Into The Water, by Paula Hawkins

“We tell our stories differently, don’t we, you and I?”

into-the-water-rainandabookBack in school, for a while – before Harry Potter took over – we were all hooked on to R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series. There was one book in particular that was more popular than the rest – Fear Street Super Chiller Goodnight Kiss 2. The reason being the big reveal happened on the very last page. Those who had read it tricked those who didn’t into reading the last page before finishing the book, thereby spoiling it.

I never read Goodnight Kiss 2 even though it has been on my TBR for eighteen years or so. The only reason it’s still on my TBR is cos I’m still curious to find out what’s on that last page. I don’t even know the what the story is about!

And with that we come to Paula Hawkins’ latest, Into The Water, whose big reveal also happens on the very last page. Rather underwhelmingly. Into the Water is one of those books that meanders so far away from the point that not only do you get impatient, but also bored. It’s an odd mix of emotions, one directly contradicting the other.

In the beginning, we are told that Nel Abbott is dead. It is hinted that it was a murder. The characters, of course, insist it was a suicide, especially Nel’s daughter Lena. Nel’s body was found one morning in the Drowning Pool, where several “troublesome” women have died before her, including Lena’s best friend Katie. There is this not so subtle undercurrent of “These were all murders”. Woven into this mesh of POVs (oh so many POVs! Did an editor even see this?) are detectives Sean Townsend (whose mom died in the same pool) and Erin Morgan (who lives in a house which used to be occupied by Sean’s mom) (seriously, what is up with this unimaginatively titled pool!)

We are, as readers, directed to care about all the murdered women. We can’t. Or at least (this being my review) I couldn’t. I wanted to know about Nel – not these old murders that the characters were insisting on digging up. I didn’t know these other dead characters, why would I care if they’re dead? I couldn’t care much for Nel either, and don’t even get me started on how irritating her sister Jules (“not Julia”) was. The subplot of rape that caused the sisters to grow apart was sketched so poorly that it made me angry – it felt like it was forced into the narrative.

I know a lot of what I’m saying sounds like I hated the book. I didn’t. Or I don’t want to, but that’s mostly cos I like Paula Hawkins as a writer. I liked Paula Hawkins as a writer. Even when I read The Girl on the Train, I felt it started off real slow, but I was blown away by the end. I thought the comparisons to Gillian Flynn were unfair, cos Hawkins is clearly a superior writer, who didn’t need someone like Flynn to piggyback on to market her book. But Into The Water proves these comparisons are justified. One of the reasons I hate Flynn’s work (and for that matter Jessica Knoll’s work) is the undercurrent of woman-hate in her stories. In Sharp Objects, for instance, Flynn’s MC blames and shames rape victims. Something similar happens in Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, and even in Into The Water. The story is about “troublesome” women who got murdered. By troublesome, Hawkins is referring to women who were unhappy in marriages, or women who fell in love with men who weren’t available to them. That’s a narrow definition of “troublesome” and a most unfitting one at that. A regressive narrative, wouldn’t you say?

And the writing! Gosh. Red Herrings are great in a thriller, but when three people come forward and say they committed the murder and the author goes on and on for pages about how, yes, they did commit the murder, but then reveals on the very last page that nope, someone else altogether committed the murder, it just takes the sting out. I read the final confession of the murderer, flipped the page and saw “Acknowledgments”, and went, “Huh?” in underwhelmed bewilderment. I was in a public place when this happened, and the lady seated next to me asked, “Is everything all right?” I didn’t want her to think I was crazy, so I said, “Oh, nothing, I was just reading a stupid book.”

I know I may be too old to read Fear Street now, but every instinct tells me the last page of that will still be better than the last page of Into The Water. This is easily one of the most forgettable books I’ve read, and that makes me sad, coming from the same writer as The Girl on the Train.

Paula Hawkins, I’m not mad. Just disappointed.

Rating: 2.5*

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Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry

“Because if the dead are really and truly dead, null and void, snuffed out without a trace – then everything we grow up believing in is a lie. All religion, theology, my father’s life and beliefs and prayers, the pumped-up ‘power of faith’ – everything is simply wishful thinking.”

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI first read about the Towers of Silence in the James Patterson-Ashwin Sanghi collab project Private India. Until then I did not know about the Parsi custom of disposing corpses by leaving them for vultures to feed on. The Parsis are a close-knit community and I admit there wasn’t much I knew about them before reading Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.

According to custom, the Parsis are not allowed to touch dead bodies, even those of their closest family, as they’re considered unclean. It is only the corpse bearers, or the khandias, who carry the corpses to the Towers of Silence, where they are left for the vultures. The khandias are therefore considered untouchables. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, son of a priest, who falls in love with Sepideh and is forced by her father to become a corpse bearer if he wished to marry her. Phiroze loves Sepideh enough to denounce his family and priesthood, and join the ostracized community of khandias. His father breaks all ties with him, and the only news he receives from home is from Vispy, his elder brother. Sepideh, or Seppy as she is fondly called, dies soon after, leaving Phiroze with the responsibility of raising their three year old daughter Farida.

The corpse bearers were forced to work for long hours under harsh conditions. One morning, overcome by fatigue and hunger, Phiroze faints, causing a corpse to fall off its bier. The superiors, convinced that he was drunk, suspend him and later place him on probation. Given the other challenges the corpse bearers were facing, they decided to go on strike. The strike lasted three days, during which no corpses were removed from their houses. The superiors agreed to their demands and also reinstated Phiroze.

This strike, in a way, forms the crux of the story. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is based on the true story of a corpse bearer who led the only khandia-led strike in Bombay in history.

What I liked about this story: An insight into the guarded Parsi community. Phiroze questions many of the rigid religious customs, and is often admonished by his father, Framroze, who considers it his responsibility to uphold the orthodox traditions. Framroze believes his wife died of cancer because she sometimes refused to follow his religious instructions. Phiroze, though overly fond of his father while growing up, begins to see him in a different light when this revelation is made. His heartbreak over losing Seppy is also a main part of the story – his belief that they will be reunited in the afterlife is quite moving.

What I did not like: The writing! The writing was too verbose for me to be invested in the story. One of the simplest examples of this is the following sentence: “He and I were meeting after the passage of a long time.” Needlessly long. The book is written in first person – Mistry has written it as though Phiroze himself has written it, but at no point does Mistry’s writing voice not conflict with his intended narrator’s voice. If you have read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, you can hear the story being narrated by none other than the geisha in question. This is not the case here. For one, Phiroze is described as a simple man. However, the sophisticated language used is quite out of synch with the kind of character described.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story in which a lot is written, but very little is said. On the whole, considering the potential of the subject matter at hand, I feel a tad underwhelmed by the book. The title rouses one’s interest, but the title may just be its most interesting part.

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How To Be A Bawse, by Lilly Singh

“You’re a Bawse now, and you need to spend less energy stalking your ex on Instagram and more energy making phenomenal first impressions. Plus, there are so many famous puppies on Instagram now who are way cuter than your ex. Get your priorities straight.”

rainandabook-lillysingh-superwoman-howtobeabawseI’ll always fondly remember the evening I was introduced to Lilly Singh aka Superwoman’s YouTube videos. The reasons for that are beyond the scope of this post, so I won’t elaborate further and bore you. That said, I confess that I’m not a regular viewer of her videos. In the three years that I’ve known about her channel, I’ve watched only a handful of them.

However, the book, How To Be A Bawse is delightful enough to revisit every once in a while. Going in, I assumed it was going to be another celebrity memoir (a genre I quite enjoy), but right at the beginning, Lilly says, “I’m not that old or wise, so this is not a memoir. Instead, this book is an accumulation of lessons I’ve learned that I want to share with you.” Fair enough.

So what is How To Be A Bawse? It is, as the name suggests, a kind of work that borders on Self Help. So what am I doing reading it, given that I despise the genre? Because it felt so positive and uplifting as soon as I started reading it. I won’t call it motivational (cos that makes it sound boring) or funny (which it most definitely is, but that’s so incomplete and dismissive if funny is all I called this book). God knows we could all use more positivity in our lives.

And what then is a Bawse? In Lilly’s own words, “A Bawse is like a boss, but so epic that I had to change the spelling.” Tell me you don’t wanna be a bawse after reading that definition. I’ve only just finished reading this book, and I already feel like taking on the world.

In this book, Lilly talks about the stairs and ladders she climbed rung by hard rung to reach where she is. At the end of each part, she’s included a section titled “Out of the blue”, where she compares who she used to be years ago, suffering from depression, and who she is today in comparison. As someone who has been going through the relapse from hell since the beginning of this month, I found strength from these portions (and wished Lilly was my therapist, but life is not that kind).

She talks about meeting her idol, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (and makes some… um… puns on the way) and how the most important thing is to visualize your goals and work towards making them happen. Now, a lot of what Lilly says isn’t something we don’t already know, but it’s the way she says it that makes a difference. The positivity, the sense of hope. Something that calls out to us, asking us to believe in ourselves. That is what I enjoyed the most about this book.

The reason why I mentioned in the beginning that I haven’t watched a lot of her videos is to point out that you don’t have to be a huge Lilly fan to enjoy this book. You don’t have to be familiar with her brand of humour to like it (Ellen DeGeneres’ Seriously I’m Kidding is an example of the opposite of this). It’s great and stands well on its own.

One of my main takeaways from this book is that if you have accomplished something in life, be unafraid to be proud of it. You achieved something, you deserve all the good things that come with it – pat yourself on the back for it.

I’d recommend How To Be A Bawse for the happy vibes alone. Whether you want to follow her advice or not, or whether you think you already know the lessons she has to offer, read it for how her story makes you feel. You will definitely not be disappointed.

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The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

“Ahuja’s wife has of course a name. Lalita. La-li-ta, three liquid syllables perfect-suited to her soft beauty. I would like to call her by it, but how can I while she thinks of herself only as a wife.”

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The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, who was born in an Indian village, and bore a different name, before she discovered she had certain powers with which she could summon those she thought of. Unfortunately for her, she accidentally summons a group of pirates who abduct her. However, soon, with her talents, she turns the tables on them and becomes their queen. She then hears the about an island, where an old woman lives, and imparts the knowledge of spices to those who have the gift needed to communicate with the spices. Those who have this gift are known as Mistresses.

At the end of their training, each Mistress is given a new name and is sent to a different part of the world, where they are to help people with the power of the spices. Tilo chooses her own name, and against the wishes of the Old One, wishes to go to USA. She then wakes up in the body of an old woman, in an Indian store in Oakland. Her customers include various Indian immigrants trying to make a living in the States, and she figures what each of them needs before offering it to them.

I was enthralled in the beginning. The way Tilo sensed what everyone needed reminded me of Vianne from Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, and the way the spices were described to have healing powers reminded me of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate. So taken was I by these descriptions that I recommended the book to others even before finishing it. By the half way mark, however, I realized I’d spoken too soon.

The prose that seemed enchanting in the beginning quickly turns irritating. Nearly everything has been described with superlatives, hyperbole, similes and metaphors. The good prose wears off and begins to grate. This results in the work being overly wordy and bloated. By 3/4th of the book I just wanted it to end, because the themes that had interested me in the beginning had been abandoned in favor of the forbidden love affair between Tilo and Raven. The writing that had been so convincing began to fall flat, and I started questioning everything without finding satisfactory answers.

The ending was weak and seemed forced. There were so many other better ways it could have gone. I’m also left with a lot of unanswered questions, unmet conclusions. The Mistress of Spices takes too many themes, but in the end fails to do justice to any, because it focuses on the weakest link in the story. I’m almost sad to see so much potential wasted.

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Sad Girls, by Lang Leav

rainandabook-sadgirls-langleavAt the outset, let me mention I didn’t finish Sad Girls. Let me rephrase that a little bit – I couldn’t finish Sad Girls. I rolled my eyes so many times while reading about the lives of these (terribly sad) girls that I was worried they would fall out of their sockets. At one point, I rolled my eyes so hard that I think saw the edge of my brain!

Some may argue it is unfair to review a book that I abandoned midway. You wouldn’t be wrong – it is unfair. But here are my reasons to go ahead with my thoughts anyway.

To summarize, Sad Girls is the story of Audrey, who lied to her friends about their classmate Ana and the lie spread like fire. Unable to stand the rumours, Ana committed suicide. At the funeral, Audrey meets Ana’s boyfriend, Rad (I tell you, I hate even the names of the characters in this sad book). Audrey and Rad hit it off instantly, and decide to leave the funeral and hang out elsewhere.

All of these people live in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business (to a level that can only be described as creepy). The whole town is now talking about Audrey and Rad (if the hot topic in your town is the whereabouts of two teenagers, you need to move to a better town). They are even talking about it in the grocery store, where Audrey’s mother hears about it. She forbids Audrey from speaking to Rad, but hello, rebellious, angry, mother-resenting teenager at work here. Later, Audrey’s boyfriend (oh, did I not mention that she already has a boyfriend?) gets uncomfortable and tells her not to see Rad again, and she reluctantly agrees. The more she stays away from Rad, the more she misses him, and the more she feels her current boyfriend is “not the right guy for her.”

From a literary standpoint, Sad Girls has way too many issues to even keep a track of. The plot is blah. The dialogues just keep running one after the other. They are inane, the characters drone on and whine on. The language sounds like it was written this way to appeal to the YA crowd, but most YA isn’t written half as badly. Young Adult books aren’t supposed to be stupid; you don’t need to dumb anything down for its audience – but that’s how it is in this excuse of a novel. There are characters in this novel who don’t have much to do. They sit along in the sidelines, mouth a few dialogues, create a bit of drama, cry a few tears, speak a few pretentious profound things, then just vanish. Sad Girls is a literary fiasco.

What bothers me most isn’t the above points though. The literary reasons aren’t why I decided to go ahead with this post in spite of not finishing the book. My biggest problem with this book is how it trivializes things like suicide, panic attacks, anxiety, depression etc. We live in a world that’s finally waking up to the true horrors mental disorders and of late a lot of emphasis is being given on seeking out help and getting the right treatment. As someone who has suffered from depression, I find it most irritating when a book – especially a book whose targeted audience is of the age that’s most vulnerable to these disorders – treats it like it’s a silly thing. Nope. Not done.

This isn’t just me getting triggered either. Lang Leav is a subpar writer with a ridiculously wide reach. Her audience mostly consists of an impressionable crowd – is this the message you want to give them? I mentioned in my review of Lang Leav’s book The Universe of Us that she confuses abuse for love. In some of her other works (I refuse to call it poetry) as well she has glorified sadness and grief. I understand that some good art comes out of pain, but to glorify it? To be so addicted to it? Not a healthy message to send out to the world.

I never had much respect for her (so called) “poetry”. After reading whatever I’ve read of Sad Girls, I have no respect for her fiction either. What I do have is anger and disappointment, but I’m gnashing my teeth and swallowing it for now.

Note: An ARC of this book was available on NetGalley. The opinions expressed here are my own. 

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The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, by Twinkle Khanna

“The weather forecast in the Indian Express had predicted a week of sunshine but on the day that Elisa Thomas was getting married for the third time to the same man, it began to rain.”

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You know when you’re at the checkout counter at the grocery store and you see a row of Tic Tacs arranged neatly? It’s some new flavour that everyone’s been talking about. You’re almost sure you won’t like the flavour, but then, curiosity messes up with all your better decisions.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Twinkle Khanna’s memoir, Mrs. Funnybones was an instant hit that placed her firmly very high up in the literary circuit. Suddenly she was the “new big name” in Indian literature. Now, I’m not saying the book didn’t deserve to be a hit. I quite enjoy Twinkle Khanna’s columns myself (although they took me quite by surprise in the beginning to be honest). But when it comes to writing fiction, nope, she isn’t cut out to be a fiction writer. A one-word review of this book would be: boring.

The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad is a collection of four short stories, mainly centred around women. The first story, from which the book derives its title is about a young girl, who lives in a village where daughters are considered burdens (story of nearly every part of India). She comes up with a revolutionary idea to change this.
The second is Salaam, Noni Appa. It narrates the story of two sisters, Noni and Binni. Binni, the younger one, loves to follow fads and trends, and Noni, having nothing better to do, participates in her sister’s newest interests as and when they come. When they decide to join yoga classes, Noni finds herself attracted to their instructor, a married man with a shrill, ill-tempered wife.
The third story, If The Weather Permits is the story of Elisa, who gets married multiple times, each time to a terrible person. Every time she returns home, her father insists that a “man is a man is a man” and she must find the right one and marry soon. The story reminded me of Susannah’s Seven Husbands by Ruskin Bond and I liked the irony at the end. I would’ve liked this story even more had it not been for the racist stereotypes used to depict the Malayalee family – I found this to be the only decent story in this collection but it got ruined because of this. However, I have to say, the opening line of this story is the one noteworthy sentence I found in the whole book (quoted on top).
The final and the longest story, Sanitary Man in a Sacred Land is based on the true story of Muruganatham Arunachalam, who is most well known for making low cost pads in a village in Tamil Nadu. In the fictionalized version, the protagonist is called Bablu and lives in a village near Indore.

The premise and the intent of each of these stories is good. But the execution is terrible. It reads like a children’s book of parables, with rigid beginnings and equally rigid endings, often with a moral. Twinkle Khanna’s signature sarcasm is missing in these stories, resulting in dull writing and narratives that sound more like the summaries of the stories than the stories themselves. The very same plots in the hands of a different writer would have had very different results.

A disappointment, this. I bought it on a whim while at the checkout counter of my favourite bookstore. And that’s where it will go back on my next visit.

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First Thoughts: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

“Nothing

I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens, there’s lots to write about. This can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.

Q1. Why is it not sophisticated?
Q2. What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?”

image1The air was filled with anticipation a couple of months ago when the world woke up to the news that Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was coming out in June 2017, 20 years after her first novel, the Booker Prize winner The God Of Small Things.
Her first novel not only happens to be one of my favourites, but also happens to be the only book that I’ve read three times. I read it the first time because it was my then best friend’s favorite book, and I hated it. I was disappointed in Ms Roy, and more so in myself for failing to find whatever it was that my friend found in it. Almost ten years later, I picked it up again (I can’t say why – once a book fails to impress me, it usually goes into my pour-vitriol-over-this pile). It may have been a whole other book, because I found myself falling in love, page after page, line after line. The reason why I hadn’t liked it the first time (and let me be the first to admit it) is that I hadn’t understood a word of it!

The third time was last year (two years after my second reading), and I discovered many things I had missed the previous time. I won’t be surprised if two years from now, I’ll be reading it a fourth time, discovering even more things, hidden in plain sight.

That is the draw of Roy’s writing – the nuances, the layers. The strength of its subtleties. It does not reveal itself at once and it does not reveal all of it unless you’ve revisited it a few times, with fresh eyes each time.

To follow in the shadow of something that’s both widely loved and extremely successful is a monumental task (siblings, teachers, lovers, ministers, they will all vouch for this). The weight of expectations alone would crush it, and in the case of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, add to it, the 20-year gap. Whispers of anticipation in the crowds of readers and writers aside, I decided to plunge in with lowered expectations to be fair to the book. But the first page said, “To, The Unconsoled.” The second page was a quote by Nazim Hikmet, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart…” The third page was a story of vultures dying, and on the fourth page began the first chapter titled, “Where do old birds go to die?

I can’t say what it was about those first four pages, but I felt like I’d been kissed for the first time.

The book begins with the story of Anjum, who lives in a graveyard and sleeps on a different grave every night. It is she who poses the question, “Where do old birds go to die? Do they fall from the sky?” and receives a stony silence in response – the effect she was hoping for.

And because Ms Roy can never tell a story with a linear timeline, we go back to take a glimpse at Anjum’s history. Anjum, who was once Aftab.

In this way, several other main characters are introduced – Saddam Hussein, Musa, and the woman who carries the story on her shoulders – Tilo. Each of these interconnected stories is laid against the backdrop of the Indian political climate – especially the volatile situation in Kashmir. From the militants, to the military, to the Holy Cow, to the cow-related lynchings, Arundhati Roy holds nothing back. She writes about a certain former CM, current world traveller, and his rise, in a way that’s a political satire as well as black comedy as well as horror. The line, “A devotee gifted him a pinstriped suit with LallaLallaLalla woven into the fabric. He wore it to greet visiting heads of state.” made me laugh out loud, just as the account of the 2002 riots filled me with rage. It is no wonder that this is a book that will more than just upset Lalla’s insecure troll army (*cough* saffronparakeets *cough*). I imagined a Nazi Germany-like scenario where this would be one of the first books in a pile to be set on fire (and I hope someone like Liesel Meminger will rescue at least one copy).

At first I felt the book had too much of non-fiction in it to qualify as a work of fiction. I even wondered how much of Tilo was Ms Roy herself (much like I thought about Rahel from her first book). I had reached about four-fifths of the book when I understood, truly understood, what the book was about. I took a few moments, sitting very still, to process it all – to process how the various parts worked together. In the beginning, I was a little put off because there were too many characters – they took away from the reading experience, but by the four-fifths mark, I understood they were all a part of the same tapestry, and they were all essential.

My knowledge on the subject of Kashmir is too limited to form an opinion. A conversation I had with someone from Kashmir a while ago tallies with what is written in the book, and my mind kept going back to that conversation as I read. But I have so many questions, and I wonder whether there will ever be a solution.

Reading this book made me feel that every other author (with the exception of maybe Salman Rushdie) should just retire and go home. I didn’t intend to write this review at first. The reasons were many – including the fact that I know I will read it again, and discover new things and this review will then seem unjust and insufficient. If I said the book is about India and its new regime, I would not be wrong. If I said it is the story of Tilo and Musa, I would not be wrong. Or even if I said it is the story of how a graveyard turned into a guest house, I would not be wrong. But in all these cases, I would not be right either, because while it may be those things, it is also much bigger than the sum of its parts. Someday I hope more writers write as fearlessly as Ms Roy, shattering rose tinted glasses and the comfort of common ignorance. And to acknowledge that is why I decided to go ahead and share my thoughts.

From a literary standpoint, a few things to note: the (irritating and fascinating) non-linear timeline. I call it the one-step forward, three-steps back timeline. Those who’ve read The God of Small Things are familiar with this style. Others will find it confusing at first. Those unfamiliar with Indian politics will also find it difficult to follow the story, or at least to connect with it. I found the prose to be less… musical… that her first book, but that’s just me.

On the whole, an excellent and bold piece of writing that’s unassumingly charming, yet somehow aware of itself. It is dark and terribly disturbing, yet poignantly romantic. If I had to choose, I’d still choose The God of Small Things over The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. At the moment, I do think her first novel is superior to her second. But call me after ten years and see if I’ve changed my mind.

Rating: 4.5/5

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