Look at me

…by Jennifer Egan.

Charlotte Swenson is a model in New York. Until she meets with an accident and requires reconstructive facial surgery. Following this, she becomes unrecognisable within the fashion world. She initially copes with alcohol. Until it gets out of control after a failed suicide attempt. She then gets desperate for a job and manages to land herself in an internet experiment about her life that could either make or break her. Then there is her namesake. A 16 year old in Charlotte’s hometown, Charlotte Hauser. The daughter of Ellen who used to be Charlotte’s best friend in high school. This teenager is plain and unhappy and looking for love. She is someone trying to come to terms with who she is. There are other characters too. Moose, who is teenage Charlotte’s uncle and who has changed a from being a jock to a history professor with possible mental health issues. Detective Halliday to whom adult Charlotte has a taken a fancy. And he is searching for the elusive Z and thinks adult Charlotte may know something. Additionally, there is Ricky, teenage Charlotte’s brother who has had a leukaemia scare. And Irene who is helping adult Charlotte with her work.  And finally, the man who refers to himself as Michael West but who possibly is a terrorist.

This is a book that does raise questions about western society and the emphasis on looks and image and identity. And the frivolousness of the same. It also explores how the media manages to exploit so many people in order to sell things. And sadly, as a society, we are gullible enough to buy what is being sold. While all this is interesting, somewhere along the line, the book still manages to lose you. There are some things I found hard to get especially with regards to Moose’s character and even Michael West. I didn’t understand the need for a terrorist (and no, it wasn’t to sensationalise as the book was pre-9/11) in the scheme of things. However, I did really enjoy both the Charlottes. Their characters were penned quite beautifully with flaws and all. Moreover, the shallow media and fashion industry which we probably know about is also well described. It is a massive book of 500 pages but there are parts that I must admit, don’t keep you completely engrossed. With a few changes, it could have been a fantastic book.

In its current version, it deserves a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

A Calendar too Crowded

…by Sagarika Chakraborty.

This debut book is a collection of short stories and poems about Indian women in different stages of their lives and the issues surrounding them. While the book is divided into months of the year that highlight important days (e.g. 1st December: World AIDS day), the author tells us in her introduction that it is not just to highlight the days but rather, “to delve deeper and analyse whether it is merely enough to rely on statistics and be complacent in the knowledge that the numbers indicate a better society in the making, or whether there is an urgent need to look beneath the covers and realise that despite all such dedicated days, there are 300 odd days when there is nothing special that life has to offer. Where each day is still an unending drudgery and where womanhood is cursed and trampled upon.”

The stories, despite being fiction, are probably quite familiar to people who grew up in India. Particularly to women. There are stories about sexual harassment and rape (and how it’s the woman’s fault as always), dowry, domestic violence, the stigma associated with menstruation, female foeticide, and abortion among others. There are stories of young girls dealing with being adopted and widows dealing with the stigma of their status. There are empowering stories about the daughter of a prostitute and a woman observing a mother. There are also stories about women dealing with in-laws, going to extremes in terms of independence and being able to do it all (i.e work, keep house, have kids, be traditional). All in all, they are stories people in India would have read about, heard about or even experienced first hand.

While reading the book, I noticed my views change. There were some stories that totally gripped me and had me nodding all the way through. Naked was by far, my favourite story. I loved the writing and the story and it spoke volumes about Indian society. The poem Can you hear me, Ma? was heart-wrenching and a familiar one. One that probably makes most of us women reading this book born in India feel fortunate that our mothers did hear us! On the other hand, some stories just didn’t grip me. An Equal Friendship which is a letter from Draupadi to Krishna was one that didn’t gel with me. Probably because my memory of the Mahabharata is not so good any more but also because I don’t remember Draupadi as being the strong woman the author has portrayed.Knowledge beyond the printed letter was another that didn’t grip me and felt a bit unrealistic.

On the whole, the book is a pretty good read. I guess most of Indian society is aware about these social evils but doesn’t do much about it. The hope would be that books like these would help give these women a voice and start to change things. None of the characters portrayed in the book have a name and although initially I found it frustrating (despite the reason the author had given), I found myself liking it in the end. Possibly because there is a mentality with people from India to associate stereotypes the minute you hear someone’s name (e.g. north Indian versus south Indian) and not having names meant the reader was unlikely to engage in that association. To sum up, if you are looking to read a book about women from different walks of life in India going through similar problems and trying to manage their lives, then this is the book for you.

I give it a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

The Riders

…by Tim Winton.

Scully is setting up a life in Ireland while waiting for his wife Jennifer and 7 year old daughter, Billie to join him from Australia after settling things such as selling their home and bringing over everything else they own. Scully loves his wife, his daughter and Australia. But he decides to leave Australia for his wife’s sake…as she wants a change in their lives. On the day of their arrival, Scully goes to welcome them at the airport. Only to have the shock of his life. Billie arrives in Ireland but there is no sign of Jennifer. Jennifer who is pregnant, has not left any note with Billie or any message. Nothing. And Scully’s life falls apart. Thus ensues a search for Jennifer through countries they have previously visited as a family including Greece, France and the Netherlands.

This is a story about love and loss and a man’s search for a person he thought he knew. It is about the love of a man for his daughter and the love of a daughter for her imperfect father. There are some heart-wrenching moments especially when Billie is selectively mute possibly following the shock of her mother leaving. The pain Scully feels is real. On the downside though, a lot is left unanswered. For instance, the woman they meet on a boat who follows them around. Her motives are unclear. Her history is unclear. And finally, why has Jennifer left? Where has she gone to?

It is an interesting read if you are prepared for a number of things to be left open to the reader and not being answered completely. I guess in my mind, I was comparing it to Cloudstreet which I enjoyed a lot more and this did not live up to his other book. I give it a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

***This has been cross-posted on my personal blog***