Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reflections: Confessions of a Former Child

Dr. Daniel Tomasulo is a psychotherapist and psychodrama trainer. In this memoir, he writes about his vivid childhood memories surrounding his parents, and chronicles his thoughts and experiences of being both a child as well as a parent.

One of the things I’ve come to realize is that there are more dysfunctional families than there are “functional”. What does it mean to be a functional family, anyway? I don’t know. Nobody is perfect. Everybody carries scars, issues, and baggage. Some just have more of them than others. It’s inevitable that these psychological issues modify one’s behavior, thus causing a chain reaction. Children “inherit” some of these issues, develop new kinds of wounds and scars, and the cycle continues. It’s easy to look back and point fingers and blame the parent, but then this finger-pointing game never ends. Everybody has someone to blame. Everybody has enough self-pity to feel victimized. The only practical solution to this is to break out of the vicious cycle of outsourcing the blame, and instead acknowledge the problem, understand the reasons (without splitting hairs) and accept responsibility for ourselves, for our own betterment and peace. That’s precisely the objective of this memoir and the main take-away message. Acknowledge, understand, forgive, and accept.

It’s an immensely cathartic experience to be able to do so. But not an easy one. The process of writing things out, helps. It makes one go through the rigors of thinking back, reflecting, introspecting, and venting. Even if there are no revelations or insights, it helps to detoxify the mind of the negativity. The memoir reiterates this as well. Since not all of us can use writing as a cathartic tool, Dr. Tomasulo describes an interesting group therapy called psychodrama that tries to achieve similar benefits. An experience or interaction from the individual’s life is reenacted amongst a group of participants or psychologists, so that the individual re-confronts the experience, helping him/her understand it in a new light, and the group gets a chance to objectively study the dynamics of the interaction, the behavior, the reasons behind them etc. The group analyses this with the individual until the roots of the hurt/problem are identified, thus allowing the individual to come to terms with current problems that stem from the past or the particular incident.

I was definitely intrigued by this approach. Often times our memory of certain seemingly painful incidents might be clouded by bias, and we keep perpetuating it in our heads. But if it is forced to come out and take actual shape in reality, our biases would step into the light. I can see how it’s a useful technique to resolve relationship issues, but perhaps not for something far more deep-seated or traumatic that can't even be attempted for re-enaction.

Since the author is a psychologist, I expected the language, the vocabulary, and the structure of the memoir to be highly analytical and academic. But, I was pleasantly surprised that it was accessible, witty, sensitive, and thoughtful. No “psycho-babble” or jargon-laden bookish language.  It was very well-written and narrated. The whole memoir has a creative story-telling approach to it, making it read more like an engaging novel. I also liked how he tied some of his early memories and incidents to similarities within the lives of his patients.

It was a very different memoir than most others I’ve read. Fragments of significant memories and incidents are weaved together to reach closure, understanding, and acceptance. It was an engaging read about parent-child and child-parent relationships.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reflections: Moab is My Washpot

Stephen Fry is a renowned English comedian, writer, and actor. To me, though, he will always remain Jeeves (from Jeeves and Wooster). I never see him as Stephen Fry, the actor, the individual, but quite simply as real-life Jeeves who acts in other roles. That’s how deluded I can be. I started reading P.G.Wodehouse around the same time that I started watching Jeeves and Wooster. And it was one of those rare coincidences wherein my imagination of Jeeves and Bertie PERFECTLY matched the series portrayal of the characters through Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. One of the reasons why I flinch, “grieve” and vow never to watch “House” is because I can’t imagine dear, sweet Bertie (Hugh Laurie) as an eccentric doctor. Well, anyway, I therefore adore Stephen Fry (and Hugh Laurie) and have a special regard for them. Since I inflicted hours of torture upon my husband by making him watch Jeeves and Wooster, and A Bit of Fry & Laurie, he decided to get this book as a gift. I make his life so easy in the gift-giving department, despite his claims to the contrary.
In this delightfully candid book, Stephen Fry recounts his life, views, turning points, and lessons learned in the first twenty years of his life. It was actually a bit unsettling to read the autobiography, for as I have been harping, it (rightfully) crumbled my deluded perceptions of Fry as being similar to Jeeves. Since I’m growing old and all that, I deserved the reality check, so I’m not complaining. But, he is similar to Jeeves on one major account - his language, his vocabulary, and his ability to play around with words with ease, wit, and sophistication. It warmed my heart to identify this, and that he too, like the fanatic that I am, adores P.G. Wodehouse. He collected and read all of his books, and even spent his time typing out entire P.G.W books for the fun of it! As a matter of fact, he regards P.G.W as a major influence in his life. We are kindred souls on that one.
Jeeves and Wooster (Laurie and Fry) (Image Source)
Since Stephen Fry’s voice and expressions are embedded in my mind (in those neurons that house Jeeves), I could hear his voice, his enunciation, and expressions throughout the book, making the narration more personable - and I enjoyed that part of the experience. His writing style in this book is quite chatty and informal, making it sound like he was sharing the interesting experiences of his troubled early life to a close friend True to the Wodehousian style of narration that drives some people up the wall, he jumps from one story to a sub-story, to numerous other diversions to explicate on his views on a certain subject etc., before he gets back to the initial thread. It didn’t unnerve me, and it surely wasn’t distracting or meandering. He had my attention through all the dozens of interludes and diverting streams of thoughts, because they were all interesting (to me) and were conveyed with humor, wit, and casual intelligence.

Most of the autobiography details Fry’s tumultuous adolescent and teenage years during which time he was besotted with confusions and inner-struggles to find his true self. Despite his high intelligence, IQ, and academic success, Fry was disappointed that he wasn’t “healthy” as defined by the norms of school boys and headmasters. He hated sports with all his heart and was physically uncomfortable in his skin - from the way he looked to the dawning of his sexual orientation. So, he never fit in. A part of him didn’t want to fit in, but another part resented this as well. His views always seemed to be different - a bit more lateral, “skewed”, liberal, and slightly cynical. So, he rebels. His rebellion gets him expelled from different schools, pushes him further to rebel and lash out, until eventually a drastic turning point sets him free of his internal conflicts. He then goes on to study at Cambridge and makes a name for himself.

His narration is extremely direct and candid, for as the title suggests, this entire experience of writing was his way of confronting, dealing with, and resolving the past. Like some of us, he too uses language and words as tools to think and feel. By walking down his painful and significant memories, he stumbles upon insights and revelations about himself and others in his life, thus gaining much needed understanding and closure from the emotionally-draining incidents. But this doesn’t make reading the book heavy and emotionally draining in any way - quite the contrary! There is a matter-of-fact, casual approach to his writing, and a self-deprecating humor and wit that make for easy reading. But there are glimmers of touching sensitivity and raw emotions in sudden corners of the book that elicits the reader’s sympathy and understanding.

I enjoyed reading his analytical take on issues surrounding God, education, corporal punishment, intelligence, friendships, homosexuality, and love - among others. His views are mostly liberal and rational in nature, and I agreed with most of them. The prude in me was caught a little off-guard during instances of explicit ranting and cursing. But, I guess all of that is part of the candor of this book.

In all, it was an interesting read.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Reflections: The Secret Life of Bees

I’m bereft of words to describe or share all the beauty of this book. Being so popular, this book needs little introduction. It’s the story of Lily Owens - a teenager yearning for forgiveness, closure, and motherly love. Lily’s earliest memories as a child is the tragic accident of her mom’s death. Her mother’s death leaves her shattered in more than one way. Living with her unkind, embittered dad and being “raised” by an African-American woman, Rosaleen, Lily is a complete misfit at school and in her neighborhood. She embalms her hurt and yearning by slipping into a carefully constructed fantasy in which she is forgiven, and loved, and loved, and loved till the end of eternity. When Rosaleen gets into trouble and is threatened to be killed, Lily finally snaps her thread of connection with her father and runs away from home along with Rosaline. One of the very few precious memorabilia she has of her mom is a statue of a Black Mary with her mom’s inscription -- “Tiburon, South Carolina”. So, that’s where she goes; in a blind, crazed, desperate need to find any bits of her mother’s past. As if she was meant to be on this journey, she finds August Boatwright - the warm, wise, beekeeper and entrepreneur of Black Madonna Honey. Lily convinces August to take her and Rosaline into her home for a while. Along with August and her two sisters, Lily begins a renewed life - a life where her fears are slowly put to rest, she learns to exorcise the ghosts of her past and reach a state of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.

From start to finish, this is a thoroughly poignant and beautiful story. The tale is set during the time of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Despite the newly passed law that racial discrimination is illegal, there is still tension, violence, and nonacceptance by rigid members of the society. Being white, Lily Owens lives within a safe brood of kind African-American women and wonders why there is so much fuss surrounding skin color. With this societal tension in the background and Lily’s personal turmoil at the forefront, the story weaves in and out of these two parallel threads to knit a beautiful and memorable set of characters. I can’t find a better adjective other than “beautiful”.

The characters are so effortlessly developed with so much nuance that I wanted to pack my toothbrush and go in search of a pink house in Tiburon, South Carolina, and live with all of them. August Boatwright infuses so much calmness, strength, wisdom and faith, I didn’t want to be reminded that she was fictional. It’s been a long time since I came across fictional characters with so much realism and appeal that I was sad to finish the book. It was also refreshing that Lily’s growth wasn’t shown in the regular “coming-of-age” light; her growth was more spiritual and all-rounded. Lily evoked a strong gush of emotions in me through her simple, deep, and touching narration. The author, Sue Monk Kidd needs to be credited for all of this, of course. I loved her writing. It’s very easy to go overboard with the multitude of emotions throbbing in this story, but her writing (in Lily’s voice) is neither overdone with superfluous emotions and insights, nor is it understated through a crude, matter-of-fact approach. She treads a beautiful balance here, bringing about just the right amounts of emotion, insight, and even casual humor!

I savored reading every line of this memorable story. The bond between a mother and child is one of the most unique, joyous, loving yet painful, and complicated relationships that Nature has devised. It’s ironic that there’s always as much joy as pain in this relationship. Lily’s story deals with all the complexities that make people stray from their ideal selves. But despite the world abounding with so many less-than-ideal people and relationships, all one can count on is one’s own inner-strength and faith to forgive, forget, and accept.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reflections: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

A few years back, this book was talked about highly in every bookish circle. I waited for the hype to die down and gave it a read recently. It is indeed an uplifting and charming book that remains with you for a long time.

Guernsey, or better known as the Bailiwick of Guernsey is a British Crown Dependency in the English Channel. This little island was occupied by the German troops during World War II. After substantial research on this island, the author Mary Ann Shaffer has woven a bitter-sweet historical-fiction set right after the end of World War II.

In order to ameliorate the pain and bleakness of the German occupation, the inhabitants of Guernsey end up creating a Literary Society - the Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. The story behind the Literary Society’s initiation is both sad and uplifting - it was literally an excuse that was concocted by a quick-thinking inhabitant to escape punishment from the German soldiers. What is a Potato Peel Pie? It was a regular dish that was served during the meetings - a pie made from potato peels, because there wasn’t much else to feed on. The title says it all - the hopes, positivity, strength, and communal harmony among a simple group of people who lived through five years of mistreatment and despair.

Back in London, Juliet Ashton is a witty newspaper columnist who successfully employed humor to diffuse the sadness and tension during the war. Although the war is over, she is still haunted by it and struggles to find her footing as a writer. But, this tale is full of happy, serendipitous events. She comes to know of the unique Literary Society in Guernsey and begins communicating with the members. Before long, she is in love with the island and the friendly people, and the writer in her is awakened. The rest of the book focuses on the stories Juliet discovers, and how they shape her book as well as her life.

A unique aspect of this book is that it follows an epistolary format - that is, the whole book is a series of letters exchanged between the various characters. The stories, the social scenarios, and characters unfold through the letters. I loved this novel element as it gives a lot of character to the book! But the downside to this narrative style is that it becomes much harder to define and develop the characters. It is a challenge to infuse distinct writing styles that tie with the character’s personality. So, some characters have identical writing styles, making them lose their individual “voices”. The characters are also not complicated or layered - they are either good or bad, which works well in this format.

Juliet, the protagonist is downright witty, humorous, and genial. And so are most of the other characters. Therefore, the overall tone of the book is quite Wodehousian. The phrases, the adjectives, the narration, the British tongue-in-cheek sense of humor is all Wodehouse-inspired, which is to say, I was smiling almost all through the book. And this is a delightful quality in a book that sounds so dreary and heavy with tragedies of war. The writing is eloquent and witty.

There is also a bit of Pride-and-Prejudice-inspired romance in this tale, which is predictable, but endearing all the same. Annie Barrows (the second author) is a children’s writer, so I could definitely see her influence seeping into the tale. Guernsey is turned into an idyllic sister of Avonlea (the fictional community in a Canadian island that frames the “Anne of Green Gables” series). Guernsey is projected as an Utopian haven, very much like Avonlea. The inhabitants also remind us of the friendly characters in Avonlea, each with a unique quirkiness, loads of goodhearted traits, and innocence. And the end of the book most certainly reminded me of a fun episode in Anne’s life, where everything just comes together to make a happy ending.

So, a book that is inspired from Wodehousian humor, children’s classics, and real, tragic, historical events - sounds like an interesting mix, doesn’t it? It is. For all its predictability, the contrived feel-good moments, and the horrific stories of war, the book is still a unique and uplifting read. It is also a pleasant treat for book worms, literature enthusiasts, and bibliophiles who turn to words, stories, and refined expression to take a break from life’s challenges. Mary Ann Shaffer writes - “I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art - be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music - enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.” I cannot agree more. The book is a testament to the strength one can gain through communal harmony and interest in art. It also reiterates my belief that humor (and laughter) is the best healer.

The pages are filled with positivity, wit, hope, strength, kindness, and humaneness, in sharp contrast to the dehumanization of man during the war. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reflections: Weekend Wodehouse

By this time, it's no surprise to most people that I adore P.G.Wodehouse and can never ever tire of reading his books. His words and stories may not carry a lot of heavy depth, complex plots, etc., but they contain so much lightheartedness, spirit and warmth, they always pep me up. Laughter is indeed the best medicine. And as for depth, in his own way, he does infuse subtle and important life lessons. Through his clever satire, he cuts through layers of social stiffness, the numerous convolutions we unnecessarily put ourselves through, and shows that all it takes is a little clear-headed, simplified, "cockeyed" look at the situation to realize what is important and what isn't. Life's pressing problems can often be resolved with some silliness, an abundant amount of nonchalance towards society, a sense of humor, the courage  to make a fool of oneself, and the kindness of heart and confidence of spirit to follow our desires - his stories show how one can live and let live peacefully. He envisioned a progressive harmonious society. His stories remind us how important it is to be able to laugh at ourselves and our life. I can keep going - in short, I loved this book too!

The book contains vignettes of stories and excerpts from his popular books, settings, and characters. Some of the most lovely nuggets from his memorable books are present here, and it is perfect for people like me who want to revisit favorite episodes from his numerous stories. Therefore, the book works as a series of short-stories. It also contains some of the author's notes and reflections - all of which I loved just as much as the stories. His self-deprecating humor, humility, and warm geniality are so very endearing to me.

It's yet another treasured book. Thanks again to my friend for going to great lengths to gift this book!