The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

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As The Hero’s Walk opens, Sripathi’s life is already in a state of thorough disrepair. His mother, a domineering, half-senile octogenarian, sits like a tyrant at the top of his household, frightening off his sister’s suitors, chastising him for not having become a doctor, and brandishing her hypochondria and paranoia with sinister abandon. It is Sripathi’s children, however, who pose the biggest problems: Arun, his son, is becoming dangerously involved in political activism, and Maya, his daughter, broke off her arranged engagement to a local man in order to wed a white Canadian. Sripathi’s troubles come to a head when Maya and her husband are killed in an automobile accident, leaving their 7- year-old daughter, Nandana, without Canadian kin. Sripathi travels to Canada and brings his granddaughter home.

The child he disowned, has died, ans suddenly, he has become the guardian of his granddaughter, who he has never seen. How is the family, already in throes of sorrow, and unhappiness going to cope. And what about the little girl who has never seen her grandparents before, never been to India before, and most importantly, has just lost both her parents. How would she manage in a strange environment,living with total strangers? Suddenly, everything has changed for everybody.

It is a beautifully told story of lost opportunities, egos that were bigger than their emotions. And of how fate can change everything in a jiffy. The book captures beautifully the nuances of everyday life. So real that it sometimes is difficult to believe it is fiction. Sripathi’s difficult childhood, his mother’s insecurities effecting both his and his sister’s lives.  Sripathi’s wife Nirmala is a regular dutiful  wife and daughter-in-law. She panders to her mean mother-in-law like all dutiful daughter-in-laws are supposed to, even when the old woman, goes out of her way to be mean to her.  She doesn’t always agree with Sripathi, but finds ways of doing things in a way that does not hurt his ego, but there was one time when she refused to put up with his dictat and showed her disagreement.

The most endearing character is of course, Nandana, the seven year old granddaughter, who has not even completely understood what has happened. Even after she reaches India, in her mind, her parents are still alive. She just needs to walk and reach Canada to get to them. Her confusion, her sadness, her reminiscences of her parents, especially of her dad were beautifully done.

A tale , full of real characters, real situations, sometimes made worse by their own reactions and mindsets. You alternate between sympathy and annoyance with Sripathi’s behaviour. On one hand, you do feel sorry for him, and on the other, you get annoyed that he can be so bull-headed. A tale of several lives, entwined in traditions and values, which are at times best left behind, as the times change. As you read the book, you understand where Sripathi’s mother’s controlling behaviour comes from, but despair that she does not see the way she wrecks lives all around her. While sad, it is also a sweet story in how, people come together in crisis, leave behind beliefs that they might have clung on to, all their lives. And how one big change could herald lots of (good)changes for them.

I loved the story, loved the details, the descriptions, loved the characterisations. Another book that transports you into the world that they are describing. If I do have a complaint, it would be that in the beginning, it took a while before the story picked up some pace. I would give it a 4/5.

About the Author

Anita Rau Badami is writer of South Asian Diaspora living in Canada. She was born in India, and now lives in Canada. She has 4 books to her credit. You can read more about her here.

This book can be bought on Amazon and Flipkart(India).

The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka

I picked up this book purely because I liked the cover. Isn’t it just gorgeous? Also, I’ve just realized that I always seem to mention why/how I came by the books I review. I wonder why?

Anyway, as I was saying, I picked up this book, and then remembered that I had read another book by the same author -The Japanese Lover and had reviewed it here.

RiceMother

Nothing in Lakshmi’s childhood, running carefree and barefoot on the sun-baked earth amid the coconut and mango trees of Ceylon, could have prepared her for what life was to bring her. At fourteen, she finds herself traded in marriage to a stranger across the ocean in the fascinating land of Malaysia.

She realizes when she reaches Malaysia, that her husband was far from the rich man her mother was getting her married to. That was all Lakshmi’s mother wanted, a good match for her daughter. For her daughter to escape the misfortunes that she herself had to live through, and even that, Lakshmi realized wouldn’t happen. Her husband Ayah, was not only not rich, he was just a civil servant, neck deep in debts. It took all of Lakshmi’s willpower and mental strength to whip things into shape. To get her husband’s finances in order and to make the most of a bad situation. Gone was the carefree, happy girl. In her place was a determined, strong woman, sometimes too strong for the rest of her family.

She gives birth to six children by the time she is nineteen. Her only real friendship is with Mai Tai, who is a servant in a rich Chinese household. Mai Tai is forced to bear children for her master, and then see her children taken away and given to his wives. Mai Tai’s only link to kindness(and normalcy) was through Lakshmi.

It is an epic tale encompassing, three generations of Lakshmi’s family, through everyday life, heartbreaks, loss and political events like the Japanese invasion of Malaysia. Narrated by the various characters, recorded by Lakshmi’s grand daughter Dimple, and discovered by her great grand daughter, Nisha. The book absolutely transports you into Malaysia. You are right there, witnessing Lakshmi’s friendship with Mai Tai, feeling their terror when the Japanese invasion takes place, you see different perspectives on the same incident when narrated by different people. The constant factor is Lakshmi’s strong character(and sometimes stubbornness), be it when she comes to term with the reality of her husband’s situation, when she devises ways of keeping her daughters safe during the Japanese invasion, when her beloved daughter dies, leaving everybody bereft or when she sees everything a fortune teller had foreseen coming true. We can feel Lakshmi’s despair which she hides from the rest of her family, when she sees her gentle, unintelligent husband being the one everybody has a kind corner for, and she, who does so much for everybody, bearing the brunt of all criticism, both spoken and unspoken.

It is a story with a lot of sadness, but it keeps the attention of the reader until the very end. It is a tale of choices that people make, sometimes, knowing, and almost inviting trouble..  It is the sort of book, I think, would be great for book club reading. There is so much to analyze, so many layers to the story and the characters. No character is just black and white, with the exception of Mohini, who came across through every narrative someone really good at heart.  Each of the characters are well fleshed out, and that couldn’t be an easy task, given that there are so many of them. All their narratives ring true. The writing is vivid, so clear that you could be right there. I just love books like that.

It is a book I would certainly recommend. It is not a cheerful, bubbly read, if that is what you are after. I give it a 4/5.

About the Author

Rani Manicka, an economics graduate, was born and educated in Malaysia and divides her time between Malaysia and England. This was her debut book and she has gone on to publish two more books.

This book is available on Amazon and Flipkart(India).

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

I picked up this book because the summary intrigued me.

It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African-American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feeble-minded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: “Hide her.” And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia-lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.

The story is so much more than this. It takes us to a time when disabilities were frowned upon, people with disabilities were to be hidden away, disowned, and left in institutions where they were treated in less than human conditions.  Lynnie and Homan live in one such institution called ‘The School’. Lynnie had development difficulties while Homan is deaf and just a number for the authorities. Both of them become friends, fall in love and escape. Unknown to the authorities at ‘The School’, Lynnie is pregnant and she knows that she has to keep her child hidden if she doesn’t want the child to have the same fate as her. Luckily for them, when the baby is born, Martha, a retired school teacher is the one who they end up handing over the child.

For the next several years, Martha, spent the time hiding, moving from place to place, to ensure that Baby Julia is hidden and safe. The story is told from the view points of the three characters, Martha, Homan and Lynnie. It is a touching and heart breaking tale. It makes you wonder how as a society we could be so unfeeling. How was it so easy to discard people, just because they were different. The way the inmates of ‘The School’ were treated, the horrors that went on in the School and probably, other institutions like that, makes for a heart breaking read.

Martha, has her own troubles hiding Julia, but she has a close relationship of trust with some of her former students and that helps her. Reading the story from each of their view points adds to the charm of the book. Especially when it is Lynnie and Homan telling their part of it. The experience of being on the fringes of society, of not being the norm, and the feeling of being totally alone is a heart breaking read. It boggles my mind to think how society could be this cruel!

It is a wonderful book. It gives an insight into how society worked in those days. How people who deviated from the norms would be literally removed from the society. The touching story of courage, love, and hope that each of them had, despite the odds facing them I would give it a 4.5/5.

About the author

Rachel Simon is an American author of both fiction and non-fiction. She has six books to her credit. This was her debut book.  She has won numerous awards and recognition for her work.

I, for one, would be looking to pick up more of her books.

This book is available on Amazon and Flipkart(India).

On a side note, does anyone know how it was in India, for those with development difficulties in those days?

The Bay at Midnight by Diane Chamberlain

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Renowned crime fiction writer Julie Bauer is working on her book when somebody at the door disturbs her concentration.

It turns out to be a ghost from the past. The young woman at the door, takes Julie back to 41 years ago, when her sister’s death had changed the world for Julie and her family. She was Ethan Chapman’s daughter. Ethan Chapman and her families were neighbours in their summer place. Every year Julie and Ethan’s families holidayed in their summer place, by a lovely bay. They grew up as friends, but that last summer when her sister died, everything changed. She has never heard from the Chapman family since.  Now, some new information has come up that could plunge her back into the nightmare that was when Isabel died. The new evidence suggested that the wrong person had been indicted for the murder. Julie and Ethan have to figure out what they want to do with this. Do they want to go back and set things right, or just let things be.

Does Julie have it in her to go through it all? And what else would digging in the past throw up? While she particularly wants justice for her sister, she also wonders about how it would impact her aging mother. There is so much at stake, but can she let her sister’s killer go unpunished?

Her sister’s murder is not the only worry on her plate. Her seventeen year old daughter is causing her worries too, in some ways, mirroring the way seventeen year old Isabel had been with her mother, just before disaster struck. Could history be repeating itself or was there something Julie could learn from history?

The book is a quick, fast paced read that keeps you hooked till the very end. There are so many surprises that are in store for Julie and us, the readers. Julie, her sister Lucy, Ethan are all believable characters, well fleshed out and real. The story keeps you gripped throughout. One of the things I particularly liked is the way the author has shown how the tragedy affected so many lives and how different people react to difficult situations. Julie was a spunky girl before the tragedy, but she turned into someone who did everything by the rules. She had lost too much to gamble on life any more. Lucy, her little sister on the other hand, was very, very scared, of everything until her sister’s death. Somehow, after her older sister’s death, she became fearless. As if the worst that could happen had happened, so she had nothing to fear any more. The story weaves between the past and the present, with each character’s point of view. The twist in the end, and some unexpected revelations do come us a surprise.  It could be classified as a romantic suspense, I suppose. The book had a blurb saying that if you like Jodi Picoult’s books, you will love it. But to be honest, I find Picoult’s work far more engaging and interesting.

I would give it a 3.5/5. It is a fast paced, quick read, perfect for a holiday, or a rainy day. I have enjoyed some of her other books far more.

About the Author

Award-winning author Diane Chamberlain, was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, and attended Glassboro State University. She also lived for many years in both San Diego and northern Virginia, where she still resides. She is an author of 22 novels. She usually writes about relationships between men and women, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friends. More about the author here.

This book is available on Amazon(Paperback and Kindle) and Flipkart(in India).

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I had some other reviews pending to be written and published, but somehow had to get this out of my chest. You know, that feeling when you have come across something really good, and you want to share it, even if it means putting everything else on hold? That.

TheHelp

It is 1962. A time in America where black maids are employed by rich white folk, to clean their homes, cook their food, bring up their children, but aren’t trusted with their silver. The invisible lines that were drawn between the white and black women. Lines which could prove most dangerous if crossed.

Abileen, is a maid working in the Leefolt home, bringing up the seventeenth white baby that she has been entrusted with. She is struggling with demons of her own, her only son has died, and it has taken her a while to get back into working. She adores the little girl she has been bringing up, but knows that it is more likely than not that this little girl would grow up to be just like her mother, despite the best of Aibileen’s efforts.

Minny, the best cook in Jackson, also has the sharpest tongue amongst the maids. That has resulted in her being fired from numerable jobs, and has the most vicious of white women, Hilly Holbrook gunning for her. She has been fired yet again, and this time, she is finding it very difficult to find a job. When she does, it is only because her employer is not somebody the rest of the white ladies in town interact with.

Skeeter, a white woman, just back from college, unsuccessful in the only endeavor her mother wants her to take up, finding a husband. Tall, different in looks and in her motivations from her other friends, Skeeter is lonely in her crowd. She finds some of the views that her close friends have, difficult to stomach, and realizes that she might be the only one amongst her friends who thinks this way. One of the things she wants to know is what happened to her old maid Constantine, who seems to have left her mother’s employment, under mysterious circumstances, when Skeeter was at college. Nobody seems willing to tell her what actually happened.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny form an unlikely alliance. Spurred by their circumstances, they start a project. They start writing about their experiences as black maids in white households. The enormity of their task, the difficulties of getting other maids to contribute and the dangers that they were courting dawns on them very soon, but after a point, there was no turning back. Even Skeeter as a white woman faces trouble of her own, but her troubles are nothing in comparison to the troubles that could befall on the maids if they were discovered.

The book is a touching portrayal of the lives of domestic help at that time. A time when they were entrusted with the upbringing of the employers children, but were still viewed with suspicion in so many ways, and yet there were households were they had sensitive and considerate employers, who would never voice out this, in the company of their peers. The racism that was an accepted part of life. Even those who did treat their maids well, accepted the lower status of their maids, without question, just because that was what they always knew. They never questioned it, because it was normal.  The dynamics of society that time, the relationships, not just between the white women and their black maids, but also between themselves, inn their own society is fascinating. Politics, manouverings, class play. There are invisible lines through all classes of people, and almost everybody hankering to be in the good books of the people in power. Ultimately power play is what it all boils down. The one with most power, calls all the cards. How Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter work through it, and triumph is such a wonderful tale.

The story is an amazingly positive and hopeful story, which I think drew a lot of flak from some of the reviewers who felt it was too positive, but it is still an engrossing tale, one that moves you.

Stockett mentions her motivation behind writing this. She grew up in Mississippi, and her family had a maid, Demetrie. She speaks about how you accept the situation, the rules and regulations that bound them at that time. She goes on to say, how much Demetrie mattered to her, when she was growing up. and how much Demetrie contributed to Kathryn’s life. She goes on to say,

I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life.

the reason why she wrote the book.

I had wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.

A 5/5 from me. It is a book that makes you think, and a book that stays with you. A book,  I will happily re-read.

PS: I couldn’t help add, some of the dynamics that were mentioned in the book, I have to say, I have seen even with our interaction with maids in India. I have come across employers who refuse the simplest of dignities to their domestic help.  While it might not be a race divide in place, there certainly is a ‘class divide’ which results in people not treating their help in the same way they would like to be treated. And again. just as in 1960 America, there is good and bad, everywhere.

The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella

I’ve always loved Capella’s books. I read them when we were in London, and mostly while traveling by tube. His books would transport me from crowded tubes to magical Italy and its delicious cuisine. I suspect that some of the food that I tried was a direct effect of reading some of his other books.

I realized that it has been a rather long time since I read Capella, when I read this review on TGND’s blog. And since some of the best books I have read have been recommended by her, it just had to go on my list. It wasn’t available in my library in India, and neither did I get it in Blossoms in Bangalore, but luckily enough, I got hold of it in my library here.

Carlos DiMarco is a young boy, working with an ices maker in Florence. He runs away from Florence, when he realizes that he was a slave to his master, and not an apprentice. He takes his skill and trade secrets to France. Very quickly he becomes a favorite of King Louis XIV. Not only are his ices extremely popular in the court, he becomes a favorite among the ladies of the court. The only lady who refuses to thaw is the young Louise de Keroualle, lady in waiting to Henrietta d’Orleans, the sister of the  King of England, Charles. She had been Henrietta’s confidante when suddenly Henrietta dies, plunging Louise into a precarious position. Louse came from an impoverished, but illustrious family. Those days in France, just being from a good family was not enough, you needed to have the money too, to attract a good marriage. Louise’s family had no way of providing her of a good dowry, and so she had no control over her future. The King could decide for her, and she would have to go with his wishes. Before too long, both Louise and Carlo found themselves making their way to England for very different purposes.  Louise was intended as a mistress for Charles, and Carlo’s skill as a confectioner was a gift from the French Court to the grieving king.

While Louise is involved with the courtly matters, Carlo is busy perfecting his art. At that point in time, England did not have ice houses, which managed to keep ice from melting. Carlo’s expertise helped them create the right sort of storage for ice. And of course, Carlo learnt a thing or two from his English counterparts too.  His ices are already legendary, but he strives for perfection, he is trying to make the perfectly textured, smooth ice cream. The book charts the life of Louise and Carlo, with the evolution of ice cream.

It is a fascinating read, blending historical facts with fiction as perfectly as Carlo blended the flavours in his ice cream. Although. I have to say, that I did miss the mouth-watering descriptions of food that his books normally have. Somehow the descriptions of the ice cream did not have the same effect on me, but that might be because I like Italian food more than I like ice cream, but the historical fiction part was intriguing enough to keep me engrossed..  It was as good as any of the Philippa Gregory books. The whole intrigue and machinations of courtly life is so vivid. The power play that courts were renowned for, where love, and affection are very low in priority.

Carlo’s passion for his craft, makes interesting reading. His experimentation, the way he plays around with ingredients. Who would have thought that the ice cream that we grab from the shelves of a supermarket,  would have taken so much effort to get to where it has. I particularly liked Nell Gwyne’s character, although she is not really a prominent character in the book, but I liked her spirit, from whatever was mentioned in the book.

As usual, the book had me looking up the history of the time to get a better grip on what was happening, politically, and how much of all this was fiction. It was fascinating to read more about Louise de Keroualle. Apparently she is also an ancestor of  Diana, Princess of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

I would definitely recommend this book, if you like historical fiction. And if you want to read a proper review before deciding, go check out TGND’s review, she convinces you to read it!

Shakespeare

A book blog would be incomplete without a mention of Shakespeare, wouldn’t it?

Well, I have been lucky, to get to do more than just a mention. But, lets  come to that later, shall we?

When I think back on the various books I’ve encountered in my life, I also like to look back in wonder at the ways in which they came into my life. While in school, most of them came recommeded by teachers and some from excerpts or mentions in Reader’s Digest. Yes, these were those days before the internet. And some that I picked up on a lark from my school library, which by the way, has to be among the best I have been to. Or atleast in those days, it felt like that, and it did have a wonderful selection of books.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was something I would have never picked up in a library. Of that I am sure. I really have the ICSE board to thank for introducing me to the Bard. And what an introduction it was! Julius Caesar and the Macbeth! Making me fall in love with his plays. Some I read in the original form, some I read in the abridged version. And enjoyed them all. Of course, I did have amazing English teachers who brought Shakespeare’s words alive and made me yearn for more.

Those days came back to me yesterday. Walking through Stratford-Upon-Avon, the place where Shakespeare was born, lived and died. It made me want to go and read Shakespeare again. I can only hope that Daughter gets to enjoy Shakespeare’s works as much as we did.

It was a fascinating experience. Complete with restored houses from the time Shakespeare lived here, to actors enacting portions from some of his plays. More of it coming up in the travel blog, but for now, let me leave you with this.

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Any guesses what it might be?