Saturday, September 2, 2017

On Reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Click... creak...crack...pop..

Sorry. Those are the sounds of my knuckles cracking out the air bubbles that formed since the last time I posted something here.

Hello! How are you? Good? Safe? Dry? Looking for something nice to read? 

You're in luck because I have just finished what is undoubtedly the most spectacular book I have read in a very long time. One of those rare books that leave you a bit sad at the last page because you suddenly realise that you're only get to read it for the first time once. Make sense? Have you ever experienced that before? With a book that wasn't Harry Potter that is? 

I discovered We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson on my Kindle app's recommended reads list. Over the last three years, I got very lazy in my endeavour to discover beautiful books and came to rely heavily on this system. I mean, why bother browsing aisles at a bookstore when there's an algorithm that can give you exactly what you need without you having to leave the comfort of your bed, right? 

Well, I don't know about you, but while I appreciate the algorithm on nights when I really want something quick, mindless and easy, every other time, the experience of discovering a book that has nothing whatsoever to do with what you usually veer towards is what makes a read even more pleasurable. 

The guilt of finding book after book that I did not mind, even if I didn't feel passionately enough to blog about, actually hurled my reading habit against a wall. I often found myself reading half a book and then abandoning it for something else which I would also abandon and then start the process again. It was like being caught in a vortex and the only place I was spinning towards was down. 

But just as I was starting to lose hope I decided to take a leap of faith and typed in the name of a book I had seen a long time ago on my Recommended list but didn't really 'feel' at the time -- I was just moving from Goth into erotica, so sue me. 

And I'm really really glad I did because Shirley Jackson's masterpiece is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking literary works I have read in a very long time. This is also my first book by the author so I'm rather looking forward to taking a small break -- maybe read Delta of Venus again (haha, I kid) -- before I start The Haunting of House Hill

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those rare books that has a tragic beginning but has a happy ending -- even if it isn't happy in the conventional sense. It starts off with a market day for 18-year-old Mary Katherine (Merricat) who, you can tell instantly, isn't quite right. Or at least that's what the villagers think about her and her family. Well, the ones who are still alive anyway. The rest of her family, father, mother, brother and aunt, are all dead. Murdered, in fact, one night after they sprinkled a bit too much sugar -- laced with arsenic -- on their berries for dessert. 

So yes. Perhaps we understand why Merricat isn't quite right in the head. Though, once we get more of an insight into her mind, she is after all narrating the story, we realise that she is rather unapologetic about it. All that she wants is to be kinder to her Uncle Julian, the only survivor of the poisoning that night, love, be loved by and protect her older sister Constance, the prime suspect of the murders and for everyone in the village outside her mansion to die painfully. 

"I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the others would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks' that was always the picture I had in my mind -- birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws." 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (p. 10)

Yes, market days are the worst of it for little Merricat until Cousin Charles comes along and starts to tear holes in family dynamics. He's also rather interested in the family safe, but that really isn't something Merricat's too worried about. It's Charles' influence over Constance that actually starts pushing Merricat into a swirl of darkness that forces her to face issues she would rather leave buried under the Amanita Phalloides

In a lot of ways this is a story about love, the pursuit of happiness and about the things that go on behind deadlocked gates, in misunderstood mansions that send imaginations and villagers for the pitchforks.

Given that this is such a thin book -- around 160 odd pages -- I really wish I could write another post in greater detail about how I felt after reading this book. And about all the memories from my own childhood living beside a crumbling building. Mansions, grand or ruined, which house recluses like the Blackwood family always give fodder to the imagination. And unless we're on the inside, we're no better than the villagers who gossip, speculate, bully and finally, destroy.

You know what? I think a We Have Always Lived in the Castle does deserve another post. So maybe you could give it a quick read as well -- took me 5 hours over two very, very dark nights -- and come back so we can make a nice little conversation of it.

Until next Saturday!

Afsha 💙

Monday, January 30, 2017

Discovering the Wimmelbuch | München

It's never too early to introduce your child to Oktoberfest. The aspects that go beyond beer, that is. The food, the rides, the games, the music and the very many characters one might encounter at the annual celebration of all that's wunderbar about Bavaria. Of course, Munich isn't just about beer and games. And this lovely little prezzie that I, sorry, my son received over the holidays is testament to that.

München, a wimmelbuch -- wordless picture book with a series of panoramas detailing motley characters and their stories against different backdrops -- by illustrator Annegret Reimann, is a little journey through the most iconic places that define the Bavarian capital. It's like a travel book for little children (and their adults), but without words, through illustration.

It starts off with a beautiful day at the Isar river with characters frolicking with cookouts, barge parties, rollerblading or just taking a simple stroll. As we move ahead, we're treated to scenes from the English Garden, Olympic Park and the art museum until finally ending up at Munich Hauptbahnof, the city's main railway station.

In each panorama, we get to meet some of the same characters and see how their stories progress while also stumbling across some new folk. There's the grumpy old lady with a dog, seen in every picture looking upon others  with complete distaste. My favourite spotting is of said grump staring daggers at two pigs sunbathing in the nude. Don't worry though. She brightens up eventually when her doggie leash gets entangled with one held by a grumpy old man, bringing her a sweet and happy ending. Then there's Baby Finn who rolls down a hill while his Mummy chatters away on the phone, and gets rescued by a fox and a bear in Lederhosen. The most beloved character of them all, in my opinion, is Max the Dog who's seen reading a book, playing the guitar and giving a riveting speech about art through different pages.

As a child, my favourite pastime was to flip through books and invent stories about the pictures. Opening this wimmelbuch brings back memories of those simpler times, and the hours spent in imagination. This book will hopefully bring my son the same joy once he gets older and is able to focus on the big picture rather than big pictures.

Until then, I'll keep this book safely and lose myself in its pages every once in a while.

Discover more Wimmelbuchs from the same publisher at

Friday, August 5, 2016

Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (WARNING: SPOILERS)

Reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was oddly satisfying. Hermione is Minister for Magic. Ginny edits the sports pages for The Daily Prophet. Harry did become an Auror after all and is now Head of Magical Law Enforcement.

Fans who had a strong desire to see Harry and Draco Malfoy bury the hatchet will also be glad to see that the two have done just that. Taking it a step further, Albus and Scorpius are the new Harry and Ron/Hermione, sharing everything from their sweets from the Trolley Lady to bending the dimensions of time.

As was bound to happen, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child broke sales records this week but many JK Rowling fans are seething. ‘You owe yourfans a BOOK!’ they shout from this headline in The Telegragh. But does she? Really?

Rowling swore never to write another Harry Potter novel after The Deathly Hallows and she has upheld that vow. That, I think, is deserving of respect because why overexploit a winning franchise and risk brewing the Drought of the Living Dead?

Nobody wants another Harry Potter book more than I. Written by JK Rowling, not a playwright working off a short story she wrote. The Cursed Child has been accused for playing out like fan fiction. I’m pretty certain I read a tale woven around the theory that Voldermort might have had a child with Bellatrix and that is just how the book rounds off to close for its finale.

If this were a JK Rowling original, none of these theories would have been given any credence in the final product. As the creator of this world, she managed to keep her fans on tenterhooks until the very end. She was the one who designed the pillars, dungeons and secret chambers, and fan fiction just spun like webs around them. It must have been very hard work for her, if you ask me. To have so many traps to get caught in and yet, in the course of seven spectacular books, not once was her storytelling influenced by these theories, no matter how creative, fantastical or fantastic. Somehow, Rowling masterfully steered her story towards more exciting – unexpected and fulfilling – avenues because she is the maker of this, a god in her own right, a master of fantasy fiction.

I have read the Harry Potter series so many times, I actually found myself creating a quiz for Potterheads at pubs and themed parties after it ended. I envy every woman, man and child who hasn’t yet read the book because you only get to discover Rowling’s world of magic for the first time, once. But when I finished the final book, I was, once again, oddly satisfied because I believe that this series I had followed for over a decade was, much like life, made more precious by the fact that it had ended. I really appreciated that.

I read Harry Potter and The Cursed Child for a whole day and a night – under the blanket by torchlight, no less – and yes, it was oddly satisfying. Except, not in the manner in which I was used to given my love for the original series. I kept waiting for something to jump out and shout, “Boo”. Sadly, it was in vain. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Love in the time of the Walkman and AA batteries

The first thing that runs through Park’s mind when he sees Eleanor is that she looks exactly like the kind of person this would happen to. ‘This’ being getting rejected by every person on the bus who has an empty seat next to them.

Everyone that is, except Park who is most definitely not in love at first sight or even the local do-gooder. Just a social Inbetweener trying to keep the peace.

Also, Rainbow Rowell would have no story if these two teenagers didn’t end up together on that seat of that bus because everything of note to the pain, pleasure and chronic confusion of first love starts right there.

This is probably when I say that this is no ordinary love story, but I won’t. If you recall falling in love with someone at the age of 16, you know it’s immensely ordinary, but that is what makes it extraordinary.

Like the first time Park reaches out and holds Eleanor’s hand and she “disintegrates”, that is one of the most intense, moments in the novel. You forget, in the process of growing up, how intimate early hand holding can be.

Or when Eleanor refuses to borrow Park’s Walkman (it’s set in the 1980s, by the way), instead just emptying out its batteries, and Park goes home and calls his grandmother to tell her that he doesn’t want any presents for his birthday… Just a large supply of double A batteries.

I downloaded Eleanor & Park on a Saturday night with a glass of wine and read it until the early hours of the next morning. I don’t know if it was nostalgia or the wine but I wanted to fall asleep hugging my Kindle that night. It has one of those innocent yet intense first-love stories you just wish was yours, because what makes it so perfect is the knowledge that it will eventually have to end.

Eleanor & Park is a YA novel about young love. But it tells a story that would resonate with audiences across genders (yes, despite all the hand holding) and age groups. It would be one of my top recommendations for anyone looking for a relaxing read that takes you on a wistful journey down… Oh no, I’m gushing, aren’t I?

Anyway, I sincerely hope you will read this book and then return here to share your impressions with me. I would really, really like to know what you think of it!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Recommended Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

"As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand-new start, I'd made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days, I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married, and one brother, older, who travelled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break." 

How do I write about this book without mentioning the one detail that forms the crux of it's beginning, middle and its end? I could "start in the middle" as our narrator, Rosemary Cooke does and take it from there.  But I would still find it hard to write a good enough recommendation that you probably could get from the blurb anyway.

So how do I begin? Do I tell you about Fern? It's impossible to leave her out of this because she's the reason the characters' lives turn upside down. But telling you about her right now would also change the way you approach the novel and influence your judgement right from the start. I'm sure you're not one to trivialise certain details of family life. But if you know about Fern before you get to it yourself, you won't appreciate the bigger picture,

If it wasn't for Fern's disappearance, Rosemary would probably not spend her time and energy avoiding the subject of her family. Their brother Lowell would not have run away from home before graduating high school. If it wasn't for her reluctant abandonment to the jowls of science, their mother would not be prone to depression and would still perhaps play the piano. The family would not have left their sprawling farm house for homes that were smaller and smaller to din out the silence and emptiness of a shattered nest.

How do I begin to describe how utterly beautiful and heartbreaking this novel is without adding spoilers? As you can see, I'm trying... really hard.

So the book starts in the middle, in the year 1996 when Rosemary Cooke's in the 5th year of college. She has a secret and it involves her family. Years ago, her sister Fern was plucked from their lives and never spoken of ever again. Fern or the subject of her, isn't buried. But her fate and the feelings it incited in the family, are.

I think it's okay to tell you that Fern did not die in an accident nor was she kidnapped with a child snatcher. Fowler makes that clear pretty much from the start. That's actually what draws you into the novel because a) curiosity and b) once you start reading it, the book is so immersive, there's no turning back.

I see that haven't written much about it without giving it away, have I? So let me try one last time to do this recommendation justice.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel about a child who is loved so dearly that her disappearance breaks her whole family. But what's truly tragic is that the while Cookes force themselves to give her away believing it was for the greater good which, really, is a matter of perspective but I'll tell you right away that it wasn't.

So for the first time I'm asking you to trust me and just read the damn book because it's good. Like really, really good. It won't change your life. It won't make you bawl but it will make you well up every once in a while. It will give you fresh fodder to analyse things you already know about science, psychology and family life.

Read it because it is very well written and will keep you hooked right to the end. But most importantly, it may not force you to see things you'd rather not but it will make a great case for opening your eyes.


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