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Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchDue to various reasons it took me more than three months to complete The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I came across the name of the book accidentally (as it often happens with my reading pattern as I don’t interact much with avid readers) on a blog – don’t remember in what context. When I started reading the book I didn’t even know the meaning of “Goldfinch”. It is a bird primarily found in America and Europe. There is a finch family of birds (again, I wasn’t even aware of the word “finch”)

Why did it take me such a long time? Is it a tedious book? To an extent, yes it is, but that was not the main reason. In between I read another book. Then I was busy writing current affairs and political articles for various publications. Professional commitments, obviously. So at a stretch I couldn’t read the book for more than 30 minutes on a particular day. And for many weeks I couldn’t even get back to it. Hence such a delay.

No matter how tedious the book seems, reading Donna Tartt is always “paisa vasool” – what you may call in English, worth every penny you have spent – if you’re looking for an out and out intellectual experience while enjoying a good story. Does it mean The Goldfinch is a very good book? It depends on your reading habit. It depends on what you seek from a book.

She made a mark on me when I borrowed one of her first books, The Secret History, from the British Council library in Delhi. I don’t even remember getting the book issued on my own; I guess someone else got it for me as I wasn’t able to visit the library as frequently as I would have liked. Unknowingly I had decided, whenever she wrote her next book, I would read it.

Then, if I’m not forgetting, my brother-in-law brought The Little Friend to our house because he was reading it those days and then give it to me to read once he had completed. I dropped whatever I was reading those days (very little, maybe one book in a year, and maybe not even that) and read the book in 4-5 days.

Coming back to The Goldfinch, it’s a first person account of a boy named Theodore Decker who gets caught in a bomb explosion in a museum, when he was 13. Although he survives, his mother dies. After the explosion, when he comes to his senses, he finds himself near a dying old man who gives him a ring to deliver to someone. Before the explosion, he had seen this old man accompanying a girl he had been drawn to in an exceptional manner. Both the old man and Theodore – “Theo” – have no idea whether the girl has survived the explosion or not.

There is blood everywhere, his ears are numb, his head hurts, he cannot see, and amidst that, the old man goes on and on and while he’s talking to Theo he points to a small painting named The Goldfinch, supposedly painted by Carel Fabritius, a 15th century painter. There is total confusion and chaos. Theo isn’t sure whether the old man is going to survive or not. He promises to send in help, takes the painting and somehow exits the museum. Expecting another explosion and taking him to be just another kid loitering around the crime scene, one of the policemen chases him away without paying attention to what he’s trying to tell. He thinks that his mother is either still inside trying hard to come out, or she’s already out and heading towards home. Somehow he reaches home and starts waiting for his mother. He’s pretty sure that sooner or later she is going to turn up.

Beyond her mother there is no life for him. The alcoholic, abusive father has left them, bringing both of them closer. Her mother, a former, lesser-known model, had deep interest in arts, especially painting and Theo inherits some of that interest. Before the museum they were heading to Theo’s school because he had been suspended for either smoking on the premises or indulging in an activity that cannot be indulged in inside the school – I forget. Since there was some time left, they decided to visit the museum where his mother wanted to see one of her favorite paintings. Suddenly, she leaves him in a room, remembering that she wanted to have another look at a particular painting just for a few more minutes, and goes into another room which perhaps bore the maximum brunt of the explosion. At home, alone, he is convinced that his mother is alive somewhere, caught up in something unavoidable, and is going to come back any time. He even saves the leftover food for her. He saves the painting for her in his room.

The indifferent but highly concerned social services persons pay him a visit and then later on leave him under the care of his friend Andy’s upper-class family that takes him in with a flourish of formal and restrained familiarity. Theo and Andy are the quintessential bullied kids in the school in the typical American manner simply for being good at their studies. Andy’s parents welcome Theo into the family because they believe Theo helps Andy open up. The painting is still at the old apartment.

While staying at Andy’s place, Theo visits the downtown New York where James Hobart – Hobie – lives. Hobie is the person to whom the dying man at the Museum – Welty – wanted Theo to deliver the ring and probably the painting. Hobie and Welty were business partners. The ring Theo takes but leaves the painting behind because by now he is scared that if he reveals that the world-famous painting is with him (on TV he has been watching how there is a massive search for paintings that are missing after the explosion and people are being arrested), the police would arrest him and hand him over to the social services people. Hobie lives in a workshop-cum-apartment-antiques shop. At Hobie’s place he meets Pippa – the girl who was with Welty before the explosion, the same girl he had been so strongly drawn to. Pippa was Welty’s granddaughter. Aside from injuries in the limbs, she has also received grave injury in her brain and she mostly sits in a dazed state, listening to classical music. He spends some time with Pippa and as he makes further plans to visit the place on a repeat basis, he is told by Hobie that a distant aunt of Pippa’s is taking her away as she was badly injured in the head due to the explosion at the Museum and the treatment was not possible at Hobie’s place.

Andy’s family is about to adopt Theo when his father reappears and offers to take him to Las Vegas where he is currently staying with his new wife Xandra. With the help of the guards at the apartment building where he and his mother used to stay, he is able to conceal the painting and take it with him to Las Vegas.

Later on it is revealed why exactly his father brings him to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas he lives like a vagabond with no restrictions on drugs, delinquency, alcoholism and gambling – his father seems to be filthy rich and he seems to be getting all his money from gambling. In school he meets a new friend, Boris, the son of an alcoholic Russian contractor who constantly abuses his son. From thereon starts a lifelong friendship replete with drug abuse, betrayal and loyalty.

This is just the beginning of the story. If you ask me what the story is about, I would say it is about the small boy Theo who has to cope, all alone, the massive tragedy that he faces after the explosion. Why the explosion happens, who is responsible, the author doesn’t touch upon that piece of information. It just happens and wreaks havoc with multiple lives including Theo’s and Pippa’s. They are both shattered for life, Theo emotionally and Pippa both physically and emotionally. The painting, always remaining in the backdrop, plays the central part, because by clinging to the painting, he doesn’t want to let go of that moment when he lost his mother and everything precious that he had. Mostly it is about Theo’s and Boris’s friendship.

Donna Tartt seems to do lots of research while writing her books. For instance, Hobie buys damaged antique furniture, restores it, and then sells it to his selected clientele. There are some very detailed descriptions of the processes, emotions and materials involved during restoration. Painting, yes, The Goldfinch is the central theme and hence naturally there has to be lots of talk about various paintings, various painters and one feels like reading a highly seasoned art critique. Then of course, there are drugs.

In all the three books from Donna Tartt, The Secret History, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch, narcotics feature prominently. She talks about drugs like a person who has had first-hand experience. Lots of chemicals, even medicines that are otherwise taken for ailments, can induce drugs-type effects and hence, many people buy them just for that purpose. Lots of educational stuff if you want to get a glimpse of drug addicts.

She knows a lot about the topics she covers in her books and sometimes, because of that, she seems to ramble on and on and to a person who isn’t reading for the sake of reading (rather than getting done with the book), it may seem a bit offputting. There was a time when I was desperate to complete the book but it just wouldn’t complete. In the end, it goes on and on and one feels she is trying to imitate Ayn Rand. The book has its faults, as every other book. For instance, War and Peace is perhaps one of the best books you can ever read, but sometimes it needlessly seems to go on and on and tends to get boring.

Reading some books is like listening to the FM radio, you can drive and listen. Some books are like listening to some really good music for which you have to sit and pay attention. For classical music, you need to know your music. The Goldfinch is of the second category. You will have to pay attention. Your vocabulary should be good and you should be really interested in reading. With these attributes assumed, it is quite a good book. Otherwise, you may like to skip it.

Review of Fatal Admiration

Fatal Admiration by Irfan Iqbal Gheta is a story of three people – Rishi, Shobha and Neha – brought together, some intentionally and some unintentionally, into a whirlpool of uncontrollable passion that leads to totally unexpected circumstances.

After going through a few pages I almost decided not to read the book because somehow I could not relate to, not just the characters, but also the way they talked to each other. Irfan, before sending the book for review, had asked me whether I would like to review a book that can be categorised as “mushy romantic love”. I have always had an open mind when it comes to reading so I told him, no problem, send me the book and I would read it and if possible, also publish a review of it.

So why I almost stopped reading it? At the risk of sounding boastful, the way a writer writes, matters to me a lot. Although I’m pretty open about the categories of the literature I spent time on, one thing I cannot compromise with is the writing style. The writing style needs to resonate with me and as far as Fatal Admiration goes, it didn’t.

Some context is needed.

A couple of weeks ago one of my clients and I met over beer at my place and he asked me whether I have read Chetan Bhagat. I told him I haven’t and he was quite insistent that I must. “He knows how to talk to the young audience, he understands their pain and their day-to-day dilemmas like no other contemporary writer,” he said.

The problem I faced while trying to read Chetan Bhagat was again, his writing style. I didn’t find it very fascinating. It was too simplistic for me. Perhaps it was also because just before trying to read Chetan Bhagat, I had completed Manas Ko Hans by Amritlal Nagar which, if you read the book, lifts your literary experience to a totally different dimension. After reading that, a few paragraphs of Chetan Bhagat looked very drab and uninspiring. It was like listening to Justin Bieber immediately after listening to, let us say, Luciano Pavarotti, or in the Indian context, listening to Sonu Nigam immediately after listening to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. After that, somehow, no matter how hard I tried, I could never bring myself to reading Chetan Bhagat again.

Unfortunately the same thing happened when I started reading Fatal Admiration. I was in the midst of reading The Goldfinch (I’m still reading it) by Donna Tartt and reading one of her books is an out and out intellectual experience, unfailingly. So this is some sort of injustice that happened. But this time, I was aware of my mental disposition (and more importantly, I had committed to Irfan that I would write a review for his book) and hence I forced myself to go on reading Fatal Admiration.

I’m glad I did.

As I mentioned above, Fatal Admiration is a story of three characters, Rishi and Shobha, husband-and-wife, and Neha, who is Shobha’s cousin. Rishi is obsessed with Neha and cannot come to terms with the fact that she is not attracted to him in any way, and to rub salt to the wounds, she gets her heart broken by another thankless person and then in a rebound, falls in love with another person.

The story begins with Rishi finding abandoned leggings and panties in his bedroom, sprawled upon his own bed, belonging to Neha, whom he has craved for, for many years. He talks about how the sight had set his imagination on fire and heightened his expectations inordinately. The reader never gets to learn how the leggings and the panties ended up there (or whether it was a random act or had a purpose to it) but the scene definitely sets stage for a psychological incarceration that is tantalising as well as erotic for the male protagonist. It’s like reading wrong signs at the wrong time. Undergarments have been left on his bed, he knows that the person sitting in the drawing room is sitting without her undergarments (or this is what he assumes anyway) and the person sitting without her undergarments, he conveniently assumes, knows that he has seen the undergarments. It was like an oasis to someone lost in a desert.

In the beginning, he is not communicating his thoughts vocally or through email, he is simply jotting them down in his moleskin notebook.

As the turn of events takes place, it is revealed to him that the notebook is read by the subject of his enchantment.

Henceforth a series of interactions take place between Rishi and Neha with intermittent references to his wife Shobha who happens to be Neha’s cousin sister. The interactions alternate between loose talk and passionate, although one way, physical longing. The style of conversations is quite peculiar and if you have never read such literature you may also find it enchanting in a twisted way. Most of the story is narrated in monologues. The characters either talk to the reader or to each other through emails and notes left in a red Moleskin notebook.

Though immature and sometimes even awkward, the dialogues are quite engaging in a sense that, they seem to be coming from people who would actually talk the way they do and if Irfan has purposely done that, he has a great talent for getting under the skin of his characters, just in the manner Nabokov could do in Lolita. They also give you a voyeuristic experience.

This is where I contradict myself. There are lots of clichés and jargons in the narrative, especially within the dialogues (would you say to your object of desire, “I would like to be in your good books”?) They seem jarring so this is something you may have to ignore. On many occasions the language seems very artificial, something that we don’t normally use while talking to each other. But that will improve as he writes more and gets more comfortable with the language.

If you like a good story that goes fast and ends fast and has a totally unexpected turn of events, you’re going to like this book.

Review of No Looking Back A True Story

No Looking Back – A True Story

In the midst of reading highly disturbing When a Tree Shook Delhi and totally nonsensical The Hindus, No Looking Back, A True Story came as a fresh whiff of air

I’m not sure — at least as I’m writing this review — whether I read No Looking Back as a person with disability, or as a casual reader (casual in another sense, otherwise I consider myself a serious reader). I’m saying this because at a certain plain I felt connected to the author — Shivani Gupta — because we’re both physically disabled. We don’t know each other personally but I remember seeing her in a few conferences and at that time she came across as a very reserved, serious-looking person, but of course, at that time I didn’t know her story, which, now I do.

No Looking Back is autobiographical. It begins with Shivani, the author, struggling with a plethora of conflicting emotions about whether she should attend her college reunion or not. Confined to a wheelchair after a car accident left her a tetraplegic, she doesn’t want to paint a sorry picture of herself in front of her friends who had once seen her running around full of verve and ambitions. She is worried about what people who must have seen her running around in the college campus unhindered by physical as well as mental constraints may think of her when they see her in a wheelchair, being helped by people for her every move. This, I think, is a situation people who are born with the disability (and hence have never experienced walking or doing other stuff people do) don’t have to go through, but then, I may be saying this just for myself.

She abruptly leaves this string of thoughts as she explains how she ends up in a wheelchair, and one never comes to know whether she eventually attends the reunion or not (if I’m not losing a thread).

It’s a gripping story of possibly avoidable tragedy, medical negligence, extraordinary courage, human frailties, and finally, an enduring love that transcends normal, conventional understanding.

Shivani tells the story of her life in a “right in your face” manner without fudging facts and mincing words. The significant detail of the first accident, that they were going around 120 km/h in a car (the car was being driven by higher boyfriend) when she met with the accident, makes you wonder why in the first place they were going at such a speed, especially when in India the roads are not very good. But then, this is how things happen in life. I’m sure any other, less courageous writer, would have conveniently skipped this detail. Sometimes we act quite rashly in the heat of youth without paying due attention to the repercussions. This, is what increases the quantum of the tragedy – that it could have been avoided.

Nowhere she pretends that she was one of those ideal women out to change the world. Her primary concerns were how good and attractive she looked, whether she could retain her boyfriend or not, and how and when she would marry, have children and settle down as a regular wife.

The gory details of how she goes through monumental neglect at the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) rattles you deeply despite the fact that you’re quite aware of the conditions of government (for that matter, even some private) hospitals in India, and the attitudes of our doctors and medical staff. The degree of frustration is compounded by the knowledge that just due to their carelessness and criminal detachment a person has to live a life of severe disability. This is a big problem in India that people at responsible positions don’t have to bear the brunt of their irresponsibility no matter how grave a tragedy they unleash upon the victim of their casual attitude. These people have no business perpetuating their crimes by remaining in their professional positions. They should be arrested and made to pay for their behavior dearly. The frustrating account of Shivani’s first month at AIIMS also brings to fore the difficulties a common person has to go through in India even in order to access basic needs.

From a bubbly young woman of 22, full of dreams and about to embark upon an exciting journey of going abroad and studying, there she is lying on a horrible hospital bed with a 22 KG weight dangling through the holes drilled into her skull by a junior doctor who had no clue of what exactly he was trying to achieve. For one month she stays in the same position, just staring at the grim, stained ceiling, with doctors and nurses treating her like a feelingless and emotionless entity. The conditions under which she is kept are simply bloodcurdling, and it gives one a panic attack to think of millions of other patients who must be going through the same conditions in one way or another in such deplorable hospitals. If you say that you can relate to her condition or you can imagine what she must have gone through during those days, I’m pretty sure you are lying. No one can relate, no one can imagine, but her.

Miraculously she is rescued from that hellhole by a doctor of an upcoming institute of spinal cord injuries. She is shifted to the new hospital, operated upon, cleaned up, encouraged emotionally, and within a few days, she’s on a wheelchair, about to move out of her room.

In the name of rehabilitation of the persons who have become disabled there exists nothing in India. There are physical therapy facilities where you can go and exercise alone or with the help of a sem-trained physician, but these activities don’t really rehabilitate you. You need to rehabilitate yourself. There are no councillors and there are no experienced professionals who tell you how to face the difficulties of life after becoming disabled. Shivani goes through the transformation on her own. She climbs mountains and comes down on her own, she falls into pits and comes out on her own. Neither she nor people around her have any idea of what exactly is happening and what turns the life is about to take. She learns on her own.

This is the void she decides to fill once she has overcome her initial sense of monumental loss and reconciled to the fact that she may not walk again, that her life is changed forever and this is her new reality. The succor that she never got, she decides to provided to other spinal cord injury survivors who have been suddenly rendered disabled with no clue of how to deal with their new situation.

As she begins to chart a new path for herself, most of the traits of her old life begin to recede, including her boyfriend, but there are also new beginnings. She starts providing counselling at the spinal cords injury center and thence begins an extraordinary love story. Classics may not be written about this love story, but when you begin to compare this love story with the conventional stories you must have read, you will realise that your conventional stories don’t even know the “L” of love.

No Looking Back is basically a love story, but with a twist. It’s a story between two real-world persons and in the real world, love isn’t the only thing that happens. People get injured, they meet with accidents, their appearances change (for worse sometimes), they become disabled, they may have to help their lovers sit on and get up from the toilet seat on a daily basis, everything becomes inaccessible and even as simple a task as visiting the Eiffel tower may end up testing your physical and mental grit.

Contrary to what many people may think or assume, in case you happen to know the author, No Looking Back A True Story is not a disabilities issues book. Yes, the protagonist becomes a tetrapelagic and then deals with her life accordingly, and on many occasions the book gives you a deep insight into how a person deals with, and even doesn’t deal with (moves on without dealing) the problems that come with extreme physical disability, as I have mentioned above, it is a love story with disability as the backdrop.

I highly recommend this book. Very tightly written. Not a single line that bores you. Just make sure that if you are buying it from Flipkart don’t buy the digital copy because their DMR is very constraining and almost outdated. Purchase a physical copy.

Review of Pompeii the book

Pompeii-the-novelPompeii was one of the most famous cities of the ancient Roman Empire that was completely decimated by the eruption of Vesuvius, in 79 A.D. The novel is about a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who is sent to the city of Misenum where the aqueducts have stopped. Misenum primarily acts as a naval base and now it is totally bereft of water. The previous water engineer of 20 years has mysteriously disappeared and the new engineer, although highly reputed for his intelligence, is inexperienced for this particular region.

The water engineer has to either figure out what has caused the main aqueduct to stop, or find a new, even if temporary, source of water so that there is no unrest in the city. He finds the signs of water up the hill shadowing the city, but defying all logic and his knowledge, he doesn’t find the water. When he comes back he straightaway goes to check the underground city reservoir to find exactly how much water is left. The extreme smell of sulphur almost drives him mad. While he’s totally bewildered by the smell, his supervisor and other accompanying slaves accuse him of inexperience. Exomnius, the previous aquarius, they complain, would know exactly what was wrong. Attilius often wonders where the previous aquarius has gone and he suspects that he has been killed and his body has been disposed of somewhere. Who has done that, and why, no one seems to know. Corax, his supervisor, seems suspicious and unnaturally hostile to him.

Totally clueless, while he readies himself to rest in his chamber, the daughter of a freed slave, Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, who has now become a millionaire by rebuilding Pompeii after an earthquake had devastated the city 17 years ago, seeks his help because her father is about to put to death the son of her slave nanny due to no fault of his. A romance blossoms.

The son of the slave nanny is being fed to the killer fish because a very precious bunch of fish belonging to Ampliatus have died due to poisoning under the son’s watch. While being put to death the son of the nanny slave screams “call the aquarius, he knows why the fish has died!”

Although Attilius is unable to save the hapless slave, he finds that sulphur in the water has killed the fish. Again, he has no idea why there is so much sulphur in the water.

What he knows is, where the aqueduct must be broken, where he has to go, how many men and how much material he needs and in how much time he can mend the aqueduct.

Thence begins his journey, on a warship as well as on the shaky terrain of the city of Pompeii where sin and splendour go on concomitantly while the restless earth rumbles beneath. Every incident is a step towards that fateful day when Vesuvius will erupt and hundreds of thousands of people will perish in the burning ash riding on the shockwaves. This is a story of not just devastation of monumental proportions, it is also a story of extreme greed, extraordinary courage, and a conviction to go on even when death awaits you.

This is an out and out adventure story interspersed with scientific facts about what precedes before a major eruption, referenced from books on volcanology, seismology and geography. It’s written by Robert Harris.

Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief

According to the introduction presented by the narrator of the book, the entire story basically revolves around a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Reading The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak was a pleasant surprise. I don’t remember how I came across the title of this book and how I ended up purchasing it. It even seemed a bit “off” in the beginning and I almost abandoned reading it. I was looking for something cheerful to read . Something humorous, something light. The Book Thief is an account of an orphaned girl (nine years old when the story begins) in Nazi Germany, told by Death. Her six-year-old brother dies while her mother is taking her and her brother to be given to foster parents in Munich, the guards of the train almost abandon them on a snowy terrain and the first book that she steals while her brother is being buried is “The Gravedigger’s Handbook”. How much more dismal can it get? But something nudged me on and by the time I was half through, I was practically in love with all the major characters of the book, especially Liesal, the book thief.

The story is about a little girl named Liesal told by Death. She is practically orphaned. Unable to take care of her kids, the mother decides to put her two kids in foster care, but one kid dies on their way to Munich and ultimately it’s only the daughter who reaches her foster parents, the Hubermanns. Almost the entire story takes place in the Himmel Street, a very poor place in a town called Molching that is at the outskirts of Munich. The foster parents get an allowance for keeping such kids so they are understandably upset that they were only getting the girl and not both the siblings.

This is the place where Liesal, amidst regular nightmares of her brother dying in her arms, begins to grow. She arrives at the place with nothing but the book she had stolen while her brother was being buried. The new mother and father are poles apart. The mother, Rosa Hubermann, cannot utter a sentence without appending an abuse — Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch were the hard-core German abuses she cannot live without. The father, Hans Hubermann, prefers to remain to himself, play his accordion, and smoke cigarettes he rolls himself. As soon as the child arrives, he takes her under his protection and shields her from Rosa’s verbal and physical onslaughts, whenever he can. He is a painter by profession but since most of his jobs came from the Jews and since most of the Jews have been killed, chased away or sent to the concentration camps, they have been reduced to having pea soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Liesal screams and cries almost every night in her nightmares and it’s Hans who wakes her up, comforts her and tells her stories, and they develop an unbreakable bonding. One of such nights she shows him the book that she had stolen once and asks him to read it to her. Hans cannot read much but their nightly reading journeys begin like this and they continue for many years as she is able to steal more and more books.

As she grows into her teens, it’s the boys she is more comfortable with rather than girls and this is how her friendship with Rudy Steiner begins, whom people consider slightly mad after he painted himself black and pretended to be Jesse Owens. Together they face many adventures, including stealing of books, and beating up of other boys.

Amidst all the adult and early teenage tumults, arrives a person one day, who looks less like a human and more like a corpse. In a town where most of the remaining adults think that Jews deserve what they have got and as soon as a Jew is sighted he should be either immediately reported or killed, the Hubermanns decide to hide a fugitive Jew in their basement.

There was a time when Jews and Germans were friends and there was a Jew who was also Hans Hubermann’s friend. This was the friend who taught him how to play the accordion. This was the friend to whom he had promised that one day he would return the favour. The friend had died long ago, leaving behind his son and wife, and it was this son the Hubermanns decide to provide shelter to when they are asked to help. Having a boisterous 12-year-old girl around who cannot normally hold her tongue doesn’t make the job easier.

Do they succeed in saving the fugitive in a place where even your neighbours are on the lookout for such fugitives, or do they get caught and meet a harsh punishment?

If you want to experience an emotional rollercoaster with exceptional writing, then do read The Book Thief.