Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reflections: Who By Fire

Who by Fire is a contemplative novel on guilt, forgiveness and acceptance. As you probably are wondering, the first thing that jumped at me was the intriguing title of the book. Since the novel is based on a Jewish family that is choked with guilt and hurt, the title is derived from the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Along the lines of the Christian belief of Judgment Day, the Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah, God inscribes the deeds of every man and woman, and on Yom Kippur (the day of Atonement), their fates are decided and sealed:
“How many shall pass on, and how many shall be born. Who shall live, and who shall die; who in his time, and who before his time; who by water, and who by fire; who by sword, and who by beast; who by hunger, and who by thirst; who by earthquake, and who by plague. Who shall rest, and who shall wander. Who shall fall, and who shall rise..." 

Onto the story. The book follows the derailed lives of Ash, Bits and their mother, all of whom are still suffering the loss of the youngest child of the family, Alena. Following Alena’s disappearance, the shaky family structure crumbles. The dad abandons the family, the mother constantly despairs and unintentionally stifles her other children with her paranoia and sorrow. Due to lack of emotional support and low self-esteem, Bits resorts to mindless sex as her painkiller. And Ash, the young boy laden with guilt, takes to religion and spiritual belief for comfort. The book starts with all these characters in their varied stunted states, and takes the reader through the arduous journey that the characters take to get to a place of acceptance and peace.

Diana Spechler realistically portrays her characters - their anxiety, sorrow, guilt, and pain come across well in the story. I could sympathize with all the characters floundering in their own ways to patch up the holes in the family fabric. Although the book is surely morose, it has a strand of positivity wrapping itself around the characters. The story is character-driven and doesn’t have a plot as its focal point, so it does move slow. But despite the heavy focus on the characters, I didn’t find them to be that well-defined. I thought Ash’s character was the most well-drawn.

As one of the main themes, Spechler delves into the calming benefits offered by religion during difficult times. I appreciated that she handled this theme in a balanced manner - she shows the inherent hypocrisies and the ways in which religion can be made into a disgraceful charade, but she also heavily emphasizes the role religion/spirituality plays in finding peace, acceptance and meaning in life. As I have mentioned several times before, I believe that religion can be a constructive belief system which can help us handle tragedy and move on to live life, responsibly. It is acceptable if one has to take a few misguided turns before figuring out the crux of such beliefs, and understanding what the “right dosage” of practice is. This is precisely what Diana demonstrates.

Digested Thoughts: The book deals with interesting and realistic themes on coping with loss and guilt. Although most of the book was grim, and it was frustrating to see the characters flee from reality, the ending was optimistic. I also liked how Spechler nicely showcases the varying shades of religion. However, I struggled to get involved in the book, and unfortunately the writing didn’t sustain (or augment) my interest. Finally, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way Spechler handled the topic of Orthodox Judaism being perceived as a stringent “cult” by some. So in all, although it was an interesting read, for the most part, it didn’t leave an impression on me. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflections: Haunting Bombay

The Mittal family lives in a huge bungalow in post-independence Bombay. Maji is the resourceful matriarch of the family, who rules the household with an iron-fist, much to her daughter-in-law’s chagrin. When Maji tragically loses her daughter during the violent aftermath of India’s partition, she brings in her infant grand-daughter, Pinky, to be raised in the bungalow. Pinky is not accepted by her aunt or uncle, and is lost in her own frustrations till she discovers a skeleton in the family closet.

Built during the colonial times, the Mittal’s bungalow is a relic of the beautiful and intricate  colonial architecture. The bungalow houses both the Mittal family’s precious heirlooms as well as its darkest secrets. Every evening, for the last thirteen years, the members of the household religiously lock the children’s bathroom by sunset and unlock it only upon sunrise the next morning. Nobody gives any explanation for this, and the elders panic if this ritual is not faithfully followed. On a sultry night, with the approach of Bombay’s monsoons, the bathroom door is opened. A vengeful spirit enters the household and haunts the members till the family confronts its  role in the buried secrets.
The book tells a vivid tale of downtrodden souls seeking justice and redemption.

Those who know me well are sure to be surprised that I read such a book. I’m extremely sensitive to the topic of supernatural/paranormal phenomena, and I can get far too easily disturbed and spooked. The worst part (at least to me) is that I went from being rational, to now being confused, thanks to some of my friends ;). So when I read such stories, my “rational” bolsters and shields of denial just weaken all the more. But I read this book only because my sister-in-law, an avid reader herself, gave me this book with the assurance that it wasn’t as scary and was a good read. I went by her words, and although I never thought I would say this (especially after my sleepless nights and my imagined fears in my own bathroom), I am glad I read this book.

This is not just a spooky, ghost story. The story contains strong, social topics, which are usually brushed under the carpet. Although the issues plague the whole of India, they are especially relevant to Bombay, and predominantly represent the darker core of the glamorous city. I thought it was creative of Agarwal to use a morbid theme as a vehicle to communicate these issues. And surely, these issues haunt the reader as much as the story. I don't want to discuss anything more here, for it may act as spoilers to the gripping suspense.

Additionally, Agarwal subtly interweaves the Indian family/household dynamics into the story. The book offers a decent peek into the various traditions and cultural influences on family hierarchies, and also shows the distinctions in class status between the family and the domestic helps. The ghost aspects bring to fore the several different kinds of superstitious beliefs that Indians staunchly hold onto. This made me uncomfortable, because the last thing Indians need is a reaffirmation of the million and one superstitions that continuously wreak havoc on their personal lives. And many of the social “evils” that percolate due to such superstitions, struggle to get resolved. Personally, it brought back suppressed childhood warnings - such as my grandfather’s insistence that we cousins shouldn’t go near mango or tamarind trees after sunset.  I have to concede that I don’t know how far rationality can take us to comprehend such beliefs and mysteries.

Digested Thoughts: The book is sure to be an entertaining and gripping read for those who like the spooky genre. Objectively speaking, the story isn’t scary and is not at all gory. But if you’re like me, and get disturbed by the mere idea of the paranormal, you should stay away ;). The mystery is very well wrought. The suspense is tightly paced and is complicated to the right amount. Shilpa Agarwal’s writing is impressive, considering this is her debut novel. Since I liked the book for its focus on really poignant social issues, I think it was worth reading the book! 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reflections: The Piano Teacher

This is yet another book set during World War II. I guess I’m in one of those phases where I consciously (and subconsciously) keep stumbling on books and movies of a certain theme. I see myself almost at the tip of the saturation point, so hopefully I’ll soon move out of this theme soon.

Claire is a classic English woman - stiff and prejudiced. She is insecure and timid, not really knowing what she wants in life. She just seems to know that she wants to get out of her old, impoverished home and her critical mother. So she marries Martin and enters Hong Kong in the early 1950s. She soon finds employment as a Piano teacher to the wealthy and Westernized Chens. When she finds herself wetting her toes in Hong Kong’s elite social-circles, she abruptly plunges into an affair with an English man who is hardened and scarred by the war. The story moves around this mysterious English man’s past during the war, and the conspiracy around the Chinese Crown Collection which the Japanese were trying to pry from the English, while the English had themselves “legally” appropriated it from the Chinese.

As I have confessed before, I have been a pathetically poor student of History. Since this book was my first introduction to the political intrigue surrounding the Crown Collection, it was informative on that regard. It was also refreshing to get an account of the Western immigrants’ (particularly the status of English and Americans) prisoner-of-war conditions and struggles in Hong Kong when Japan raided the place. Regardless of which countries were fighting against which, and which ones called themselves “super-powers”, civilians across the world have suffered terribly. Particularly, immigrants stuck in other countries were in a harrowing limbo. These parts of the book were well researched and served as a good history “lesson”.

Lee also depicts the multicultural and highly westernized aspects of Hong Kong, even back in the 50s. Claire’s ignorant notion that none of the Chinese in Hong Kong knew English, and her surprise upon meeting many who spoke fluent and good English, reminded me of the constant “compliments” Indians receive in the U.S - “Why, your English is quite good!”. While many of my friends find this patronizing and infuriating, I don’t read too much into it. But reading Claire’s thoughts, as a prim and astonished English woman who couldn’t comprehend how people in other countries could speak her language as well as she could (or even better), irritated me. Through such succinct and sharp descriptions, Lee conveys entire paragraphs worth of History, ignorance and social notions. I admire Lee’s brevity in portraying such clear and vivid episodes which highlight the effects of war and the changes in the social and personal mentality of the diverse people that made up Hong Kong.

However, her brevity and subtlety come at a high cost. It makes her characters flat and boring, and her narration extremely choppy and vague. I was reminded of Mani Ratnam’s style of direction where actors abruptly say a few vague (but usually powerful) words for dialogue and leave it at that. This style does work in the visual medium, but it utterly fails in prose. This is my biggest problem with the book. I understand the the beauty behind subtlety, but when executed improperly, clarity suffers. Also, Lee's writing doesn’t define the characters, so I was unsympathetic to most characters, particularly Claire. I would argue that Claire is most certainly not the protagonist of this story, and her role can be likened to that of the flashy, substance-less heroines who star against Rajni Kanth. I found the round-about justification of her part to the “conspiracy” exceedingly silly and senseless.

Digested Thoughts: Although I was tempted to rule this book off saying I didn’t like it, I decided on a “kindlier” rating, because the History in this book was informative (yes, I can hear you say that you can find better books in the “History” section of a good library). The story suffered because of Lee’s writing style, but she did nicely bring out the moral/ethical dilemmas that surface and affect people during tragic circumstances  when one’s survival is at stake. In addition, I appreciated her portrayal of Hong Kong and its elites during the war and post-war time period. 

Monday, March 07, 2011

Reflections: Cutting For Stone

Marion and Shiva Stone are twins born to a demure and pious Indian nun in a Missionary hospital in Ethiopia. Their birth is incredulously scandalous, miraculous and tragic. Their rumored father, the ingenious and reclusive surgeon, Dr. Stone, disappears after their birth. The twins are lovingly raised by two other remarkable doctors of the hospital, but Marion’s life always has a void staring at him.  Although the twins are born identical, they couldn’t be more different in their attitudes towards Life. They are mirror images, the yin and the yang, the polar opposites that attract and fit snugly onto each other to form a unified picture. When they come together, they make a beautiful composite individual, but when apart, they are incomplete. Where one is rational, the other is irrational and emotional; if one is conventional, the other is a maverick. Marion Stone, the “irrational” twin, tells the epic story of their birth, childhood, their jaded entry into adulthood, and the chain of events that lead them to understand themselves better, and learn the mystery behind their birth. In this moving medical drama, Verghese creates a compelling story and unforgettable characters that are masterfully etched by his stunning writing.

I never thought I would be moved by this book to write such gushing sentences. The book is definitely hefty - both in its size and the weight of the story. The pace of the book is slow and labored with graphic surgical/medical details, which to a squeamish non-biologist like me, is quite hard to read, conceptualize and visualize. I found myself getting distracted every now and then, and was re-reading sentences and paragraphs - surely not a good sign of writing, you might think! But there’s a haunting quality to the book that doesn’t let the reader close its covers. The writing, the story and the characters grow on you to the extent that by 60% of the book you wonder how you let yourself get distracted by such beautiful words and striking characters! I found myself re-reading sentences again, but this time, to admire!

Abraham Verghese is an accomplished doctor and Professor. So given his background, it comes as little surprise that he has drawn his characters with such meticulous attention. He patiently explains the story as if he were talking to young students about a convoluted medical case. He takes his time to set the fundamentals straight - he defines each character like they were different organs that interact with each other and lead to the complicated medical condition (the condition is the resultant story). He explains the history of each organ, the unique functions and characteristics of each, goes on to give symptoms of how a certain organ failed, how it affected certain other areas, why it brought out certain unexpected repercussions, and finally how all of it culminated in the condition, and what it led to. But in essence, he beautifully narrates the story of Life, and he dissects and presents the psychology of each character. Every time I wondered how a certain episode or surgery was related to the story, I got the answer by the end of the book. Every little seemingly irrelevant detail is indeed tied to the story, and in defining the characters. You understand the mechanics of the characters so well that the story becomes riveting and the characters turn real. This is really the mark of a good piece of literature - the mark of a Classic. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are exasperatingly slow and detailed, but you realize why they were so when you find yourself immersed in a world that seemed incorrigible a little while ago!

There are so many aspects that Verghese surrounds in this novel - starting with the unique bonds that twins share to the inevitable consequences of a dysfunctional society, let alone a family, that plays on the attitudes of the young. He sneaks in the political and social conditions of Ethiopia, subtly hinting at the need for change by demonstrating how people are unimaginably, horrifically scarred . Verghese also manages to do something phenomenal - while he dispassionately talks of the human body like it were a machine that ran into problems and had to be fixed, he also brings in a surreal romanticism to the art of surgery. The “morbidity and mortality” aspects of surgery are ameliorated by his poetic sentences, that even a person like me who swoons on seeing blood could appreciate and sense the passion and zeal behind the “art” of medicine. I also take a bow to him for bringing out the absolute necessity for a compassion-centric approach to physician-patient relationships and to the healing process. He writes in his website, "I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking. It's a view of medicine I don't think too many young people see in the West because, frankly, in the sterile hallways of modern medical-industrial complexes, where physicians and nurses are hunkered down behind computer monitors, and patients are whisked off here and there for this and that test, that side of medicine gets lost." These words elevate my regard and respect for him. “He saw empathy as a way to preserve the innate empathy and sensitivity that brings students to medical school but which the rigors of their training frequently suppress.”

I should again dedicate a few words to appreciate Verghese’s writing. It was spell-binding towards the end of the book. His words carry elegance and insight, and are deeply moving.

Digested Thoughts: This book has surely crept into my list of fond and favorite books. It takes time to get into the book and its setting, but it’s worth the investment. Yet, the only reason why I’m being stingy and not awarding it the 5-star smiley is because the “mortality and morbidity” details of the book were a bit too heavy for me, despite their pertinence to the story and the beautiful lessons they conveyed.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Reflections: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Henry Lee is a second generation Chinese living in Seattle. The story starts with Henry reminiscing about his life during the early 1940s - the “war years”. It was the dreadful time during the Second World War when the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor capped the hostility between Japan and the US, and Japan was actively at war with China. At such a time, there was a China town and a Japan town within Seattle, with each neighborhood rivaling against each other, and the Americans ostracizing both. One can imagine how much more exceedingly difficult and frustrating it would have been for a second generation Chinese to live in a time and place that was so prejudiced, hostile (and ignorant) about Asians in general that Henry’s dad made him wear an embarrassing button that said “I am Chinese”. Bullied by the white kids, pressured and addled by his parents’ stance that he should adopt just the right amounts of Americanism to fit in, but should remain a Chinese at his core, Henry grows up as a lonely, misfit. But when he meets Keiko, an elegant Japanese girl at school, they come together out of the deep understanding of their shunned states, and strike a bond beyond friendship. But it didn’t help that Henry’s father, a radical Chinese, hated the Japanese, and the US Government rounded up all the Japanese into concentration camps. As an old man, Henry looks back at his bitter-sweet memories of his first love and the pangs of hurt and separation as he comes across the ancient belongings left behind by the numerous Japanese families that were hounded and taken to concentration camps.

The heart of the book dwells on the tender romance between Henry and Keiko. Similar to many other stories that have reached a greater height of poignancy because of the History surrounding it,  the tragedy of war makes the story more special. Jamie Ford has very realistically brought out Henry’s personality. As American as he is in terms of his progressive attitudes, he is a devout Chinese when it comes to his conventional grounding on duties and moral responsibilities. It is a spitting portrayal of most second generation immigrants, especially of Asians.

Although I found some parts of the story to be a bit saccharine, I appreciated the overall pragmatism of the story. That’s how life is. But the pragmatism was balanced with the right amounts of sentimentality. And it always warms my heart to read about bonds that last despite the ravages of time and memories. Ford also depicts how distant most civilians are from wars and political turmoil. People are often put into buckets because of their race, and not for who they really are. It was stirring to read about the perplexed Japanese who were legal Americans with no ties to their country of origin, being forced to pay a hefty price for their ancestry.

Digested Thoughts: This is a very quiet, reflective read - reflective in terms of the History, and quiet in terms of the pace of the book, and the gentle romance. This is the kind of romance I like - old-fashioned and deep. Almost reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s The Hidden Flower, in terms of the feel of the book. The dewy and misty backdrop of Seattle adds to the tranquil, poignant feel!