A.R Sara

A breezy & intense eternal teen with a zest for the here and the now

Category: Book Reviews

Book Review – My cousin Rachel

My cousin Rachel. A bewitching and remarkable multi-layered novel.
Warning! Spoilers ahead.
So glad I discovered this book via a book lovers club. Not sure if my write-up qualifies as a full-fledged review rather than as a set of observations and analysis of the story.
It is one of those books that tends to “over” stimulate your thinking and compel you to re-read several of the parts to unwind the strings of a mysteriously and intricately knotted yarn to get to the oblique and elusive core that lies at the heart of the plot and minds of the main characters.

What started out as smooth and gripping, slowly gave way to a disturbing turn as the realization set in that this is an obscure psychological thriller at its core, a satire on social norms and attitudes with a sharp and incisive feministic slant of the gifted author’s pen, a sophisticated play on the dark and twisted side of human psyche cloaked in common emotions, beguilingly wrapped in family sentiments and romance in a Gothic setting.
The narrative begins as the brooding protagonist’s reminiscence, at the end of the dark deed that serves as a finale or an invite to delve into the story after having read it.
As you linger over the last line of the novel with a deepening frown, it makes you wonder if the event described at the very beginning was being served like a self-fulfilling prophecy and to instill the niggling feeling of censure in the reader against a parent figure exposing a child of tender age to such a disquieting experience, a strong clue to dysfunctional parenting and sadistic behaviour. Multiple clues, both subtle, strong and nuanced seem to have been planted strategically in multiple places in the narrative, challenging the reader to extrapolate and interpret beyond the narrator’s viewpoint, which rather than setting a limitation as a “single point of view handicap”, functions to provide a complex and kaleidoscopic view of the events and characters.

The emotions and sentiments presented initially, appear rather commonplace and universal really, applicable to even the current day social structure. Especially the aspect of blaming a male relative’s change of attitude or his dismal fate to the woman he has married and the influence she is perceived to have wielded over him, apart from being regarded as an intruder and usurper and the “sibling-rivalry” like reaction of the closest blood relations of the male relative towards his wife.
This story started out no different than countless formulaic Indian movies I have seen over the years, in terms of the underlying sentiments presented.
A boy having being orphaned at a very young age is raised by his older cousin Ambrose, an introverted bachelor who plays the role of a mother and father to the young boy Philip, imbibing in him the moral values very specific to the world they dwell in. Ambrose is an eccentric and egocentric and he raises the boy who happens to be his look-alike, in his own mental image in a male-only household by design, in the backdrop of a man-centered world which holds a rather derisive and lack-a-daisical view towards women in general. Given the circumstances of his sheltered upbringing, Philip considers it a rather happy childhood filled with warm memories and Ambrose has grown beyond a parental figure into a larger-than-life hero in his mind, who he wants to mimic. When Ambrose travels to a foreign country on account of his ill health and meets and marries a foreigner, it brings forth a surge of uncomfortable and unexpected emotions in Philip. Emotions of jealousy, possessiveness and sibling-like-rivalry against this mysterious new woman, dominate the mind of Ambrose’s young adoptive son, as he tries hard to conceal them, castigating himself for harbouring them in the first place.
The last few letters with writings or ramblings of Ambrose before his death, scar Philip’s psyche irrevocably, triggering in a way the feelings that lead up to the tragic turn of events.
As the story progresses, Ambrose’s widow who starts out as Philip’s singular object of hate and vengeance undergoes dramatic multi-dimensional transformations with almost surgical precision after she meets him and starts staying with him, as she takes on the persona of a stranger who thaws the cold suspicion in his heart with a sense of humour that seems to both irk and please him, a friend and confidante, a strange foreigner, a mother figure, a lover, a potential wife and finally emerging in his mind as an untrustworthy, cheating and manipulative evil woman deserving of his hate and vengeance, coming a full circle.
A multi-faceted realistic and plausible personality of a fiercely independent and impulsive woman of the world, both frail and strong with a feministic edge is painted in the process, despite being rendered through the point of view of a single character, Philip.
The physical appearance of his object of desire, suspicion and hate, Rachel, is glaringly at odds with what he perceives her to be, even after meeting and spending time with her. Philip finds himself unable to reconcile her dainty looks with her exuberant and gregarious personality. This is apparent based on the various times he remarks especially on her small stature.

Some mind-boggling questions that stay with you after you have read the book –
Was Ambrose truly innocent or manipulative as he knowingly or unknowingly planted the evil seed of doubt and vengeance in his young impressionable cousin’s mind knowing the powerful influence he wielded over him?
Was Louise’s interpretation of the letters truly objective or with a manipulative motive, geared against Cousin Rachel so that she could earn Philip’s affections? Did Philip’s godfather Kendall’s motive mirror Louise’s once he realized the extent of Philip’s infatuation towards Rachel and was dismayed that his daughter Louise doesn’t stand a chance of marrying Philip with Rachel in the scene?
Almost every character viewed through the jaundiced eyes of the narrator come across as milder versions of Philip, narcissistic, self-serving, possessive, jealous and selfish if you delve into it, including the domestic workers whose loyalty and attitude conveniently and swiftly swing towards who they believe will head the household and control the purse strings.
Was Rachel truly innocent or manipulative as she played with the younger man’s emotions, knowing the devastating effect she had over him? Or did she equally find herself helplessly and hopelessly drawn into the web of desire spun by the “poisoned” mind, ironically, of a man who bore a marked resemblance in looks and thoughts to the man or rather his ghost she was still obsessively in love with, despite his abuse?
Did Rachel even reciprocate Philip’s love at any point of time or consummate it or was that just a delusion of Philip?

Finally what was the purpose of Laburnum seeds found in her drawer, if they were not a product of Philip’s hyper-active imagination?
Was it planted there by one of the other characters in the story to deliberately arouse and fan the flames of Philip’s suspicion into a raging fire? Louise or Mary Pascoe or Seecombe maybe?
Or slick Rainaldi planted it perhaps, considering he is the common thread that runs havoc in both Philip and Ambrose’s lives and rather than really desire Rachel for himself as he seems to let on, he actually plans to usurp Rachel’s and Philip’s and Ambrose’s properties? This possibility gives the already tragic story a more intensely sad edge as you berate the protagonist for having been fooled so pathetically.

Or did the seeds really did belong to Rachel and were part of her truly diabolic plan or her flimsy “stereotypical woman’s” defense against physical and mental abuse she anticipated from Philip, who she perceived to be the younger double of a man who seems to have subjected her to mental and physical torture or perhaps she innocently used them as an insecticide or to kill weeds considering she is passionate about gardening?

Starting as a deceptively objective narration it smoothly turns unsettlingly subjective as you realize the events and all the characters in the story are experienced through the warped and delusional mind of a young man who happens to be narcissistic and hypocritical, apart from harbouring other psychological issues probably due to a combination of his genes and rather unnatural upbringing. Glaringly hypocritical state of mind is exposed at multiple levels, as apart from other things he seems perfectly comfortable flouting the social norms without so much as a mere thought as he cavorts and covets his cousin’s widow openly, while she is expected to conform to unrealistic norms ranging from her dress to interactions and choice of day to day activities and her spending habits.

Well, it was overall a fascinating and entertaining read, that begs to be dissected and pondered over. A novel that I found to be unconventional and far ahead of its time.

A parting thought. Considering the movie based on this book is to be released soon, can’t help but share some views on this as well.
I wonder if Rachel Weisz was casted because of her middle parting hairstyle among other things. Would have helped keep it true to the book, if the identity of the actress playing Rachel and her face was not revealed in the poster or the trailer, considering that in the first quarter of the book, Rachel does not even make a physical appearance, but takes various shapes and forms in Philip’s fertile mind. Something that adds to the charm and enticingly mysterious nature of the narrative.

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Book Review – Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

I am mostly a selfish reader and prefer to keep my thoughts about a book that I read, to myself, unless of course something about it compels me to share. Books that urge me to express, are seldom and hard to come by, though this urge is not a measure of my fondness for any book.
This is one such reading experience, that just demands to be shared.
This books lifts the veil off a little known dark phase in American history, around 1930s. The country has dabbled in Eugenics. This book presents a startling and sordid revelation about Native Americans being subjected to forced sterilization during this unsettling period.
Going by brief googling, the country has more than dabbled…there was a full-fledged American Eugenics Movement that has peaked in the 1920s and 30s. Something Hitler drew inspiration from, the book claims. As per further google lookup, the movement just crumbled and was discarded in the face of WW2 Nazi horrors and this part of American history was either carefully swept under the carpet or just slid into obscurity.
Can only imagine the amount of painstaking research that must have gone into gathering the historical details and I applaud the author’s courage and talent for presenting this controversial topic in a complex, layered and engaging story line with a powerful and moving narrative.
The disturbing facets of this slice of history (including the then prevalent racism) set in the backdrop of the present day advancements in genetics, have been tightly interwoven into an elaborate drama spanning four generations, with a supernatural angle. Sufficient doses of mystery, ghostly phenomenon, romance that transcends the barrier of time, familial love, loss, desolation, perseverance and redemption made it a gripping read. It packs in an emotional punch, with its intricate portrayal of relationships. It probes into and raises some uncomfortable questions around destiny, science and controversial topic of eugenics, genetic engineering and where does one draw the line when it comes to genetic screening and who has the right to decide on the worth of a life.
A multitude of characters, beautifully sketched out, carry the plot line to exquisite completion without loose ends, giving it a compelling and believable edge, in spite of the paranormal occurrences.
The friendship between a girl who is afraid of ghosts and dark places and a boy with a medical condition that makes any sun exposure lethal, is particularly an endearing one.
This is my first book of Jodi Picoult and I found it riveting. I deliberately stayed away from her books in the past, believing that they revolve around themes of depression, loss and grief involving kids, which can leave one with a lasting sense of unease and sadness. I happened to pick up this book on a whim after reading the blurb. Glad I did. This one did touch upon those themes, I tend to generally shy away from, but brought it all to a heartwarming upbeat conclusion filled with love and hope. But not without leaving some lingering hard hitting questions to ponder over.
Reading a good book leaves a delicate flavour in my thoughts, not unlike retaining a flavour of chocolate after it has been consumed. A feeling that can’t be expressed and has to be experienced to be truly understood. So have just attempted to offer a glimpse of the same here, considering I am not much of a reviewer. Including a picture of the front cover, like I would a chocolate wrapper.

Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This was an opportunity to discover, read and reflect on a fascinating book.
I read through the entire book over a period of four weeks. I managed to cover more than one chapter on certain days, while my reading speed ranged between few lines to a few pages on others. Entirely possible I might have missed reading or remembering certain key areas in the book as I compiled my thoughts on it below.
*******

The author must be gifted and talented to pull off such an ambitious and epic feat and that too with such finesse, logical continuity and adroitness.
To summarize 200,000 years of human history in a compact, concise and meaningful manner, all in about 466 pages, stringing together four key stages that transformed humans, the environment and led to the current state we sapiens find ourselves in today…is an amazing and incredible effort. A current state characterized by technological advancements, sophisticated socio-economic order and rise of collective consciousness, yet sapiens remain a discontent species partitioned by more criteria than ever…race, religion, sex, caste, language, region,”culturism”… and edging towards ecological disaster or technological paradise.

He has picked certain key events and ideologies that shaped and changed the course of history quite dramatically and unexpectedly and not always in favour of the well being of the sapiens and other earth dwellers.
Found some of the analogies cited, a little far fetched and over enthusiastic.
I felt it emphasized primarily the oppressive aspects of sapiens and that it could have striven for a more balanced view. But that didn’t diminish the overall essence of the book.
The author’s attempt to inspire empathy by drawing parallels between slavery and the modern animal industry is sure to strike a chord with many, in my view.

Overall it presents a provocative birds eye view of history not characterized just by wars, conquests and biological drivers but by the underlying socio-economic, agricultural, political, industrial and technological transformations.

The author has skillfully and coherently highlighted various key drivers of rapid human progression from an ape-like simple creature of the homo genus to an intellectual, opportunistic and complex being of the homo-sapien species with capacity to think, communicate, grow its own food, manipulate, cooperate, store/merge knowledge and apply it to further it’s own interests, multiply and ensure its own existence with a marked indifference, apathy towards the other earth dwellers and the environment. A species that believes it has achieved dominance over all other species to rise to the top of the food chain and seeks to gain control over the processes that determine its mortality to achieve an immortal status. But then continues to be restless, ruthless and discontent thanks to a deep-rooted unease and vulnerability. A sub-consciously insecure species that is driven and propelled by its insecurity, individual vulnerability, awareness of its ignorance among other factors rather than a pursuit of happiness.

Can’t think of any other book in this genre that attempts to cover human evolution history in a well rounded empathetic manner from multiple angles and render it with such logical clarity and with a heart and soul.

Book Review – Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami

Alert!! Long winding post written in one sitting, squinting and typing with one finger on the tiny smartphone keys, while travelling, with minimal editing. Kindly excuse. Some spoilers in store too.
Read on if you dare…
Finally finished reading Kafka on the shore. I took my time with it. Reread several lines which considerably slowed my progress. But it was worth it. It enveloped me in its other-worldliness. A welcome diversion too, from the overwhelming grief of losing a dear aunt and friend recently. The book absolutely commands one’s attention with its mesmerizing tone, silky smooth flow of language and mind bending riddles that overlap and intertwine.
While I can claim to have read it fully…it still continues to linger in my mind enticing me to unravel the riddles so finely intervowen.
Ceaseless questions about the book continue to churn. It is like an abstract painting or a sculpture that realigns and changes shape and form depending on the time of the day you observe it and which direction you view it from.
It is a multi-layered reading experience which stimulates you with mystery, adventure, magic realism and a generous dose of shock value, all wrapped in a dreamlike surreal landscape.
If you peel away the layers, at the bottom lies a seemingly coming of age story of a 15 year old boy who runs away after facing parental abuse. Unspeakable mental abuse by his father by way of imposing a shocking prophecy with incestuous implications on an impressionable young child’s psyche and abandonment and rejection trauma brought on by his absconding mother who left with his sister, leaving him behind. Something that continues to haunt Kafka, triggering and directing his decisions and actions, rendering him mature, way beyond his years, trapped by inner demons and his destiny shaped and bound by a seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy.
Parallelly run two other stories.
Story of an endearing old man with a pure heart and a clean slate of mind. Nakata. Someone who is open to magical possibilities and receptive to ideas, however outrageous, with a strong moral compass and sense of justice. Courageous and compassionate inspite of his perceived shortcomings. A man with the heart and mind of a child, shaped by a life changing childhood incident shrouded in unearthly mystery. A piece of him locked away in an alternate reality. Later in the story he is joined by another man, Hoshino, who is almost on a similar wavelength. One who admires and follows Nakata and has the potential of carrying on Nakata’s legacy so to speak.
Nakata’s character of living in the present moment and being alert and conscientous about his actions is juxtaposed against that of a woman’s: Miss.Saeki who lives in the past, her current existence characterized by frozen feelings and her actions in auto-pilot mode and her present experiences swiftly captured in a journal, then promptly purged from her memory. The girl-woman who triggered the mayhem and uncanny happenings by discovering and tinkering with the “stone” in the first place enabling her to lock away a piece of “love-struck version” herself in an alternate reality. Timelines probably don’t matter once the portal is open and time can flow in any direction and events occur in parallel.
As the plots diverge and collide, we run into several characters from talking cats, to international brand icons for liquor and food personified as evil and neutral beings that create turning points in the stories.
There was an underlying theme of feminity and feminism under fire. I could be wrong ofcourse. I draw this interpretation from his portrayal of the women characters, and the scope, depth and intent of their roles, apart from the below.
– Kafka’s mother who abandons him and walks away with his sister, unless ofcourse she and Kafka’s sister were murdered by Kafka’s father.
– The sadistic and gruesome killing of cats by Johnny Walker, cats symbolizing the feminine.
– A teacher who flies into a rage driven by shame about her feminine waste being discovered by a student. Then hits the student, causing him to faint and conceals this bit of information.
– An erudite and suave Oshima who is implied as being a woman physically, yet with a masculine psyche, who dresses as a man and prefers relationship with men. Creation of a situation by the author to delve into the shallow nature of two women with a misplaced sense of women’s rights and feminism, who are cleverly upstaged by brilliant Oshima who leaves no stone unturned in belittling the two. What is the relevance of this incident?
– Miss.Saeki who languishes for her lost love. Opens the portal causing some kind of time shift, alternate realities leading to havoc. It takes Nakata to step in and save the day with Hoshino’s help.
– the young girl version of Miss.Saeki drops in every day in the cottage in the woods to cook for the boy she loves…in an eternal cycle.
Some more questions to add to the questionaire that might be already whirling in your mind.
– Maybe the Oedipus prophecy and theme is a red herring, as in it is a false or misinterpreted prophecy intended to divert and confuse.
Take this away and try interpreting the story, can we?
– Was Hoshino’s meeting with philosophy spouting 19year old girl arranged by Col.Sanders, signify a meet between different versions of Nakata and Saeki respectively?
– The two soldiers mention to Kafka that most kids don’t make it beyond a certain point on their journey to the “Neverland” in the woods. Rather than Kafka, Nakata and Oshino’s elder brother, by ‘most kids’ are they referring to the other school kids who returned before reaching the destination?
– Is Sakura a figment of Kafka’s imagination? His description of her face is rather unusual. Also refer his first meet with her. She sits on a seat next to him. (Continue to the next page.) She looks at him or converses with him from across the table. Noticed a discrepancy here. (Maybe he made her up.) The police could not trace his call to her. Her phone is conveniently prepaid, which cannot be tracked.
– The two women questioning the absence of separate restrooms for women in the library…could they be Kafka’s long lost estranged mother and sister? Little far-fetched maybe but unable to discard this compelling question.
– Does Oshima’s fetish for sharpened pencils directly correspond to his keeping his intellect sharp, clear-cut and incisive while his identity might be ambiguous, something he keeps bringing up?
– Does the crow (rather than being Kafka’s subconscious) signify his mother’s spirit and Johnny Walker his father’s?
– Saeki’s prophetic “one hit wonder” song versus Kafka’s dad’s prophecy, both potent and connect, twist, turn and drive the plotlines or is it just Kafka’s over enthusiastic interpretations of them?
– The silvery slimy eel-like being that emerges out of Nakata on two occasions. What is it?

Need to stop typing now. Abruptly. Time to pick up the next book to read.

Handmaid’s Tale Vs Palace of Illusions

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood had been on my “To Be Read” list for a while. So when the opportunity presented itself to pick up a book in the feminist dystopian genre, I didn’t hesitate to pick up this novel.

***Spoiler Alert***

Let me start with the part of the story that impacted me the most. The ending.
I liked the abrupt ending where the protagonist’s fate is left open to interpretation. It felt ambiguous yet tantalizingly hopeful as the odds seemed stacked in favour of an outcome that would include her escaping and joining a rebel group, maybe even reuniting with her (what’s left of her) family, moving on to a different continent towards a humane life.
The epilogue/historical notes seemed to indicate Offred’s phase was the initial one in the Gilead era rather than the peak or the ending…The dramatic part of me would have preferred it… if it was indicated as an end phase implying that Offred maybe escaped and added spark to the rebellion, that ended that the Gilead’s totalitarian regime.
Made me wonder how Gilead fell.
The historical notes from a bigger picture offered a vision of a better, brighter future that is inclusive in its ethnic and gender diversity. That gave me a sense of closure. The future members’ impersonal and objective view of Offred’s heart-wrenching tale and slicing and dicing of the events in her story, researching for clues about the workings of that historical totalitarian society, lent the epilogue/historical notes credibility.
******
I happened to read Palace of illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, just prior to reading Handmaids tale.
Can’t help but draw comparisons between the two. At an abstract level.
The portrayal of the events in both felt chillingly real on account of the rich, raw, poignant and powerful narratives. In the Handmaids tale it made the despair and horror of her situation extremely intense and stand out, when juxtaposed against her reminisces of her ordinary, normal and relatable interactions especially with her mother.
Underlying common thread depicts the oppression of women and their volatile status in society. Her status, her life can change in a heartbeat. Her rights can be swept away in the blink of an eye…Handmaid’s tale’s portrayal about especially the technical ease of turning off her financial freedom is frighteningly realistic.
*****
Coming to think of it, the current rights, freedom enjoyed by women are rather recent and can’t be taken for granted, isn’t it?

 

On a reading journey

A reading group that I recently joined has set me off on a path of discovering new books and reflecting on them. I owe a heartfelt thanks to my reading friends for creating an opportunity for this reading experience.
I have been making a conscious attempt to set aside some sacred time to read and contemplate. Juggling time with family priorities and my writing but felt compelled to share at least a glimpse or two of my thoughts on the books that managed to linger on.
I hope I am able to do so coherently as I continue on this wonderful journey.
I’ll be saving them all under the Book Review and analysis category.

All books are not made equal, though they are all meant to be read and experienced within.
Reading is a personal journey and your relationship with each book is sacred. Some books may evoke feelings and emotions that are indescribable and just cannot be articulated. While some might hover in the layer that separates the conscious from the sub-conscious, some just go on to become a part of you. Whereas some cajole you to share your thoughts with the world, some may prefer to rest, tucked away in an elusive corner in your mind. It is between the book, you and the phase of life you read it in, whether and what you decide to share.
Disclaimer: This thread is not applicable to kids, young adults, who have to write a book summary, review, literary analysis and the like for academic purposes. You may not refer to the statements made above, to get away from such assignments.

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