The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond

It’s been my fortune that I have found lovely little books to read, back to back, thanks to #BlogchatterA2Z and my quest for books with titles having certain letters.

This is the third book after Some Days and The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse that has restored my spirits. I cannot help but smile and wonder at the beauty this world harbours, the kindness that resides in our hearts and the contentment that comes from sharing our good things and blessings.

The Blue Umbrells is a gem from Ruskin Bond and the reading of the book is special as it was recommended by a dear friend and seconded by my son who thinks this book is wonderful.

Two little children, called Binya and Bijju live in the mountains of Garhwal. They take out their cows to graze every day, Neelu and Gori – blue and white, who like to wander off, just like Binya likes to go in their pursuit.

Simple Binya falls in love with a pretty blue umbrella, that is in the possession of a town woman, come to picnic in the hills. She exchanges her leopard claw pendant with the umbrella she likes. And thus begins the story of an umbrella everyone likes and wants to have.

People covet it, someone tries to steal it, even the wind blows it away and out of reach but the umbrella always comes back to her.

What really happens is the emotion we wish the entire world to have. Unbounded love for others and sacrifices to make people happy.

The Blue Umbrella leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling. I longed to go back to the hills to experience the rains, the mist that coils and uncoils, rising from the valleys and the simplicity of people.

All this month, I am talking of books that made an impression on me, for #BlogchatterA2Z.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

I feel rested as I write about the book I just finished reading. More than reading, it is looking at the pictures, the rough strokes and the beauty of little figures and large.

The book title says who the book is about. There are 4 friends, the little boy who meets a mole who’s unabashedly loves cake! He even meditates on them. He’s tiny but as the boy tells him, he makes a huge difference! Mole is unassuming, with amazing wisdom. He’s the friend you want with you, as you look out at the ‘wild’ that life and world can be, frightening and yet beautiful.

The two find a fox who’s ensnared, angry and perhaps hurt deep down. In spite of a danger of the fox killing it, the mole chews through the wire, setting it free. The fox rarely speaks and the horse points out how fortunate they are to have him as a friend, the silent being who cherishes their company.

The horse is the largest creature they have ever seen and also the gentlest. The boy makes friends with him, riding with him. Wonder of wonders, the horse can fly. He has stopped because others were jealous of him but a little encouragement from his friends and he sprouts wings!

The 4 wander about, sitting on tree branches, at the edge of the wild or wandering about, savouring the beauty, ‘so much beauty to take care of’.

The book has little nuggets of wisdom, illustrations that touch your heart with their unpretentiousness and simplicity. Indeed thd puctures are islands where one can stop by, lookinb out at the sea of life and experiences.

As I read this short book, much celebrated, I was overcome by a feeling of gentlenes and kindness. That’s the essence of the book. It’s like getting a hug from a friend.

This month I am writing about books for #BlogchatterA2Z.

The Financial Expert by R K Narayan

The Financial Expert is the first book I read of R K Narayan’s and it would always remain close to my heart. It’s perhaps a little dry, just like financial matters but the way fortune comes to a person and the way he changes made me love the book.

Set in the beloved town of Malgudi, featuring Margayya, the person who advices everyone on their finances while looking to live a prosperous life himself, the book is rife with surprises.

As a petty money lender who serviced people from his workplace under the Banyan tree, Margayya does not come across as a scrupled or a sincere person. As we follow his life path, from obscurity to notoriety, we feel attached to Margayya for his flaws and being the kind of person who we could bump into walking down the street.

The spoilt son Balu, Margayya’s inordinate attachment with him and the final showdown with Dr Pal that leads to his downfall is narrated with a simplicity and a sense of inevitability.

This book was written a few years before R K Narayan wrote ‘The Guide’, the book that catapulted him to fame.

The setting of Malgudi makes the story relatable while also giving Narayan the leeway to develop a fictional world that every small town dweller can understand.

Margayya is the quintessential anti-hero; we hate him and yet he’s one of our own, if not in entirety, atleast in bits. His love for his spoilt child is something we all can understand. He wants to discipline him but is unable to do so.

Women, both Margayya and Balu’s wives are not given much prominence except to show the troubles their husbands have fallen into and the expectation from them to bear it all.

Read the book for an insight into human character and the foibles of fate.

I am writing mini book reviews this month as part of #BlogchatterA2Z.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet is a debut novel of Fiona Mozley, and it sweeps across a haunting and beautiful landscape. The book is the story of an uncharacteristic family and their strong bonding. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017.

In real life, Elmet was a kingdom in the early middle ages, in what is now northern England. Elmet is also said to have been mentioned in early Welsh poetry; the landscape described, reminded me of the wonderful classic, ‘How green was my valley’ by Richard Llewellyn.

Elmet starts with a run and a search across the country. It then backtracks into telling us the story of John, the fighter, usually on the other side of the law and his children, Cathy and Daniel. They live on the fringes of the society, fending for themselves. However, a landlord intrudes upon their world and thus begins the fight to reclaim their home. The family stays close, fighting for each other, even when all seems lost.

Elmet is an unfamiliar setting of wild Yorkshire landscape, but the excellent description brought it to life.

The characters of John and Cathy, his spitting image in body and spirit are delineated very well. Daniel, with his proclivity to Viviene and learning and to a warm home is a sensitive portrayal.

The physicality of people plays a prominent role. There is John, a veritable giant with calcified fingers and knuckles. Viv has wide hips that Cathy hates, perhaps because it is an indication of what Cathy herself would become one day.

However, many situations in the book are not seen through. The uprising of the serfs against their master had a promise that was never fulfilled. The child, Daniel, grows up suddenly after his father’s desertion. The transition is a little abrupt. The 14 year old has a language that is beyond his years and his knowledge.

Also, there is very little dialogue in the book. Elmet plods through a lot of description.

Elmet is like life and like people; flawed but beautiful in its imperfection. Read it to immerse yourself in a strangely familiar yet different world.

I am writing mini book reviews all this month for #BlogchatterA2Z.

Some Days by Maria Wernicke: Book Review

Illustrated books are a joy and when they give a peek into a child’s world, it is a mix of poignancy and wonder.

Some Days by Maria Wernicke is a short book. I flipped through just to get a feel of it and couldn’t stop myself gawking at the pictures and reading it in one go.

Why I loved reading this little book for little children that talks about the big emotions adults don’t talk about much?

For one, it’s sensitive. The choice of words show an empathy for the little girl in the book who talks about a passageway that’s perhaps just an expression of her emotions.

It’s gentle. Children need support and care and someone who listens to them. I felt like the little child in me was patted on the head, someone telling me it’s alright.

The pictures are lovely. There’s a splash of colour here and there. It’s not dreary but you can feel a sense of awe for the emotions of the little girl and you nearly tip-toe around so as not to startle her.

It’s a peek into a child’s world and also allows us the conviction that children everywhere are the same and the emotions we feel are universal.

Maria Wernicke’s book was published in Argentina and translated into English by Lawrence Schimel.

I am writing book reviews this month as part of #BlogchatterA2Z.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie books are all classics. Such wonderful mysteries with the human psychology taking precedence over forensic science in solving the crime.

Death on the Nile is an all time favourite around the world. It’s being made into a motion picture very soon which was the point I decided to read this Hercule Poirot book.

A rich heiress, beautiful and intelligent follows her heart and makes an unexpected match. She’s not of age yet so her trustees have to put her papers in order. As she embarks on her honeymoon journey to Egypt, on a steamer on Nile, she has a large number of co passengers with their own intricate story lines, secrets and motivation to murder.

The mood is sinister with a jilted lover stalking the couple, boulders rolling off mountaintops mysteriously and an attempt at financial papers being signed without much scrutiny.

The murder happens soon enough and Hercule Poirot, who’s a co passenger steps in to solve it. He’s been a witness to the scene leading to the murder partly. As things thicken, another death happens. And then yet another in a reckless display of violence.

Bankers, young women nursing jealousy, old women nursing grudges, men with socialist leanings, men pursuing medicine – everyone’s a suspect.

Then there are the alibis and the elaborate reconstruction of the crime scene by Poirot and his partner to arrive at the truth.

Death on the Nile has lots of characters, all intricately drawn and very very interesting. As always, Agatha Christie hints at the character motivations in subtle ways.

The plot is intricate, there are a large number of suspects so that the reader stays entertained and engrossed enough till the end.

The tying up of the threads is very satisfying. I wasn’t so surprised at the murderer but at how the murders were committed. And that’s the piece de art of every Agatha Christie book.

I am writing book reviews this month for #BlogchatterA2Z.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

If you read a book without any preconceived notions, without trying to guess what it’s about, you have wondrous insights that’s far removed from what others are thinking. For me, Catch 22 was a tragedy; everywhere else it’s hailed as a comedy of epic proportions.

A second world war novel based partly on the author’s own experience, Catch 22 is a satire with absurd humour lining every situation.

The novel is set in a fictitious island off thd coast of Italy that stations an American bomber troop. Every bomber has to go in a set number of missions and while the war is on, there’s no end to this number. Yossarian, the young protagonist can find no way out of the madfully stressful missions that he has to go on.

All Yossarian wants is to stay alive. He is convinced that he would be killed in one of the missions so he tries to escape going for them by devising inventive excuses.

However, through the absurd, weird, funny and often sad (maybe just to me) events, Catch 22 brings out the foolishness of war and of bureaucracy. Repetition becomes an instrument that presents craziness whether it be Major Major Major Major (a person’s name) or the shrieking nightmares that the young soldiers have.

What’s a Catch-22 situation? Where you lose either way. When you can’t get out of it no matter what. It’s a paradox and that’s the fire of the book, one that underlines everything else.

As I read the book, I feared for Yossarian and his fellow soldiers, their mental health and their helplessness in the face of a war. Not allowed to go home, not fit enough to man the frontlines, the soldiers live in an isolated island in the Pacific, making the best of the situation they are in.

The closing of the book completely reveals the emptiness that war, killings and death bring and the final image of Yossarian paddling away to somewhere remainrd etched in my mind for a long time. (No, this isn’t exactly a spoiler)

Read this much celebrated novel with an open mind, observe what you feel, gauge your own emotions and expand your understanding of your own morality.

I am writing book reviews this month for #BlogchatterA2Z.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a treatise on writing and on life, liberally sprinkled with hope and empathy. Narrated in Anne’s characteristic self deprecating wit, it explores vulnerability and grace in equal measures.

The book has a meditative quality, not to be just read but also re-read, giving the reader new perspective and depth each time.

On being a writer, she says,

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

This in itself is gratifying, bringing a kind of validation to writing, something we do for our soul but can now tie with wordly benefits.

Writers often think that the acme of their careers or even their endeavours is being published. Anne says:

“I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self esteem.
This did not happen for me.”

Once we are disinvested in publishing being the sole aim of writing (it’s still a very big part, of course), it becomes easier to find satisfaction in the process rather than the end.

Anne teaches writing workshops and being a writer all her life, her advice springs from practicality and even vulnerability that’s endearing and makes you feel human and glad.

“Sometimes, when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time.”

And that somehow sums up, why we get back to writing again and again in our lives.

Talking about beginning to write, she emphasises the importance of short assignments and knowing that first drafts are always going to be insufferably bad (my euphemism for the ‘other’ word that’s used to describe first drafts). There the battle that sets you against perfectionism, the enemy of writing.

There are rich insights on character, plot, dialogue; Anne makes us see and feel things beneath the surface of our own consciousness and how we can be intuitive to write and develop stories.

While talking about the writing frame of mind, she talks of reverence and awe that helps us be open to things and experiences. Writing becomes meditation, a way of self discovery and of salvation.

Anne also talks about her own writing process, how she takes notes, how she uses her material, how she researches and what to expect from writer support groups.

Here’s something she says that stuck with me:

“They all look a lot less slick and cool … because helping each other has made their hearts get bigger. A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing; it doesn’t protect itself and it doesn’t hide. It stands out, like a baby’s fontanel, where you can see the soul pulse through.”

And this, for me, is the essence of the book. Compassion, acceptance, love. Life and writing merge and seem to feed each other.

I am writing book reviews this month for #BlogchatterA2Z.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn brings to mind beauty that’s fleeting, marking the end of a life and holding the promise of a new one. Ali Smith’s 2017 Booker shortlisted book is part of a quartet, all named after seasons.

Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth have an unusual friendship. In years, they are apart nearly 70 years and they made their acquaintance when they lived in houses next to each other. As we learn about their lives, in the drab present, devoid of hope; misery and fear curling at the edges we can’t but fail to wonder at how the relationship has been. We revisit the past through flashbacks and even through Daniel’s failing mind, and see the beauty of life and of life’s bonds.

The impressionable 8 year old and the septuagenarian hit it off instantly and have many conversations about art and life. There’s so much poignancy in this relationship as Elisabeth looks after the dying Daniel in a health care facility that it tugs at your heart strings.

The narrative juxtaposes the mundane with the remarkable; the measuring of a passport photo and Brexit, the immensity of decisions of the state with the little rebellion of common people, in terms of their allegiance and even sexuality.

The real life British pop artist Pauline Boty is a recurring theme. Her times and life, her irrepressible art and spirit bring in lightness and hope in an otherwise hopeless existence where careers are stagnant and money is tight.

Autumn is that winding down of lives lived brilliantly, an ode to memories and moments, beautiful in their fragility.

This book review is written for #BlogchatterA2Z.

Moustache by S. Hareesh: Book Review

Moustache book cover

A crocodile that takes you on its back in the river and talks about people; a tree that’s fallen across water, making a bridge, recognising you and steeling itself to not break as you cross over it; turtles that meet over hundreds of years, wondering about people. Water that ebbs and flows with its own rules, snakes, fish with enchanting names and stories and the songs that people sing when the harvest is on. Folklore and tales for the sake of stories; hearsay that twists events and reputations. Braid these with human greed, inequity and neglect – of the land and water that feeds us and of other people.

‘Moustache’ is raw and atavistic and savage, with an honesty that makes you flinch but that you recognise as truth. Strip away the refinements and the pretensions that we have as a ‘civilised’ society and the veracity is reflected in these pages.

Stark poverty, hunger, caste privileges, abuse of people and of the environment, disease, despair, the narrative is a commentary on all this and more. It is shape-shifting, flitting between reality and magic realism, wandering from real events to folklore of fantastical men so that you are swept along the tide of stories here and there, as relentless as the expanse of water in Kuttanad, the place of below-sea level farming, spread across three districts in Kerala.

The story telling does not follow the conventional linearity, there is a sense of surreality as entire years seem to go by, seen through the lens of sowing to harvesting and yet the protagonists stay where they are, observing, hiding, held by spells.

It’s masculine in every way as a moustache is; the women are reduced to mere objects, harshly treated and seen only as bodies.

The forces of nature seem to be all-powerful, bringing men to their knees through floods, drought and disease, salinating land, reclaiming it till men destroy the ecosystem in an effort to triumph.

In all this, ‘Moustache’ is a giant of a narrative, as copious and wild as the moustache Vavachan sports, that refuses to be trimmed or tamed, with a life of its own.

The Book

S. Hareesh’s ‘Moustache’ has been described as ‘a novel of epic dimensions’, rooted in the regional history of the place, tracing it’s social transition over the years and transcending it to move to the realm of myth. (K. Satchidanandan in the foreword to the English translation). It was originally written in Malyalam as ‘Meesha’ and has been translated by Jayasree Kalathil.

The book is set in Kuttanad, a veritable waterscape of coastal backwaters and an intricate maze of canals, tributaries and rivers, where farmland is dredged up from lake bed, reclaimed and proscribed through bunds. The diversity of the aquatic flora and fauna is described in breathtaking detail; the land, the trees and the natural forces acquire a spirit of their own.

“Kuttanad is the only place in the world that is entirely made by human beings. God had only created swamp and water, but the vast paddy fields that you see today are really only around two hundred years old.”

Caste rules that governed nearly every aspect of a person’s daily life also intruded upon gender roles and where and whom women could marry. Vavachan, the protagonist, also known as ‘Moustache’ throughout the book dares to get facial hair in defiance of caste rules that leads him to a life of wandering and loneliness.

“Caste is still the primary signifier of worth, dignity and position of people…”

Ayyankali, Guruswamy, social reformists of those times make an appearance. There are allusion to the epic Ramayana, in the names and the situations of characters. These definitely would rile people who do not want to question or look beyond what has been fed them.

Moustache actually is a bunch of stories, from myths and folk tales and the songs sung in the countryside.

“Each of us is made of the stories that are told of us. If we look carefully, we can see a train of murmuring stories following each person like the royal mantle follows an advancing king.”

My View

‘Moustache’ is a textured narrative, layered with a rare awareness and depth of the place and time it is set in. It’s as much about the land as about the people.

Buy the book here.

This book review is part of Blogchatter Book Review Program.