Thursday, August 31, 2006

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood (1996)

I really didn’t expect to come away impressed this time, specially when I was still crawling slower than a snail through the book a 100 pages down – but Jesus, this woman knows how to spin her tales, for just when I was beginning to desultorily flip the pages and start preparing myself to either trudge through the book or abandon it completely, she reached out and ensnared me in the fine web of her words. I put the book down a couple of hours back, and I knew the smile on my face mirrored pure content. I’ve just spent the last one hour reading about the history behind the novel and am craving more fodder to feed this hunger.

The novel, is based on a true story – the protagonist Grace Marks, has been modeled after a woman of the same name in the 19th century who was convicted for murdering her employers in the most brutal fashion. A sensational story in its time; it captured the attention, imagination and curiosity of people across Canada, USA and UK and kept the presses running hot for months at end. The novel takes off rather peacefully, gradually building up its pace and pulling you deeper into its whorls. Sticking quite faithfully to contemporary reality, Atwood presents 19th century Canadian society, struggling to find its feet with the shadow of its past looming large over it, and the big brother from down south ever ready to stamp down its burgeoning identity. In a time when poverty ran rampant and standards of morality were flexible, the country convicted a young girl for murder, painting her as black as they could, even while they struggled painstakingly to bleach clean their own dirty linen – the forays into an every-increasingly open world of psychology and science which clashed openly with old beliefs and superstitions about the mind, make the novel all the more interesting.

I can’t say this one impressed me as much as the previous three - the plot, could have been tightened a little, specially at the beginning, where I feel she has spent too much time trying to build up her characters. However, the characters truly stand out on their own – every last one of them, even the non-descript Ms Faith Cartwright who only appears as a mention in letters. Dr Simon, the doctor who set out to understand the mysteries of the mind and ended up losing his way in its labyrinth; Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper with a murky past and murkier present; Thomas Kinnear, the apparently gentile man who paid for his sins; Mary Whitney, whose vibrant presence first lit up the plot and whose shadow haunts it right up to the last page…and ofcourse Grace Marks, who struggles above the squalor and misery of her world, pulled down time and again - she does succeed in finding peace at the end.

The historical details and characters did the trick this time – read it if you have a taste for historical novels with strong characters, and if you have a feel for Canada’s social, spiritual and political history.

Links for Extra Reading :-
Letter written in 1843 describing the murder
Grace Mark’s interview after she was released from prison

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Lady Oracle – Margaret Atwood (1976)

The third Margaret Atwood I’m reading after Handmaid’s Tale and Bluebeard’s Egg, it has lived upto my expectations. When I started the novel I didn’t expect it to hold my attention for long – I was sure that one author couldn’t possibly churn out novel after novel, all of which would succeed in pulling me into the intricate mesh of its plot, make my chuckle, smile, shed the occasional tear…feel. Margaret Atwood is apparently a pro at that, for when I finally did give Lady Oracle the attention it deserved, I devoured it in one sitting, one long cozy Sunday afternoon.

If Handmaid’s Tale sent shivers down my back, and Bluebeard’s Egg captured my imagination, Lady Oracle took me spinning along the fantastic world of Joan Foster, a closet-writer and bored wife of a confused communist. Going back and forth in time, the novel traces Joan’s life right from her strange, lonely childhood, her love-hate relationship with her own body/image to her adult life, her love life and her career. Her trysts with blackmailing reporters, strange lovers, a serious literary career in place of her more successful career as a Costume-Gothic novelist, not only gripped my attention, but had me chuckling and yes, at times, even rolling with laughter. And yet, the novel isn't meer candy floss material - there lies beneath the main text a very obvious subtext with a very obvious feminist text and a tongue-in-cheek parody of literary forms and hence literary snobbery. (But then, that's evident, since this is an Atwood oeuvre we're discussing!) Atwood’s descriptions are par excellence, the way she twists the plot is sheer genius – there isn’t a single moment in the book where I could predict what would happen next, and definitely not even a nano-second when ennui could possibly set in vis-à-vis the narrative.

The Globe and Mail says in its review:-
“Read it for its gracefulness, for its good story, and for its help with your fantasy life.”

Read it for all that – but read it mainly for Atwood’s genius!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Fairy Tale World of Children's Literature

Charles Perrault. Jean de la Fontaine. The Brothers Grimm.
Do these names mean anything to you? If not, then I must say you've had a very deprived childhood, for they are the names of the authors of the world's best-known and most-read fairy tales...or maybe not so deprived after all.

For quite a while now, even before the arrival of my nephew I'd been taking little jogs down memory lane thinking of all the stories that fired my imagination, the authors I adored and the books that were worn by repeated reading sessions during the vacations. On one of these many jogs, I chanced upon a collection of fairy tales by the Grimm brothers - the stories as it turned out, did complete justice to their name! I was quite appalled at the rather grim and depressing twist to all the stories! It was then, that I started thinking about the other fairy tales I knew - and surprisingly most of them had a depressing twist and very few actually had happy endings. I recently simplified the original story of Red Riding Hood (otherwise known as Le Petit Chaperon Rouge) by Charles Perrault, to narrate to my students and ofcourse it ends with Red Riding Hood being devoured by the wolf. My students didn't quite stomach the abrupt ending - most of them recalled a different, happier ending!

Over the centuries some of the stories have been adapted and changed to end on a more happy note - but the originals were not as optimistic in their outlook towards life. I was actually quite disturbed by this - to think that this was the stuff children grew up on, stuff that told of children being eaten up wolves and witches, of wishes granted by fairies being wasted because of one's foolishness, of nasty stepmothers and evil godmothers! But then I realised that they didn't present a lop-sided image of the world (though imaginary) where everything went well and everyone was good. While some stories had grim endings, others ended on a happy note. Compare Red Riding Hood and The Sleeping Beauty. Even Blue Beard, that scary tale of the evil man who killed his wives, ended on a happy note.

Further reading into the subject revealed that the stories when first written weren't necessarily intended for the juvenile audience they are associated with today - a majority of the stories were penned for the purpose of narration around the community fire, and many were actually transcribed after years of being passed down by the oral tradition. It would be interested to study this further and understand how and why the stories evolved into being stories for children!

Having recently read some new books under the genre of Children's Literature, namely, The Giver and Walk Two Moons given to me by Extempore, I have been trying to find books like that. I was in Manney's recently (perhaps the best bookstore in Pune, dating back to 1948) and browsing through the children's section, where apart from the Enid Blyton's, Malory Towers, St.Clare's, Anne of Green Gables and the many classics that I associate with my own childhood, I saw the other books that today fall under the genre of Children's Literature.Without taking names, I must say I was glad I was born in a different century when children's literature was not so complicated, and even with the grim endings fairy tales were that and nothing more!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I've done this before, on Geebaby, but my dear friend Aristera tagged me sometime back, reminding me that Keya too had tagged me before that, and I thought to myself - Why not?
Why not on Literary Mosaic, my much ignored second baby? So here goes, the Book Meme -

1. What is the total number of books you've owned? I've not counted them in a while, but I'd say more than 300.
2. What is the last book you bought? Anne of Green Gables (abridged and unabridged) for my two nieces. I've decided I must play the role of Bookie Aunty to the hilt! :-)
3. What is the last book you've read? The last book I read and finished reading was so long ago I don't even remember which one it was :-(
4. What are you currently reading? Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood - never read so abysmally slow ever before! It's a disgrace!
5. What are the 5 books that have meant a lot to you or that you particularly enjoyed?
There are many, but from the top of my head right now :-
  • Little Women - Louisa May Alcott (for filling my childhood days with lovely images and for Jo - she rocks totally!),
  • Diary of Anne Frank (I think it's what got me interested in the Holocaust),
  • Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys (for making my world view so much larger),
  • The Lord of the Flies - William Golding (it's one of the rare classics that I devoured at one go!)
  • Golden Gate - Vikram Seth (I had my doubts about a novel in verse form, but all of them were laid to rest within the first ten pages through this one - Merci Aristera pour me donner ce roman!)
6. What book(s) would you wish to buy next? For now, I've promised myself to finish reading all those unread books on my bookshelf before buying any more books - let's see how long I stick to this resolution!
7. What book(s) caught your attention but you never had a chance to read? Oh, so many!
8. What book(s) that you've owned for so long but never read? The complete works of William Shakespeare, to start's actually quite a long list. *embarassed*
9. Who are you going to pass this stick to and why? To all those who actually dropped by Literary Mosaic and read this post!