Her Secret Blue Book

Of Books, Writers & Writing

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

“She read stuff as he could give it to her. And when she handed it back to him the next morning, she always acted as if she were handing him something fragile. Something precious. You wouldn’t even know that she touched the comics except for the smell.”

I can’t remember the last time I wanted a book not to end. Simply because the journey was so amazing. Even though I am happy that now I can return to writing, I am heartbroken about having to say goodbye to Eleanor and Park. Romance as a genre I thought was losing its sheen, I was so disillusioned with every book I had been picking up in the past few years. I am so glad that I have been proved wrong. This is more than young adult fiction. It’s a story that will make you believe in all that’s lovely about love.

Narrated in third person this is the story of a teenage girl who struggles to find herself at home and in school. She meets Park while travelling on the same bus to school. And over music they bond. But, there is something terribly wrong in Eleanor’s life. There is someone closer at home who is trying to break her down and cause her harm. Does she survive? Does she find love?

Buy Eleanor & Park on amazon

The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra.”

Says Mr Cheong, husband of Yeong-hye who has all of a sudden decided on giving up on meat. She has turned vegetarian.

Why?

Well, by using the recurring dream technique, where Yeong-hye’s inner thoughts and desires are narrated, author Han Kang tells us that Hye is terrified of a particular incident where she sees a close family member slaughtering animals. This coupled with her predicament of eating too much meat makes her abstain from eating anything fleshy.

“Something is stuck in my solar plexus.” She explains. “I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged permanently there these days. Even though I’ve stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale it doesn’t go away…Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Nobody can help me. Nobody can save me. Nobody can make me breathe.

From this point of no return our protagonist moves ahead, only to flower into a tree after her physical form perishes. In between what happens to her husband — who finds his dull, usual, boring, unattractive wife losing her mind. Her family who don’t understand her transition and at one point push her into eating meat, making her in desperation and humiliation cut her wrist.

Only her brother in law who is an artist seems to treat her affectionately. But, when he learns from his wife, In-hye, Yeong-hye’s elder sister that she has a Mongolian birthmark, he becomes obsessed with her.

“The Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers.” He confesses in the second chapter titled the Mongolian Mark, which unfolds through his narration.

His obsession with her and its devastating outcome forms the most interesting part of the story.

In the third and final chapter titled Flaming Trees, In-hye goes looking for her sister, who has run away from the hospital she was admitted to — in an attempt to save her from dying. Despite her repeated attempts to feed her and make her see reason, she fails. In a heart-rending moment, Yeong-hye asks a grieving In-hye:

“Why is it such a bad thing to die?”

In the time In-hye spends with her younger sister, she introspects about their shared past. She questions her family’s violent and aggressive ways manifested not only through their non-vegetarianism but also in the merciless beating of a young, docile and naive Yeong-hye by her ill-tempered father. Their violent ways, she realises has caused irreversible damage to her sensitive sister.

The Vegetarian is a multi-layered story:

  • It’s a story of a married woman who believes that she is turning into a tree and the repercussions of her transformation — when she begins flowering into a flaming tree leaving her identity as a human behind.
  • It’s a story of two sisters and their husbands.
  • An ode to the unbreakable sisterly bond. Of sisterhood.
  • A tale of rebellion. In-hye’s stern belief and abstention stems from the reality she finds herself in and serves as an escape and an act of protest from a soul-crunching truth, she can’t accept.
  • A reflection on perpetrated violence and its ill-effects.
  • To me, above all it is a true-blue feminist tale.

Hits:

  1. Unique plot, compelling narration, surreal and disturbing impact.
  2. It’s a translated work, a short book (novella) and the narration is ethereal, visceral, poetic and mesmerizing. Yes, I have to mention narration, twice. It’s that good.
  3. The length is just right. Anything more in words would have diluted the impact of the story.

Misses:

  1. I gravely miss the dearth of such short and incandescent works.

Dear Han Kang,

I can’t wait to lay my hands on your next book.

Buy The Vegetarian on amazon