Book Review · Books · Fiction · Historical Fiction · James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier · Uncategorized · YA Fiction

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

 

Image result for my brother sam is deadThe American Revolutionary War is in its early stages, which is seemingly marked by people having to choose between two sides. Staying neutral is hardly an option when the choice is between remaining a British colony or to break free to a new America. Tim Meeker’s brother, Sam, has enlisted to be a part of the American Revolutionary Army. Sam and his friends at Yale believe in an America that is free of British rule. Tim, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to think. He admires his older brother, and when brave intelligent Sam talks about the necessity of defeating the British, it seems like the right thing to do. But to side with his brother would mean to go against his father. In fact, there are a lot of people who disagree with the revolutionaries. Which side is right?

Being faced with this question in the 21st century is not exactly overwhelming because we know how history has played out. But being drawn into the 17th century with Tim and his family makes this question seem so much harder. It makes the reader question whether the means ever justify the end. It’s especially stirring because the story is told through the voice of an 11-year-old boy. Though this book was written for young adults it can be appreciated by any thinking person, regardless of age.

I was a little surprised to find that this junior novel has been listed several times for violence and abusive language. It’s also been accused of being unpatriotic. I don’t remember coming across any shockingly vulgar language, but on further inspection this book does contain mild profanity. A search on why this book is banned will give you a better understanding of the instances considered violent, profane, and unpatriotic.

While I don’t understand how a story about war can be described accurately without violence of any sort, the descriptions here are not overly gruesome (in my opinion). I can’t say whether this book is patriotic or not. However, I will say that this book talks less about the importance of choosing the right side and more about how painful war is in general. My Brother Sam Is Dead paints an alarmingly clear picture of how in war there really is no good and bad side. Both sides are forced to act cruelly, regardless of what these actions are meant to achieve. As Tim’s father says, “In war the dead pay the debts of the living.” (Spoiler Alert: Skip on to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know Tim’s response to this) Continuing…Years later Tim writes in response to his father’s words, “…they have paid us well. But somehow even fifty years later, I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end.”

I thought that this book was an excellent piece of historical fiction. I especially liked the end where the writers include which parts of the story were based on true events. This book can be easily read in one sitting and it’s amazing how such a tiny book can be packed with so much. While 11-year-old Tim’s account can be amusing at times, you may also need a box of tissues at hand. This book leaves its readers with a very sobering view of both American history and of war, in general.

Book Review · Books · Culture · India · Non Fiction · William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine-Lives-final-frontFor the longest time I couldn’t understand people who read Non Fiction for fun. I couldn’t imagine getting lost for hours in anything that resembled real life too closely. But even then travel writing and history never classified as boring. How could they when they carried the potential of mystery, charm, and the idea that such fantastic magical things actually happened Once upon a time…!

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple happens to be one of those books that envelope its readers in a world that is both intriguing and unreal. Now add to that that it’s shocking because it is real. In this book William Dalrymple explores the impact of modernization on some of the religions in India, through the stories of nine people. As he mentions in the Introduction, the writer remains mostly in the background while allowing his interviewees and their stories to speak for themselves. The characters are not exoticized (I know because I didn’t roll my eyes once at the narrative). However, their stories are somewhat exotic.

In the first story, The Nun’s Tale, a Jain nun struggles to remain detached as her best friend starves herself according to ritual. The second story, The Dancer of Kannur, is about a Dalit (a low caste) man who’s worshipped as a deity once every year. This was one of the more exotic stories. The why may be a spoiler, so if you’d rather not know skip on to the next paragraph. Okay. This story involves possession by the deity during which time the protagonist drinks the blood of a chicken.

The third story, The Daughters of Yellama, talks about the temple prostitutes who are revered by a large number of people in Karnataka but also equally shamed and criminalized – sometimes by the same people.

The Singer of Epics was one of the stories I found most enchanting. It tells the story of a Rajasthani story teller and the oral epic’s struggle for survival.

The two other stories that I liked best in this collection were The Monk’s Tale and The Maker of Idols. In the Monk’s Tale, Tashi Passang tells us about his decision to break his vows as a monk and take up arms against the Chinese during their invasion into Tibet; the unbearable hatred; and the guilt that still remains with him for having taken part in such violence. He also tells us how he eventually overcame his anger and hatred. It was both touching and inspirational. (For some reason, I’ve always enjoyed reading about monks. In fact, I remember pouring over the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my Only Fiction phase).

The Maker of Idols relates to us the story of Srikanda Stpathy, a bronze caster. It was interesting to read about the rituals and requirements in creating an idol. I also found the dialogue amusing. It made the story seem more personal and because of that, heartwarming.

In brief, The Red Fairy explores Sufism and its rift with mainstream Islam. The Lady Twilight and The Song of the Blind Minstrel talk about Tantra and Baul philosophy. Both philosophies diverge from mainstream Hinduism by embracing the taboos of orthodox religion and rejecting socially accepted norms and traditions.

Nine Lives is a fascinating study into how religion is a major part of our identity, especially because it helps define our values, beliefs and priorities. Keeping up with the times while still preserving what we believe is an important part of us seems to be the struggle of a traditional society. Reflecting on this, it seems that most people are forced to compartmentalize their lives with religion in a separate box. The world doesn’t have time for religion that is all pervasive – not unless it’s heavily tweaked.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. I thought the narrative was fairly objective, but not so much that the stories were dry and harsh. I liked the snippets of history and brief descriptions given by the author. It felt very much like I was being shown a story rather than being told one. I don’t think this book will disappoint regardless of whether you’re interested in history, religion, people, good writing, or just a good story.

‘Still, every day, I pray to our family deity, Kamakshi Amman, to change his mind and preserve the lineage. I have even promised to renovate her temple if my prayers are answered. But I know that if my boy gets high marks he will certainly go off to Bangalore – and it looks as if he will do well in his exams. For some reason all the Brahmin boys do well in maths and computer exams. Maybe that’s in the blood too – after all we’ve been making calculations for astronomy for 5, 000 years.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Srikanda, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s all part of the world opening up. After all, as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.’ – page 204 (The Maker of Idols)

Book Review · Books · Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The first book I’d read by Muriel Spark was The Snobs and, like I confessed in my review of it, I did not care for it very much. I couldn’t understand how people could compare the work of Muriel Spark with Penelope Fitzgerald whose book, The Bookshop, I’d adored. In fact, the primary reason for my decision to read another Muriel Spark book was to explore her writing before I decided to write her off completely. I have to say that I enjoyed Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, far more than I did her book of short stories.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the 1930s in Edinburgh, Scotland. The story is of a Miss Jean Brodie, an unconventional school teacher and her chosen students with whom she can speak freely. These girls, chosen by Miss Brodie, are popularly known as the Brodie Set. And though they are admired for their exclusivity by other girls at the conservative Marcia Blaine School, their mentor isn’t as well accepted by her fellow teachers. In fact, the headmistress tries very hard, throughout the story, to wheedle out some proof of misconduct on Miss Brodie’s part.

Miss Jean Brodie believes that she is in her prime. This is a major asset to her girls, who now have the opportunity to absorb the enlightening things that Miss Brodie is experiencing at this time in her life – so she says to them. The story follows the lives of the Brodie set, the influence that Miss Brodie has on them, their own reflections, discoveries, and personal decisions. Most of the story is told through the perspective of the Brodie Set, although it is written in the third person and is also very objective in certain places.

 

“It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime; or that (since such things are relative) she was in any way off her head. She was alone, merely, in that she taught in a school like Marcia Blaine’s. There were legions of her kind during the nineteen thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war‐bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion. The progressive spinsters of Edinburgh did not teach in schools, especially in schools of traditional character like Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls. It was in this that Miss Brodie was, as the rest of the staff spinsterhood put it, a trifle out of place. But she was not out of place amongst her own kind, the vigorous daughters of dead or enfeebled merchants, of ministers of religion, University professors, doctors, big warehouse owners of the past, or the owners of fisheries who had endowed these daughters with shrewd wits, high‐coloured cheeks, constitutions like horses, logical educations, hearty spirits and private means. They could be seen leaning over the democratic counters of Edinburgh grocers’ shops arguing with the Manager at three in the afternoon on every subject from the authenticity of the Scriptures to the question what the word “guaranteed” on a jam‐jar really meant. They went to lectures, tried living on honey and nuts, took lessons in German and then went walking in Germany; they bought caravans and went off with them into the hills among the lochs; they played the guitar, they supported all the new little theatre companies; they took lodgings in the slums and, distributing pots of paint, taught their neighbours the arts of simple interior decoration; they preached the inventions of Marie Stopes; they attended the meetings of the Oxford Group and put Spiritualism to their hawk‐eyed test. Some assisted in the Scottish Nationalist Movement; others, like Miss Brodie, called themselves Europeans and Edinburgh a European capital, the city of Hume and Boswell.” ~ pgs. 34 – 35

 

I realize that the bit I’ve said about the book before the excerpt doesn’t say very much about the plot or the story itself. The truth is I’m not sure I can summarize the story well enough without spoiling it completely for anyone else planning to read this book. In fact, the best part of this book for me was the not knowing what would happen next. I thought it was very unpredictable in an easy going sort of way, unlike in a mystery novel.

I liked reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, mostly because it was excellently written. I know I compared her writing to Roald Dahl’s books for adults in my other review. I still think there are certain features reminiscent of Roald Dahl. In terms of writing style alone, this novel reminded me a lot of Sylvia Plath’s writing. The descriptions are vivid and sharp; the ideas blunt and amusing, and the expressions are unique. The writing voice is slightly stronger than Penelope Fitzgerald’s softer, kinder tone, even though her writing is very ‘matter of fact’ as well. Both Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald write very intriguing stories about brave spinster women stirring up change with individualism. If you’ve read any of these writers do let me know what you think 🙂

Books · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Library Adventures

DSC05205This afternoon I decided to visit the high school library at the school (The Study) I’m teaching at.  Although not hugely impressive, it does have a decent collection of non-fiction and fiction.  Browsing through the shelves of YA Fiction unlocked a door of memories of when I used to have my nose in a book almost perpetually. There were times I even went to school on holidays so that I could spend them uninterrupted in the library. (Luckily for me, the school held workshops for its teachers on holidays, and I was able to make myself cozy among a stack of books).

The school I studied in was very particular about the literature it allowed in its library. And it was an excellent library. Unfortunately for me, they did not stock The Sweet Valley Twins series or The Babysitters Club series. I had to read those at the Bangalore Club when we visited our cousins.

The high school library at The Study, however, has quite a few books from both The Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters Club series. It made me wonder if perhaps I could enjoy them once more the way I used to. The reply to that was nearly immediate – most definitely not. I marveled at how I could turn up my nose at something I once used to find pleasure in. It’s strange that I wouldn’t consider reading those books again but that my eyes light up when I see books by Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and then some more. How have I been able to outgrow certain books, but not others?

This afternoon, the books that I decided to bring home with me were Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson and Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange. The first paragraph of Henry Reed, Inc. made me decide that I would have to complete this book first.

 

Sunday morning, June 23rd

My name is Henry Harris Reed and this is my journal. It is my private property and in case that it gets lost, please return it to me in care of my uncle, Mr. J. Alfred Harris, RD 1, Grover’s Corner, Princeton, N.J.

This is a journal, not a diary. Diaries are kept by girls and tell all about their dates and what they think of their different boy friends. My mother says that men keep diaries too, that the most famous diary in the world was kept a long time ago by an Englishman named Pepys. That may be so, but when I read about pirates and explorers and sea captains they always keep journals, so this is going to be a journal. It is going to be a record of what happens to me this summer in New Jersey. (pg. 7)

 

It made me shake my head and smile because it reminded me of myself at that age, and how important it was that people knew I kept a journal and not a diary. Of course I did write about boys, and even used code (precautions to be taken when one has a younger brother). But the reason I insisted it was a journal and not a diary was because

1) The words ‘journal’ sounded more official and grown up.

2) I recorded more than daily events and believed that that qualified my writings to be called journal entries.

Henry Reed’s journal is proving to be an amusing and light read, one that I am able to find time for in snippets and snatches. It’s perfect for busy times when one wants to read, but is unable to find the time to.

It was a very pleasant afternoon that brought back memories of how absorbing books can be.  And it was especially rewarding for me for what I learned of myself and of how I have changed.  I definitely plan on visiting this school library more often, and hope to read through most of its books.DSC06647

Book Review · Books · Fiction · Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

the bookshopI bought this book, The Bookshop, at the Daryaganj Book Market in Delhi because it looked like it might be an interesting read. It’s a shame I waited three years before I finally did read it. If I had read it sooner I’d probably have managed to secure copies of Fitzgerald’s other books and savoured each one by 2016.

In The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald tells the story of a middle aged woman, Florence Green, who decides to open a bookshop in the fictitious East Anglian town of Hardborough in the year 1959. The narrative meanders through the challenges Florence Green faces in starting the only bookshop in a town where the general majority does not see the sense in having a bookshop. There is, in particular, a Mrs. Gamart, who attempts to dissuade our protagonist from starting the bookshop. When Florence Green, a very insignificant person in comparison to Mrs. Gamart, politely refuses to be persuaded and stands firm in her decision, she only invites a barrage of more difficulties. It doesn’t help that the Old House, her new home and location of the bookshop, is haunted by poltergeists.

This story is not fast paced or thrilling in any way. It’s quiet with few embellishments. Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing voice is gentle and very matter of fact here. You do not see Florence Green wallowing in self-pity or lashing out in anger at the injustices hurled her way. She is pictured as a kind, unpretentious woman with an outlook on life that is balanced between reality and hope.

The writing style is clear and descriptive with characters that come alive and make your eyes widen at their behavior, or shake your head and laugh quietly. The author manages to convey courage and strength even while focusing on the ordinariness of her main character. I could picture Florence Green sighing at the unpleasantness that life dealt her, then shrugging and trying to figure out her next step.

The qualities that made this book a delight to read were its quiet discernment of human life and Penelope Fitzgerald’s exquisite brilliance in telling a story that has no seeming plot. In a way, it is reminiscent of actual human life that does not have a prominent plot either. The narrative is clear-eyed in relating instances that make one gasp in shock for the poor lady. As the jacket on the book reads, “This story is for anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.” To me, The Bookshop seemed to suggest that even the most ordinary person is an interesting story of themselves and can find ways to connect with other people. It goes without saying that this is highly dependent on how well the story is told.

I found out this afternoon that this novel was one of the author’s earlier works and is based on personal experiences. While Penelope Fitzgerald had worked part time in a bookshop, the similarity that strikes us is the unexpected difficulties she faced in her middle years. It was interesting to learn that she published her books only after the age of sixty.

I thought The Bookshop was a lovely book! I liked its quiet lack of emphasis, the charming narrative, and unpretentious humanness throughout. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books.

Adventure · Books · Imagination · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

The Creepy Crawlies Around The Corners of An Idyllic Life

Yesterday my brother rolled his eyes and told me that I was living in my head. In my defense, it’s uncontrollable. The wildlife around our home and in our home in Pondicherry is overwhelming. I’ve always known that India is a tropical country and fosters a range of interesting creatures. However, I haven’t been as acutely aware of this as in the past week.

I was just beginning to grow used to the lizards that we share our home with. In fact, I even aww-ed at a baby lizard crawling up my wall! Then on Friday I met a friend at church who was missing part of his left eyebrow.

He told me that while he’d been shaving his face that morning a lizard fell on his head and just stayed there, perched on his head. He was so shocked and creeped out that he jumped and accidentally shaved his eyebrow. I had to ask how big that lizard had been. He described it as being of humongous proportions, unlike any I’d ever seen so far. But I believed him and was grateful that we had none rooming with us in our home. Unfortunately, I’d considered myself lucky too soon. Later that evening, on my way up to my room there was an amazingly large lizard frozen on the wall. At the time it looked as large as a chameleon and as disgusting as a house lizard.

I will admit that the lizard had shrunk a little by morning. But it was still one of the larger house lizards I’d ever come across. Also, it hadn’t gotten any less creepy. It kept sticking out its tongue and reminding me that it was a reptile. I wish I had a better grip on my imagination because it took off unsupervised and had me seeing the lizard fall on my head, perch on my shoulder, and even slide down my back. That night I dreamt of flying lizards. It’s interesting to think that that’s what dragons are really. But it wasn’t dragons I dreamt of. The lizards in my dream were regular looking, similar to the ones hanging out in my room. Except these lizards could fly if they wanted to. I even saw little decapitated lizards that were regenerating themselves. My week has been stressful with having to be unnaturally alert and discerning.  The line between imagination and reality is getting blurry. And that’s because reality hasn’t been any less horrifying than the nightmare.

I know that I saw a lizard crawl into my closet. There’s a lizard that lives behind the mirror on my dressing table, another that lives on the window ledge, and one that regularly tries to sneak around my bed. It’s been two times already that I’ve shaken my bedside table and had a lizard scurry away.

I knew my lizard phobia was getting out of hand when my morning and evening prayers were for protection from lizards. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be braver, or just have the lizards leave without a struggle. To calm myself down a little I decided to read something I could get absorbed in and forget about my momentary troubles. So I am now reading The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

I don’t know what it is about certain writers and particular books that make a person’s mind and body relax even if their thoughts aren’t particularly soothing. Reading Penelope Fitzgerald pulled me back to the times I used to enjoy reading books like Watership Down and The Glassblowers while enjoying cups of Lopchu tea. I love living in those sort of books. They envelop me in contentment that’s incomparable.

This is the first time I am reading The Bookshop even though I’ve had it for a very long time. The story is about a middle aged lady, Florence Green, who goes through quite a bit of unpleasantness in the process of starting and running her bookshop. It’s very charmingly told and I plan to review it as soon as I’m done reading it. What is ironic about my uninformed decision to select this book to calm me is that the story is about Florence Green having to accept difficulties, injustices, and looking for ways to fix her problems – especially when she’d rather not. I read this on page 18 and it made me sigh:

The curious sounds associated with the haunting continued at night, long after the ill-connected water pipes had fallen silent. But courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested.

Before I end this post I have to say that apart from the reptiles, scorpions, and intruding squirrels, Pondicherry is a lovely place to live in. As my brother says, there’s lots of village fun to be had here. And it’s true! We had dolphins come by the beach once while we were eating lunch there. And I’ve seen flamingos, golden orioles, and other pretty birds while out on walks or even from the terrace.

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Book Review · Books · Non Fiction · Psychology · Uncategorized · Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

man's search for meaningA few months ago my friend, Loretta, and I began a book club where we discussed psychology specific books. The first book we picked to read was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It turned out to be an excellent choice because it gave us so much to talk about. I suppose it goes without saying that it was a very enjoyable book to read. It’s engaging, enlightening, and surprisingly uplifting, given the material it’s based on.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl recounts his personal experiences in the concentration camp. He goes further by describing the qualities that set the different prisoners apart in the way they allowed their circumstances to affect their attitudes and even their decision to survive.

It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner? (pg.21)

What sets this book apart from other accounts of concentration camps is that it emphasizes the impact these experiences had on the prisoners without focusing entirely on the gory details. In no way does Frankl belittle the pain and difficulties    undergone by the prisoners. Instead he uses the painful experiences to show that it is our attitudes and inner decision to survive that influence the end, more than the external circumstances do.

The author mentions that one of the methods he used to survive camp life was by focusing on the future. He pictured himself in front of an attentive audience while he delivered a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp.

While the first part of this book focuses on the experiences in the concentration camp, the second part describes Frankl’s own psychological theory: Logotherapy. He refused to accept that man was a slave to his inner urges and instincts, or that he was a puppet of his circumstances. He believed that man was rational, with the capacity for spiritual freedom achieved in finding a purpose to his life.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations. “But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values! (pg.123)

 Viktor Frankl’s conversational style of writing enhances the quality of this book. Man’s Search for Meaning is inspiring, thought provoking, and even endearing. I consider it as one of my favourites and have underlined large portions of it. It’s only about a hundred and eighty one pages, and I would highly recommend anyone reading this post to get themselves a copy. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book!