Twelve Tales of Christmas by Cathleen Townsend: Book Review

Title: Twelve Tales of Christmas

Author: Cathleen Townsend

Genre: Short stories, Fiction

Synopsis

Christmas isn’t always Jingle Bells and “Ho, ho, ho.” In these Twelve Tales of Christmas, even Santa has to deal with unexpected German shepherds and reindeer who suddenly want to learn the tango. A dryad works feverishly with a teenage boy to save her tree, now in a stand in his living room, and everyone begs Death to hold off for just one more day.

And no one knows what to do with the fire-breathing dragon. He’s not going on the Christmas card list anytime soon.

Come enter worlds of beauty and dread. Join a house hob as he raises his cup of eggnog high, and enjoy yuletide yarns delicious enough to tempt even St. Nick.

Review

The stories in this collection, meant to be a Chritmas vacation read are delightful, surprising and thankfully all positive because no one wants to feel sad in this season. Every story made me smile. Some for the kindness, others for the love. These tales are magical, more than literally so. The language is lovely. The stories touch your heart in unexpected ways. You feel love, empathy, kindness, hope and joy, which is quite a lot for this short and sweet read.

The language is precise, sharp, witty and the stories present different flavours. Christmas makes up the theme and the spirit of the stories but the settings and the protagonists have a lot of variety.

Short and longer stories are mixed together judiciously. There are short bursts of positivity interspersed with longer, deeper ones. The shorter ones usually leave you with a mood and the longer ones with the feel of the characters. At places, the characterisation is surprising and refreshing like Mori and the irritable dragon in the last and the longest story. The narrative voice is very mature and I loved the language. Each story threw up lovely words at me that evoked new feelings.

I really could not decide which were my most favourite stories. Each one seemed better than the last. ‘The Gift’ portrays the mind of an elderly woman so well that the reader is as delighted as the protagonist. I wished ‘Chritmas Tango’ was longer. And ‘Snowflake’ is both poignant and beautiful. These stories tantalise and because they are short, the reader to forced to think up what happens later. ‘Department Store Santa’ shows a world that is hard up. Everyone has troubles but it is possible to forget them in little lovely moments. I loved the sensitivity of ‘The Angel in the Tree’. ‘Dragon Yule’ is a wonderful fantasy read.

This collection is easy enough for a quick read and rich enough to savour. Read it as your mood demands.

Buy this fantastic book here.

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The Quest of the Sparrows: Book Review

Title: The Quest of the Sparrows
Author: Kartik Sharma, Ravi ‘Nirmal’ Sharma
Genre: Spiritual Fiction
Publisher: Rupa Publishing

The Quest of the Sparrows is a simple tale that brings practical spirituality to the reader without being preachy or pedantic. The story of a young, reluctant guru who embarks on a journey with his followers as a way to demonstrate and to test for himself the workings of the Divine, brings nuggets of wisdom that anyone can relate to.

Guru Partibhan has ‘guruhood’ thrust upon him. Considering himself unworthy and unequipped to take over the mantle of his father, who was an eminent spiritual leader, Partibhan starts on a 800 km long journey on foot along with his followers. The test is to see if the Divine would support their journey which they undertake without any food, money or belongings.

Surprising things happen on the way to Ganapatipule, their destination. The followers find many insights which broadens their understanding of situations and of themselves. This is the beginning of the spread of the practical spirituality movement that Guru Partibhan spearheads.

Narrated as a story of a spiritual leader and his followers, all battling the problems that life throws up, looking for peace, the book transcends from being a story and a mere lesson to a guide of how our lives need to be navigated.

The Book’s Premise
The book questions as to why spirituality ends outside a church or temple. Is spirituality a make believe concept that is impractical or should spirituality help us discover who we really are?

The book explores the idea that worry and insecurity limit human potential, making us mere survivors instead of evolutionary beings who contribute with their unique talents and gifts.

Review
Sparrows are considered carefree, gentle birds and when this book titled ‘The Quest of the Sparrows’ came up for a reading, I felt immediately that the book would be light and pleasing. And indeed, the books tackles the serious and the heavy topic of spirituality very simply and joyously.

An advantage is that the characters and the incidents are completely Indian and are very relatable.

The authors of the book are a father son duo. Ravi Nirmal Sharma is an Associate Creative Director with a reputed multinational agency. Kartik Sharma is an investment banker and an alumnus of IIT Delhi and IIM Ahmedabad.

For the authors, the inspiration for this book arose on watching a sparrow eat a few grains of wheat and then flying away when it’s need was met. This led them to think about what it is that keeps a frail sparrow content but supposedly evolved humans unhappy.

The book is narrated from four different viewpoints. There is Nikhil, who is at the nadir of his existence and wants a way out of his misery. Sanjeev is a cynic due to his own experiences. The Guru also speaks of his own journey, from doubt to evolution. Lastly, there is the man who is motivated only by hate.

The first part of the book whets the appetite while the second part raises questions. It is the third part that brings forth the answers. The last part is the culmination of the story, tying up the characters and the story neatly. The names of the chapters are quite interesting and they follow a medley of their own.

The various seekers in the motley crowd of followers are people we can identify with and the situations and the problems they encounter like road rage, accidents, feeding poor people, helping the needy, taking care of elderly parents are commonplace. And yet, these hold the key to much understanding if people can empathize with others.

The writing is excellent; the pace of the book never slips and the characters are recognisable from the people around us. Something or the other is always happening. At no point does the book slacken.

The characters develop well through the journey and the book.

What I learnt from reading the book

The book addresses every concern that a seeker would have. In my life, I have had various theories and queries and somehow the author managed to address all of these.

Reading the book, I found the courage to be authentic, to be generous and giving, to be trusting and accepting.

I would doubt if Spirituality was a ‘real’ thing or just a brainwashed response? The Quest of the Sparrows provided me the answer and put my doubts to rest.

I understood that we need to connect with our own Higher selves and recognise that the Divine is within all of us. And also, we need to see the beauty and the Divine’s munificence.

As the Guru puts it,

“A song is composed of words, the silence in between, and music. The words slow down or hurry up. The notes climb high, and then descend low. The pace and pitch alter with grace and fluidity. A song touches our hearts in a way nothing else can. I wanted to make my spiritual lessons appear like a song of life. I wanted them to affect the listeners”.

Verdict
The Quest of the Sparrows is a must read for everyone, whether a conscious seeker or not. It would open your mind to new ideas and to a refreshingly liberated way of living.

Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of the book from the author in exchange of an honest review.

How Chris Baty saved me from going down the rabbit hole of despair

Chris Baty needs no introduction to NaNoWrimers. The founder of National Novel Writing Month, in 1999, along with 21 of his friends set out to write a complete novel of 50k words. He has been an inspiration since, both in managing the November event and in pulling writers out from the depths of despair through his pep talks.

I had the fortune to read his book, ‘No plot, No Problem’, just before last year’s writing marathon. I sped read to ensure I knew everything about NaNoWriMo before getting into it. It is a hilarious, easy-to-read and profoundly informative manual on how to tackle the writing and how to conquer the fears, insecurities, the writing blocks and the inevitably super critical Inner Editor. Chris Baty goes into the entire month, moving from week to week, explaining what to expect and what problems the writers are likely to encounter and of course how to handle them. Through sharp wit and unrelenting humour, Chris Baty holds your hand through the entire process of churning out a first draft of a nearly full length novel.

Post NaNoWriMo, it is desirable that the first draft be revised and edited and rewritten to make it a readable book. But even if that does not come about and you feel that the world is not ready for your masterpiece just yet, doing the writing marathon is an incredibly rewarding experience.

Check out the book and sharpen your pencils.

Autumn by Ali Smith: Book Review

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Genre: Fiction

Autumn is a very contemporary novel, set in the post Brexit Britain, exploring the themes of feminism, of memories and the fragility of life.

Elisabeth Demand, who could actually have been ‘de Monde’, is a junior lecturer in the history of art, having accepted art as a vocation early on. This is because of the charming and supportive neighbour she had as a child, the ‘arty art’, Daniel Glutch.

Through her growing up years, the 80 yr old Daniel, who has been a songwriter, keeps Elisabeth company, spending time with her and having long conversations about art and life. She loses touch with him for a decade or so but eventually tracks him down to an old age care facility where he lays sleeping and dying.

‘Autumn’ is about that season in our lives, the long winding down of lives lived brilliantly. Light and breezy on the surface, it reaches deep down into our hearts when it explores memories, moments and fragile relationships that are out of the ambit of the normal, accepted norms.

Review
Ali Smith is a Scottish writer whose book Autumn is considered the first post Brexit novel, touching upon the deep divide that UK saw over the referendum to withdraw from the EU.
It is an understated commentary, of the political situation in Britain. It also explores the themes of feminism through the fiesty British pop artist, Pauline Boty who is a thread that links Elisabeth and Daniel inextricably.

On the surface, the characters conform to societal norms but on a closer look they are all pushing their boundaries through their understanding of what’s right and how they want to live their lives. Wendy, Elisabeth’s mother courts arrest because she hates the fence and explores a same sex relationship late in her life. Elisabeth, the witty and the intelligent one, a ‘diificult’ child, has an undercurrent of understanding of the bleakness that surrounds her, affecting her directly and indirectly.

Autumn is a very much, of-our-times book, light, easy and seemingly mundane till we catch the brilliance of bold, unadulterated colours and forms/non forms and of images of images themselves. Art turns pop through an exploration of Pauline Boty’s work. Daniel is smitten and in turn, so is Elisabeth and those colours run right through the seeming shutting down of Daniel’s life.

The dialogue in the book is different. It is a free indirect discourse that brings us the feelings of the characters and yet keeps a distance from them.

What works well
In spite of the profound themes that are just beneath the surface, the book is very light, easy to read and contemporary. It has action inspersed with memories and musings and at no point does the gentle pace slacken so that we are led from one page to another regularly if not breathlessly.
The language is very evocative at places, especially when the paintings are described.

Pauline Boty, long gone is still a prominent character. She is there not only for art but richens the book in refering obliquely to the development of the world on her lines, modelled on her life. If she is a blast of colour, so are the other women, in their own ways.

What does not work so well
The voices of the different characters, especially the women, are all the same, nearly. Elisabeth is very witty, very intelligent and by the end of her book so is her mother who transforms from a selfish and neglecting mother to a caring and knowledgeable one. Her monologue of being sick of every thing just does not sound like her, the way her character has developed upto that point. Zoe, her mother’s fantasy star is much the same, witty, intelligent, discerning, just to a different degree. All the women seem to have been cast out of the same mould.

The child Elisabeth, at ten, is extremely clear. Her clarity of speech is disconcerting. Even at eight, her smarter self keeps peeping out from her little girl facade. Hannah, Daniel’s sister at twelve is like that too. Very witty, very smart, extremely well read and perspicacious.

I really wished some of the events in the book were followed through. We never find out about Hannah and how she died at a young age. We don’t know how it is that Daniel knows Pauline nor do we find out the cause of the rift between Elisabeth and Daniel that leads to their losing contact.

Verdict

Autumn explores the fragility and the brilliance of lives, of bold individual choices and the boundaries set on them by states and political systems. The book is an explosion of colour; vibrant and pulsing with life.
I am definitely waiting for the next three books in this series, named after the seasons.

This review is a part of collaborative book reviews that I am doing with fellow blogger, Bloggeray. Read his insightful review here.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: Book Review

Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction

Exit West is a story of love and loss, set against the backdrop of war and migration.

It starts in an unnamed city, presumably somewhere in the middle East and talks of the growing unrest there. The city is bursting with refugees and militants are gaining ground. It is in this time of impending turmoil that Saeed and Nadia find each other and try to grow their acquaintance tentatively.

Nadia is surprisingly independent, fierce and sure whereas Saeed is gentle and reticent. Soon, the war reaches them and Saeed’s mother is killed. This precipitates a situation in which Nadia moves to Saeed’s place. However, it is clear that they cannot stay in their city or country for long and try to move out to another place, safer and with more opportunities.

Exit West is the story of the migration of the pair, Saeed and Nadia and of countless others, across countries and continents so that the face of the earth is ever changing.

Review

The novel starts in an unnamed city and as people go about their normal lives, the warring and increasingly unsafe city is kept at an arm’s length, out of their private worlds. Indeed, we don’t get a real feel of the city at all and this may have been done deliberately so that this city could be anyplace the reader can imagine.

The city is under seige and we learn of the difficulties that the ordinary citizen faces. It was quietly reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s book, ‘We the living’, that explores war and desperation.

“…that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

One recurring motif in Exit West is blackness, the rectangular blackness that may mean to be doors that are mysterious and leading to equally mysterious destinations. These doors bring a touch of magic realism to an otherwise very realistic representation of the starkness of life in a war torn city. The technique is surprising and yet it does not stand out like a sore thumb.

Exit West touches on the cyclical nature of the world and of life.

What works well

Exit West has a different feel to it when you read the words and the sentences. Mohsin Hamid seems to be saying things in one breath so that he can set it all down before any of his thoughts get lost. The long sentences, oh, the multiple clauses and the rambling on, so that one sentence becomes a complete paragraph and a page. I found this way of writing and explaining and going off on a tangent, even within a sentence very liberating, so that all the thoughts that one can have for a particular thing are put in one place, separated in their breathlessness by mere commas.

The love story of the main characters, if their relationship could be called so, has a typical arc of infatuation, attachment and then indifference which may or may not melt into anger or bitterness. The romance is not fairy tale, as in our times. In this way, it mirrors relations everywhere and the way the characters are etched, clear enough but not very unique, so that they can represent many other young people of their country and elsewhere gives it an air of universality.

The writing is purposeful. Mohsin Hamid is a man with a clear story in his mind and he moves with clarity.

What does not work so well

The first half of the book, namely the coming-together and getting-to-know-each-other part and managing life in times of war is interesting. The little details are touching, like the lemon tree or the dyers in the millitant occupied neighborhood or the changing face of the city, the chequers of city that are held by opposing sides in a war. But the second half becomes more of a commentary on our times, on migration and the hopelessness of it all and the challenges that are faced by both the fleeing and the places where they land. I felt a little lost in this part of the book when I moved across continents with the people.

Verdict

A sensitive portrayal of love, war and migration. Read it for a commentary on our times and the unique narrative structure.

I am doing the book reviews of 2017 Man Booker nominated books with fellow blogger Bloggeray. Read Bloggeray’s wonderfully incisive review of the book here.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Book Review

Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

Author: George Saunders

Genre: Fiction

Lincoln in the Bardo is the fictional account of Abraham Lincoln’s one night at the cemetary where his dead 11 year old son has been laid to rest. The story of a father’s deep grief plays out in the backdrop of the Civil War.

The title of the book uses the word ‘Bardo’ and as per Wikipedia, Bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena.

George Saunders

George Saunders, the master short story teller has delivered his first novel based on a historical fact, in an experimental form with stunning effect. It starts with Willie, the 11 year old son of Lincoln on his sickbed. The civil war is on but the White house is decked up for an opulent state reception. The festivities are described through historic accounts of that time. Through the night, Willie gets sicker and dies. Two nights later, the grieving President visits the cemetary where his son is temporarily interred, returning on at least two occasions to hold his dead son’s body. The book focuses on this night and the spirits present in the cemetary. They are in transition or in a ‘bardo’ and the story progresses through the voices of these souls.

Review

If I were to sum up the book in one word, I would say, ‘Unusual’. Lincoln in the Bardo is unusual in content, form and style. The story is little more than ‘one event’, which is the death of Willie Lincoln, the 11 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln. The entire book spans only a single night in the cemetary where Willie’s body is kept. And yet, through the voices that tell the story, we watch entire lives being constructed in as little as a paragraph.

The title seems to suggest that it is Abraham Lincoln who is in the Bardo but in truth it is Lincoln jr, who is stuck in the intermediate, undecided and yet giving a direction to all others when he does speak up.

The narration of the story is through a plethora of voices; rather curiously embodied as distorted forms, hovering in the cemetary in that space between life and afterlife. They are the reluctant dead, dead but reluctant to face the finality of their farewell from the memories and sensations of the physical world.

Interspersed with this continuous narration, which sounds sometimes like a play and sometimes like a film script, are the references taken from historic sources for the purpose of moving the story forward. Some of the sources are imagined.

The result is a curious, interesting medley of observations, made by real people and by spirits which are not so real, with the underlying theme of inconsistency. It is the perspective of the mind which is put in the spotlight, for the various historical accounts differ as to the presence of moon, the countenance of the President, the fact whether he was homely or ugly or even the colour of his hair. The spirits, of course are inconsistent, as we find out later in the book; memories are selective and repetitive and some facts are conveniently forgotten or glossed over.

The main voices in the cemetary are those of Hans Vollerman and Roger Bevins III with the Reverend completing the trio. The spirits in the Bardo are not real people, underlined by the fact that the author chooses to write the names without capitalising them.

The voices are also like the narratives that run in our heads. These are the stories we tell others of our lives and the secrets that we keep bottled up. At times, the chorus of voices grows desperate and comes at us thick and fast.

The medley of voices sometimes turns into a cacophony as the spirits talk at cross purposes, hearing what they want to and replying as they please. Even the background action is supplied by the voices.

The story moves back and forth, as thoughts do in minds. The memories are rehashed and relived, in the minds of the reluctant dead and the living.

“These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now must lose them.”

What works well

Inspite of the many voices, the narrative is cogent and each character or voice is worked through very well. It becomes a delight to encounter them again and again as the book progresses.

In other ways, Lincoln in the Bardo is a sensory feast that packs quite a punch. The absence of the physical form, or a reasonable physical form heightens the reader’s sensibilities so much that the cornucopia of images is a delight and a horror, held together by a sense of awe.

“Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.”

The grief of losing a child is visceral and this is tied neatly to the many other deaths at that time of the Civil War.

Deep themes are explored, those of grief, of the lies we tell ourselves, of racism, even in the Bardo and our grasping of time-wanting more and more. And yet, there is a touch of the irreverent in the book. There are the immense number of eyes, ears, noses, hands for Roger Bevins and there is the swollen member of Hans Vollman which brings a modicum of hilarity. The perpetual ‘o’ of the Reverend’s face, the three orbs representing her daughters that hover in front of Jane Ellis are all an embodiment of fun.

The backdrop of the Civil war is as disturbing to the mind as the deep grief of a recent loss. The popular sentiment of the country is expressed through the spirit of Thomas Havens.

“We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do.”

The imagery is fantastic, especially the veritable feast of sights and hallucinatory visions when the spirits are tempted to move on.

“Rose petals rained down, a joyful provocation: red, pink, yellow, white, purple. Then translucent petals; striped petals; dotted petals; petals inscribed (when you took one from the ground and looked closely at it) with detailed images (down to the broken flower-stems and dropped toys) of one’s childhood yard. Finally golden petals rained down (of real gold!), ticking with each impact against tree or markerstone.”

My only regret is that I have only read the book. Listening to the audio book would be surely a wonderful experience. It’s a rare occasion where I suspect that listening to the audiobook – the full cast of which is apparently an astonishing 166 people – will be a far superior experience to reading the text alone.

Verdict

A heartbreaking tale that holds up a mirror to the lives we live as well as an exploration of grief and death.

An excellent feast for your senses. Truly imaginative and innovative. Should not be missed.

This is the second review in the 2017 Man Booker shortlisted books that I am doing in collaboration with Bloggeray from Musingsite. Read his excellent review here.

A Wonderful Quest

There are times that a book comes along which is so refreshing and different that it forces you to step out of your mental comfort zone and look for answers.

The Quest of the Sparrows by Ravi ‘Nirmal’ Sharma and Kartik Sharma, the father-son duo, is a read that has inspired me to live an authentic life and to be generous. I am grateful to the Universe for conspiring to bring this book to me which has been such a lot of joy.

The Quest of the Sparrows

Take a look at the philosophy that guided the writing of the book.

https://youtu.be/tZEPfM_z638

Read the review of the book here.