Thursday, January 31, 2019

#632 : The Chef's Secret by Crystal King : Review

A story set in renaissance Italy and centering around gastronomical delight is every Italophile's perfect idea of a book. This book fit's that box perfectly. The plot is loosely based on 16th century cook(or "Cuoco" in Italian) Bartolomeo Scappi. Scappi served several Popes. He is also famously known for his mammoth of a book of recepies - Opera dell'arte del cucinare. 

The story begins with the funeral of Bartolomeo Scappi. He bequeaths his estate - his favorite knife, a collection of his recipe and a vast sum of money - to his nephew Giovanni. He also gives keys to his safe containing his personal diary and asks him to burn them. The diary is coded to maintain the secrets, but Giovanni ends up decoding it and stringing together the story Scappi's life in the process. The diary holds treacherous secrets which when fallen into wrong hands would literally lead to the doom of Giovanni and his family. 

The writing is delightful. The writer took her sweet own time to build the plot thread by thread. There were few place where the story felt like it slacked and turned a bit boring, but just then another plot twist would come in to make things interesting again. I felt the pacing to be rather different and surprising in a sense for such a story line. It felt like a sinusoidal wave with alternating moments of slack and thrill. Being a Vegetarian, the dishes described in the book apart from the pies seemed a bit overwhelming. However, it was quite interesting to read about sugar sculptures and Papal history. 

Note : I thank the writer & the publisher for providing me  a review copy on request via NetGalley!

You can buy the book here from Amazon.

Monday, January 21, 2019

#630 : The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni : Review

An epic with countless versions, narrated in hundred of different ways to suit the reader - it is indeed a mammoth of a task to narrate it in yet another perspective. 

The version of Ramayana I read as a child was conspicuously devoid of certain emotions and events like the Agni Pariksha or banishment of Sita. It was a simple narration of a complicated story, narrated to ensure that a 10 year old understands the perils of stealing. As I grew up, I "heard" various versions of the same story narrated by my own mother and grandmother as a bed time story or mostly as a lesson to learn patience. However, none of the narrations bother on focusing the women of the story and their feelings. Sita was epitome of patience and virtue they said, while one not ought to be like Kaikeyi they said. That was the maximum attention they got. Kaikeyi did what a mother would do, yet she was vilified. Sita is portrayed to be meek when she agreed for the Agni Pariksha, but she did really wish to die in the fire. People conveniently  focus just on one person - Lord Ram.Time and again, one fact seems to have escaped from most of the narrators focus - If it weren't for Sita, there would be no Ramayana, if it weren't for Draupadi, there would be no Mahabaratha. 

With the high standards that 'The Palace of Illusions' set, it is natural of a reader to expect a work of such magnitude from this book as well.  She almost lives up to her own standards with "almost" being the key there. How do you narrate a story that's already widely popular, yet keep the reader hooked to the book? How do you ensure that you don't bring in shades of a very strong character from your previous book because that was a benchmark hit. You do it by sticking to the basics and keeping it simple. That's precisely the crux of this narration. 

Sita, as a character, is commonly described to be mellow but a strong person. Being mellow often translates to boring and weak. It is hard not to draw parallel to Draupadi who is portrayed to be feisty. The fundamental difference that is often used to justify this portrayal is that, Sita, is the daughter of Mother Earth, while Draupadi was the Daughter of Lord Fire. What one fails to realize is that, Sita was probably as fiery as Draupdi but in a different way. The writer has exploited this line of thought to the maximum.  But then, this isn't really a first attempt at writing a Sitayan. 

What particularly stands out is the who construct which feels mellifluous. While the writer has done abundant justice in making the women of the story heard, it all feels slightly single dimensional. Agreed that it was of paramount of importance to ensure Sita had all layers portrayed, but few characters could have been given those extra layers. For example, the bond between Sita and her sister Urmila, seems superficial as Sita feels over bearing whenever there is Urmila around. While it was interesting to read about Sita's mother, again, the angle on the bond that she shares with Urmila wasn't taken into account much. While it might not be very crucial to the story as such, it could possibly add to the very pleasure of understanding the women of Ramayana better. The surprise however was Mandodhari - Ravana's wife. That part was possibly the highlight of the book. The writer ensured to portray her beautifully.

One passage particularly made a realistic impression about Sita's mother when she sees her daughters off to Ayodhya,

"Draw on you inner strength. Remember, you can be your worst enemy- or your best friend.It's up to you. And also this : what you can't change, you must endure" 

The whole narration hangs on this very word - Endure. Time and again, Sita seems to be a personification of the word - the personification of every woman who endures all injustice meted out to her. While we have often looked upon Ram and Sita as divine beings, it was refreshing to read the human side of them - the one that I could personally relate to. Two particular passages I could connect with was (the first set in Lanka, while the latter set in Panchavati or Panchabati as the writer prefers - The Bengali version may be?!), 

"Once mistrust has wounded it mortally, love can't be fully healed again"

"How entangled love is with expectation, that poison vine! The stronger the expectation, the more the anger towards the beloved if he doesn't fulfill it - and the less the control over ourselves."

Sita's pain felt real, her struggle in the Lanka felt real, the torrent of emotions felt real - the writing was such. In spite of the minor qualms I have as reasoned above, the book was every bit a great read, with such vivid narration and complex emotions all centered around the biggest emotion of all - love. 

In times of such harshness, reading about truthful love feels heartwarming.  


Friday, January 11, 2019

#629 : When words fail

Writing has been my "thing" for a long time now. I love the sound of my keyboard clattering while I hammer away my thoughts, broadcasting it to the world. I love scribbling on my notepad about anything and everything. I would never rate myself as a good writer, but I can string words without making major grammatical blunders. I don't agree with people who call my writing good. I brush them off with sigh and tell them there is always room for improvement and I need to improve. People mistake it for arrogance, but that's just how I'm built. I cannot take a compliment and I absolutely push my self hard to excel. 

Over the course of time, I began feeling a slight sense of disorientation every time I had a blank document or a paper in front of me. I couldn't simply get myself to write a sentence without being anxious about how I should continue. Thankfully, my day job does not need me to wax about eloquently. A couple of technical reports, a handful of instructive mails and a bunch of markings on engineering documents is all is needed of me through the week apart from the occasional howler when things go wrong. I get through that comfortably, but the minute I open a document to pen down a review or continue the story I started writing, words fail. My fingers hover over the keyboard hoping words tumble out magically. A million of thoughts zip by and by the time I manage penning some of them down, they are  a incoherent mess which needs to be read, re-read and re-written. Desperation sets in and I save my work for the session.  I always read thrice and edit like mad before I hit publish, but never have I ever given up in frustration and hit the button. Of late, that seems to be the general way of getting through a piece to be published or mailed. No amount of editing seems to be make me happy. In fact, this very post took me a week to write, edit and re-write. I would have done this in day.

Personally, my life is almost peaceful barring the general feel of mild discontent with various finer aspects of life, just like any other normal human. Being the person that I am, I sat down to contemplate and work on a solution. No amount of introspection helped me arrive at a conclusion on the reason behind this phase. I don't know if it would have helped to speak to my friends.

That's when it struck me that I had become an introvert. I used to have a handful of people around me who used to support me or just be there.I used to love talking to people, hearing their stories, that too in person. Over the time, the handful seems to have dwindled and boiled down to just a couple. Must be the hectic schedule and my day job, I reasoned, but that sounds like a watery excuse to not make that effort to socialize. On the other hand, nor did those people make an effort to come talk to me. It's supposed to be a two way street isn't it? Or may be I'm not really a like- "able" person.

I even considered a social media and general interaction detox. However, I did realize that my story, the things I write, all of it stems from interactions with people. It would be like killing my golden egg laying muse.

What do I really do?

I decided to stop coercing myself into writing for the sake of it. I have short term plans for various features on the blog which are not really writing intensive. I'm planning to wade through my review commitments step by step with a general format in mind.

As far as the creative writing bit is concerned, I'm researching various activities which would help. Also planning to unlearn the language - English - and learn it again with vigor.

Would all the plan work, I wonder! 

I do hope all this works! *Fingers Crossed* *No scratch that, hands crossed may be?*

Monday, January 7, 2019

#628 : Another Year gone! - 2018

Top post on IndiBlogger, the biggest community of Indian Bloggers
2018 - A year of changes. Frankly, it's been like that since Dec 2016! 

I welcomed 2018 in a tiny claustrophobic room lying on the bed despairing to be with my loved ones. I was in Spain for work and home sickness had begun to set in. It did eventually get better though. Days passed by in a blur as I worked my head off for a good 4 months there before I got packed off to home. Being home felt good, but I missed the independence and the peace that Spain offered me. 

The year turned out to be a complete surprise in many ways. Just like 2017, the "adapt" streak continued. I moved to a new house, took a good vacation ( A perfect trip to Thailand) and ended up experiencing a lot of new things. 

Most important of all, I published my first short story book. In the process, I did realize a few things which lead me to my goals for 2019. I also indulged quite a bit by eating out a lot exploring different cuisines, shopping for good organic skincare/makeup and clothes and books. However, with all the expenses, I realized the value of budgeting and planning. I also decided it was high time I got fit, joined a gym and also stumbled on a group on Facebook which mentally supported me to realize the importance of fitness. A special mention of thanks to Janaki & Rubina. 

Blogging wise, it has been a stellar year. I set up my own domain, customized mail ID and managed to blog pretty regularly. I also worked on supporting the blog-sphere by commenting on most of the blogs I read. Thanks to Blogchatter's My Friend Alexa campaign, I discovered pretty interesting blogs and my Alexa ranking hit the roof. 

Reading wise, it has been a mixed bag. I didn't really read the books I wanted to, with Shashi Tharoor being an exception. Missed out on reading works of Perumal Murugan, Jeet Thayil & Manu Joseph. I began actively participating in the Bookstagram community, but then again, some harsh lessons there. I attended a book club meet this year finally! Met a lot of interesting people and of course, I met my book-reviewing-idol - Vishy. Been following his book reviews for a long time now. He is so humble and simple for a man who has read so much. 

The highlight of the year however was one goal that I set for myself and accomplished it perfectly - cutting off toxic people from my life. I shut out all of them. Aishwarya, my friend from school, helped me mentally to do that. Thank you Aish :) 

Some goals for 2019. 

1. Plan, plan, plan & execute - I discovered that once I have a plan in place, my mind refuses to stray and sticks to it. I intend to efficiently bring about a routine to incorporate my personal goals. Time to explore bullet journal may be?

2. Explore DIY - I'm not much of an arts and crafts person. This year, I intend to dabble with something that would help me focus on the beauty of little things of life. 

3. Improve my writing - The ever helpful Bragadeesh, writer & fellow blogger, helped me chart out a structure for the novel I had started to write. However, I realized my writing was weak. I need practice. This is the year for it. Detailed post later. 

4. Forget Bookstagram - Detailed post about this later. 

Wish you all a peaceful year ahead. I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts before I penned this post down, hence the delay of 7 days!