Book Review: My Secret Sister by Jenny Lucas and Helen Edwards

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Reviewing memoirs are always difficult for me. These are true life stories that the authors have been brave enough to talk about. And some of them incredibly moving, like this one was. How can one possibly do justice in reviewing them?

I found this while aimlessly searching the Kindle store. The blurb caught my interest,

Helen grew up in a pit village in Tyneside in the post-war years, with her gran, aunties and uncles living nearby. She felt safe with them, but they could not protect her from her neglectful mother and violent father. Behind closed doors, she suffered years of abuse. Sometimes she talked to an imaginary sister, the only one who understood her pain. Jenny was adopted at six weeks and grew up in Newcastle. An only child, she knew she was loved, and with the support of her parents she went on to become a golfing champion, but still she felt that something was missing. . . Neither woman knew of the other’s existence until, in her fifties, Jenny went looking for her birth family and found her sister Helen. Together they searched for the truth about Jenny’s birth – and uncovered a legacy of secrets that overturned everything Helen thought she knew about her family. Happily, they also discovered that they were not just sisters, they were twins. Inspirational and moving, this is the story of two women brave enough to confront their past, and strong enough to let love not bitterness define them.

Helen’s childhood was especially shocking and heart-breaking to read. It is unimaginable that parents can be so cruel, so heartless. Although she did have her grandma and aunts around, and being with them, did make her feel safe, they didn’t do much to protect her from her parents. After all that she went through, it came as a welcome relief to us, the readers for her to discover that she had a secret sister, actually, a twin in Jenny Lucas. Along with the happy news, she also realizes that she had been lied to, by most of her own family.

Jenny Lucas had a nicer childhood. She had been adopted by her parents and had a comfortable, normal childhood. She went on to become a professional golfer. Through the women’s childhoods, there had been times their paths almost crossed, but at that time neither of them knew of the existence of each other. Both of them had felt that there was something missing while they were growing up, but little did they think, it would be a sister!

Years later, when they discover each other, one can only be happy for the two of them. Especially Helen who had such a tough time growing up. There still are unanswered questions, some more revelations that shock them, but for the two women, it is a happy ending.

For me it was such a positive story. Helen, despite everything she went through, still managed to survive and stay positive and happy. Of course, their mother who chose to give away one twin, keep the other, and then ill-treat her so badly, is someone who I would never be able to understand in a million years. People like these, who can be cruel to helpless children, should .. I don’t know, are just the worst kind of monsters, in my opinion. It is sad that she managed to get away with it.

It is not an easy read, it is painful to read about Helen’s childhood, and yet there is so much positivity as they grow up. While not an easy read, it is a gripping read.

This book is available from Amazon(UK).

Book Review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

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Every time I read a Bill Bryson book, I feel sad that it took me so long to try his books. I did make up for it by picking up his books whenever I could though:) His incredible sense of humour makes his books such a pleasure to read.

Bill Bryson’s memoir of growing up in the 1950 in Des Moines, Iowa, makes a delightful, laugh out loud read. It had me chuckling away, trying hard to be discreet(and failing miserably, I have to add) in the most inopportune of places. His writing transports you to the places and experiences that he describes. Some of them, unthinkable today.

I loved some of his descriptions of his home life. I loved his family! They are loving and close-knit, but eccentric.

For instance

It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.

Happily, all this suited my father. His palate only responded to two tastes – burned and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful. Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven, for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad.

Bryson takes us on a journey through Des Moines in the 1950s in his characteristic irreverent style, which more often than no, had me chuckling away. He and his friends’ exploits, some harmless, some ending in a not so harmless way. He recounts of a older time without the usual nostalgia that goes ‘Things were so much simpler/better/nicer in those days’. He is so matter-of-fact, about things the way they were. I love writing of this sort. I am wary of books/writers who end up romaticizing an older time, because, in my opinion, things seem rosier when viewed through nostalgic lenses. None of that for Bryson. I love that about his memoir.

I wish I could go into more detail, but that would make no sense, really. Just read it, is what I would say. If you like Bill Bryson’s writing, go for it, you will love it. If you haven’t tried his books yet, why not start with this one?

I would rate it a 4.5/5. Lovely book!

About the Author
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. He settled in England in 1977, and worked in journalism until he became a full time writer. He is an author of several best-selling books.

This book is available from Amazon(UK) and Flipkart(India).

Book Review: The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

I pick up all sorts of books, and love to read memoirs. This book came heavily recommended by Bindu, and luckily enough, there it was, sitting on my library shelves. That doesn’t happen all that often, so of course, I had to grab it.

One of Jeannette’s first memories is of getting burnt while cooking hotdogs on a stove. She was three. Apparently her mother felt there was nothing wrong about letting her three-year old cook. And her father felt there was nothing wrong with spiriting away a burnt three-year old from the hospital(because he didn’t/couldn’t pay) and then driving the family away to escape the authorities. That seems to be the theme of Jeannette’s parents life. Live in a place until things turn sour or people come after them with the bills. When that happens, they would just up and run. To the next place that would have them.

Jeannette’s parents weren’t vagrants or uneducated, they just lived with a different set of values from most normal people. Jeannette’s dad was a brilliant man, with a scientific bent of mind. He would spend hours explaining things to them, let them experiment themselves(of course, sometimes, they would end up almost burning their house down, but that didn’t affect them), and he dreamt of making all sorts of scientific discoveries. And of course, his grand dream of constructing the ‘Glass Castle’. Her mum was an educated woman, who believed in no rules for the children. Having grown up with a strict and orderly mother, she went the other way for her own kids. She believed in letting them be. The children might not have food all the time, but they always had plenty to read. And plenty to keep their minds active.

To me it was as unbelievable read. It was unimaginable that two parents who live so for themselves. The dad who lost track of everything once he started drinking and the mother who could actually eat chocolates while the children starved. People who had the means, the resources and the ability to provide better for their children but prefer to do what pleases them rather than do what most people would. Instead they fritter it all away. Although I have to say, as a parent, her father was certainly better. He seemed to take some bit of it seriously, while her mother was just plain selfish and self obsessed. And some of his actions did bring tears to my eyes, like the time he read all of Jeannette’s course books, just in case she needed help, or gave her the money she needed for her course. It came across that his heart was in the right place, even if he forgot all that once he started drinking.

Living in such tough conditions, did seem to have done the children some good. All the children grow up with a sense of responsibility that was far, far greater than that of their parents. They learn to work and save money for their own future. And they escape from their childhoods to make a better life for themselves. If anything, this memoir goes to show that despite having all the advantages of a stable childhood, and a good education, one could still go and ruin one’s life, while others with absolutely no advantages and horrific parenting, can still go on and make the most of their lives with their perseverance and determination.

Despite the childhood, she and her siblings had, what I found amazing was that they still loved their parents. They did what they could for them. They still looked out for them. That was incredibly sweet and touching to read. I particularly loved the way the author has written the memoir. Where she could have so easily been bitter and angry, she is just accepting of her parents, while loving them for the way they are.

This is one of the books that will stay with you forever. One that made me thankful for what I had, made me glad that I read it. I would rate it a 5/5 for it was an incredibly moving book.

About the Author
Jeannette Walls is a writer and journalist. She was born in Phoenix, Arizona. She graduated with honors from Barnard College, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia University. She published a bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, in 2005.

Henna for the Broken-Hearted by Sharell Cook

I am an occasional silent reader at Sharell Cook’s blog, and when I found out that she had written a book, it came onto my wish list. A few weeks ago, I managed to lay my hands on the book.

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How far would you go to change your life?

Sharell Cook is 30 years old and living a privileged life in Melbourne’s wealthy suburbs. She has it all: the childhood-sweetheart husband, the high-powered job and plenty of cash to splash.

And it’s not destined to last. Sharell finds herself in a broken marriage, and everything she had taken for granted seems to have changed. Impulsively, she decides to take a break and go to India to do some volunteer work for a few months. Living in Calcutta, a life which was totally different from the time she traveled in India with her ex-husband as a tourist, Sharell grapples with life in India, the frustrations and joys, the unexpected and the normal. She also meets her future husband in India. Reading her book, you start to believe in destiny taking you where you belong.

The book is her memoir of her time in India, the way it changed her, and the way she now leads the urban life of a white Indian housewife. Her journey from what she was, to what she becomes, as she lives in a different culture, which she accepts so open-heartedly. Her transformation, as she calls it. Some of things which even, us, Indians would balk at, she calmly accepts and lives with them. It was fresh take, devoid of the stereotypes one would expect, and without any undue glorification of India either. She writes it as it is, and that in itself is very refreshing.

I loved reading her experiences in India, as she travels through India, lives in various parts, lives a life which is different at the same time, similar to locals. Washing clothes by hand, living through water shortages, temperamental landlords, nosy neighbours, part and parcel of middle class living in India, and accepting it all in a very matter of fact way. I absolutely love her attitude.

What really stands out is the risks she takes, probably because all that she considered familiar had changed after the breakdown of her marriage. The risks she takes in coming back to India, living with the man she would later marry, and her willingness to make the most of her situation, to accept what life has in store for her. It’s not something what most of us would find easy to do. And her attitude towards the changes in her life. Her open-hearted acceptance of the confusion that India can be, and her willingness to be a part of it all.

She literally taker us on her journey, through India, with the wonderful companionship she shares with her husband, and their adventures of various kinds. Living in different parts of India, until they reach the place they end up settling down in – Mumbai. Her husband’s family comes across as such wonderful people, accepting her a part of their family, and doing what it took to get her comfortable. The wonderful bond that she shares with them comes out loud and clear in the book.

If I had to describe the book in a few words, it would – honest and captivating. She keeps the pages turning, you want to know more, and you actually feel sad when it ends. A book I would definitely recommend.

Return to India by Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan’s memoir of her family’s Return to India process, after living in the US for about 20 years. I knew I had to read to read it as soon as I came across it. To add to it, Smita, heavily recommended it on one of my posts. I just had to get hold of it.

Shoba charts her journey from the time she first started to dream about going to America. Her parents are horrified at the idea, and try everything to stop her. Fate, finally, had it’s way, and she made her way to America as a student, with stars in her eyes, all set to live the American dream.

America gave her opportunities that she had dreamed about. She had come to America to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, but ended up a full-fledged art major trying to do a master’s in sculpture, For Shoba, this was the essence of America’s opportunities.

As Shoba immersed herself in America, she also develops close friendships with her fellow Indian students as well as her American friends. Living her new life, the experiences of being a student on grant in America, studying subjects that excited her, finding funding and help in the most unexpected places, washing dishes to make some money, Shoba is content. Somewhere down the line, she gets married – a traditional, arranged marriage to Ram.

From her happy existence in America, her perspective on living in America starts changing after she became a mother. She slowly started thinking about the ‘India Question’, with more and more of her friends and people around her talking seriously about moving back to India. The country that she had fought to leave, was now, beckoning to her. The culture and society that she had once tried to avoid, was the one she started trying very hard to inculcate in her daughter. There are some hilarious episodes mentioned of how hard she tried to make her daughter ‘Indian’. She calls herself a ‘born again Hindu’, when she drags her family to the temple, she had never before visited, or tried to wear a sari the whole day, for a month, just to make it familiar to her daughter. In her own way, trying to bring India or being Indian, closer to her American born and bred daughter.

While she was passionate about moving back, her husband Ram, was more resistant to the idea. He was less bothered about the parenting worries that Shoba had. She was quite worried about how to parent her daughter, the American influences worrying her tremendously, while her husband believed that with the right values, their daughter would be fine anywhere. They had their discussions, their disagreements, and their concurrence on the ‘India Question’. Finally, after a few years, things fell into place and they did indeed move to India.

So, how did I find it? I really enjoyed her perspective on life in America(or abroad anywhere, for that matter). Her observations of how people behave, some reject India completely, while others become born again Indians. The way she herself changed after her daughter was born, is quite interesting to read. In some places cliched – just the way, we have heard of NRIs behaving, and in some places interesting.

When I started reading this, I couldn’t help wonder if I would find similarities in my situation with what she recounts, but I have to say, her situation, and her reasons for moving back were quite different, so I did not really relate to her story much. It was just reading her story than reading a story that I could totally relate to. Probably because we had not lived abroad for so long, nor had we ever planned to live abroad. Returning to India was a given for us, rather than a ‘question’. Also parenting worries of the sort she had, somehow, does not bother me. Influences of all sorts, would be there in any society, in my opinion. My daughter’s childhood cannot be exactly the same as mine, even if I went back to the town I grew up in, and did everything my parents did. But that is entirely my opinion.

An interesting read, in some places very cliched, but pacy and gripping all the same. The way her priorities changed over the years with changes in her circumstances is very interesting to read. I would recommend it to anybody who likes memoirs although I think I enjoyed her first book – Monsoon Diary more. Would I recommend it to someone who is relocating/planning to relocate to India? I don’t know. Mainly because I could not relate to it at all, but perhaps if you are in a similar situation as her’s you might relate and enjoy it much more. Other than that, as a memoir, it is an interesting read.