Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections: Rainbow Valley

Rainbow Valley is the seventh book in the Anne of Green Gables series. Just mentioning this should be suffice to acknowledge that the book is a sweet children’s classic delivered in Montgomery’s exquisite prose. In this book, Anne Shirley is married to Gilbert Blythe and is the mother of six lovely children. Hard to imagine Anne as a mother of six kids, right? But Anne doesn’t feature much in the book. The story revolves around her children, the new neighbor’s neglected children (the Merediths, whose father is a widowed  minister), and an orphaned waif, Mary Vance. Befitting a children’s story, the children get into mischief due to a few comedies of errors, and end up getting chided by the adults. So they decide to teach themselves to be in good conduct. Of course, they need to first figure out what “good conduct” really means. What is good, what is bad, what is heaven, what is hell, what is moral, what is a sin? Ooh, a whole lot of  heavy questions for kids to decipher. Montgomery shows the perplexities faced by a child when the world ceases to be black and white, even if one lives in a seemingly perfect and peaceful community such as Avonlea.

Avonlea, much like most communities in the early 20th century, was a conservative society honoring Victorian virtues. Social etiquette, decorous behavior, religious fervor, and codes of moral propriety were strictly defined. Without the discipline of a mother, and enough concern from the father, the Meredith children lacked fine grooming. They were frowned upon for not knowing the “right” things to say, or how to conduct themselves in social gatherings and in church, much to their father’s humiliation. But, although they were free-spirited kids who didn’t mind waving their arms in glee than sit still in church, they had good, kind hearts. They took pity on Mary Vance, a girl who ran away from a tormenting employer, gave her a place to stay, food to eat, and above all kindness and friendship. When these kids were constantly rebuked for their frivolous behavior, they set out to punish themselves to redeem and reform their ways to be socially and morally acceptable. The innocence and earnestness tugs your heart. I really liked the fact that Montgomery explores a heavy subject from the simple perspective of children. There’s an instance where Mary and Una try to sort out the moral predicament of lying. Would telling lies always get you down to Hell? Mary innocently states that she had to tell multiple lies to save herself from getting beaten by her unfair and mean employer, while Una wonders if God would be so unkind to banish such girls who lied, to Hell. God was surely much more fair and merciful in his judgments, right? It reminded me of the time I had such a mini-revelation and wondered how God would decide whom to punish. And to this day, I continue to ponder, along with several other intelligent adults.

Underneath all the merriment and innocence of childhood, is the question of what constitutes as mere social propriety and what truly is morality. Of course, Montgomery doesn’t delve deep, but gives a nice enough introduction to the beginning of the end of childhood.

With a happy ending, a little contemplation and the naivety of childhood suffusing the book, which child wouldn’t like this book?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections: Mozart's Sister

I came across this book as I was feverishly browsing through thousands of Kindle freebies and mindlessly downloading every other book that managed to spark even an inkling of interest in me. I like Mozart’s compositions. I think his style of music is quite accessible even to those with just a passing curiosity in classical music. And I absolutely love the deep and majestic sounds of the piano and ardently wish every year to start learning to play the instrument. So far, with my sub-par motor skills and extreme lack of dexterity, my dream just sinks a little lower and lower. Anyway, I’m shooting off on a tangent. This book seemed interesting because it looks into the life of Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, who was supposedly as talented as her brother, but was resigned to her fate of being a woman who couldn’t hope to travel the world and have a career. The world hadn’t embraced feminism in the 18th century. I was curious to read the interpretation of a woman’s thoughts as her brother rose to fame and glory while she had to live through the rusting of her musical talents. Intertwined with the chronicles of the musical genius, Wolfgang Mozart, the book breathes life into a neglected member of the talented Mozart family.

I love biographies of my favorite personalities. But I don’t necessarily like to read a historian’s dry account of a person’s life. Historical fiction comes to my rescue in such cases. Nancy Somer’s sensitive writing has crafted a realistic world of the Mozart family. I appreciate her characterization of Nannerl. She shows a righteously envious girl, who craves for her father’s approval and attention, when he was steeped in his efforts to promote Wolfgang’s talents, and to make a name for him. But despite the tension of jealousy in any sibling rivalry, the undercurrent of kinship and familial bonding never ebbs. The bond shared between brother and sister was quite strong despite how far apart they drifted. Nannerl’s love for her dad clashes with her innermost desire to rebel and seek freedom, but Somer has beautifully shown how she mellows into acceptance of her family and her life, and chooses the course of her life with pragmatism. In these aspects, Nannerl’s personality seems to mirror mine. I could relate to the character and her decisions with empathy and frustration. I quite liked the book for Somer’s meticulous and apt characterization of Nannerl.... no parts of the fact and fiction contradicted or seemed discordant with each other. Some characters such as the mother, might have been a little stereotyped, but the characterization gelled with the story and the time period.

Other than the story of the Mozart family, most of the book is filled with the family’s travel around Europe, the constant haunt of illness threatening to kill them, the pressure of financial stability, the treacherous politics of the nobility and the monarchs, and how all of these played their part in stifling Nannerl and extorting Mozart to slave and constantly churn out operas and compositions, so that he be recognized and awarded. I have had this notion that geniuses don’t really have to work hard. They say talent literally spews out of them uncontrollably and involuntary. If so, they are so blessed to just express their abilities and enjoy doing it. It didn’t seem like too much work to me. That shows my appalling ignorance.Stories like this shed light on the hard work that needs to go in to promote oneself, network with the right people, appease the powerful ones and be acknowledged. It’s the same old story - I thought these things weren’t as necessary two hundred years back. Besides, creativity cannot be forced or be channeled to deliver under specifications. Mozart’s life was such an example, and Moser conveys it well.

This book is therefore as much about Mozart and his domineering father, as it is about his sister. Although I didn’t enjoy learning about Mozart’s travels and constant shuffling, I liked how his sister was given the attention and recognition she never received when she lived.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflections: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

In December 1995, due to a very rare and unfortunate accident, Jean-Dominique Bauby was thrown into a complete body paralysis. His brain stem, which acts as a conduit between the brain and the spinal chord, severed, resulting in “locked-in-syndrome”. By a stroke of ironical “luck”, Bauby retained control of his left eye and lid. Through blinks of his left-eye Bauby managed to communicate with his friends, family and caregivers. He could externalize his thoughts through painstaking blinks to form individual alphabets, words, sentences and paragraphs. And thus came about his immensely moving memoir. Almost like a tragic, poetic ending, he died after two days of the memoir’s release.

Bauby was the chief editor of the popular French magazine, Elle. He led a glamorous and busy life in the romantic city of Paris. A man who was used to constant hubbub and acclaim for his work was suddenly pushed down fate’s tricky stairs. On regaining consciousness from his dangerously long coma, he had to come to terms with so many challenges and blows to his ego and dignity. But he didn’t lose much time wallowing in his angst and sorrow. He decided to keep himself busy, by not letting his thoughts rust. His mind tuned itself to be even more alert and imaginative and it flew through the world like a dazzling butterfly. He craved to interact with people and communicate his thoughts, and resented the common misconception of some of his acquaintances, that just because his body was reduced to a near “vegetative” state, he had become intellectually incompetent. This book is one of his attempts to dispel such a thoughtless conclusion about people with physical disabilities.

His memoir is a collection of his thoughts that flit from varied time periods and scenarios in his life, like a butterfly hopping from one flower to another. But he mainly focuses on his journey in his paralytic state. I honestly cannot imagine how sharp one’s mind has to be to construct exquisitely beautiful sentences and paragraphs conveying such poignant thoughts and emotions, without the luxury of a word processor, or even a piece of paper to edit and rearrange words. And while such complex processing was taking place in his mind, he had to simultaneously select each alphabet through blinks of his eye. Such perseverance and drive is incredibly inspiring. Tragedy and pain seem to bring out the best in some people. 

Books like these reiterate the significance of being able to express ourselves. Locked in his useless body was a brilliant mind and Bauby's sense of self, both of which came bursting forth through a tiny outlet permitted by his body. It's impossible not to be touched by this book. And it's a pity I can't read his book in French.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reflections: Finding Nouf

Nouf, a sixteen year old girl hailing from a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, mysteriously disappears three days before her wedding. Clues suggest that the girl was either kidnapped or she ran away to the desert. The family banks on Nayir, their trustworthy desert guide to find Nouf. Nayir combs the desert with his search and rescue team for two weeks, but to no avail. It is impossible for anyone to survive in the desert for this long a time, especially so for a young, wealthy girl, who’s been cocooned from the harsh realities of the world. When Nouf’s body is found, Nayir’s obsession with the mysteries surrounding Nouf’s case deepens. In a land where women are veiled mysteries, and families regard their honor to be higher than the truth, Nayir wades his way through uncomfortable revelations about his beliefs and tradition as he pieces together the truth about Nouf.

Zoe Ferraris has woven an engaging mystery in the heart of one of the most mystic lands. Through the detective plot, she brings alive the culture and traditions of wealthy Arabian families. I thought it was quite creative of her to employ a prudish, conventionally strict musilm man, Nayir, as the detective who discovers that he needs to understand the secretive world of Arab women, if he wants to crack Nouf’s case. Through Nayir, she shows the reader the perspective of a muslim man, the reasons for his prejudices, and the lens through which he views women. Through the course of the novel, as Nayir gets closer to the truth about Nouf, he also leaps closer to understanding why Nouf’s life had to take such a course. In other words, he transforms from an ignorant man to one who understands the world of women; their feelings, their thoughts, their ambitions, and their silent sufferings. His revelations make him reflect on his beliefs and traditions, which, contrary to his supposition, seemed to sometimes cause suffering and moral depravity. Ferraris manages to cleverly balance the wisdom contained in the Quran and the havoc it wreaks when misinterpreted with a cloistered perspective in the modern era. I appreciated the fact that she didn’t go overboard in criticizing the culture - as a matter of fact, she doesn’t really criticize. She merely presents the honest repercussions and suggests embracing rules and traditions, without losing sight of their deeper underlying principles. And it’s brilliant that she conveys all of this through the thoughts of the stringent Muslim man, Nayir.

I laud this book for its creative attempt at ensconcing such deeper discussions on the Arabian culture and traditions within an engrossing mystery. The more the mystery gets unraveled, the more we grasp the complexity of the culture. On a certain level, the mystery is just secondary to the story, and I even had some quibbles with it, but it establishes a deeper connection with the reader to young girls like Nouf. Nayir’s gradual widening of his mind and heart is also realistically portrayed.

In terms of writing, many reviews have generously praised Ferraris’s prose, but it didn’t really sweep me off my feet. It was crisp and vivid, and packages the story well.

If you’re looking for a book that is both engaging and thought provoking, this book will fit the bill perfectly.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflections: Anatomy of a Rose

To someone who loves flowers and can’t seem to get enough of them - their colors, their scent, and their delicate cheer, this book has the effect of leaping off the stands and beckoning. Sharman Russell, a botanist (there goes another potential career of mine!), shares my passion, but hers is elevated supremely by tying in science to adoration. She loves flowers to the extent that she has dedicated her life’s goals towards studying them and exploring their role in our living world. In this book, she lyrically describes the delicate and intelligent system of flowers, whose every form has a function, even their spell-binding beauty. Her book is a beautiful ode on flowers.

Sharman Russell primarily discusses the structure of flowers and their complex and significant role in the ecosystem, touching upon their deceivingly ornate, yet simple features that have meticulously evolved with natural selection’s uncanny and persistent design. But just as we begin to fear if the idealism behind flowers is going to be ripped apart only to leave exposed their selfish motive towards pollination, and well, reproduction, Russell’s mellifluous prose soothingly quells us, as she crafts a scientific poetry that awes us. Flowers change into a beautiful and intelligent kind - one that is resilient to the environment and knows how to adapt its form, color, texture, scent and even pollinators, to survive. Russell also weaves in the causal scheme of cooperation and competition by which plants operate; two mutually contradictory, yet essential components of survival. Without the mutual symbiosis between flowers and insects, both species suffer. Yet without competition between flowers and their neighbors, the fittest isn’t going to procreate. It was fascinating to read about flowers that time their blooming periods to ensure that they are not overshadowed by their flashy neighboring plants! And how aggressive the flowers are in their shapes, colors and scents to outshine their competitors.

One of the things I loved about this narration was its focus on the pollinators - the bees, the wasps, the humming birds, birds and many other little creatures, and their drama of seduction with the flowers. Contrary to human being’s presumption, the colors and scents are not really meant for our senses, but are geared for the little agents. It is to lure them into their core, and provide nectar in exchange for disseminating their precious pollen. This, we all learned in middle-school, yes. But did you know why the majority of flowers are in bright yellows, and oranges? That a bee’s spectrum of visibility is slightly different from ours? That their yellows, oranges, whites and violets are different from our perception of those colors? I can’t bear to stand the fact that there are creatures who can see colors that I cannot even visualize! And with this, we are just grazing the tip of the iceberg of the mysteries surrounding all of nature, and human limitations in trying to solve them. As one botanist ponders - How does the bee experience the flower? How does the flower experience the bee? So many fundamental questions bordering on the elusive philosophical realm.

Flowers that imitate other flowers and plants, flowers that bloom a certain time, flowers painted with colors to attract a certain pollinator, flowers with scents to beguile the unassuming pollinator, flowers that have deadly traps to punish selfish and greedy pollinators, flowers with defenses to protect their pollens and safeguard against self-pollination, flowers that help thrive our ecosystem.... and flowers that are now sitting in our homes, blooming and shedding their petals which were engineered to be of a certain color and to withstand temperatures asynchronous to the seasons. Humans enter the scene. I have never found a rose to carry a scintillating smell, and have often wondered why it was so celebrated for its scent. Well of course, artificially bred roses have discarded the need to produce scent... why work so hard to produce scent when there is no pressure to lure bees? Sigh... the very essence of nature now sits smiling at us with its hybridized unnatural-sized petals, and no scent. In the future, roses can be made to smell like lemons, they can be blue, and can be made to last for a long long time. Would it still be a rose to me? Would it still captivate me? And would the bees, the butterflies and our ecosystem be much the same?

Tough questions, uneasy answers. We don’t know how to define the line between natural and unnatural. On the one hand it is exciting and on the other hand it is ominous. It’s an addition to the growing food for thought on preserving nature.

Having rambled quite a bit, I must say that the one disappointing thing about the book was the lack of photographs or colored pictures of flowers to feast our eyes on, as we delve into their elegant design.