Monday, March 21, 2016

Thank you for the music (Theme Reveal for A to Z April Challenge 2016)

Nothing can take you back to your childhood, your youth, your glory days, or so I’ve heard it said, as the songs you enjoyed listening to back then.

Those songs are the auditory markers to the landscapes of our happy past, and we navigate our times-gone-by on the strength of those songs.

Those times when we were innocent, naive, before cynicism settled on our hearts, before our shoulders began to stoop ever so slightly under the burdens of our cares.

Even today the faintest memory of those long-ago melodies wafts past my ears, and it is as if the intervening years never happened. It’s like an unexpected shower that washes the dust off everything it rains down on.

Today I can remember very few telephone numbers by heart, and I’d be hard pressed to recall just what I had for dinner last night, but even if you mention the names of one of these songs, I will remember every last word of these songs, and will be able to match the singers, word for word, cadence for cadence.

Many of these songs came to me through the medium of Saturday Date, a weekly one-hour show at 10 pm on Saturday nights which Dad used to listen to. 

Understandably, many of the songs were recorded even before I was born. They were my dad's favourites, and in time they became mine too.

I learned to keep my Saturday date, tuning in regularly at 10 pm every Saturday night. I remember how upset I used to get on the rare occasions when All India Radio (AIR) replaced my favourite show with something else.

Saturday Date was very popular with the English-music-listening-crowd back then, starved as we were for avenues where we could listen to English pop music. We used to request a song via the humble 15 paise postcard. 

It was the only time I used the postcard, and I had stacks of them for use for this express purpose. Since the postcard didn’t allow much writing space, I learned to squeeze in as much writing as I could, writing to AIR with my request, and following it up with the names of those to whom I had dedicated that number.

Ah! What joy I would feel when I heard my postcard being read over the airwaves. Simple joys indeed.

A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal 3-21-2016

And so today, through the medium of the A to Z April Challenge, I would like to look back with delight on those half-forgotten tunes. Some of them brought pleasure in themselves, while some taught me something, and still others inspired me to stand a little straighter, pushed me to grow. 

Sometimes truths are hidden in song.

Here it is, then, the sound track of the better part of my life, against whose background score I’ve done my growing up.

As ABBA, one of my favourites from the yesteryears, used to sing:

Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing. 
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. 
Who can live without it? I ask in all honesty, 
What would life be, without a song or a dance, what are we? So I say Thank You for the music, for giving it to me.

I hope I'll see you around, all through this Challenge. I also hope you'll be impressed to walk down your own memory lane.

Hasta la vista!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: ROOM FOR HOPE

Title: Room for Hope
Author: Kim Vogel Sawyer
Publisher: WaterBrook
Pages: 352

It is 1936 in Kansas, the time of the Great Depression. It was a time when the crippling of the economy had put most families into a state of severe penury, and it is to the backdrop of this deprivation that Room for Hope plays out.

Neva Gaines Shilling is the perfect wife and mother, devoted to her husband, Warren, and 14-year-old twins, son Bud and daughter Belle. Warren is an itinerant salesman, who is on the road for weeks at a time. His salesman’s skills and Neva’s housekeeping and shopkeeping skills at managing the Shilling Mercantile have kept the family afloat through the Depression. Neva misses her husband a lot, but is patient and loving, in spite of being, to all practical purposes, a single mother to her children.

The day Warren is to return home, Neva receives a surprise. Law official Jesse Caudel comes to her house with Charley, Cassie and Adeline, the three children of Warren and Violet Shilling, who have died. Jesse tells her that her “brother” Warren has died and that, before his death, he had left instructions that his children should be sent to “Aunt” Neva.

Stunned by her husband’s infidelity, Neva and her children struggle to cope with the changing dynamics of life, even as Neva seeks to hide the truth from the people of the town, fearing their censure.

Bud cannot bring himself to accept his father’s other three children. Nor can he accept the truth about his father’s betrayal. He runs away from home. 

Will Neva ever get her son back? Will she be able to trust another man, after Warren’s faithfulness? Will she learn to accept her husband’s children, or will they be sent to an orphanage? How will the townsfolk react when they come to know of Warren’s unfaithfulness?

Meanwhile, neighbour Arthur Randall, widower and father of two sons and successful businessman-owner of a furniture shop, has an eye on Neva’s shop. He wishes to expand his own business, and appropriating Neva’s property seems like the most logical thing to do. At first, he uses any means necessary, be it coercion or charm, helping Neva out even when she doesn’t ask him, or even when she doesn’t want his help.

Jesse, who has become Sherriff of the town, finds his faith in God growing in the face of the circumstances in Neva’s life. He also feels compelled to make his peace with his adoptive family. He has an interesting back story and it comes to us in bits and pieces.

Most of the characters, the Shillings, in particular, and also Jesse and Arthur, undergo a tremendous upheaval. Through the course of the book, they undergo a transformation. They make their peace with God and learn to become better people.

Warren’s actions affect the others, even though he is only a presence. We never see him alive but his actions have a great impact on those left behind.

We tend not to see too much of Belle either, but that is because she picks up the slack on behalf of the others, and gives Neva some much needed respite against the onslaught posed by the other characters and the difficulties of running the mercantile.

Sawyer looks at all the characters with a gentle eye. Nobody is really bad here. Even Warren, the bigamist, is spoken of in glowing terms by the town at his memorial service. Neva, who has been wronged by him, does not really rant or rave against him. Arthur, who could have come across as manipulative and greedy, is only trying his best to cope with the circumstances of the time.

Neva’s own strength of character comes through the pages as she seeks God’s help to do the right thing by everyone. We come to know of the kind of person almost at the same time as Arthur does, and very often it is as if we are getting to know her through his eyes.

The story has two strong male characters, against the weakness displayed by Warren. Jesse goes out of his way to help Neva, even unwittingly stepping up as a father figure for Bud. While Arthur changes from being a “moneygrubber” to putting Neva’s and the children’s needs above his own.

For much of the book, we don’t know which of these two strong men will stand up and offer Neva the support she so richly deserves. Ultimately, Sawyer makes the right choice on Neva’s behalf.

Descriptions of the food cooked by Neva spill on to the pages, exuding warmth and enabling the reader to enter the cozy picture.

I enjoyed reading about Neva’s relationship with her twins. I also felt a sense of compassion at the plight of the three innocent waifs. Our hearts go out to them. The plight of the orphans, then as now, was pathetic as they depended on the state’s diffused largesse, while their greater hunger for love and affection goes unrewarded.

It was a desperate time and many families chose to give their children away, unable to care for them.

In the midst of the difficulties of the time, the Christian message is strong: When sorrow overwhelms, trust in God.

The story is written from the third person viewpoint of Neva, Bud, Jesse and Arthur. The writing is warm and charming, comforting in its simplicity. Sawyer creates a word picture of the conveniences of the time, the Frigidaire, etc, appliances, which form an important part of the story, as events make themselves known.

The writing evokes the era: the old-fashioned use of ‘visit with,’ panged as a verb, as in “my heart panged.” Archaic variants of words, like deviltry, are also in evidence here.

Sawyer does not feel compelled to give Neva a typically happy ending. Even so, the loose end feels satisfying and leaves room for hope.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: THE WIDOW

Title: The Widow
Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: NAL
Pages: 336

The publishers have likened this novel to The Girl on the Train. I have not read The Girl on the Train, but The Widow wasn’t quite as thrilling as I expected.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Jean Taylor’s husband, Glen, has been dead for a week and she’s greatly relieved. It is our cue that all was not well with this marriage or with the man.

Jean thinks that it is now time to put away the strain and live her life outside the shadow of his silences and his disapproval and disdain of her imperfections. Married at 19, the older and sophisticated Glen has always patronized her, remade her to be what he wants her to be. She is invisible, important only in relation to Glen.

Secrets were dangerous things, the author tells us. The discovery of a book with pictures of little children tells Glen that his wife too has her secrets. Even as Jean obsesses over babies, she writes anonymously to Dawn, telling her that she is to blame for losing her child.

Her inability to have children causes Jean to become obsessed with children, while Glen retreats into his own private space, spending long periods of time looking at porn on his computer. There comes a point when merely looking at porn is not enough, and Glen becomes an active participant in cyber sex. His perverseness increases.

When a two-year-old girl, Bella Elliott, is kidnapped, detective Bob Sparkes is assigned the case. When investigations lead the police to Glen, he denies the allegation. The police lure Glen with a false id in one of the chatrooms that he frequents and he falls for it. But the findings are not accepted as evidence by the court and Glen is acquitted for lack of evidence. He then sues the police for a quarter of a million pounds, on grounds of defamation, and wins. Try as they might, the police are unable to get concrete evidence against Glen. With each failure, Sparkes becomes increasingly more tormented and determined to find Bella. We keenly feel his frustration as Bella remains unfound years later.

The book is written from four points of view: the widow’s first person present tense account, and the third-person past tense accounts of Detective Bob Sparkes, reporter Kate Waters and Dawn Elliott, mother of Bella. The case is taken forward through the viewpoints of Sparkes and Kate. Certain days are presented to us from multiple points of view.

The widow’s account begins on June 9, 2010, a week after the death of Glen. It is the day on which reporter Kate Waters enters her home, intent on piecing together information about Glen. While he was alive, Glen refused to speak to the press. Kate hopes that his death will move the widow to speak.

Detective Bob Sparkes’ account begins earlier, from October 2, 2006.

The story goes back and forth in time, and you are left piecing the puzzle together in the strangest way possible.

Jean’s account takes us through her memories of life with Glen, and of her own staunch support of her husband. It consists very often of jerky sentences, often missing the pronoun, I, at the beginning. The style seems deceptively simple, until a word or a phrase sneaks up on you and you begin to pay attention. Towards the end, the tenor of her account changes so stealthily that we almost miss it.

The style of each account was different, and I quickly found myself warming to the detective’s PoV. I found the writing to be the strongest here perhaps because the crux of the story comes alive here. He is the only one who seems to be truly concerned about the child. Kate, although a mom of two, just wants her story.

Through the various accounts, we come away with a sense of the mother’s anguish, the media frenzy and the detective’s desperation. We also understand how people’s tragic stories become fodder for the press and the media. The book also cautions us about the murky world of online chatting and how one must be careful and fight against the tendency to give away too much information online. Like the people on buses who talk on their mobile phones about the breakup of their marriage or genital warts.

Fiona also brings out the pain of a childless woman, how she is willing to put up with the speculation, the examinations, the ultrasounds, the endless prodding. Also, the waking up still feeling the weight of a baby in my arms.

I also felt for Sparkes’ wife, Eileen. Even though she is only a minor character in the book, she makes her presence felt. Her husband’s busyness and seeming obsession with Bella’s case leave her with nothing to hold on to.

As the story went on, I felt a keen sense of fatigue, and sympathized with Sparkes’ inability to nail Glen. The conclusion, even though it wasn’t a twist by any means, felt welcome and offered a sense of closure.

Overall, I think the book would have been stronger if the author had chosen to give us the story in a chronological sequence. The frequent travelling back-and-forth in time began to get wearisome after a while and left me with a rather fractured view of the whole thing.

Still, a good book.

(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.) 


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