Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: WALKING WITH MARY





Edward Sri’s Walking with Mary invites us to walk along with Mary along her journey from the moment she said Yes to the angel Gabriel to the moment when that Yes received fruition on the cross.

Sri’s devotion to Mary and subsequent strengthening of his faith started out in the best possible way: with questions.

While the Bible does not offer details about the unfolding of the most significant moments in history from Mary’s perspective, Sri pieces together the insights provided in the four Gospels, besides insights put forward by theological scholars. We get an understanding of what life must have been like then, of the hazards of having to travel miles while being in an advanced stage of pregnancy, of Mary’s journeying forth to be with her kinswoman Elizabeth, on receiving the news of her impending motherhood, despite being advanced in years.

Sri relates Mary’s experience to real-life instances that we can relate to. Mary’s Yes was the beginning of her journey of faith. It was a journey in which she must have struggled for answers, she must have floundered in her doubts, but she walked on regardless. 


Even before His first miracle in Cana, she believes that He will do something to help the Jewish householder, the father of the bride. She believes with a steadfast faith, even though she has no tangible evidence of that which she clings to so strongly.

The book discusses nine significant moments in Mary’s journey. At the beginning, the book sounded more than a little repetitive, as Sri seems to find more than one way to say the same thing. On a personal note, it was enlightening to know the depth of scholarly research about Mary. Sri relates Scripture passages from the Old Testament and correlates them with passages from the New Testament to point out the depth and strength of Mary’s commitment to God, and to demonstrate the fact that everything took place exactly as Scripture said it would.



(I received a copy of Walking with Mary from WaterBrook Multnomah.)




Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD

Title: Whistling Past The Graveyard
Author: Susan Crandall
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pages: 307








Starla Claudelle is the kind of narrative voice you never want to stop listening to. All of 9½ years old during the summer of 1963, this third-grade student finds herself coming to terms with the realities of being black and white in America’s Deep South.

Constantly suffering verbal and even physical abuse at the hands of Mamie, her grandmother, Starla feels totally unloved. Her Daddy works on an oil rig in the Gulf and her Momma ran away from home when Starla was three to become a country music singer. Starla is tired of the restrictions that she is placed under and of the grandmother who makes no attempt to hide her hatred for her or her ‘trashy’ mother. When Starla’s best attempts to conform to Mamie’s wishes fail and the threat of Reform school looms large, she impulsively decides to run away from her home in Mississippi and go to her mother in Nashville.

With nothing but the clothes on her back and the shoes on her feet, and no idea about where her Momma is in Nashville, she sets out anyway. Secure in the knowledge that her mother will solve all her problems and love her as she longs to be loved.

On the way, she is picked up by a young black woman named Eula, who has just picked up an abandoned white baby off the church steps. At Eula’s home, her enraged and abusive husband, Wallace, nearly kills Starla twice, but Eula hits him on the head to save Starla, and ends up killing him. Eula, the baby and Starla then make their way to Nashville where Starla hopes to help Eula and be a real family with her Daddy and Momma.

From them on begins their epic and adventurous journey as Starla realises the harsh and cruel realities of being black in the South. The trip gets dangerous, but Starla and Eula are each determined to protect the other and the baby. Even as they battle challenges they never imagined, Eula learns to stand up for herself and Starla learns that family ties are stronger than the ties of birth and that they are forged when people choose to love one another in spite of the odds.

Along the way, Starla, who has a knack for stretching the truth, discovers truths she never knew of, truths that force her to do her growing up in a hurry.

Together, these two people who are both hurting and damaged in their own ways, learn to reach out and look out for each other. They also learn that courage does not consist of not being afraid. True courage means whistling as you go past the graveyard, or, as Starla explains her Daddy’s teaching, something you do when you want to keep your mind off your most “worstest” fear.

As I read, I experienced many moments when my heart went out to little Starla. Inquisitive, feisty and spunky, with a mouth that speaks too much for her own good, she goes out of her way to help others, even when she does not like them, unmindful of the consequences. She is both unusually perceptive and endearingly naïve at the same time. She has a pleasant disregard for the niceties of grammar and is game for inventing any number of good stories, when the occasion demands it. Overly imaginative, she is also quite adept at eavesdropping when the adults won’t let her into their conversations. Having read books featuring Nancy Drew and Huck Finn, she is not averse to an adventure, and, boy, does she get it.

What I liked about the book was that it talked about the cruelty and humiliation that black people were subjected to and made a case for equal rights, without painting all people with the same brush. And so, we have good black people like Eula and Miss Cyrena, the teacher and civil rights activist, and bad black people like Wallace. We have good white people like Starla and her Daddy and bad white people like the driver who deliberately tries to run Eula’s beat-up truck off the road.

The language used reflects the lingo of the American South. It is a treat to read, especially Eula’s halting speech and Starla’s over-exuberant voice.

Bit by bit, Crandall reveals her lead character to us, and the revelation is a delight. With her “defiant face” and flaming red hair, her personality shines through and imbues the book with charm. Her sense of humour brings a smile to our faces. When Mamie warns Starla against a certain kind of behaviour, and tells her that they had agreed on it, the kid thinks to herself, “We hadn’t agreed. Mamie agreed. I just stopped disagreeing.

At another time, she likens Mamie’s house to Reform school. “All chores and punishment and wadded up disappointment – just without the locked doors.

This is one character that is going to stay with you, long after you put the book down.




(I received a Kindle version of this book from NetGalley.)





Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: THE RETURNED

Title: The Returned
Author: Jason Mott
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Pages: 352








The possibility of the dead returning to haunt the living always evokes dread and horror. In recent times, popular literature and films have seen a surfeit of books relating to zombies and vampires. These books and films follow the same line of thinking: the decayed undead seeking to prey on the living. Or the disembodied dead returning to fulfill their last wishes.

In the hands of poet-novelist Jason Mott, however, the same subject becomes food for contemplation, raising questions most of us would never have thought of.

Mott takes us to the town of Arcadia in the Deep South of the US, where Harold and Lucille Hargrave, a couple in their 70s, reside. The Hargraves have learned to live life without their son, Jacob, who died on his eighth birthday, leaving his parents to grieve. Fifty years later, Jacob returns, still a sweet eight-year-old boy to parents who are now old enough to be his grandparents.

The inexplicable phenomenon is seen around the world as people return from the dead, looking as healthy and whole as they were in life. Not broken, bruised or diseased, as they were in death. The return of the dead throws the world into a state of confusion and chaos. No one has any idea why this is happening. Neither the government nor the religious.

Meanwhile governments across the world set up the International Bureau of the Returned to do the paperwork and reunite people, since the Returned do not wake up in their own neighbourhoods, or even their own countries. 

At the beginning, Lucille dismisses the Returned as devils, even as Harold insists that they “can’t just turn him away,” when they discuss their potential reaction if Jacob were to return. When Jacob does return, it is Lucille who sees Jacob’s return as a miracle and Harold who cannot bring himself to consider the boy as his own.

The Religion of the congregation of the church of Pastor Peters stands out in sharp relief against the backdrop of the Hargraves’ reaction to the Returned. Even though the vast majority of people believe in a God who rose from the dead, they are clearly uncomfortable when the dead actually come to life.

Interspersed with the main narrative about the Hargraves are stories of other Returned.

The Japanese Kamui Yamamoto who wakes up in America and is hunted.

Angela Johnson who, far from being welcomed by her family when she returns, is locked up in a room. Her family is too ashamed to let her be seen. They even refer to her as ‘it.’

Jean Rideau, an artist who, having died in penury, returns to find his work worth millions.

Gou Jun Pei who is prodded and poked by doctors to see if he is still human.

The Wilson family, Jim, Connie, Tommy and Hannah, who were murdered in their beds. When they died, they were deeply mourned. When they returned, they found themselves unwelcome, seen as aberrations in a town known for embodying the essence of simplicity and old-world charm.

Nico Sutil, Erik Bellof, Timo Heidfeld. Nazi soldiers while they lived, now sheltered by a Jewish family in a profound living lesson on forgiveness.

As the numbers of the Returned grow and the living around the world find themselves sharply polarised depending upon whether they sympathise with the Returned or not, the Bureau decides to house them separately in Arcadia’s school, in a system that is not unlike a jail.

That the town of Arcadia is chosen for this prison is itself ironical, considering that Arcadia signifies a real or imaginary place that is synonymous with peace and simplicity.

Mott is a poet and his pithy prose is a treat to read. The narrative is littered with gems such as “Like a child that’s come upon a gleaming carnival in the middle of a dark and lonely forest,” “heavy trucks grumbling through their gears,” and “Where trees thread together against the cloth of the open sky.” Elsewhere, Mott describes Lucille’s sleep as being like a “court summons,” delivered “at only the most unpredictable and discourteous times.

The beauty of the prose catches our attention and refuses to let go. The section in which the missing Jacob is sought after by everyone is heart rending.

In the author’s preface, Mott tells us that he identified himself with the character of Martin Bellamy, the honest agent who works for the Bureau. But for me, it was Lucille with her penchant for weaving dreams out of mere words, her devotion to the child that was once taken away from her, and her relationship with her husband, riddled with a lifetime of love and affection and playful banter, that I found most appealing.

Little by little, Mott builds up her character. Lucille is someone who even in pain looks for a quality word to describe her feelings. She loves to use big words, and insists on teaching her son good manners. She is the kind of person who always carries safety pins around, expecting to need one without warning. And yet the return of her dead son is an event for which she is totally unprepared with no safety pin to hold her emotions together.

Hers is the strongest character in the novel. Even when she appears to be fatigued, she is mentally strong. When Jacob is held within the school, and Harold insists on living with him there, Lucille bravely holds the fort back home. In spite of the opposition of the townsfolk, she shelters the Wilson family and feeds them. In the end, the image I took back with me was that of a mother, arthritic and fatigued, clinging to and covering the body of her once dead son, fearless of her own death, in the hope of saving him this time around.

The return from death raises questions that none have answers to, even though many seek to know. Agent Martin Bellamy of the International Bureau of the Returned questions Jacob about what happened before China. But Jacob can’t remember a thing. Lucille prompts him, “Was there a bright, warm light? A voice?” Unmoved by the passage of time, the little boy is blissfully unaware of where he has been over the last 50 years. All he can remember is that he woke up in China.

Even as people grapple with the big question of why this strange phenomenon is occurring, Pastor Peters raises the unspoken question, “What happens when the dead outnumber the living?

Eventually, the novel does not answer our curiosity about why the dead have returned. But reading it is still strangely a very cathartic experience. The Returned come back to a world that has at best, learned to get along without them. At worst, forgotten them. They return not to fulfill their own unfinished dreams, but to give the living a chance to re-live theirs, to seek forgiveness, to reconcile. A sort of cosmic second chance.

I would strongly recommend this book to those who like books that force them to think.

For those who like books that leave them feeling slightly breathless, and curiously both empty and full at the same time.



(I received a Kindle version of this book from NetGalley.)








Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A Murine Love Story

There was a loud crash in the hallway.

The carriage burst in just as the grandfather clock in the parlour announced the hour of midnight

At the twelfth sounding of the gong, the spell came apart.

The white-liveried coachman became a cat and the five white horses her litter of kittens. 

The grand carriage went back to being a pumpkin. 

The bejewelled gown gave way to one of Cinderella’s stepsisters’ old cast-off dresses, complete with the grease stains that came from cooking the day’s supper and the grime from scrubbing the floors. 

I, Raton, only lately a high-heeled glass slipper, too assumed my natural form.

Within seconds, we scampered away to the safety of the scullery that Cinderella called home. Except the pumpkin, which Cinderella had to carry in her arms.

Pumpkins don’t scamper. Not even in fairy tales.

By the time the old harridan, Cinderella’s stepmother, showed up, the house was as quiet as, what is that phrase? As quiet as a mouse.

Silly phrase if you ask me. I am a mouse, but I was far from feeling quiet.

I had realised that Chuhiya, my love, was nowhere to be seen. How careless of Cinderella to lose her!

We had both been transformed into her glass slippers. Our services had enabled the Fairy Godmother to deck Cinderella out so finely. All she had to do was to return home before midnight. Was that so hard to do?

The outcome of all that Abracadabra had been good for Cinderella. She’d had a chance to waltz the night away with the Prince.

The cat family had had a good time too. What is that they say? A cat may look at a king.

And the pumpkin had come home in one piece.

But what about me? I had lost my love and I hadn’t even told her that I loved her. 


Meanwhile, the one who had blighted my happiness snored gently on the scullery floor, no doubt dreaming about strolling with the Prince around some scenic pond, with maybe a lone, beautiful hibiscus flower serenely floating over the still water.


Hibiscus




What a stupid dream! I would have dreamed about Chuhiya and me feasting on the garbage.

But that was not to be. Here I was, writhing in helpless misery, while Chuhiya was trapped in the palace? I was too agitated to think about what state she might be in.

I hoped she was still a glass slipper. The thought of her regaining her true self only to be stamped underfoot or be snared in a trap was horrifying.

It was a long, dark night for me.

*      *       *
  
The next morning, I overheard the harridan telling her daughters that the Prince had fallen in love with a glass slipper and was visiting every household in the kingdom in order to find the foot that had worn that slipper. And marry it too (The whole person, not just the foot. This language will be the death of me.).

My heart skipped a beat. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Chuhiya was alive, though trapped in a glass slipper. How would I rescue her? I had no idea. What were the odds that no other foot but Cinderella’s would fit the slipper?

All day the house was abuzz with excitement. Cinderella cooked and washed and cleaned, but there was something different about her.

I recognized the feeling. Like me, she was infected with hope.

At long last, the royal entourage showed up at our doorstep. The harridan’s two daughters tried their hand at wearing the slipper (Or should I say, tried their foot?). But neither had any luck. Desperate, the harridan tried to shove her foot in. But she had no luck either.

I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown by now.

And then the Prince wanted to know if there were others in the household. Only the maid, he was told. At the Prince’s insistence, Cinderella was summoned and ordered to try the slipper.

It was a delicate moment. Our fates hung in the balance.

In a moment, the Prince vowed eternal love to Cinderella. But what of my love?

Was I destined to prowl the trash alone? My Chuhiya entrapped in a glass slipper until the end of time?

Dejected, I shut my eyes.

The grandfather clock began sounding the hour of 12 noon. At the twelfth sounding of the gong, I heard them scream.

A shrill and horrible sound…broken by the mellifluous squeaking of my Chuhiya.





(There are numerous versions of the classic Cinderella story. I wrote this story, my own original variation, for Yeah Write # 143. Incidentally, Raton and Chuhiya are Spanish and Hindi for mouse.)






Bagging a Lesson

Generally, I spend New Year’s Day, thinking of resolutions.
This year I spent it cleaning up my cupboard. It was an activity I’d been putting off for long.
Going through my cupboard, I realized just how much stuff I had gathered. Items that had attached themselves to me, things that I’d once taken a fancy to, and forgotten about. Things that I couldn’t throw away. What if I needed them the day after I threw them out?

With the Husband watching me, his hawk eye on high alert to make sure that the to-be-discarded items didn’t claw their way back in, I had no choice but to spring clean as if I really meant it.

And then I found a bag that my younger brother, M, had bought me from London. It was his first trip abroad and I was touched that he would think of me.

The bag was large, roomy, and voluminous. I could have carried my entire world in it.

When I first laid my eyes upon it, it shone. Bright. Glossy. Burnished to perfection. The two bag straps were made of three long strips of faux leather interlaced together to resemble thick braids.

That bag was a thing of beauty. Had there been a beauty pageant for large roomy bags, mine would have won, without having to make a speech about world poverty.

It was so chic and stately, I couldn’t bring myself to dilute its appeal by treating it as just another bag. There had to be a right occasion that would allow it to exhibit its exquisiteness.

Until that right occasion showed up, it would stay in storage, biding its time, like a debutante waiting to be properly introduced into Society.

I packed the bag in a polythene bag, and placed it in the cupboard, and forgot about it. For months it lay there, as life and its compulsions overtook me.

When M asked me whether I liked the bag, I told him that I loved it. It was the truth. When he asked me why I didn’t use it, I told him that I was waiting for the right occasion to flaunt it.

An occasion did present itself, along the way. But it wasn’t of the scale of grandeur that would befit the bag. Or so I thought. So I let it lie.
This New Year’s Day, I unwrapped the polythene covering, to have a look at my priceless possession. 

Shedding bits of skin, it looked wasted and sickly.

For a desperate moment, I wondered if I could still carry the bag around. What if I held the damaged side close to my body? But that was not the solution. The bag was once a thing of beauty. I could not subject it to a life of shame, as if it, not I, were to blame for its mottled, moulted skin.

I emptied the rich mahogany shavings of bag skin into the trash can, and gazed at the bag.

At my request, the Husband took a picture of the bag. 



I needed a reminder to live in the here and now, not to wait for some ephemeral date in the future when I would relish life. I needed a wake-up call to use what I had, things, talents, abilities.

Who knows how much time we have left?

The stuff we have must be used or else it will be ruined.

Our physical and mental abilities must be nurtured or else they will atrophy.

Even when it was unusable, that bag taught me a lesson.

I just hope I remember the lesson through 2014.






(This post has been written for the Weekly Challenge at Yeah Write.)





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