Tag: Autobiography

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

“A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.”

30211990I have had limited exposure to Chinese literature (or English literature about China, to be more accurate) but I’m sure I’ve read something in another book that conveys a similar sentiment about the letter “I”. I find truth in that statement. It startles me, as a realization, and yet, brings clarity at the same time.

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life is a memoir in which Yiyun Li tries to decode life. She talks about her childhood in China, her mentally ill mother, and more. She wrote this memoir while battling suicidal depression and throughout, you feel, she is examining, sentence by rich sentence, about the point of life.

This is a complex narrative. I quite enjoyed the beginning, but in the later parts, although the prose was worth savouring, I found my mind wandering. This is essentially my problem and should not stop you from enjoying the book. Perhaps I felt she was going off tangent in certain places; I may be wrong about this though. There were several parts of it where I could not bring myself to agree with the author (much like Laura Esquivel’s memoir) but I still could see things from her point of view (unlike Laura Esquivel’s memoir, which I just gave up halfway)

Read it for the prose, read it for the quiet contemplation and wisdom, read it if, you too, are wondering what life is and where it’s going. She may not give you answers, but you will form your own.

Note: I received an ARC from Penguin UK/Netalley for review. My review is honest and unbiased.

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Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

7989831So! Prison sounds like fun! Wait, what? No, that can’t be right. It’s prison; it’s not supposed to be fun.

Before I go any further, let me confess that I have not watched the popular TV series of the same name. Not one episode. But I have reason to believe (because I know people who are fans) that the plot of the show deviates sharply from the source material. So, if you are a fan of the show or are planning to watch it, I suggest you skip the book, because the book is such a let down.

At first, I thought the title was an attempt at being ironic or funny. But if Piper Kerman has a sense of humour, it doesn’t really come through and then the title starts to look shallow and unintelligent. We are not talking about a ramp show or color of the year. It’s prison, FFS.

It’s surprising how Piper Kerman describes a place that we assume (and more or less know) to be grim and gruesome in a way that it sounds like summer camp. You actually think, “So, it’s cool, then? Like, a dorm at college?” I understand that this is a memoir, and Kerman has every right to write the way she saw things happen, from her perspective alone and all that. But “her perspective alone” is so near-sighted and self-centred that I can’t believe this girl’s even being real. She has been arrested for smuggling drugs in her early twenties (something she seems to feel no guilt or remorse for anywhere in the book, by the way). The trial goes on for a decade because there are so many others involved (such as Kerman’s ex girlfriend because of whom she got caught in all of this), after which she goes into the Danbury prison. Everyone welcomes her with open arms because she’s (as she repeatedly reminds the reader) white, blond, upper middle class. All the wardens keep telling her how surprised they are that a nice white girl like her is in a “place like this”. If she was trying to make a statement against the racist attitudes inside the prison, she does not come off as convincing – she comes off sounding like a snooty, racist person herself. The other prisoners often stick to their own racial groups, but everyone is friends with Kerman, because, oh, so lovable blond Barbie.

Now, I know families can be deadly supportive. Hell, they’re there even when you don’t need them. But I find it hard to believe that all her family members were so supportive and loving when they came to know of her crime. Like they’re almost proud to have someone go to jail. Wait, that’s an actual statement, in fact. Paraphrasing from the chapter Mothers and Daughters, “My mother was proud, despite the fact that I was in prison, because the other inmates thought we were sisters.” I need a moment.

By the way, did you know that they made crafts and celebrated Valentine’s Day in prison, with homemade cards and all? Yeah, me neither. Sounds like fun though. In one chapter, Kerman refers to prison as a “rotten” place. I was, quite frankly, taken aback. So far, nothing she had written gave me the slightest indication that it is such a rotten place (apart from my own common sense regarding prisons). I am shocked! Maybe your writing should’ve reflected that more, instead of telling me how many lovely items and books you regularly get in the mail from people you barely know, and how much people envy your love life.

And may I offer some advice for your next book (although, I hope there isn’t a next book) – EDITING! I don’t think any editor saw a draft of this. In fact, I think this may well be the first draft!

And the worst, worst thing about this book – I swear to the heavens, it is SO boring. This is one of the most boring books I have ever read. It’s torture how boring this is!

Quite frankly, reading the book makes me want to watch the show. How could the creators take something so poorly written and turn it into something that’s become so popular. My curiosity is thoroughly piqued.

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Book Release | a Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other, by Ralph Webster | Summary and Excerpt

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a Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other
The Third Reich is rising.  The creeping madness in the heart of Germany will soon stain the entire world.  This is the chilling account of one family as they flee for their lives.

Blurb

The Wobsers are prosperous, churchgoing, patriotic Germans living in a small East Prussian town.  When Hitler seizes power, their comfortable family life is destroyed by a horrifying Nazi regime.  Baptized and confirmed as Lutherans, they are told they are Jewish, a past always respected but rarely considered.  This distinction makes a life-and-death difference.  Suddenly, it is no longer a matter of faith or religion; their lives are defined by race.  It is a matter of bloodlines.  And, in Nazi Germany, they have the wrong blood.

Genres:  Memoir; Historical Novel; Biography
Page Count:  372 Pages
Release Date:  June 28, 2016
Paperback: $15.95  Kindle: $9.99
ISBN: 1533656924 (ISBN13: 978-1533656926)
Publisher:  CreateSpace

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About the Author

bRalph Webster is retired and lives with his wife Ginger on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  An enthusiastic world traveler, he is the son of immigrant parents; refugees who were forced to leave their homelands and families for reasons that defy comprehension.  Through this prism, he has a profound respect for those who must leave their lives behind, and whose only dream is to journey to a welcoming land where there is freedom and opportunity to create a better life.  This is his first book.

 

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Excerpt

We had no idea, no reason to expect that Father’s business would become a target, too.  There was no forewarning.  That morning, along the front of his building, in large red letters, was the message, “Udo Wobser is a Jew!”

I speak as an adult now, with the collected wisdom of age and hindsight.  I will always remember that Saturday through the eyes and mind of a ten-year-old boy.  That was the day Father became known as Udo Wobser, the Jew, no longer simply as Udo Wobser.  That was the day I learned that I could be both a Jew and a Lutheran at the same time, that being a Jew was about bloodlines and ancestors, that it was about race, not only religion.  That was the day I learned I was still a German, but now I was a German Jew.  That was the day I learned that my family was a member of a much larger family, a family that ran generations deep, a family that was viewed with disdain and contempt.

From that date forward, a line had been drawn.  It wouldn’t matter what we thought, how we had lived, what we believed.  Please don’t misunderstand.  We had never rejected the notion.  We simply had never been taught to embrace it.  Before April 1, 1933, I never entertained the idea that our family was Jewish, that I was a Jew.  It meant nothing to me.  If asked the question, I would have answered, “No, I am Lutheran.”

Ultimately, the answer was not ours to give.  Others told us who we were.  Both Mother and Father were descendants of Jews.  There was no denying.  There was no appeal.

At times, I wonder what Mother and Father really felt that day.  Given the choice, how would have they answered the question.  Did they consider themselves Jews?  Now I know their answer was obvious.  Our opinion did not matter.  There was no choice.  No one asked.  The question was not needed; the answer was evident.

 

 

The Autobiographical Elements in The Shining, by Stephen King

7133789Have I ever told you about the time I discovered Stephen King? It was at a wedding. A classmate’s wedding. An unlikely place to discuss horror books (or is it?) I can’t remember which classmate it was (I had attended quite a few underage weddings that year), but I remember this conversation so well. A few of us were discussing books and one of our teachers, dressed in one of the most beautiful lavender silk saris I’ve ever seen, told us how she had bought four Stephen King books at a second hand book store for 80 bucks the previous week. We made the right noises to convey our jealousy towards that cunning bargain. Another classmate then told us how she herself had read a King’s book recently and was blown away by it.

I was known as the book lender of the group, and was in no mood to reveal that I had no clue who Stephen King was. What I did, instead, was get a copy of the only Stephen King book I could find at a second hand book store. Quite possibly, the same one my teacher had gone to.

The book was Dolores Claiborne and I hated it. It felt, in my head, rather noisy. I swore off King’s books.

Four years after the events described above, I found myself running for King’s books like it was winter and they were warmth (weird, yes, I know. Creepy, yes, I know that too). I eventually realized he mainly wrote horror stories (which I didn’t know at the time I read Dolores). I read all his short stories, and to this day, I haven’t read anything that is as terrifying and disturbing as Gray Matter, from the collection Night Shift. I read his works with slight distaste and a perverse need. Something bigger than guilty pleasure, and almost as enticing as slow self destruction.

I’ve realized now that I keep going back to King not because of his skills. It’s admirable that he’s written more stories than most authors we know. But it’s not just about the volume either – they are all good stories. Although, I am not particularly a fan of his writing skills. Sure, I love his metaphors, I love the vivid imagery. But I’ve found faults with how swollen his books are, when they could easily have been much more compact. All that padding lessens the impact of the horror he wants to conjure up in the reader’s mind, and which is why, I have repeatedly and truthfully insisted that his books don’t scare me. In all honesty, I find Shaun Hutson’s no-brainer slashing scarier than King’s works and I’ve read Japanese thrillers that can give you far worse nightmares. I’ve read King’s On Writing, and I remember literally and exactly only two sentences from it, and I liked the memoir part more than the writing part. But I go back to King’s books, always. With a lot of respect and a deep sense of loyalty that – one that I cannot fully comprehend myself. I feel defensive of him in a way I don’t about authors I like more. It’s strange, and perhaps that is why The Shining affected me so much. And I’m not even talking about the supernatural elements (although, yes, this book will go down in history as the first King book that scared me).

It is a well known fact that authors leave pieces of themselves in all their characters. But often, the heroes we create are the superhuman versions of ourselves. Ideal, better men and women than we really are. It is a question that has often nagged me: do we only glorify ourselves through our characters, or do we dare to write the worst about ourselves? The dirt and the mess? Do we dare? I found my answer in Jack Torrance, the unlucky, alcoholic, down-on-his-last-buck protagonist of The Shining.

When asked about how he came up with the story, King narrated the incident where he and his wife spent a night at a Colorado hotel which was closing for the season. He had a nightmare involving a fire hose, which provided the inspiration for what later became one of his best known works. The room they stayed in was, no points for guessing: 217. But the real source of inspiration lies much deeper. And its clues lie in King’s anger at what the movie version did to his book.

Movies, in general, do not do justice to the books they’re adapted from. We know this. Authors have every right to be peeved. We know this too. But King’s anger draws itself from a personal well. An episode of Friends refers to The Shining as “a book that starred Jack Nicholson”. I bet that made King cringe, and why shouldn’t it? The character whom Nicholson portrayed on screen was a crazy axe-wielding maniac. It isn’t just that he wasn’t the Jack Torrance King wrote about. It was that it wasn’t who King himself was.

I read the book over a period of a few weeks (given my limited reading time, and the fact that this too is a well-padded book). One evening, the Mr. was watching a video on YouTube about the differences between the book and the movie. It was a coincidence; till I said something about a scene in the book, I did not know what he was watching nor did he know what I was reading. The video covered unimportant, secondary details (such as how book-Danny is 5, telepathic and intelligent, but movie-Danny is 7 and ordinary), but not the finer points that really mattered. It mattered to King that Wendy, a strong, sensible, caring woman in the book, is portrayed as a “screaming dishrag” in the movie. “That’s not the woman I wrote about,” he says. It mattered to him that the supernatural elements in the book were written off as psychological issues in the movie, thereby negating even the title [The Shining refers to Danny’s psychic abilities. He sometimes speaks to a “friend” Tony, who tells him things that are about to happen. The movie dealt with this… differently. It is interesting to note that the book is dedicated to King’s son, and he writes “keep shining”]. It matters that Jack, an ex-alcoholic like King himself did not slowly descend into madness because of the evil hotel, but was already crazy to begin with, someone whom the audience would never really sympathize with. And King has sympathy for all his characters. Torrance was not given a chance at redemption in the movie, but in the book, he does have a moment of clarity. The book has a heart, the movie does not.

The book is King’s confession – of his rage (especially directed at his children), his alcohol and drug abuse, his fears of failing as a writer. It cuts closer than On Writing. Jack Torrance is him, or who he was. The Shining was written at a time when King had some financial stability to speak of. But that does not erase the years he grew up watching his mother’s struggles, or the early years before he sold a story. Jack’s innermost thoughts are King’s innermost thoughts – why doesn’t Jack leave the Overlook hotel knowing how suicidal it is to stay? Fear. He has absolutely nothing to fall back on. All of these are King’s wounds and bruises that he smashes with roque mallets on to paper, exorcising his own demons, giving them forms of bloated dead bodies and blood and brains on the wall.

In The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, King all but says it out loud that he and Roland are the same person. You see King in all his characters, but not as loud, as neon, as obvious as you do in the villainous Jack Torrance, the angry man you somehow sympathize with (so much so that I felt guilty using the word “villainous” above). Why? Because it’s an angry side we all have, but we dare not talk about it. The real ghost of The Shining isn’t the Overlook hotel or the fire hose or the topiary animals, it is the mirror it holds up to ourselves. By showing us how he could have turned out to be when he was at his weakest, King shows us how we could be at our weakest. It shows us the evil inside our own hearts.

And it’s scary as hell.

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References: Rolling Stone | Salon | Guardian | The Dissolve 

Bengal Nights, by Mircea Eliade (Translation: Catherine Spencer)

bengal-nights-mircea-eliade-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-book

“I do not love her, I admire her. She disturbs me. Her body and her mind are overwhelming.”

Bengal Nights, or Maitreyi, or La Nuit Bengali by Romanian historian Mircea Eliade is a title I came across by accident. After reading the summary on goodreads, I was quite intrigued, but what drove me nuts was the fact that this book was not available anywhere. This gave Bengal Nights the halo of “the book that I couldn’t have” and like all things we cannot have, it only made me want it more. Otherwise, there is no chance on earth that I would hunt far and wide for a romance. I had given up on ever getting a copy of this book, after searching for it for about a year, when just as unexpectedly, I found it!

Looks like this is the year of romance for me. *secretly hopes not*

Summary <may contain some spoilers>: Alain (Eliade’s alter ego) is a European engineer working in Calcutta. His life is filled with frivolous parties with his friend Harold and “the girls.” While working on a project in Assam, he contracts malaria and is hospitalized. When he regains conciousness, he is surrounded by his friends, all of whom have a prejudice against India and its people. Just then, his employer, Narendra Sen, visits him with his sixteen year old daughter Maitreyi, and invites him to stay at his residence as he recovers. Alain’s friends are convinced that it is a ploy to make him fall in love with Maitreyi and get him married. Alain does not believe it; also, he dislikes Maitreyi’s appearance. However, he accepts Narendra Sen’s offer and moves to his house. Maitreyi is interested in learning French, and soon, he begins to give her French lessons, while she teaches him Bengali. He is sure she is flirting with him, but she assures him that she is in love with Rabindranath Tagore, her teacher, to whom she had once given her word she would never fall in love. Later, however, under the pretext of arranging books in her father’s library, she calls Alain for help and challenges him to invoke feelings in her. She soon realizes she is truly in love with him, and Alain realizes he has been in love with her since the very first time he saw her. Things soon take a turn for the worse when Maitreyi’s parents come to know of the affair, and it leads to a tragic end.

Although this book is set in the early part of the last century, I am unable to call it a historical romance. The main reason being, although most of the customs and traditions mentioned in the story are now outdated, the story could as well have been set in present day India.

Never have I ever read a story of such inner turmoil, such indecisiveness and such passion. Eliade writes in detail about each of Alain’s emotions, his every thought and he employs a rich vocabulary while doing so. The flaw, however, is that it fails to invoke anything in me, as a reader. Why is it that despite such vivid detail, as a reader, I neither sympathized with the tragic situation nor felt any flicker of emotion in my heart? The only reason I could think of is, Eliade’s writing is too much like spoon-feeding. It crosses the thin line between vivid detail and the murder of imagination. It leaves the reader with the sole job of reading, and not imagining – not completing threads in his or her own mind.

Yet another thing I do not understand is, whilst Eliade has published this as an autobiographical work, he gives himself an alias. He mentions Maitreyi (and her guru, the well known poet Rabindranath Tagore) by the real name, and also writes about every little thing they experienced, with, seemingly no thought to consequence. Why then has he adopted an alias for himself alone?

I would recommend this book only for the setting – Calcutta through the eyes of Alain looks charming, haunting, and beautiful, though he was, at the beginning, filled with prejudice against the land and its people. As a literary piece on the whole though, it leaves something to be desired.

Rating: 3/5

Get it here: Amazon