Her Secret Blue Book

Of Books, Writers & Writing

You don’t understand. Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman there is no rock bottom to the life. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine… A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

I was rummaging my bookcase and shelves looking for books to read that I don’t have to purchase. Now with amazon paperback deliveries stopped due to Covid-19, I’m down to reading books I was never drawn to read. I’m a bit ashamed to confess that I never thought of reading Arthur Miller’s modern play, Death of a Salesman, written in 1949 critiquing consumerism and the great American dream, which opened in Broadway and changed the course of modern theatre.

Maybe it had something to do with the drab and nondramatic cover. Too plain in my opinion, covering this thin gem of a book. Or was it the title, way too straight with mention of death. And sales. Two of my least favourite nouns, when it comes to picking fiction.

Anyway without digressing further, let me dive right into Death of a Salesman. And into the life of Willy Loman, an average looking sales guy who has been working for a company for 34 years. His weekly commissions have taken care of his family, namely his wife Linda and his two sons, Biff and Happy.

Willy was never great at his job or otherwise. An average salesman he is the quintessential common man — who managed to pay for his mortgages, recurring bills, son’s education and put food on the table for a family of four. But, now with time and age, he is losing his mind. He chats with himself constantly and has lost his credibility in the market and become a liability for the company he works for.

But Loman doesn’t want to believe any of that. He knows what he is and what he has become. He is just not ready to accept it. He thinks he can kill it in New York, even though he has been forced to sell in New England. He believes his eldest son Biff is a glorious hero who will astound the business world with his charisma and mojo. Simply because in school he was good at Sports.

He is not ready to face that Biff flunked in Math and never graduated. That he often steals and can’t help it. That he is a man who can’t earn more than a “buck an hour” or fears the rat race and wants to escape to a farm in the countryside to raise cattle.

On the day Willy gets fired from his job by his young boss (whose father he had once served) but who has no respect for him or patience for his words, his good friend Charlie offers him a job with a decent weekly pay. But, his false pride stops him from accepting it.

I can’t work for you, that’s all, don’t ask me why.

He tells him.

Loman’s projection of his ideal self is so strong that when reality creeps in, he snubs it and escapes into the unreal world. Wherein he converses with his brother Ben, a man who stumbled upon diamonds in Africa. His other escape being the idyllic days spent with his family in the past.

It is through these past recollections and present day reality that the story builds and moves forward, until coming to a devastating end, which has been revealed in the title, already. Death of a Salesman is a tragedy waiting to happen, as Miller put it in his own words, this is the story of a man who:

Does not have a grip on the forces of life.

And yet I found myself racing through it in an attempt to find out who is Willy Loman and why is he heading towards a tragic end? That’s how powerful Arthur Miller’s writing is. It sucks you right in and throws you in the middle of a storm. Or Willy’s head and his home in this case.

In this play, every character, minor or major stands out. Whether its Willy’s docile and loving wife Linda — a homebody whose singular devotion to her husband is heart-wrenching. Happy, Willy’s younger son — a selfish, tough-skinned spunky young man. A big hit with the ladies and a liar just like his father. Charlie, Willy’s level-headed friend who is a man of the world and has the best lines.

In one place he tells Willy:

The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman and you don’t know that.

Or his dead brother Ben, an adventurous but snobbish man whose approval Willy seeks and aims to replicate his success at any cost.

Willy’s false pride and his nonacceptance of reality distances him from his elder son. When he finally understands that his son loves and cares for him, it’s too late. The ghosts of his past have caught up with him. His adulterous liaisons with a woman to whom he had gifted his wife’s silk stockings, something Biff discovered as a boy and used frequently in the play as a haunting reminder of his betrayal. His failure to pursue his dream of following in his brother’s footsteps and joining him in his diamond adventure in Africa.

Then there is the bitter reality. Biff’s meeting which goes haywire when Oliver, the man who once liked him doesn’t even recognize him or consider loaning him money to start his business. While Willy strongly believes that his elder son is a strapping hero who can change his fortune at the drop of a hat.

This confrontation with reality, Biff being the mouthpiece aggravates and finally pushes Willy to commit suicide by crashing his car. It must be noted that when the play begins, we learn that Willy has been trying to commit suicide for a while. The reason why he chooses death is explained through his words at the end.

That funeral will be massive! They’ll come from Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire! All the old timers with the strange license plates—that boy will be thunderstruck… because he never realized—I am known!”

Sadly, no one turns up at Willy Loman’s funeral barring his family and his old friend Charlie and his son, Bernard. The play ends with Linda Loman’s heartbreaking words spoken at her husband’s grave:

Why did you do it? I search and search…and I can’t understand it. Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear…We’re free…

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. This book shook me to the core. The Death of a Salesman is a relevant and accurate account of the repercussions of our misplaced self-image and consumerist values that we grow up with, all the while forgetting to acknowledge our limitations.
  2. How we glorify money, fame and aim to be liked at any cost.
  3. How we fail to face reality and delude ourselves with ego-bolstering bull crap and innumerable self-help books, which are again nothing but, deceitful and lame.
  4. This book written in 1949 is relevant today and will remain relevant in a consumerist society that doesn’t want to be shown the mirror. After all, life is not always “a smile and shoeshine.”
  5. Read it for sure, if you haven’t already. There must be a reason why it won a Pulitzer prize, was adapted for film and TV and revived time and again on Broadway.

Misses:

  1. The overlapping voices.
  2. The constant shifting from present to past and vice versa.
  3. This one is not for the impatient or those looking for instant gratification.

What’s my rating on a scale of 1-5?

4.2/5

Do I recommend this book?

Don’t miss reading this gem. It’s a novella which means its a short book and can be finished in a day.

Buy Death of a Salesman on Amazon

You can watch the Death of a Salesman here

“I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”

Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Whenever I think of Jane Austen, the first novel that comes to mind is Persuasion. I loved it then, when I read it for the first time in school. Or later in college on days, when love and romance seemed fit only for fiction. And each time, I went through its old, musty pages, I found myself lost in its underlying currents crafted skillfully through its emotive words:

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago…I have loved none but you.”

Jane Austen

With Persuasion, my vacillating faith in everlasting love was always reclaimed. And renewed.

Few days ago, when I paid homage to Jane Austen, I decided on writing about its enduring allure. How it always made me believe in true love that stands the test of time? And why I consider it to be Austen’s best work (not Pride and Prejudice) albeit, published posthumously in 1817.

To begin with let’s look at the premise. Honestly, it rests on a thin premise. The plot-line is astonishingly simple. No sensational plot twists. No effort at adding any kind of quirk or glitz to a love story, which begins with Anne Elliot, a twenty-seven year old woman in her second bloom meeting her ex-fiancee Frederick Wentworth after seven long years.

Anne had met Frederick when she was nineteen years old and fallen in love with him. Smart, confident and charming, he had everything except wealth and great family connection. Two important requisites to win the hand of Anne Elliot, the daughter of the conceited, Sir Walter Elliot. Thanks to his boastful and haughty nature, his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who thinks too highly of herself as well — never married.

Sir Elliot persuades Anne to turn down Frederick’s marriage proposal. Years later, when Frederick returns after gathering a considerable fortune through his naval exploits in the Napoleonic Wars, he has still not forgiven Anne for refusing his proposal. Whereas Anne with every encounter and at every turn finds herself increasingly drawn towards him. Her love rekindling and burning brighter with time and his closeness.

With several wrong turns, which creates adequate suspense and makes the reader wonder if Anne and Frederick will be ultimately reunited, Austen masterfully reunites the lovers and gives them their happily-ever- after.

This short and profound novel was written by Austen at a ripe age, few years before her death. The beauty of the book however, lies in the journey that the two estranged lovers make through time.

The subdued humor, the remarkably fervid musings and conversations, particularly between Captain Harville and Anne, finally leading to the climax. And the ending written as a letter by Frederick proves why Jane Austen is the undisputed queen of romance.

Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel not only for its underlying tone of love and longing. Anne’s and Frederick’s love story also highlights how forlorn and vulnerable the experience of heartbreak is. How difficult and challenging it can be to believe in love and give it another chance. This giving and opening up become quite distressing with time and age. Mainly due to the walls of prejudice and self-pride we build around ourselves.

Austen’s novels have always focused on how a woman’s fate is decided by her family and friends. In Persuasion she creates a heroine, who is influenced by her family to give up on her one true love. But to Austen’s credit — by the end of the book, Anne stands up for herself and gives love another chance.

Much like Frederick who reinforces his social status among her family and friends by making his fortune. Both the protagonists despite their heartache and limitations, emerge as winners finally.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The concept of true love. A love that survives the test of time. And matures with age.
  2. Frederick Wentworth. The strength of his character. His love for Emma.
  3. The writing which tugs at your heartstrings, even today, more than two hundred years later.

Misses:

  1. Lack of plot twists.
  2. The singular focus on the two lead protagonists. In Austen’s defense, and defense of all romance writers — to let the romance build and stand out, a writer needs to curtail plot dilution. And focus on the sensitive dynamics of the central characters. After all that is exactly where the reader is invested in.

What’s my rating on a scale of 1-5?

4/5

Do I recommend this book?

Yes. This book is for those who can spend a day or two on romance and are comfortable with the verbose, archaic, yet fascinating British English. Do bear in mind, it’s a classic. And classics are a must-read for the learners of English.

Read Persuasion for Free

“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Jane Austen

This was Jane Austen’s fourth novel published in 1815 in three volumes. Set in the fictional country setting of Highbury in England, it describes the life and romantic mishaps of Emma Woodhouse. I read it when I was in college. I re-read it a few days ago. That is the power of Austen’s novels. Emma being no exception.

In her inimitable style, the mother of romantic comedies, Miss Jane Austen begins Emma like this:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Jane Austen writes about a rather shallow heroine who deludes herself into believing that she will never marry and will instead preoccupy herself with matchmaking. Her false belief in her abilities is cemented when her friend and former governess Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. She had introduced the two of them.

Emma thinks highly of her abilities and is confident that through her superior understanding of human nature and needs she will be able tofind a suitable match for Harriet Smith. A seventeen-year-old girl with “soft blue eyes” living in a boarding school. Harriet is in awe of Emma and does not possess any great family connections.

This is how Austen describes Harriet Smith and Emma’s taking of her under her wings.

“She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.”

Their friendship blossoms over long walks and conversations in Hartfield, home to the Woodhouses. During this time, Harriet develops a romantic attachment towards Robert Martin, a well-spoken, respectable, young farmer. Dismayed with Harriet’s choice and certain that she can do better, Emma arranges her to fall in love with Mr. Elton, the local vicar — an ambitious social climber.

In a classic comedy of manners, Mr Elton falls for Emma eventually proposing to her. Embarrassed Emma suggests to him that she had presumed he was warming up to Harriet. Outraged by her suggestion, Mr Elton points towards Harriet’s social inferiority and departs from Highbury mortified and rejected. But soon marries and returns with an annoying and ostentatious wife.

While all this happens, a sane and wise voice continues to foretell and warn Emma about her misadventures. And her apparent misreading of people. This voice is that of Mr Knightly, whose brother is married to Emma’s sister.

At one point he remarks of Emma’s and Harriet’s intimacy:

“I think they will neither of them do the other any good.”

It appears Austen realized that she had created an air-headed, self-centered heroine who pride’s living in the fool’s paradise. As a foil, she conjured Mr Knightly — a sagacious hero right there to hold Emma when she fails in her mission and comes looking for solace. Maybe that is exactly why he is found in her house and in close proximity to protect her from any potential disasters.

However, his assuring presence doesn’t stop Emma from triggering a chain of mishaps. In the meantime, Jane Fairfax, a governess and Frank Churchill, the son of Mr Weston arrives at Highbury.

Emma dislikes Jane instantly and decisively, warming up to Frank instead. In fact, she develops a strong liking for the charming and amiable Frank, who befriends Emma for a reason. Mrs Weston, at around this time hints towards Mr Knighly’s romantic attachment towards her, but Emma strongly denies it.

Later in a turn of events, when Harriet confesses to Emma about her love for Mr Knightly, she competes with her to win over Mr Knightly’s affection. Thankfully for her, he professes to having been in love with her for a long time.

Emma’s hunches and readings of people turn ridiculous when she discovers that Frank is married to Jane. And her efforts to fix Frank and Harriet’s match is abruptly cut short.

She further learns that Frank’s cordiality was but a pretense. All this while, he was trying to be nice and friendly to Emma because he didn’t want the village-folk to gossip about them.

It all ends well when:

Emma weds Knightly. Frank weds Jane. And Harriet weds Robert. Yes, Robert the farmer, whom Harriet had spurned on Emma’s advice in the beginning.

Emma is a classic romantic comedy. In fact, it set the ball rolling for spunky and vacuous heroines who finally come of age by reflecting on their foibles. It has all the ingredients that make a happy cocktail: romance, comedy, plot twists employed to surprise and a befitting climax which precedes a happy ending.

In Emma, by using comedy as a tool, Jane Austen highlights the social hierarchy and class divisions prevalent in the Georgian society. Despite being a romantic comedy, Emma emerges as a scathing social commentary, without turning preachy at any point. Through Austen’s thoughtfully implemented sub-plots, it entertains and yet remains realistic and relevant. Even today.

In Hindsight:

Hits:

  1. The narration is witty and sarcastic.
  2. Characters. Every character is well-described and has a graph. Each one of them shows several shades. Sometimes surprising the reader. Only Emma turns out to be predictable.
  3. Social realism. Describing and highlighting the class hierarchy prevalent during those days.
  4. The happy ending. I love to end a book on a happy note with a smile on my face.

Misses:

  1. Emma. Her vanity, pride and selfishness at times are highly annoying.
  2. Marriage is not the only means to find happiness. Or, social security. Having said that, one must bear in mind that the over-reliance on marriage is reflective of the times Austen lived in.

Read Emma for Free

Watch the latest film trailer of Emma

Disclaimer: This is not a review of Basu’s entire anthology of short stories. Here, I will be discussing a story, which touched me most, possibly changing me in some way.

“Exactly at four, after the bell had rung announcing the end of the school day, he had mounted his cycle and made his way back through the rustling trees. Once inside, he stood facing the box propped up by his bed like a timid visitor, then started unwrapping the canvas-brown cover just as impatiently as he had opened his wife’s first letter from Japan, twenty years ago, similarly marked with two alphabets.”

Kunal Basu

Snehamoy Chakrabarti teaches Mathematics to senior school students in his village, Shonai. He is good at his job and seldom makes any mathematical errors in class. He lives with his aunt, a widow, after he lost his parents to the temperamental river Matla. He is timid, introverted and unremarkable in every way, except for the fact that he has a Japanese wife, Miyagi.

Snehamoy found Miyagi’s address in a magazine and started writing to her. In the beginning, their letters were brief, but with time they started sharing and communicating like true friends. He was in college then. When his aunt pushed him to marry a shy village belle, Miyagi proposed, offering herself as his bride, which he accepted.

They got married by exchanging their vows over letters. Without having met. The prospect of meeting hadn’t occurred to either. Snehamoy did think of visiting her but stopped himself after calculating the expenses. With time they become husband and wife — sharing and discussing everything like partners, much like any other normal married couple.

The exotic and varied gifts and her photographs which she sent from Japan made him connect with her physically and he looked forward to coming home to her — hidden in her insignia.

In the beginning, the villagers laughed, rebuked and criticized him for his choice. Later, he became known as the man with the Japanese wife. A fact which made no difference to them, much like the weather.

Hence, it seems quite believable that Snemoy’s only friend is the river Matla. The river, which is nothing short of a minor character, flows by his village and he has a love-hate relationship with it.

Turning ruthless and hostile, Matla had drowned his parents. But, it had also calmed, soothed and turned into his silent confidant, when he shared his innermost thoughts about his Japanese wife, whom he had never met.

In a life as remarkable and unremarkable as his, when the girl he had rejected as his bride years ago returns to his life, with her young son, his love for his absentee wife is tested — who in distant Japan becomes critically ill.

In the beginning, he dislikes her presence in the house, even her cleaning of his room or, the hanging of Miyagi’s portrait on the wall.

“He gaped at his orderly surroundings, then grabbed the picture and wrenched it off its hook…Only the dead must hang on the walls not the living…his heart froze for his wife.”

Kunal Basu

However, with time and with living under the same roof, he warms up to her. A shy and lonely widow, who has no one and is sheltered by his kind aunt. A strange bond of sisterhood develops between the two women. And his aunt who until now listened keenly to him report about his wife’s declining health becomes disinterested — her loyalties being now reserved for the other woman. The woman in the house. Not a distant Japanese shadow.

One night, in “his single-most impulsive act” Snehamoy falters and commits an indiscretion. Repentant and ashamed he confesses everything in a letter, sending it to Miyagi. While at the same time, he opens a letter from his wife in which she writes:

“When you set your eyes on this, I will be no more…”

Kunal Basu

Some time later, Snehamoy falls prey to Malaria and passes away. At his aunt’s request, the headmaster of the school where he worked writes to his wife informing her about his untimely death.

And beating all the odds, Miyagi comes to his village, “her head shaven, wearing the white of a Hindu widow.”

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The surreal premise. Here love isn’t physical but ethereal, bordering on the spiritual.
  2. Snehamoy and his journey. Kunal Basu makes an unremarkable village school teacher remarkable through his singular decision, which changes the course of his life.
  3. Miyagi’s gifts. The sending of kites and his flying of it all one day is symbolic of the power of love, unbound by physical constraints.
  4. The river Matla and Snehamoy. The bond between those who live on the banks of a river is unbreakable. This has been captured beautifully in this short story.
  5. The writing, which moves in its own rhythm and pace. Kunal Basu’s writing makes an implausible tale, credible and likable.

Misses:

  1. The premise. Once you close the book, you are left to ponder if love is this ethereal or is it just a case of fictional license. Not to forget, even in Snehamoy’s case, his loneliness gets the better of him.
  2. Miyagi. Was her character left underdeveloped so that her last act could be used to surprise the reader and conclude this unique story?
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Nobody not even the rain, has such small hands.

E E Cummings

He is well-versed. Handsome. Charming. Works at a bookstore. Loves books. Takes their reference quite so often. And yet, he is a loner, who doesn’t have many friends. No, wait, Joe doesn’t have any friends.

He is an introvert. Unassuming. At least on the surface, not in his mind. He thinks too highly of himself. Takes pride in reading people. Did I forget anything? Oh, yes…he is also a stalker who kills.

Now, I don’t want to know if you have watched You on Netflix. Truth be told, I discovered Caroline Kepnes on Netflix. But trust me on this. It really doesn’t matter if you have watched You and its sequel, please, please do read the book. It’s so much better. So without much ado, let me tell you why by giving a glimpse of our narrator and protagonist, Joe Goldberg.

You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty…”

This is what he prattles when he meets Beck Guinevere in the bookstore where he works as a store manager. She is pretty, polite and cordial. So she smiles, says hello, listens to him kindly as he talks about the digital invasion and the death of physical products and human interaction in book and music stores.

Right after this brief, casual encounter and harmless banter, he becomes obsessed with her. Quoting the great American poet E.E. Cummings, he says love needs work.

Keeping this guiding principle in mind, he gets to work. By stalking her online — religiously following her tweets, instagram and facebook feed. Standing in front of her apartment, day and night and keeping an eye on her. Breaking into her apartment and searching her laptop and by stealing her phone.

On the other hand, Beck as her own demons to fight. She is amorous, has a rich boyfriend Benji who doesn’t care about her. His interest in her being limited to getting into her pants.

She has a group of girlfriends. And one among them, the rich, pretty, bitchy and temperamental Peach is in love with her. Peach much like Joe can go to any length to keep Beck close.

Beck pretends she has no family and that her father is dead. But, later we learn that her dad is very much alive, remarried and is quite happy with his brand new family. Also, she might be having an affair with her psychiatrist, Dr. Nicky.

Joe too has his secrets. He abandoned his parents, who never looked for him. He had a girlfriend named Candace and something terrible happened to her. He started working at a bookstore where the sadist and deranged shop owner Mr. Mooney locked him in the store’s basement in a glassed cage. He was only a young boy, then.

Both Joe and Beck are troubled. So when they find each other and get into a whirlwind affair, all hell breaks loose. To protect the pretty mess Beck is, Joe does everything and much more to become her knight in shining armor.

Does he…?

Well, not quite. We don’t live in medieval times. And love doesn’t equal obsession. Caroline Kepnes agrees too and she proves it through her riveting story.

But, but, I must confess that I did empathize with Joe for the most part of the book, even when he was on a killing spree — mainly due to his sense of humor and quick-thinking; until the very end, when I had to abandon him. Or, risk questioning my sanity and lack of a moral compass.

That doesn’t even for a second mean, I detested Joe’s character in any way. If anything, I loved what Kepnes did with him. She made him crazy, selfish, dangerous and yet so damn likable.

In fact, I became a bit impatient with Beck and her wayward and inane ways, blaming her for her predicament. Until, I realized what Joe was up to. It was then that I saw him for what he was — in turn feeling a sense of despair and helplessness for Beck. Or for those who seek love passionately, with every ounce of their bodies and souls.

That’s what Joe wanted. That was exactly what Beck craved for too — in this gloomy, doomed, honest, modern, romantic tale.

In Hindsight:

Hits:

  1. The amalgamation of first and second-person narration. Brilliantly executed. A lesson for writers and joy for readers.
  2. Joe Goldberg. His character. His quirky ways. His witty and honest voice.
  3. The underlying humor, even in the most dire of circumstances. Sample this. “I am stunned because some of the pages have never been turned; I know my way around a book. I think you skipped entire pages, you brainless phony. When you asked me where I was in the book, you were cheating. The most romantic time of my life was a hoax.”
  4. Pop and literary references.
  5. The premise which dangles somewhere in between love and obsession.
  6. Peach. What an interesting side character!

Misses:

  1. How Joe gets away with everything.
  2. How easy Beck makes it for him to stalk her.
  3. The constant prattling of Joe. Maybe, including Beck’s voice in a place or two would have given us a respite from Joe. And made us understand Beck better.
Buy You on amazon

Watch the trailer of You

I can’t see any reason why you guys would bother to kill that cat.

For some reason, Hidaka didn’t respond right away. He just grinned, looking out of the window. He finished his coffee before saying, ‘I did do it you know.”

This is what the suspect, and part narrator Osamu Nonoguchi tells us right in the beginning about his friend, Kunihiko Hidaka, who is found murdered in his home, a day before he and his second wife Rie could leave for the USA.

When detective Koichiro Kaga enters the scene, he has his doubts on Osamu, also a former colleague. And a writer just like Hidaka. Albeit a less successful, rather an anonymous one as compared to his friend Hidaka, who is a well-known, bestselling Japanese author.

Kaga’s compass points towards Osamu. But, Osamu has an alibi. When his alibi fails, he willingly and much like a martyr hands himself over to the police. Telling them that:

“I got angry and killed him in the heat of the moment. That’s all.”

But, detective Kaga is unconvinced. Following his intuition and logical deductions, he starts looking for the real motive. What he finds after a cat and mouse game, which lasts till the very end is not only startling, and highly satisfying, but downright brilliant.

The strokes of brilliance apparent through:

– The cat incident narrated in the beginning by Osamu, which paints Hidaka as a ruthless, ambitious, and unscrupulous man. The question being was he?

– The redefining and refreshing treatment of the motive behind a murder.

– The motive maze. Where each clue and motive is a key to unlocking another motive. Until, the final motive is exposed.

Keigo Higashino is a genius storyteller. He is an international celebrity whose books have been translated and adopted into films in South Asia. So if you haven’t read his mystery books, then, you haven’t viewed sunset yet.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. I am tired of reading pulp thrillers and psychological killer dramas. I am sick of visualising grotesque murders and crafty murderers and working out motives in my mind. To cut a long story short, I am tired of the predictability in story telling, character building and sub plotting. In thrillers, particularly. So when the seasoned reader in me, guilty of being a story-cynic reads something akin to genius, it makes my year.
  2. A brilliant piece of fiction, which has been translated into English. Can you believe it!

Misses:

  1. Why did I discover Keigo Higashino this late?
  2. Mr. Higashino, what I feel for your writing talent can be summed up in one word. Malice.
Buy Malice on amazon

“I had convinced so many people of so many things over my life, but this would be my greatest feat: convincing myself what I was doing was reasonable. Not decent, but reasonable.”

She likes to read. She thinks she is better than the people she is surrounded with. Be it her colleagues or her boss; her one-eyed mother who taught her how to beg and reflect people’s insecurities and make a living out of it; or the clients who come to her for a hand job.

Okay, I need to stop here and tell you how Gillian Flynn, an accomplished, irreverent voice who redefined domestic noir through her much-celebrated work, Gone Girl describes the narrator’s childhood.

“That’s what I remember most about my childhood: stains. I couldn’t tell you the color of my mom’s eyes, but I could tell you the stain on the shag carpet was a deep, soupy brown, and the stains on the ceiling were burnt orange and the stains on the wall were a vibrant hungover-piss yellow.”

The first person narration, which verges on outright honest to downright cynical and highhanded is a winner. And of course, Flynn knows how to twist and turn the language to suit her needs and satiate the thirst of the reader. Using her linguistic power and her masterful storytelling abilities, she thrills, creates suspense and entertains on every page, effortlessly.

Now, let’s circle back to the story. In this short story, the narrator interestingly works in a psychic parlor, called Spiritual Palms, which in reality is a soft-core sex outlet. She works hard and is good at her job. The male clients who come to her adore her and have become her friends. One, even recommends books she could read. Yes, our narrator likes to read.

She is after all no ordinary small-town girl. She is sharp-witted, observant, aspires to be erudite, and possibly, if an opportunity presents itself, will leave the drudgery of the small town behind. And escape to a big city which with its smarter and grander ways, will get her.

And then when she thinks she has got it all figured out, enters Susan Burke. Rich, smart, mousy, and jittery. An odd combination. But, then who is looking. Our narrator is blinded by her supposed ability to read people. So blinded that she forgets to acknowledge the core human characteristic, something she has ostensibly aced:

Pretension.

Using the art of pretension as a trope, Flynn plays the narrator against Susan and comes up with short , pithy and highly effective dialogues, which also does a good job of taking the story forward.

To add to the mystery and create a brilliant climax, another character is added to the mix. Miles. Susan’s fifteen-year-old dark, angry, threatening, and introverted stepson. A typical teenager. Except that he isn’t.

“Miles was never a sweet boy,” Susan admits.

When Susan invites our girl to her Victorian mansion to clean it off its dark forces, the story turns spooky. It becomes a ghost story and stays that way, until the big reveal.

What’s the big reveal? Pick The Grownup to find out. You won’t regret reading this contemporary, engrossing, and highly entertaining short story.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The smart, witty and in some cases, shocking and irreverent writing.
  2. The character arcs of the narrator, Miles and Susan Burke.
  3. Hallmark of Flynn’s stories — the unapologetic exploration of human psyche.

Misses:

  1. The length. Too short, Gillian. Please give us a longer book to immerse into.
Buy The Grownup on amazon

“He stubbed out the cigarette. A wisp of smoke curled up briefly and died. Priya got up and put on a shirt and a pair of palazzos. Then she sat on the rumpled bed again, her chin resting on her knees, her eyes vacant, her hands clasped like manacles around her slim ankles.”

Erotica as a genre is tricky. A writer writing in this genre needs to romanticize and glorify the act of sex. Or, she risks taking the shine out of love-making. Erotica-writing also necessitates doing something different and refreshing with language. If possible, bring in a new dimension to what goes on behind locked doors (not always though).

The Swap by Shuma Raha does both. Masterfully describing sex scenes — the emotional turmoil, desire, lust, et al; she also succeeds in removing the monotony out of a story, which relies heavily on using a taboo topic to craft an interesting narrative — by adding that extra shine in the language department.

This medium-length novel does rise above being mere erotica, but crushed by the parameters it wants to fit into and created to tell a story; the story per se falls short of becoming extraordinary.

Now, for the story. Priya is married to Akash. She falls for Dileep. Ends up having an affair with him. And attending swinger parties. Dileep’s wife Anuradha also joins in — to take revenge in the beginning, later willingly. From there on, after a dramatic meltdown, they form a happy foursome and it is at this point — when they have come to an agreement of swapping their wives, that this story turns into a profound exploration of human psyche and an eye-opening treatise to the polygamous versus monogamous debate, that has been part of urban, educated middle class living-room conversations.

When the going is great, comes the climax and the insipid ending. The reader might find the ending as unexpected but it definitely does read like a meek attempt to bring an end to a tale, which wasn’t destined to have a happy ending. After all, a tale of adultery shouldn’t have a happy ending, isn’t it? Also won’t a lived-happily-forever end to Priya’s story make us empathize less with her!

My grouse: When the theme is this bold, why can’t the conclusion be as well?

I don’t read Indian writing much. Truth be told, this was my fourth book by an Indian author. I picked this book up because of it’s bold plot line. But, but, and here is the hard part, I can’t claim that I am glad, I did. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the writing. Sample this:

“Never having seen snowfall before, Priya had been thrilled with the flecks of white crystal that floated soundlessly down. She had stood in the violet frost of the twilight, feeling the snow melt on her face in needle-points of cold.”

But I ain’t sold on the conclusion. Or, impressed by the pace of the narrative. It does gravely slow down in the middle. Thankfully though and in the book’s defense, it doesn’t turn preachy or into a social commentary at any point.

All in all, a must read, if you are looking to explore Indian contemporary fiction and are intrigued by the concept of swapping.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The bold theme of the book. Kudos, Shuma!
  2. The writing. Oh, I am in love with the writing.
  3. The character arcs of Priya, Dileep and Anuradha.

Misses:

  1. The ending. To me it seemed like playing to the gallery.
  2. The length of the book. The slowing down in the middle.
Buy The Swap on amazon

“There are scars on my heart, just as disfiguring, as thick as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.”

How many books have you read, which makes loneliness its central theme? Tell me about a book, a mainstream book nevertheless, which makes an unusual, lonely, scarred young woman — its main protagonist.

This book does exactly that and much, much more. Eleanor Oliphant has a job. She has a steady routine:

Go to work. Work hard for five days. Buy two bottles of Vodka on Fridays. And talk to her oddball Mom on Wednesdays.

Eleanor has no friends. No boyfriend. And, she is besotted with a pop star, whom she stalks online and later offline as well.

She is weird. Quite obviously not a smooth talker, is witty and takes pride in minding her business. And, and (here is what makes the book a standout) she is incredibly, immeasurably, undeniably lonely.

So what happens to this incredibly ordinary woman, you would ignore and never pay attention to, even in passing? Does kindness and love find a way to reach her and heal the scars, she is trying so hard to hide? Well, read the book, if you haven’t already to find out. Trust me you won’t regret it.

There must be a reason why Reese Witterspoon decides on buying the rights to the book and co-produces it too.

Eleanor Oliphant’s (this is not her real name though) story is worth every penny and page. A tale of acute loneliness, it made me weep inconsolably. This is writing at its ingenuous best. I must confess on days, I had to discard the book — it was akin to staring too hard in the mirror.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The hidden humor.
  2. Detailed exploration of loneliness.
  3. Eleanor’s dedication to her job. Despite everything and everyone.
  4. The little, little things that bring us joy. And that has been highlighted so well in this book.

Misses:

  1. Why, oh why, did the book have to end?
  2. What happens to Eleanor? Give us a sequel, please.
Buy Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

“I felt like killing my father, but I didn’t want him to die.”

This is a novel you will remember. Deliciously dark, wickedly funny at the most unusual junctures, shocking at times, gloomy at length and startlingly smart, Moshfeigh takes us on a journey of a woman you won’t meet quite often. And even if you do, you will never guess what’s going on in her mundane, tedious, seemingly normal life.

Eileen detests herself. She is a misfit and invisible in her home town, which she flippantly(or grudgingly) calls X-Ville. She has a love-hate relationship with her alcoholic, ex-cop father, with whom she lives and takes care of (mostly buying the liquor he demands). She crushes over a handsome, spunky prison guard she can’t have. And is captivated by the red-headed, sophisticated, sweet-talking Rebecca, who sashays into her life and her morbid workplace.

Rebecca’s entry and the subsequent unfolding of events transforms this book into a psychological thriller. But, the language and those sentences — intricately crafted and masterfully executed made me stop reading and mark the pages and paras with a pencil. It’s a rarity to find a novel which on the surface is a thriller, but at the heart of it, a literary masterpiece.

Not to forget, the character development is top-notch. Without a shred of doubt Eileen and her father are the most developed, layered, honest and real of all the characters.

To sum it up, this self-hating, quick-witted, introverted young woman wants to live her town, her abusive father and her life behind. How does she do it? Does she succeed? More importantly, does Eileen end up liking herself? Read the book to find out.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. Eileen, Eileen and Eileen. Her well-etched character. Her quirks. Her journey from being an underdog to emerging as a self-assured young woman.
  2. The toxic, honest and disturbing relationship with her father.
  3. The lack of drama. Realistic setting. Dialogues. Subplots. Treatment.
  4. The luminous writing.

Misses:

  1. The time taken to build suspense.
  2. Lack of enough plot twists to keep the reader glued.
Buy Eileen on amazon