Reflecting back on my January reads for the past 2-3 years I realised that I don’t pick easy books. I usually have tomes with unfamiliar tropes, complex storytelling and non-linear narratives as my way to gear up for the year ahead.
However, this year bookstagram wove its magic and I found myself looking at the impossibly lovely book cover of The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches as a read in one of the online book clubs. Thanks, Resh! And I couldn’t resist reading about witches and irregular at that!
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna is about witches, magic, love and familial relations that the characters find in the unlikeliest of places.
The author started writing the book a few months into the pandemic. I can understand the feeling of escapism and the need to find unconditional love and acceptance and everything heartwarming.
A welcoming house by the sea, lovely gardens, greenhouses, a friendly golden retriever, a bright, sunny-smiled witch, adorable little girls who can do magic, a sententious old man with a wicked sense of humour, a fussing-over-you housekeeper, a gentle and sweet gardener, a scowling-but-heart-of-gold librarian, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches manages to have all these elements so that the book is like a hug, cosy and nice.
Nealy no one here has a family. We meet orphans (all witches are, by virtue of a spell gone wrong), people seeking refuge outside abusive marriage, dysfunctional families, battling childhood trauma, having trust issues. But there’s no dark cloud on the horizon. Not even dead bodies or skeletons evoke horror. There’s so much love from strangers, adopted families and in the unlikeliest of places that this world becomes your favourite place to live in.
You are so entranced by everything that makes you happy and loved that you don’t mind the lack of conflict, rather the lack of serious conflict in the story. The only thing I can say that’s not warm and glowing about the book is that the disasters, the difficult circumstances are somehow glossed over, the obstacles fall too easily and the conflicts resolved too conveniently. However I wasn’t going to let that come in the way of my enjoyment.
I would recommend this book to everyone, if they want to just lose themselves in the world of what-can-be, rather than thinking can-it-be-possible.
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
I was prodded into buying this book by my sister, who is very definitely an adult. The book is marketed for children and my first read (I have a feeling there are going to be re reads) confirms this.
Did I enjoy it? I can’t say a definite yes and I cannot give it a thumbs down either.
If you haven’t watched the series, A Series of Unfortunate Events or read this book or the others, then read on. If you have, I am sure you have your own strong opinions and let me know those in comments.
For starters, the book and series name is abominable and I believe that’s part of the attraction. Ditto for the book cover. The guy looks really evil.
The blurb has this warning that there’s nothing but unpleasantness in the book and that’s quite right when you look at the storyline.
However, and here’s the part that’s got you curious, the book has a Roald Dahl feel (a bit, not imitation though). The author name, Lemony Snicket looks like it’s made up and yes, Daniel Handler has done that. It also hints at fun things and an intelligent way of making up the story.
The book and the series is about three children who discover their parents are dead with their mansion burnt down. Thus begins their saga, of misadventures, nay, misfortune mostly and their attempts at influencing the outcome of these events. They are shuttled off to the home of the executor of the parents’ will (more like an executioner, as the eldest child Violet thinks) and later to a very very distant relative, the evil Count Olaf, an actor by trade and greedy at heart. He wants the Baudelaire fortune at any cost (here it refers to the surname of the surviving children) and the story turns sinister (it seemed it was only for the adult in me; my children were unfazed and loved all the twists and turns).
I quite liked the way Lemony Snicket kept telling the meanings and context of words. Also interesting were the periodic warnings of more bad things coming up.
I might not have found the book magical but I cannot say with certainity that I would not read the next one. Sometimes, you just need time to let something grow on you.
Bending Over Backwards by Carlo Pizzati
Bending over Backwards is a memoir and a travelogue, of places and experiences that are literal as well as of spiritual significance. It’s also an exploration of the significance of technology in a spiritual quest and whether we can justify its use.
The book starts with the mention of a backache, chronic and all-pervading. It is for a cure that the journeys and fascinating experiences come about, ending in India.
Being an Indian, reading about India from a foreigner’s perspective seemed like an incomplete experience at best, whenever I did read such an account.
Though, a disclaimer here that Bending Over Backwards is not an India-centric experience only. In fact, the author’s journeys and esoteric cure seeking had me enthralled.
It’s quite entertaining to see different places, right from Italy to US to Argentina to India. As the writer gets on flights for yet another stop on his search for a cure, there’s curious stuff happening. We meet aura readers, to medical professionals to meditators, yoga practitioners, past life regression, exorcism, trance-dance therapy, dubious gadgets to inject credibility into esoteric practices, we see it all.
Carlo Pizzati’s writing has a luminescent quality, it illuminates the most banal, simple acts. There’s no pretension, no convoluted facts, things are put down as they are, perhaps it’s his journalistic experience that helps him write about life in a factual manner.
There’s humour in the way situations are recorded, a non-judgemental observation that brings forth how ridiculous something can be.
As a reader, you can see the journey, not just the physical aspect but spiritual as well, as his learnings deepen and become wiser.
In praise of the cover, the art is very typically Indian, quirky and bright and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book.
The very Indian experiences of Ashtang yoga, of Ayurveda, of meditation, of bhajans, satsang, ashrams and gurus, even of the so-called chaos (for me it’s life as usual) and richness of daily life were not the first draws for me. In fact, the way the book distills these experiences and the completely unpretentious way the author moves from one quest to the next is mesmerising.
In the end, I really did not care if the author had his answers, in fact, they were a faithful reproduction of the conversations he had with various learned men and their views but whether he was closer to a satisfactory explanation, I am not sure.
While the author periodically wondered if he was being ridiculous in searching out answers in a non-traditional way that would not appeal to rationalists, I could only read in wonder as I know the leap of faith it takes to move from the concrete world of rationale to something undefined and even scoffed at as being pseudo science or pop psychology.
Reading this book was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a refreshing read, a breath of fresh air and voice, with subtle wit that underlies the quest for answers and cure.
A History of Objects by Carlo Pizzati: Book Review
Title: A History of Objects
Author: Carlo Pizzati
Genre: Short Stories
Publisher: Harper Collins
Are objects merely inanimate things, sitting around us, a witness to our lives, our exhilarations and tribulations? Or do they play a part in the events, precipitating conflict, resolving conundrums, pushing us to explore new paths?
In ‘A History of Objects‘, things may not be pivotal in bringing about change, but they certainly allude to differing perceptions and evolving situations.
It is a collection of short stories, of diverse people and places, that span decades and lifetimes of protagonists. Many of these are open-ended, for the reader to imagine how things turn out.
About the Book
The book opens with a wonderful premise, of the narrator losing objects, or rather his stories of them through another object that has a great hold over us — a hard drive. And thus begins the book of many delightful tales, delving deep into families and people’s lifestyles, their beliefs, aspirations and fears.
There are many bits and pieces from these stories that felt viscerally ‘right’, right from our vices and failings to our affectations while navigating confusing circumstances.
While The Coconut Scraper makes fun of artistic pretensions, The Portrait deifies art, bestowing it a kind of prescience.
The Sweater digs through a family history, uncovering deep rooted prejudices around the color of skin. The theft of the sweater is presented through the eyes of the thief and you are convinced of the inevitability of it ending up with her.
The Mask brings into sharp focus the pandemic and everything we have collectively been through in the past 2 years. I loved the way it ended, not knowing if someone were infected or not, because we all felt doomed in either case.
The Leash is a little funny in its treatment of the characters and their lifestyle, even though the psychological manipulation in the story is tragic.
The Jade Stone is relatable; it’s what I see around me today – the ambition, the lack of understanding and dare I say it, the impermanence of relationships.
The Smartphone is very contemporary, very apt, very true. The story of a couple seemingly on a paradisical farm who are in fact trapped because of social media, is just a few degrees away from the truth we all face.
The VHS tape is so innocuous and chilling in its possibilities of a gun hidden and found by someone vulnerable.
The Bench, oh dear, it’s so clever, it’s so right, its so bang-on, not just about literary festivals but about sexism.
Reading these stories felt comforting for their excellent observations, the perfect prose, the slight detachment from the characters, yet diving deep into life through their stories.
You can buy the book here.
This review is powered by Blogchatter Book Review Program.
In Search of a Good Read
Goodreads the platform, has a very evocative name. No matter how much you read or how many books you have in your digital or home library, there comes a time when you are searching for the next book that will make you feel alive, involved, entertained and other such tall orders.
So, Goodreads works on recommendations based on the books you have been reading or the books people in your network or those with similar tastes are reading. However, even these are not enough at times.
And so begins the quest to read beyond your normal preferences. I picked one such book recently, from a platform I rarely visit, published by small, indie publisher with a tacky name meant to obfuscate rather than enlighten. The collection of stories seemed wanting, as did the cover. The blurb had extracts from the stories, as if someone did not want to spend time writing them afresh.
The text, sigh, was rife with exclamation marks as if the reader could not understand what was being written. There were ellipses, is that even the way each sentence should end?
There was no reason the stories were clubbed together. I prefer reading anthologies that have atleast a thread of theme running through the collection or some logic that defends them being put in a book.
This post is a rant, I know, and from talking about finding a good book to read I am discussing why a book did not work. But here’s the understanding I have arrived at: just because we can now put together any content, choose any cover, package and publish it as a book, whether it is 10 pages or 100, does not mean we go ahead with work that does not fulfil the bare minimum obligations of it being good work.
‘Do it right and well, even if there are no gatekeepers.’
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
Throw your Hat over the Fence for Best Results
Being an Indian, I have never worn a hat. In my teenage years, I was obsessed briefly with straw hats, the influence was possibly all the books I was reading of summers in Europe and our own frequent trips to Goa, the most anglicised part of our country I knew at that time.
However, I like the idea of hats being thrown over the fence, for it’s a wonderful way to get my self to climb the fence. Talking of fences, just a few years ago I was itching to jump over hedges, ubiquitous in the city I lived, to photograph flowers that residents had living my nurtured. This was the year I discovered bokeh and macro photography and the art of taking a close-up shot when phine cameras were still rudimentary by today’s standards and you had to hold your arms in and your breath to keep the phone steady.
Coming back to the hats, signing up for BlogchatterA2Z was my way of committing to write everyday. Since I am not much of a planner, when it comes to blog content or books, this was the perfect time to write posts from the heart, at the drop of a hat (there it is again).
So far, it’s going fine. By fine I mean, just today this is the fourth post I am writing and publishing because I am playing catch-up. Atleast I am still in the running. Let’s see if I am there at the finish line.
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl
My younger one has raved about this book ever since he read it and trying to get me to read too. One of the reasons was that I refused to listen to the story and the dialogues, since I had already had an earful from ‘The Witches’ (going by the memorised passages, it looks like a wondrously delightful read).
While I was in the transition period, having finished one book and looking for the next one, I was given George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl by the kiddos. It’s fun, fun, fun.
A little story exposition here: little George, 8 years old is left alone for the day and asked to take care of his grumpy grandma. I was blessed with sweet, loving grandmothers, but this grandma in the book is an absolute bulky, cheerless, bossy and made me chuckle all through. Because grandma is such a pain and because she constantly belittles George, misguiding him (which is apparent even to a child) and making him afraid of her supposed witch powers (though it is George who gets lucky with the magic after all) that the boy decides to take matters in his own hands and brew her a medicine that will — if not cure her, definitely do something to shake her up.
He goes around the house collecting every substance that’s runny or powdery or gooey to make a concoction (frankly I shuddered at the stuff he put in, even my non-judgemental, non-motherly self). Finally, after a boil and a stir, grandma gets to taste the medicine with hilarious effects.
All through the book, I was super worried about George’s parents getting back and going all ballistic about the stuff he used up, right from his mom’s toiletries to the veterinary medicines but Roald Dahl being who he is, Mr Kranky (pops) lives the idea and wants to take it further.
No more spoilers but this is a really entertaining book. A Roald Dahl classic, but it for your kid and yourself.
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
‘Banish the gloom’, ‘mood-boosting makeover’, ‘instant feel good spaces’ — these were some of the phrases that made me stop scrolling and click on the article link.
I am a sucker for reading home improvement articles, poring over pictures of beautiful homes and gardens (yes I love that mag too), going through designing and cleaning hacks. In fact my favourite way to de stress is reading about the new shade of throw cushions guaranteed to cheer up a space. Disclaimer: there’s no real connection between a person’s home beautifying abilities and their desire to read about it.
I might be doing the minimal when it comes to making a space feel good but flowers work for me very well. There’s nothing like a bunch of flowers right on my work desk/dining table/ kitchen counter, wherever I can get an eyeful of them multiple times a day. I also like bright corners, designed to be comfortable reading spaces and recently discovered that I had one, which I have made more and more personalised over time. Tapestries are another favourite way of livening up a space and I change cushion covers, table covers, runners and curtains to give a new feel to the room. Oh yes, open windows that let in the fresh air and plenty of light are a must. And to round it all up, I put on my favourite music and cook to the sound of the lyrics.
Do you have any pick-me-up tips for making a space cheerful?
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
When Trees have Email Ids
Much has been written about trees — poetry, prose, research dissertations. Now, it seems we can talk to trees the way we communicate with other humans, via email.
People in Melbourne, Australia are doing just that. In order to increase green cover across the city and mitigate climate change, it was important that the community was involved, in planning the kind of new trees they wanted and taking care of older ones. Perhaps, we humans have an innate desire to speak to trees, beyond watering them, fencing young ones to protect from animals and maintaining them — Melbourne tree programme calls it ‘reduction pruning’. So we are doing it the way we are used to, by sending them emails. There’s a jaunty message that says ‘good luck with the photosynthesis’ (isn’t that cool?), an outpouring of thanks and gratitude.
The colony I live in has a good tree cover, so much so that the temperature is noticeably cooler as soon as we turn in from the main road. There are sprawling mango trees that are laden with fruit in summers; it’s a rarity to see fruit bearing trees out in the open now. Then there are the rain shower trees that make the area a gorgeous yellow in May-June, Gulmohar, Pine trees that lets us pick the pine cones, trees that bear red flowers and others that have little purple ones. There’s mulberry too, the branches springing forth from one epicenter and many others dotting the path. I don’t think I would be sending them emails, even if they happened to have their own ids, but I do say a silent thanks to them all when I walk.
What would you say, if you could talk to a tree?This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
Missing, Presumed Dead by Kiran Manral
Missing, Presumed Dead by Kiran Manral can very easily be a treatise on marriage and mental illness. Instead, it’s one step ahead, a thriller that builds the suspense and the distrust in your heart slowly, bringing it to a menacing level that chills the reader.
The book begins with the description of quiet domesticity, children who are adored, a serene hill town and a placid pace of life. However, the peace is disturbed by the afternoon doorbell, the arrival of a strikingly similar-in-looks half-sister and the incessant rain and storm.
Soon, peace gives way to chaos as Aisha peels back the layers of her memories and her present life. Her marriage has been fractured for some time, she battles her mental demons, she is living with an unsupportive spouse, a teenaged daughter who shows signs of an eating disorder and through it all, Heer arrives, the person Aisha has abhorred for years.
In a matter of days, Aisha disappears and she is declared missing, presumed dead. But the reader is privy to Aisha’s story. For the next few days, as she ostensibly takes back control of her life but is actually sliding away from reality, the mystery gets deeper.
Who is right, who is good, who has ulterior motives, is there an unreliable narrator, are questions that the reader grapples with.
In places, the prose becomes almost poetic and wise as the story moves along. It is a beautiful delving into marriage and relationships as also into the dark recesses of a person’s mind. The last part is surprising, moving swiftly into the realm of betrayal and avarice.
Read the book for a good storyline and exploration of the nature of relationships. The mental health angle is deeply researched and sensitively handled.
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.