t read a Julian Barnes book before – I had read bits and pieces of ‘A History of the World in 10 ½ chapters’ and liked it, but I hadn’t finished it. The first page of ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ started with this sentence – “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put.” It grabbed me and so I wanted to read the book as soon as I went home. I read a few pages and they were as good as I expected. But after that, somehow I got distracted and the book went into my bookshelf. A few days back I thought I will pick it up and give it the attention it deserved. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

What I think


‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ is an exploration, contemplation and meditation on death. Julian Barnes talks about when he first got aware that he was going to die. He talks about his conversations with his brother on this topic. He talks about his parents lives and how they moved on. He also talks about writers and artists and musicians, mostly French – Jules Renard (I want to read his journal!), Stendhal, Montaigne (I want to read his essays!), Daudet, Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rossini, Ravel –  and what they thought about death and the works of art they created when thinking about death. I was actually quite excited that Barnes mentioned two of my favourite writers and composers – Maugham and Ravel – in the book. Most of the time he focuses on what Jules Renard said. On the way, Barnes also talks about God and whether God exists, on life after death and his own take on these topics. He talks about what philosophers and scientists think about it. He also talks about what the non-existence of God would mean to one’s fear of death.


Thus Barnes rambles on and on, on this topic, a topic which most people will be uncomfortable with. When I say rambling, it might look like I found the book boring. Far from it. The book was quite interesting. There were wonderful sentences and passages on every page. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book was about Barnes’ brother. It goes like this :


      Before he left England to live in France, my brother went to have his ears syringed. The nurse offered to test his blood pressure while she was about it. My brother declined. She pointed out that it was free. He replied that this might very well be the case, but that he didn’t want to be tested. The nurse, clearly not knowing what manner of patient she had in front of her, explained that at his age he might have high blood pressure. My brother, putting on a joke voice from a radio show transmitted long before the nurse had been born, insisted, ‘I don’t wish to know that.’

      ‘Nor did I,’ he tells me. ‘Suppose my blood was OK, then the test would have been a waste of time; suppose it wasn’t OK, then I wouldn’t do anything about it (wouldn’t take the pills, wouldn’t change my diet) but from time to time I’d worry about it.’ I reply that surely, ‘as a philosopher’, he ought to have considered the matter in the terms of a Pascalian wager. Thus, there were three possible outcomes : 1. Nothing wrong with you (good). 2. Something wrong with you but we can fix it (good). 3. Something wrong with you, but Sorry, mate, we can’t (bad). However, my brother resists this optimistic reading of the odds. ‘No, no. “Something wrong but we can fix it” = bad (I don’t like being fixed). And “wrong and unfixable” is far worse if you know than if you don’t.’ As my friend G. put it, ‘the evil is knowing it’s going to happen’. And in his preferring of ignorance, my brother for once resembled our father more than I do.  


Did you like it?


Another interesting anecdote I liked was about a CEO called Eugene O’Kelly, who is a high-achiever, but who suddenly discovers that he has cancer and has only three months to live. He decides to try to create perfect moments with his friends and family and unwind himself from the world.


For a book which was so wonderful, I had to push myself to get through pages sometimes. I don’t know why. This year I have read a few books which I got years back. I had to push myself while reading a couple of them. I didn’t like one of them as much as I expected to. I don’t know whether a book loses its freshness if it is not read immediately after it is bought and it resides in my bookshelf for a few years. It happens with newspapers. It is difficult to read yesterday’s newspaper. It is even more difficult to read last week’s newspaper. Last month’s newspaper – it is used mostly for packing or wrapping. But I thought that books were always fresh, unless they were on current affairs. ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ wasn’t on current affairs. It was on a deeper topic. I liked it. But I had to also push myself to read some parts of the book. I don’t know whether it was because the book had lost some of its freshness (or whether my mind had lost the fresh feeling it had for the book). Should I read books as soon as I buy them, in the future? Do you read books as soon as you buy them or do you put them in your bookshelf and let them age like wine?


I would like to read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ again sometime, atleast my favourite passages. If I survive till my sixties, I would like to read it again – I think the book will say some surprising and totally different things to me then.


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


On God

      A common response in surveys of religious attitudes is to say something like, ‘I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God.’ This kind of statement makes me in turn react like a philosopher. Soppy, I cry. You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters. Whether He’s an old man with a white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force, or a disinterested prime mover, or a clockmaker, or a woman, or a nebulous moral force, or Nothing At All, what counts is what He, She, It or Nothing thinks of you rather than you of them. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque. It also doesn’t matter whether God is just or benevolent or even observant – of which there seems startlingly little proof – only that He exists.


The Modern Heaven

We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfilment : the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it – doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfilment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, as a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgement that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral’s bell or the minaret’s muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism…


Individualism – the Twist in the Tale

Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism : from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms – the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self-fulfilment, self-indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways, we also discover that this individuality, or illusion of individuality, is less than we imagined. We discover, to our surprise, that as Dawkins memorably puts it, we are ‘survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. The paradox is that individualism – the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists – has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My adolescent notion of self-construction – that vaguely, Englishly, existentialist ego-hope of autonomy – could not have been further from the truth. I thought the burdensome process of growing up ended with a man standing by himself at last – homo erectus at full height, sapiens in full wisdom – a fellow now cracking the whip on his own account. This image must be replaced by the sense that, far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and that what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off. My ‘individuality’ may still be felt, and genetically provable; but it may be the very opposite of the achievement I once took it for.


On Wise Writers

I used to believer, when I was ‘just’ a reader, that writers, because they wrote books where truth was found, because they described the world, because they saw into the human heart, because they grasped both the particular and the general and were able to re-create both in free yet structured forms, because they understood, must therefore be more sensitive – also less vain, less selfish – than other people. Then I became a writer, and started meeting other writers, and studied them, and concluded that the only difference between them and other people, the only, single way in which they were better, was that they were better writers. They might indeed be sensitive, perceptive, wise, generalizing and particularizing – but only at their desks and in their books. When they venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts. It’s not just writer either. How wise are philosophers in their private lives?


On Simplicity

…there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. The artist is saying : display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. For the religious, this might mean becoming as a child again in order to enter heaven; for the artist, it means becoming wise enough, and calm enough, not to hide. Do you need all those extravagances in the score, all those marks on the canvas, all those exuberant adjectives? This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things.


Good News and Bad News

Would you like the good news first, or the bad? A sound tactic is always to choose the good – you might die before you get to hear the bad.


The Last Reader

We live, we die, we are remembered, – ‘misremember me correctly’, we should instruct – we are forgotten. For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning : fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a  title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a writer’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. Stendhal, who in his lifetime wrote for ‘the happy few’ who understood him, will find his readership dwindling back to a different mutated, perhaps less happy few, and then to a final happy – or bored – one. And for each of us there will come the breaking of the single remaining thread of this strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader. At some point, there will be a last reader for me too. And then the reader will die. And while, in the great democracy of readership, all are theoretically equal, some are more equal than others.

      My last reader : there is a temptation to be sentimental over him or her. Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in : your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?


Have you read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. I read the outline of the book on the back cover and it immediately grabbed my attention. Though I was on a self-imposed book-buying-ban at that time, I couldn’t take my mind off this book and so I couldn’t resist getting it. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the book as given in the back cover of the book.

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory book into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.
The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.
The Glass Castle is truly astonishing – a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family. Jeannette Walls has a story to tell, and tells it brilliantly, without an ounce of self-pity.

What I think

I liked ‘The Glass Castle’ very much. The book starts with Jeannette Walls going to a party and on the way, finding her mother picking through the garbage bin, and being shocked with it. The book then goes back in time and Jeannette Walls tells her story from her childhood till a time closer to the present day. It is an unbelievable story and it made me laugh, cry, frustrated and angry. Jeannette Walls seems to have lived an unbelievable life. The book is as much a story about Jeannette Walls’ parents as it is about her and her brother and sisters. The book has many beautiful descriptions of the unconventional life that the Walls family led – which makes us envy Jeannette Walls and her siblings for having such wonderful, unconventional parents – a dad who knows everything about everything, who is adventurous and who inspires the children to be adventurous and a mom who is unconventional and inspires them to be independent from a very young age and dream big (not from a materialistic sense but from the sense of living a rich life). The book also describes events which make us frustrated and sad and sometimes makes our heart burn with anger at the irresponsible behaviour of Jeannette Walls’ parents – because they don’t worry about putting food on the table and their children go hungry when times are bad, because they don’t like working in regular jobs which makes it tough for their children, because Jeannette’s dad gambles away the money which is part of the monthly budget for food, which puts the family in a quandary. It is difficult to believe that parents can be so irresponsible at times.

I personally feel that the root-cause for this is that some people want to live a rich life – painting, reading, writing, travelling, camping and watching the stars, eating delicious food and fine wine, going to concerts and operas and plays, watching the sunrise and the sunset, playing with their children – but don’t want to really put in the hard yards. For example, before being able to play with children or having a mature conversation with them, children have to be educated in a good way and parents should have spent a lot of time with them in nurturing them emotionally, physically and intellectually. Not doing any of this, and keeping one’s distance away from children when they are growing up and then suddenly trying to be part of their lives and trying to become friends with them and have conversations with them is not going to work. In such cases, the concerned children will probably reject their parents’ attempts at friendship. The hard yards are what bring joy later. I think that wanting to experience only the joy without the hard yards is not possible. It is difficult to have the cake and eat it too 🙂 This applies to not only children but also to everything else in life. (For example, if one wants to eat delicious food, one has to cook it. Cooking takes a lot of time and the art of cooking needs to be learnt for years before one becomes a passable cook, while eating is easy and takes less time. If I don’t want to learn cooking and put the hard yards in the kitchen, I cannot eat delicious food. Of course, I can hire a cook, but then I have to spend time managing the cook. Or I can get food from the restaurant, but then I have to fork out money for that.) I felt that Jeannette Walls’ parents were very talented, had interesting and unconventional views on life and reared their children unconventionally, but unfortunately, they didn’t want to put in the hard yards but wanted the beautiful things in life. Unfortunately, unless one is extremely lucky, this is an impossible thing to get and so their family suffers as a result. Fortunately, the Walls children, by hardwork, luck and pluck manage to survive and do well in life.

I am giving below the picture of Jeannette Walls’ parents as given in the book – so beautiful and handsome and so unpredictable! (Pardon me for the quality of the picture. I must be one of those guys who, even after the advent of the digital camera, still doesn’t know how to take pictures!)

I found Jeannette Walls’ writing style quite plain and it was tempting to compare her to Hemingway. But her style worked quite well for the story she wanted to tell.


I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book. My most favourite passage is about getting a star as a Christmas present. You can find it here.

Mom and Dad had already taught me nearly everything Miss Page was teaching the class. Since I wanted the other kids to like me, I didn’t raise my hand all the time the way I had in Blythe. Dad accused me of coasting. Sometimes he made me do my arithmetic homework in binary numbers because he said I needed to be challenged. Before class, I’d have to recopy it into Arabic numbers, but one day I didn’t have the time, so I turned in the assignment in its binary version.
“What’s this?” Miss Page asked. She pressed her lips together as she studied the circles and lines that covered my paper, then looked up at me suspiciously. “Is this a joke?”
I tried to explain to her about binary numbers, and how they were the system that computers used and how Dad said they were far superior to other numeric systems. Miss Page stared at me.
“It wasn’t the assignment,” she said impatiently. She made me stay late and redo the homework. I didn’t tell Dad, because I knew he’d come to school to debate Miss Page about the virtues of various numeric systems.

Once an old nail ripped my thigh while I was climbing over a fence at my friend Carla’s house. Carla’s mother thought I should go to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot. “Nothing but a minor flesh wound,” Mom declared after studying the deep gash. “People these days run to the hospital every time they skin their knees,” she added. “We’re becoming a nation of sissies.” With that, she went me back to play.

I asked about the property in Phoenix.
“I’m saving that for a rainy day.”
“Mom, it’s pouring.”
“This is just a drizzle,” she said. “Monsoons could be ahead!” She sipped her tea. “Things usually work out in the end.”
“What if they don’t?”
“That just means you haven’t come to the end yet.”

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from that old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.
Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Dad missed the wilderness. He needed to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals. He felt it was good for your soul to have buzzards and coyotes and snakes around. That was the way man was meant to live, he’d say, in harmony with the wild, like the Indians, not this lords-of-the-earth crap, trying to rule the entire goddamn planet, cutting down all the forests and killing every creature you couldn’t bring to heel.

I loved him for all sorts of reasons : He cooked without recipes; he wrote nonsense poems for his nieces; his large, warm family had accepted me as one of their own. And when I first showed him my scar, he said it was interesting. He used the word “textured”. He said “smooth” was boring but “textured” was interesting, and the scar meant that I was stronger than whatever it was that had tried to hurt me.

“The fact is, I’m dying.”
He started telling me how he’d acquired a rare tropical disease after getting into a bloody fistfight with some Nigerian drug dealers. The doctors had examined him, pronounced the rare disease incurable, and told him he had anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to live.
It was a ridiculous yarn. The fact was that, although Dad was only fifty-nine, he had been smoking four packs of cigarettes a day since he was thirteen, and by this time he was also putting away a good two-quarts of booze daily. He was, as he had put it many a time, completely pickled.
But despite all the hell-raising and destruction and chaos he had created in our lives, I could not imagine what my life would be like – what the world would be like – without him in it. As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had. I looked out the window.
“Now, no snot-slinging or boohooing about ‘poor ol’ Rex’,” Dad said. “I don’t want any of that, either now or when I’m gone.”
I nodded.
“But you always loved your old man, didn’t you?”
“I did, Dad,” I said. “And you loved me.”
“Now, that’s the God’s honest truth.” Dad chuckled. “We had some times, didn’t we?”
“We did.”
“Never did build that Glass Castle.”
“No. But we had fun planning it.”
“Those were some damn fine plans.”
“Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry, I really should have asked you to my graduation.”
“To hell with that,” He laughed. “Ceremonies never did mean diddly to me.” He took another long pull on his magnum. “I got a lot to regret about my life,” he said. “But I’m goddamn proud of you, Mountain Goat, the way you turned out. Whenever I think of you, I figure I must have done something right.”
“‘Course you did.”

Final Thoughts

I remember that not many years back, the only memoirs which came out were those of famous people – politicians, sportsmen, movie stars and the like. I think in recent times, one of the earliest memoirs of a normal person, to become a bestseller was Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’. Then many years later, James Frey followed with his phenomenal bestselling memoir ‘A Million Little Pieces’ and now memoirs seem to abound in places where books are. I think ‘The Glass Castle’ is one of the interesting memoirs around and I really enjoyed reading it very much. I don’t know whether I will read the whole book again, but I would definitely want to dip in and read some of my favourite passages again. If you haven’t read ‘The Glass Castle’ before, I would heartily recommend it.

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I read this beautiful passage in the book I am reading now.

On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.

“Pick out your favorite star,” Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.

“You can’t give me a star!” I said. “No one owns the stars.”

“That’s right,” Dad said. “No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it.”

I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.

I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.

I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you’d see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.

“I want that one,” I said.

Dad grinned. “That’s Venus,” he said. Venus was only a planet, he went on, and pretty dinky compared to real stars. She looked bigger and brighter because she was much closer than the stars. Poor old Venus didn’t even make her own light, Dad said. She shone only from reflected light. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant, and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.

“I like it anyway,” I said. I had admired Venus even before that Christmas. You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after all the stars had disappeared.

“What the hell,” Dad said. “It’s Christmas. You can have a planet if you want.”

And he gave me Venus.

That evening over Christmas dinner, we all discussed outer space. Dad explained light-years and black holes and quasars and told us about the special qualities of Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Venus.

Betelgeuse was a red star in the shoulder of the constellation Orion. It was one of the largest stars you could see in the sky, hundreds of times bigger than the sun. It had burned brightly for millions of years and would soon become a supernova and burn out. I got upset that Lori had chosen a clunker of a star, but Dad explained that “soon” meant hundreds of thousands of years when you were talking about stars.

Rigel was a blue star, smaller than Betelgeuse, Dad said, but even brighter. It was also in Orion – it was his left foot, which seemed appropriate, because Brian was an extra-fast runner.

Venus didn’t have any moons or satellites or even a magnetic field, but it did have an atmosphere sort of similar to Earth’s, except it was super-hot – about five hundred degrees or more. “So,” Dad said, “when the sun starts to burn out and Earth turns cold, everyone here might want to move to Venus to get warm. And they’ll have to get permission from your descendants first.”

We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.”

– From ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls

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