A Patchwork Deception

Have you ever felt deceived by a book?

I picked up A Patchwork Family yesterday afternoon and was done with it by night. And while I started the book with a lot of anticipation, 24 hours later I feel completely deceived by it.

Towards the end of 2019 I realized how white my reading was. It comprised only of books by white authors. This fact left a very unsavory feeling in me. On top of it I realised that my knowledge of my country’s literature was almost zero. Double that unsavory feeling. Therefore, I decided to undo this and set a goal to read more Indian literature and more works by Authors of color in 2020.

I came across A Patchwork Family late last year in bookstagram. The book title was my first intrigue and next was that solemn cover picture. The blurb promised me a tale of unrelated characters coming together and forming a family after having lost their own. This premise got all my mind bells tingling. I have always been intrigued by strangers forming bonds that run deeper than the ties of blood. Hence, I immediately added the book to my TBR.

A Patchwork Family is the debut novel by Pune-based lawyer Mukta Sathe and it was longlisted for the JCB Literature Prize in 2019. This is not a bad book. Considering that it is a debut, it is a good book. The themes that the story covers is eye-opening and very relevant. The intent of the author is on point. I so wanted to give this book 1 extra star just for the intent.

Being a lawyer, Sathe has tried to bring out the follies of the Indian Judicial System through the tale in A Patchwork Family. And I think that is a really brave and honest thing to do. Apart from that, she has also tried to broach subjects like patriarchy, feminism, and privilege blended with the life of an Indian middle class family.

The story is told from the point of view of two characters – Ajoba and Janaki. Ajoba (meaning grandfather in Marathi) is Janaki’s grandfather’s best friend. Sathe initiated the book by establishing the fact of how these two characters came to be related. Ajoba is a regular visitor in Janaki’s house and has known the girl right from her birth. Across the course of the story, through stand-alone incidents, Sathe tries her best to convey how deep is the bond between Ajoba and Janaki. And that’s where my qualms with the book begins.

When I started the book, I expected that I will get to see how these two unrelated people will make their patchwork family function. But I did not get that. Infact, after finishing the book I felt that the entire story would have still been the same had Ajoba not been in the scene. Ofcourse the book would have been shorter, but the story would have stood. This redundancy of a main character really made me uncomfortable. In all honesty the relationship between Ajoba and Janaki didn’t make any sense to me and felt very unrealistic given the Indian setting.

Next was Janaki’s character. We are introduced to this headstrong female protagonist who initially seems like a fighter but later succumbs to hypocrisy and self-righteousness. I hate it when that happens. May be the author wanted to show character growth, however the metamorphosis lacked credibility. She seemed like someone who latches on to people and ideals based on her convenience and abandons them when they don’t agree with her mind space. I tried a lot to give her the benefit of the doubt considering all that she goes through, but towards the end she lost all my empathy.

Another complain from the book were underdeveloped characters. The characters of Rahul (Janaki’s brother) and Pratiksha (Janaki’s college friend) showed such great potential. But I was left unquenched by their treatment. Infact, instead of Ajoba, if Rahul would have been the other protagonist, the book would have made more sense. Sandhya was another character that had immense potential but was completely left hollow.

I really wanted to like this book. No doubt writer has put in a lot of heart in it. This book, this storyline could have been easily developed into 300+ pages book had the editor guided the writer. Mukta Sathe has not disappointed me. She gives me hope. But the editing was heartless, and that was the book’s prime folly.

What Should We Read

What should we read? Read that which turns the mundane into extraordinary; that which turns the familiar aroma of the coffee in your mug, a luxurious affair between your senses and your conscious. Read that which makes you extend your fingers in the air and join that index and middle with your thumb to feel the silk and satin described in the text. Read that which not simply mentions the cheese in the sandwich the character devours, but traverses you to the slopes of the Swiss alps where the cheese finds its origins. Read that which makes you believe that it’s not the character, but you who is eating that cheese sandwich. Read Amor Towles.

A Gentleman In Moscow; Amor Towles

This book, along with the interplay of times we live in, brought my reading to a pace where instead of rushing through pages, I was reading and feeling and sighing. Sometimes I lost my mind to it, and in others, my heart to it. I am confused about setting it forth as a recommendation because, while I liked it and enjoyed it (let’s ignore the time here please), I wonder if everyone would.

However, if you do pick up A Gentleman In Moscow, I would recommend that you pair it with its audiobook. Nicholas Guy Smith has given an exemplary narration which complements Towles’s writing exactly the way the Count paired the bottle of the Mukuzani with the serving of the Latvian stew.

Times are strange for us. We all are in voluntary house arrest for no crime. But we live with a hope of being released. Unlike us, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov doesn’t enjoy this luxury. This gentleman has been imprisoned for life in one of the most luxurious hotels ever – The Metropol.

As a book, A Gentleman In Moscow, starts with all the fanfare of a beautiful read. I was smoothly floating into its layers, unhurried, the way a boatman rows his boat into a silent lake. I wasn’t hooked to the book. There were times when I left it altogether contemplating whether I need to go forward reading it. It is slow and long drawn, with descriptions that mostly enamored me and at times frustrated me. That is the book’s character. It mirrors the life of its protagonist. It is slow because that is how life is for Count Rostov. And as the Count lives through each day, celebrating his imprisonment, the reader too must persevere with him.

You will feel the passage of time through the book, and while the Count’s life is standstill inside the Metropol, the world outside is changing; and you will feel that too. The book divides itself harmoniously in time increments, going up and down in perfect waves, with the best of the Count’s adventures chronicled in the beginning and towards the end and the middle being, well just the middle. I pretty much decided to give up there as it was nothing but a compendium of vignettes from the Count’s life (and some of other characters) which turned extraordinary because of the Count’s affinity with goodness and propriety with a hint of classy wit and sarcasm. But I did not. Alas! I could not. I kept returning to the Metropol. I kept returning to Towles’s writing.

Towles’s writing reflects the times his characters live in. His characters are not other-worldly, but they are not mundane. His prose is eloquent, smooth and shines like the fresh coat of varnish on a expansive, evened mahogany desk. Exquisite – the single word I have used everytime I have described this book to anyone. A Gentleman In Moscow is a tribute to an era of classical writing that has lost its footing in the SMS lingo of the internet age.

The book is definitely a treat for the lovers of prose, classics, and those who love historical fiction. It is a quilt of images of Russia through the early 20th century. And even though, the Count and other characters are not active participants in Russian polity, their actions seldom remain unhindered by the events taking place on the world stage. But if you are someone who likes to down a shot of vodka instead of savouring the finely-aged rosé, you can steer away from this one.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is a social misfit who leads an extremely routined life between her office and home and nowhere in between. Naive to the ways of the world, she lacks the knack to pretend and speaks exactly what she thinks. This often makes her the topic of gossip in her office, but she doesn’t care. Her life is all good and fine with zero friends or family, except Mummy.

If you pick up this book then keep your favorite stuffed animal or pillow around and also a box of tissues because Honeyman’s characters are so humane, warm, and vulnerable that you would want to pluck them from the pages and hug them and cry. This beautiful story has every possible hue and color of emotion. Eleanor’s story made me laugh and smile. It punched me in my gut and made me bawl and weep. It made me angry, scared, and worried too. And there were times, when just like Eleanor, I was completely fine.

The prose is simple and elegant and peppered with Eleanor’s gallant vocabulary to provide the readers with just the perfect taste of her character. The book is aptly divided into three parts – Good Days, Bad Days, and Better Days and each part is exactly what it is titled. This stands as a fair warning for the part where the writer has dealt with the darker shades of abuse, depression, and dealing with toxic people.

Notwithstanding, the story seamlessly transitions from darkness to shades of positivity and strength and beautifully portrays the importance of kindness, friendships, self-love, and self-esteem in life.

Gail Honeyman has delivered a treasure trove as her debut novel. This is an alleviating and brave story of Eleanor’s struggle to let go of old wounds and insecurities and make space for self-acceptance and friends. Pick EOICF any day. But be ready to be undone and done all over again.

George Orwell’s 1984 

It has been 3 days and I am still not able to gather appropriate words to describe this book. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. And it baffles me how he imagined such a world. Was he in cahoots with Nostradamus? If he were alive today he would have looked at the trends of the world and smirked at us and said, “I told you so.” The man’s a pure genius to have imagined a dystopia which almost seems real today.

1984 is a story of an extremely totalitarian society the signs of which terrifyingly matches with what is going on around the world presently. Orwell has created a world where people are being watched and heard constantly by the ‘Big Brother’. This is a world scarier than the one created by Hitler or Stalin.

Orwell’s concepts of thoughtcrime, doublethink, newspeak, sexcrime, the thought police, and his portrayal of propaganda and obliteration and re-composition of news and history is all just so brilliantly designed and executed.

In Orwell’s dystopia, the world is ruled by the ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Party’. The Party wants power for its own sake. It is constantly monitoring everyone’s behaviour. It has a set routine for everybody which is mandatory to be upheld, starting from the morning exercise. It succeeds in admonishing any or all resistance; one can survive only with absolute, unquestioning, blind allegiance to the Party. Sex is condemned and people are brainwashed right from childhood. There is no concept of  ‘family’, and kids are on a constant lookout to report any deviations from their parents to the Party. The Party controls everything – the past, the present, and the future – by controlling historical records, language (yeah, they have developed a whole new language – Newspeak), and even thought. And those who of think of rebelling are ‘vaporized’. Citizens live in dilapidated conditions, eating bland rationed food, and wearing drab uniforms commissioned by the Party.  But they do not know better.  No one is ever alone. ‘They’re listening. There is no place for love or freedom.

I can only hope that the politicians are not reading this book. And if they have, then I can only hope for them to be less intelligent to comprehend what powerplay is given in the book. Another thought that doesn’t leave me is ‘what if we are already living this dystopia and don’t know it yet.’ It definitely scares me.

This book is powerful and terrifying. It is a testimony to the hunger for power. Not wealth, but pure power. To close, just want to leave with these lines from the book.

“But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

Night by Elie Wiesel

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Disclaimer: I won’t call this a typical book review. I have only penned here what I felt after reading the book.

I was a Holocaust ignorant, until 2 years back when I saw a BBC documentary of the ariel view of Auschwitz which was shot using a drone. The sheer numbness that spread through me watching that video has stayed with me. After that whenever I heard the word Holocaust, those images and the barren coldness returned to me.

Living in India, our history subjects never really elaborated on Hitler or his dictatorship. In my country, Hitler and Nazi, these words are mostly used to describe strict people in a comic way. After I have come to know about Holocaust, I tread with caution before I use these words. And I feel others should too.

Reading Night by Elie Weisel (a Holocaust survivor) made me realize how desensitized I have been. This book brings me back to my senses, makes me hate how cold hearted I have been. And it did it not by some overly dramatic rendition of the horrors of life in a concentration camp but more by the lack of it.

The book contains a most mundane and straightforward description of what happened during the year the author was imprisoned. And my reaction wasn’t something like a punch to the gut, but more confused. For me, it was inconceivable that those words didn’t hit me like bullet shots but were like a normal retelling of the day-to-day events. The sheer lack of extreme pain in those words was something that really made me shudder and be at a loss for words. Even a clear thought process.

“I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was “It”? “It” was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned. All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale lifeless.”

His description of his last encounter with his mother and little sister:

An SS came towards us wielding a club. He commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.”

Words. The power they can hold is devastating. Yes, not a new thought, not an original one, yet so true nonetheless. Buna. Buchenwald. Mengele. Auschwitz. Words, but ones that incite something within. Creeps. Nausea Fear.

I once saw the interview of a Holocaust survivor. I saw the fading tattoo on their wrinkling arm. And after reading Night I thought about him again. I realized what he was. I realized what his life was. He was witness to history’s most unfathomable event. Something which made me rethink about being pissed off at the tiniest of situations.

I don’t think I will ever meet a survivor. All I have, all we have are books like Night and Anne Frank which will have to serve as an education, a reminder that this, in fact, did happen and that it is cruel and moronic and downright irresponsible to believe otherwise.

I could say that I did have some sense of relief that at least I wasn’t alive during this. That I didn’t sit back and have some vague understanding of this going on. But, that’s not really the case, right? We still have other insane situations happening out there and what frustrates me most is the fact that we are outraged over the most silliest of things.

“For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”

So, Elie Wiesel’s account, at 112 pages, serves as a powerful, undeniable, testament. As simply stated as that.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. 
Never. 

And in the Preface to the New Translation, he says: “And yet still I wonder: Have I used the right words?’

For me, yes. For you, read the book and be the judge.

Eleanor & Park

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Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Young Adult/Romance

This story is for all those 80s and 90s teenagers who grew up listening to mix tapes on walkmans and being the ultimate obscure personalities at school. This is a not so typical love story where the misfits are protagonists.

Park is a boy with few friends and even fewer words. He finds comfort in his superhero comics and music. Eleanor is the new kid in the school who is a diminishing shadow of her beautiful mother. She is plump, has red, curly hair which has made her the subject of mockery of the mean girls from her day 1 in the school. These two characters are thrust into a situation together with no other option – they share the same seat on the school bus.

This is their love story. A love which slowly blossoms and goes from innocent to gentle to passionate all in the course of 1 year. This is also the story of their personal struggles; the story of a love which would make you wonder and question a lot of things.

At least, I had my thoughts and questions.

It is a teenage love story filled with turbulence;
what will the end be?
They are too young to get married.
They are not even mature enough to understand long-term commitments.
So what would the end be?
The author really cannot go on about their entire lives.

These thoughts kept gnawing me all throughout. But then the end did arrive. And even though it left me wanting more it was in a way a beautiful ending.

Eleanor & Park is a sure shot hit with people who love love-stories. For me it was a refreshing change or one can say a happy break from the serious or action-packed subjects that I have been reading.

The author has kept the characters real and vulnerable. And perhaps that is one thing why I didn’t dislike this love story. For once, it was not a nauseating sweet love story or something with some stark and grave tragedy. Although, many people have criticized the book on the basis of its timeliness. But I am not such a minute picker.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the book and loved Rainbow Rowell’s writing. I might even give her other books a try; Fangirl for sure.

Room – Emma Donoghue

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2 weeks back, a glance through the ticketing app had me booking tickets for this movie called Room. It had great reviews and through that, I even came to know that the movie is based on a Booker Prize-nominated book of the same name.

The movie was good. It has some brilliant performances although, like every book turned into a movie, many details have been trimmed. So, if you want to enjoy the movie, I suggest you do it before reading the book.

But, then it sure does acts as a big spoiler to the book.

The reason that triggered me to watch the movie was the same to pick up the book – the extraordinary plot.

5-year-old Jack was born in Room and has been living in it ever since with his Ma. Jack’s world comprises of and is limited to Ma and all things in Room. For him, it is just Room and then outer space. And then all the ‘unlying’ happens. After 5 years, Jack is introduced to ‘Outside’ where all the world exists.

Room is not a typical tale of escaping from confinement. It is more like a before-after story. It tells you about how a young mother nurtures her kid despite limited space and resources. It is the story of how a kid fights all his fears and helps his mother get out of 7 years of captivity. It is also the story of the struggles of these two when they finally achieve the one thing they wanted most.

First half of the book contains the frustrating mundanity of life in Room. So much so that readers might want to just leave it at that. But if one holds on, they will realize how it was necessary to communicate that frustration. Then there is the ‘Great Escape’ which will leave your heart thumping and your hands gripping the book. And then the freedom.

Room is narrated by Jack. The writer has done a good job at bringing forth the imperfect knowledge and rigid pragmatism of a 5-year-old who believes that he knows everything. “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.”

Emma Donoghue has treated her characters with honesty. She has made them imperfect, flawed, and selfish to the extent that each one of us would be in their situation. But said that, one cannot not marvel at their grit, their brevity, their determination, and their ingenuity. Both the protagonists are powerful and more than that honest. And I would recommend anyone to read this book just to experience that honesty in story.

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

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Name: Norwegian Wood
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Fiction, Romance

This is only my second Murakami, but what caused me to pick this one and read was the many reviews which told that this one is totally different from the standard Murakami books. Not a proper authority to judge yet, I shall give you a POV of a rookie Murakami reader.

Norwegian Wood, the title is derived from the song of the same name by the famous band, The Beatles. This book caused me to obtain the majority collection of the band and now I am totally in love with their music.

Set in the 1969 Japan, this is the story of 19 year old Toru Watanabe, who is in love with Naoko. Both, Toru and Naoko, are connected through the life and death of Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boy friend. While Toru leads an oblivious life of a normal Japanese student, he is devoutly in love with Naoko, who herself is troubled by her own demons. A patient Toru bears with all of Naoko’s whims, while waiting for her to accept his love. Meanwhile, Toru is also drawn to Midori, a self-reliant, independent, and highly out-going girl, who has fallen in love with him. But his wait for Naoko is holding him back.

This is not an everyday love triangle. This is a train ride which will take you to the depths of all kinds of emotions. Murakami has rendered a story so beautiful that one cannot help experiencing what the characters are going through. You will get high when they get drunk, rejoice with them, relax with them, get all worked-up, and even feel spaced-out when the character does so.

Norwegian Wood is a poignant, deep and a beautiful love story. The romance is pure and is marked by its own imperfections which only goes to make the story so real.

The characters are powerfully sketched but each has been molded with edges so soft that it really hurts to see them hurt.

The story flows just like a calm crystalline stream, meandering gently through the plains, which is in no hurry to reach its destination. For me, it almost worked like a travelling-capsule, which transcended me into a zen space everytime I have picked it to read it.

The story contains its own gentle highs and lows. And the prose is as beautiful as a love letter written during the classical era. All I feel after reading this work is a weightlessness that one feels when one gets totally separated from the chaos going inside and outside of them. A detached bliss that only a love story like Toru’s is capable of giving.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Author: Ransom Riggs
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

Jacob Portman grew up listening to the stories of his grandfather’s childhood which for the most part contained descriptions about peculiar children and monsters. At the age of 16 when Jacob is wise enough not to believe the bizzare stories that his grandpa told him, a mind-numbing incident takes place which leaves Jacob questioning his doubts.

The quest to demystify his grandpa’s last words and also to clarify his own doubts takes Jacob to a remote Welsh island where decades ago a home had given refuge to Abraham Portman. Here unfolds a series of secrets that divides Jacob’s life into a ‘Before’ and ‘After’.

“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.” When a book starts with a line like this, it surely grabs the attention of not only your eyeballs but your mind too. Indeed the book is filled with extraordinary. Ransom Riggs has carefully crafted this book which he has based on numerous photographs borrowed from various collectors. He has meticulously placed all the photographs across the book and has weaved a story, filled with mystery and fantasy, around them.

The book starts at a good pace, slowing down a bit towards the end with bit too many twists and turns and an unexpected ending. But unlike most fantasy books this one neither has any wizards, nor vampires. The book, as the title suggests, feature ‘peculiar children’ which bear the element of fantasy in the world of 21st century. The story has its own creepy and scary moments at times even edging along dark fantasy and even horror.

The book is the first part and its sequel “The Hollow” released in 2014 which I am yet too read. A movie based on the book is under process which is said to be directed by Tim Burton with its screenplay being written by Jane Goldman who has also written screenplays for X-Men – First Class, The Woman in Black, and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Just like any fantasy fiction this book will garner equal interest from both children and adults and is a good book to read over a weekend. Grab this book and get along with Jacob into an adventurous, dangerous and brave journey into a world of unexpected and extraordinary.

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black
Finally I succeeded in reading a non-fiction book. The inspiration behind reading OITNB was of course the popular tv show, but my caveat there was that I had just heard about the series and nothing more than that. When I started the book I neither knew the subject of the show or had even watched its teaser nor any trailer.

My interest was sparked purely on the premise that a tv show was based on this book and trust me, until I turned the first page I didn’t even have a clue that it was a non-fiction. That is how I picked up the first non-fiction book. And I must say, it was not bad. No, not at all bad.

Orange is the New Black, is a memoir of an American PR lady, Piper Kerman, who had to spend 13 months in Federal Prison at the age of 34, just because during her post-college days she got hooked to a life of reckless decisions. The book is quick and covers a lot of aspects about life in the all-women correctional facility situated at Danbury.

I haven’t read any prison diary till date so I can’t really comment on its similarity to one. The author has given quite a detailed account of the one year she spent at prison, about her lifestyle there, about people with whom she interacted, about the effects of prison on her family, and about her relationships with her co-inmates.

I found the start of the book really interesting but somehow felt my interest slipping towards the middle. I guess it was more my feeling because I am really used to the drama of fiction and OITNB is a pure factual narrative. But somehow I held on and it was because the author has been really good with her narration. My patience really did pay off as the second half of the book is full of the stuff that I really look for in a book.

The book breaks a lot of stereotype views that society hold towards prison and prison treatment. But one may note that this memoir is based majorly on writer’s experience in a minimum security facility.

The fact that the world of prison is a totally different one than the one on the outside is very true. This world has its own rules n corruption, its own education system, employment system, a tiny economic system too. People form families and friends and each have their own way of ‘doing their time’ than to let their time do them.

The second half of the book is filled with revelations and realisations that author experiences and a keen reader will find many of these interesting and quite relatable to real world life too.

All in all, OITNB was a good non-fiction for me to start this genre and I look forward to reading more such books. One thing I do want to point out is that if you are looking for the interesting plot, storyline, drama et al that the tv series is providing you then you might feel disappointed because as I told before, the book is a complete factual narrative. But go ahead and have a read and don’t let my judgment prejudice you.

I took quite a few lessons myself from the book and enjoyed reading this book and therefore I write this with a hope that you experience the same.