A Few Quiet Ones

I’m in a space right now where I’m preferring what I call “quiet” books—books low on drama, high on the fabric of everyday lives, and focused mostly on the inner landscapes of the characters.

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin: The first of these quiet books that I loved, loved, and loved was Le Guin’s last in The Earthsea CycleThe Other Wind. By the way did you know that Tehanu was followed by Tales from Earthsea, and then The Other Wind? I just kind of chanced upon that info, and then of course had to read them! I read a few of the short stories from Tales as well, including “Dragonfly,” knowing which helps in contextualising The Other Wind.

The reason why I loved The Other Wind is the same as why I loved Tehanu—the action and the scenes and the settings are intimate rather than being grandiose. It’s a more contemplative, and more conversation-driven than an action-packed story. The action-carriers, and plot-movers, are people who’d be deemed as ordinary (non-wizards), and not really all that important (women) in this world. There’s no really “high magic” in any of this. Even though the series started with Ged, the last book isn’t about him at all. It deals with the rest of the Earthsea, and puts to rest some of the big philosophical underpinnings of this world (and does it in a way that I personally loved by the way).

Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh: Ahhh, at last a historical romance that I enjoyed. Partly it’s the low-key setting (streets of Bath, school-rooms), but mostly it’s because of the characters. It was really satisfying to see the way Balogh charts Camille’s growth as she goes from floundering around and being unsure of herself to understanding what she wants, and why she wants it. Balogh also gives the reader an insight into why Camille’s doing all that she is, and that prevents her from being an annoying gnat. Joel, the hero, is an engaging character as well—a painter who’s interested in painting people as they ARE rather than how they appear to be. I think the number one reason why I love Balogh’s latest stories so much is because of their lack of “fashionable” cynicism. The characters in her book are hurt, and have problems, but that is not the sum total of who they are. Rather, these problems become the bouncing off place from which the characters explore more of themselves, and from which the subsequent story ensues, and unfolds. I’m really hoping that Viola, Camille’s mother, gets a story of her own too!

No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith: This book was a balm to my soul exactly when I needed one. This book has also made me realize that one reason why I love the stories I do is because of their setting. The open spaces of the deserts of Botswana was exactly what I needed to read at the moment, the warmth and the heat exactly what I was craving for while awaiting spring. The pace of the story is slow. It’s almost a series of vignettes strung together. There is a kindness to this book, a warmth, that probably stems from its thoughtful and deliberate protagonist Mma Ramotswe. The cases that come her way are of the everyday variety, and yet they’re never boring to read about. Some parts of the book feel dated, and slightly problematic (in terms of the attitude towards women, kids, etc.) but that doesn’t stop this from being a wholesome pleasure. I’m very definitely continuing with this series.

What about you? Do you have a preference for any particular type of book (including quiet ones)? Maybe that preference keeps changing? In any case, I’d love to get some recommendations for more “quiet” books!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the kind of book that I want to read more of. While big conflicts are quite possible at some point of our lives or the other, isn’t it the day to day, moment-to-moment choices that really make up the bulk of our lives?

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is what I call a quiet story for all that it’s set in space and is a science-fiction. It doesn’t really have any main protagonists but instead is about a whole ensemble of characters, namely the crew of the ship Wayfarer. The captain and the crew have, what I guess must be, one of the most boring jobs in the galaxy.

The story starts with the induction of a new crew member, a human, into the Wayfarer’s crew. Rosemary has never been out in the vast openness before and this nicely sets things up for the reader, alongside Rosemary, to get to know about the space that this story is set in, the history of this space, and the species that populate this space.

the long way to a small angry planetThe structure is episodic with each chapter focusing on a specific crew member. I’ve got to say that I really enjoyed Chambers’ imagining of each of the species, and their particular quirks. Funnily enough, reading this story I’ve somehow ended up expanding my zone of comfort about unexpected appearances. I mean really, some of the species she describes are TRULY bizarre, and yet, it’s weird only when you look at it from a human perspective; it’s weird because it’s different from what I’m used to! I really love this visceral sense that started stealing over me, of being ok with all these STRANGE looking creatures who despite, what I think of as, their peculiar-appearance are SAPIENT! This is a Universe populated by variety—where one species beauty is another species ugly, where one kind’s highest joy is another’s absolute and utter squirmy mortification. All this to say that the world-building is absolutely fantastic!

Which brings me to a favorite story line. And this is spoilery, so I’m putting it in white. Highlight, if you want to read! So, Rosemary and Sissix!! I really thought for quite a while that it’s going to be Ashby and Rosemary, since, well, they are both humans—yes! Bias much?! But turns out Chambers had BETTER things in mind! Their coming together romantically, while being of different species, with different cultural cues, and rules, and definitions about love and sex and family is just such a pleasure to watch unfold!

The peeps in this story are NICE. Yes, even the resident curmudgeon has a sort of reason to be curmudgeony—not that that EXCUSES his behavior, but you know what? The reason does make me look at him with more understanding! And I LIKE this. I would RATHER cultivate a kinder world-view than its opposite, and stories like The Long Way to a Small Angry definitely do their bit in forwarding that.

There is no guns-blazing, seize the evil villain by his horn action in this story. Heck, even the conflicts that the crew runs into are dealt with in a pretty ordinary fashion. I give you evidence. Conflict One becomes steerable because of one of the crew members’ ability to communicate in a different language. Conflict two is handled by figuring out a loophole in the law. Conflict three is about each of the members doing the best they can in that moment. Don’t you love that? I mean isn’t this “ordinariness” how we generally deal with the crap of our lives? It’s so good to see this channelled into an actual story.

I can go on and on about more things I liked—the ending, for instance. It’s ambiguous, talks about BOTH sides of the equation, and is the sort of political question that the story touches upon again, and again, often eschewing a neat, clean answer in favor of highlighting the merit in each of the arguments.

Let me leave you with this.

GC space had plenty of neutral markets that welcomed spacers of all species, but the Port was something special. Even if you didn’t need to stock up, the spectacle of it was well worth the trip. Sprawling streets stuffed with open-air shopfronts, overflowing with clothes and kitsch and sundries. Grounded ships, gutted and transformed into warehouses and eateries. Towering junk heaps lorded over by odd tinkers who could always find exactly the part you were looking for, so long as you had the patience to listen to them talk about their latest engine mod. Cold underground bunkers full of bots and chips, swarming at all hours with giddy techs and modders sporting every implant imaginable. Food stalls offering everything from greasy street snacks to curious delicacies, some with rambling menus of daily specials, others with offerings so specific that the only acceptable thing to say at the counter was ‘one, please.’ A menagerie of sapients speaking in a dizzy array of languages, shaking hands and clasping paws and brushing tendrils.

And also this.

The memories reached out to Dr Chef, trying to pull him away from his safe observation point. They tugged, begging for him to give in. But he would not. He was not a prisoner of those memories. He was their warden.

. . .

Rosemary started to nod, then shook her head. “That’s not the same. What happened to you, to your species, it’s . . . it doesn’t even compare.”

“Why? Because it’s worse?”

She nodded.

“But it still compares. If you have a fractured bone, and I’ve broken every bone in my body, does that make your fracture go away? Does it hurt you any less, knowing that I am more in pain?”

“No, but that’s not—”

“Yes, it is. Feelings are relative. And at the root, they’re all the same, even if they grow from different experiences and exist on different scales.”

Still Life With Breadcrumbs, Anna Quindlen

What I heard about Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs last year made me suspect that I would like it—and I was correct!

Still Life With Bread Crumbs is what I call a “quiet read,”—stories that focus more on a character’s inner life than on the externalities of that life. The external circumstances are still important but the emphasis is more on the character’s inner landscape, and how that changes as a result of the outside influences. Moreover, these influences tend to be more the slice-of-life variety than something exceptional. It’s almost like the author is parting the curtain on the character’s life for the period of the story.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs follows the life of Rebecca Winter in her 60th year. Quindlen’s revelations of Rebecca’s past (a New Yorker by birth), especially Rebecca’s marriage with a supercilious professor (a British academician), evokes the image of a very specific type of woman, a woman whose experience of life falls within a clearly circumscribed circle even though she happens to be an artist.

Broke, alone and feeling distinctly washed-up Rebecca is a photographer past her heyday—or as her son jokes, “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.” Quindlen is really good at including little details that solidify this image of Rebecca as a certain type of woman in the reader’s mind. Only, as you continue to read, you come to realize, as does Rebecca herself, that “[h]er biography had all the trappings of sophistication but no actual sophistication at all.”

Am I making it sound too dry? Or too cerebral? It isn’t. Rebecca’s coming into her own as an artist and as a woman is heartfelt.

She had shot to fame with a series of photographs that in the eyes of the world “turned the impedimenta and the minutiae of women’s lives into unforgettable images.” For Rebecca however, her art is more “accidental” than the premeditated artistry that such a felicitation would seem to suggest:

Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she’d never felt that way. Over the years she’d made up a lot of reasons because people didn’t seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality. They also didn’t believe that she’d simply photographed what was already there—a bottle lying on its side with a puddle of olive oil shimmering along its curved lip, a handful of greasy forks glistening in the overhead lights, and of course what was later still called Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.

(I have no clue about art but I think I would very much like a piece like Quindlen describes here. There’s something inherently appealing about it.)

Rebecca’s (and Quindlen’s) insistence that art is as much about being in the right place at the right time as about anything else really resonates with me.

As she begins taking photographs of a series of crosses that she keeps coming across, Rebecca vocalizes that:

She had not labored over them, or transformed them with the gift of her eye, at least not so she could tell. She just felt them.

This. . . feeling, this recognition of the ordinary being suffused with the luminous, reminded me of a line from a Marilynne Robinson interview that really struck me:

Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

Interwoven through Rebecca’s rekindling as an artist is the story of her unexpected romance with Jim Bates. Jim is decent, kind, and “the first man [Rebecca had] ever been with who had calluses.”

My favourite scene between the two is probably when Jim kisses Rebecca to her utter surprise:

“This is ridiculous. How old are you?”

“I was 44 last month,” he finally said, putting his glass down emphatically.

“Oh my God.” . . . “I am 60 years old.”

“Right. So what? You look great.” . . .

“That was not why I told you how old I was. It was so you would understand how ridiculous it would be to— ”

“What?”

“What?”

“Ridiculous?”

“Ludicrous.”

“Ludicrous. Hell, that’s even worse than ridiculous,” he said, and . . . walked back out into the snow. . . .

For most of her life she had not been what anyone would call an emotional person, but at odd, quiet, unexpected times . . . sentiment got the better of her.

“Oh my goodness,” she said and burst into tears, and sobbed loudly. . . .

Then the dog stepped back, sat down at attention, and let out one sharp bark. In a moment she heard the sound he’d heard. . . .

“This is ludicrous,” Jim said, and without moving removing his parka he put his arms around her and kissed her and kissed her, wet and cold and covered with snow as he was.

That use of ludicrous makes me chuckle, not in a laugh-out-loud way but in a quiet, life-can-be-unexpectedly-funny way. In fact there’s a thread of of wry humor running throughout the story.

I very much enjoyed how Quindlen conveys that love is love, no matter the age. The scenes between Jim and Rebecca are infused with that “new love” feel with all its attendant hopes, and anxieties. Let me be clear that romance is not the main focus of the story—Rebecca is. But that’s what makes the romance more interesting, embedded as it is in the larger context of Rebecca’s life:

One day she had been out walking and she had wondered whether she’d become a different person in the last year . . . Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been.

If that sounds too expository for your tastes, well, this might not be the book for you. This is, after-all, a parting of the curtain on Rebecca Winter’s 60th year of life.

Dorothy Whipple’s The Other Day: An Autobiography

So I haven’t read any of Dorothy Whipple’s books and yet when I read about her I knew that I wanted to read The Other Day where she chronicles her childhood from age 6 to age 11. So I ILL-ed it sometime in July and then forgot about it. About a month and a half later I get a notification from NYPL saying that my ILL item is ready to be picked up! Oh my god! The book made its way all the way from Illinois! From Illinois to NY to make its way into my hands. There’s something thrilling about the thought of a book traveling all that distance to come to me.

Sigh. I do love libraries.

Onto The Other Day—it is a peek into another world, another era. A world where children travelled to and fro on trains on their own with the portly (in my imagination) conductor pointing out the station they have to get off at; a world of quaint market places where one knows the hawker from whom one is buying her wares and asks after their family and children while deciding which melon to buy.

The Other Day is structured as a series of vignettes and I’m amazed at the details with which Miss Whipple recounts each of the situations. There’s a vividness to her descriptions that makes for lovely reading and at the same time is also kind of astounding. How DOES she remember all that stuff in so much detail?! Certainly, the book makes one think about the nature and form of memories. And I guess being that observant so early on must have come in handy in her career as an author.

Then there’s the memories themselves—there’s nothing complicated or complex about any of the situations in which the young Miss Whipple finds herself in but they do give one nice insights into the minds and mental make-up of young children. The things that the young Dorothy gets excited about, that fill her with happiness are simple things, in fact childish things at the first glance and yet the way that Dorothy seems to ride the wave of each moment to its fullest—no matter how simple that moment appears to be—is inspiring.

There are bits that struck me as particularly astute:

Grown-ups behaved differently when children were not about, just as children behaved differently when grown-ups were not about. It was strange that we never looked upon grown-ups as creatures we should one day be ourselves, but as creatures we should never in any way resemble.

And:

Now that we lived in the country we entertained differently. In the town my parents had given modest card parties on winter evenings, and we used to hang over the stairs in our nightgear to listen to what seemed the silly conversation. . . . But now it was different. Our friends, parents and children came for the day and we all went about together, parents behind, children on in front. There seemed to be room in the country for parents and children to go about together without friction.

There’s not a lot that happens in The Other Day and what does happen is somewhat mundane. And yet therein lies the book’s charm. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys low-key fares and are ok with not having a lot of intellectual and emotional twists and turns you might enjoy The Other Day. I’m certainly interested in reading Miss Whipple’s fiction now. It will be interesting to see the sort of stories she writes.

the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry

What attracts me to books like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is what I like to think of as their inherent quietness. Devoid of grand adventures and ‘epic-ness’, these books tell stories of essentially the ordinary man and woman of the world. Harold and Maureen could be any old couple with a past. The issues they grapple with – loneliness, alienation from one another, coming to grips with their past actions – are recurring themes in all our lives.

One fine day Harold Fry, a 65 year old retired salesman gets a letter from a co-worker he has not been in touch with in the last 20 years. On his way to post his reply, a fateful encounter plants in his mind the idea of delivering the letter himself, spurring his 500 miles journey across England from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The bulk of the book deals with Harold’s journey, both literal and metaphorical. He re-visits memories he thought he’d long forgotten. He meets an entire cast of characters whose stories bring home to him the universality of the human experience. As Harold puts one foot in front of the other to reach Berwick-upon-Tweed, he begins to find an acceptance of his past – the one which was inflicted on him by his parents and the one which he thinks he inflicted on his son. Meanwhile, Harold’s unlikely journey forces Maureen to step out of the world she’s cocooned herself in, forcing her to see her husband in a new light.

The prose is beautiful with some gorgeous descriptions of the English countryside. However, I did find some of Harold’s encounters contrived and a little out of the realm of the believable. A few of the ‘entourage’ scenes seemed unnecessarily drawn-out – I wanted to tell Rachel Joyce that yes we understand that Harold is the quintessential English gentleman and that there is no need to belabor the point.

While I enjoyed Harold’s and Maureen’s story I could not make myself love it the way I loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, two other books in the same vein. Perhaps this is because while hopeful, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry lacks the ebullience of the other two. (Though honesty compels me to add that this of course cannot be an indictment of the story itself – more than likely Miss Joyce intended it to be so). In any case if you don’t mind quiet contemplative fares where the story is more character driven than plot driven you’ll enjoy this one.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

The first time I fell in love with “The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society” was when I read its title.  I loved saying it out loud and loved the way its long title filled my mouth. The alliterating Ps and the juxtaposition of literary & potato compelled me to say the name out loud again and again. The title, thankfully, was just the beginning – a precursor to a delightful and heart-warming story.

Set against a post World War II England, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary tale – a story told entirely in letters. Juliet Ashton, the protagonist of the story is an author who is not sure of what to write next. While trying to search for an appropriate subject, she receives an unexpected letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey – a group of islands in the English Channel which was occupied by the Germans during World War II. Dawsey had chanced upon an old Charles Lamb book of Juliet’s and wanted to learn more of Charles Lamb’s works. Thus begins a correspondence which leads to a flurry of exchanges between Juliet and Dawsey and Juliet and other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society of which Dawsey was a member too.

In a way the book is a portrait of a people occupied by enemy forces during a war. In many ways, such an experience is just like any other experience in that it too changes you and shapes you. The difference I guess is that it’s also one of those experiences which by the virtue of being what it is sharpens and brings into focus the kind of person you really are. Or that is what I got from the book anyway. Despite being set against this backdrop, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is not a story which depresses; it is one which uplifts.

Part of the charm is the atmosphere evoked by the descriptions of Guernsey – the mist covered seas, the vibrant greens, the flowers which seem to grow up even in the cracks of the streets. A part of me wanted to transport myself to the island and experience its beauty for myself.

The other reason why I fell in love with the book is the characters. I wanted to be friends with them and wanted to talk with them beyond the story. There’s innate warmth to the characters which makes them feel like people you can depend on in times of trouble. Each character has his or her distinctive voice – each of their letters has a different tone. Let me talk about two of them.

Dawsey Adams – antithetical to a swashbuckling, sweep you off-your-feet kind of a hero Dawsey has a quiet competency which attracts you. Everyone turns to Dawsey in times of need or when something needs to get done. A simple man who feels keenly for Charles Lamb’s fate, Dawsey is the person who will never take the center stage but will be the one on whom everyone depends. There is a sheer goodness about this character which is compelling.

Isola Pribby is another character I promptly fell in love with! A complete busybody she loves the Bronte sisters and thinks men are more interesting in books than in real life. Loud, colorful and loyal, she reminds you of an eccentric friend whose heart is in the right place. The book is full of such characters. Quirky, they’re the kind of people you wish were your neighbours and are the kind of people with whom you’d want to build a community.

How could I not love characters who say things such as books having an inbuilt homing instinct which lands them in the hands of the perfect reader. And this brings me to my next point – people who love books especially should definitely read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. The discussion of Wuthering Heights made me wonder as well about the defining moment which makes us fall in love with a particular book. Is it a specific moment or is it more of a feeling which swells up as we progress through the story? Even more, WHY do we fall in love with some books and not others? Is it because the author has a knack for putting into words things we struggle with or is it a combination of a lot of things? Maybe that’s a topic for a different post all together!

All said and done, I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone who’s in the mood to be delighted and would like to grin. A lot. Because of course humour is the other thread which weaves itself throughout the story. Charming and thoroughly enjoyable, I defy anyone to NOT feel good once they’re done with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society! Go, pick your copy!

the housekeeper & the professor

I’m not sure how I came across “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa. Most likely it was after a session like this: http://xkcd.com/214/

No matter, it’s probably the first book I’ve read that reminds me of a quiet, contented evening. The book’s main characters are a 60 something mathematics professor, his housekeeper and her son. Ever since an accident the professor has been beset by a curious affliction; he can remember his life till 1975 and after that he remembers everything in slices of 80 minutes – “it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.”

The professor deals with this by retreating into the familiar and comfortable world of numbers and the connections that lie between them. In fact, connections are at the heart of this book; connections between seemingly random numbers and connections that can be forged amongst the most unlikely people, in the most unlikely of places. The book doesn’t dwell on the whys & wherefores of these connections – it just tells the story of these connections.

The connection between numbers finally results in the development of a relationship between the professor and the housekeeper and her son. Numbers become the bridge amongst them as the professor keeps finding something important, something remarkable about the numbers in the housekeeper’s and her son’s life – the housekeeper’s birthday, February 20 and the number 284 on the professor’s wristwatch become amicable numbers and the housekeeper’s telephone number is the total number of primes between one and one hundred million. As the professor continues one begins to feel like the housekeeper… that there is something special about these everyday numbers.

The prose is simple and flows; it sparkles wherever math enters the conversation. Since the original novel is in Japanese, credit certainly goes to Stephen Snyder, the translator.

Here’s how the Professor describes number theory, the subject he studied:

I uncovered propositions that existed out there long before we were born. It’s like copying truths from God’s notebook, though we aren’t always sure where to find this notebook or when it will be open.

On feeling numbers & solving problems:

It’s important to use your intuition. You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin.

A problem has a rhythm of its own, just like a piece of music. Once you get the rhythm, you get the sense of the problem as a whole, and you can see where the traps might be waiting.

Or on the importance of the square-root (the professor names the housekeeper’s son Root because of his flat head and the way his hair falls):

The square root is a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers.

With just 180 pages, The Housekeeper and The Professor is a fast read. The inherent beauty of the story triumphs over the sadness of the situation which the characters have to deal with.  Though there are no startling revelations or life-changing epiphanies in the book, the seemingly simple story leaves the reader feeling moved. Like I said, it made me think of a quiet evening which though devoid of any ecstatic high is humming with a gentle contentment.

If you like stories which are a little off-beat or love words or would like to have a glimpse into the magic inherent in numbers, go pick up this book.