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Review: The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

The Orange Prize Short List had been announced, Waterstones screamed a 40% off with free postage, and I had the irresistible urge to buy a book. I mulled over which book to pick – I don’t have the time to read all the six books on the short list, but wouldn’t it be awesome if I read just one and that turned out to be the winner?

With the undying optimism we all reserve for the underdog, I decided on Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You. Aferall, it is not every year that a book makes it into a major award’s short list without even a single major paper reviewing it. Book Image

I want to say Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You is the story of a young girl who finds herself evacuated to a country house during the war. But it is more than that – it is a book of many love stories – some lost, some found, some forbidden, some lifelong. The book jacket puts it thus:

England, 31st August 1939: the world is on the brink of war. As Hitler prepares to invade Poland, thousands of children are evacuated from London to escape the impending Blitz. Torn from her mother, eight-year-old Anna Sands is relocated with other children to a large Yorkshire estate which has been opened up to evacuees by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, an enigmatic childless couple. Soon Anna gets drawn into their unravelling relationship, seeing things that are not meant for her eyes – and finding herself part-witness and part-accomplice to a love affair, with unforeseen consequences.

It is an engaging read – the narrative is tight, the language is beautiful and the characters are interesting. I finished the book in three days, which given the current state of my mind – constantly distracted by baby antics – speaks volumes of how much I enjoyed this story.

The sure sign of a book I love is that it makes me want to put it down and write – the first part of the book definitely did that for me. Told from an eight year old’s perspective, the scenes where she leaves her home and enters a new place is so vividly portrayed that you can almost smell the English country air, marvel at the grand old country house and be the girl vacillating between fear and excitement. That is the beauty of a coming-of-age tale, isn’t it? When beautifully written, it almost always lets us relive our own rites of passage. Here, you see young Anna leaving her mother and then starting out on the journey:

She yawned in the heat; there wasn’t much air. She felt odd – excited and suspended in a strange new world, where anything might happen. She did not miss her mother yet, because she was still so firmly rooted inside her – her face, her voice, her touch.
She longed for the seaside.
A great clock hung over the sea of bewildered children, ticking away the morning. Gradually, Anna’s excitement began to dwindle, and the magic of the steel cathedral faded as they queued along the platform, waiting for something to happen. They stood, they sat on the ground.

But did I pick the winner? I doubt it. A couple of things bothered me. The book is told from so many perspectives, it is difficult to be emotionally attached to any character. Anna comes closest to being the central character, but then the book is not just about her. An omniscient POV works wonderfully in some books, but this just isn’t one of them. So many characters in this book are unhappy in their marriages and seek gratification elsewhere – it just gets repetitive. I would have like to see some variety in the way the different couples’ relationships play out.

Minor gripes aside, I did like this book. I may not bet my money on it, but it is a good read.

Oh, and a tiny trivia: Rosie Alison is really Mrs.Waterstones – yes, the Waterstones of the bookshop Waterstones. How cool is that!!

Posted in Books on May 3, 2010

Short Story: Edgemont Drive by E.L.Doctorow

Have you read a short story written entirely in dialog? The latest issue of New Yorker has one such story by E.L.Doctorow. No quotation marks, no ‘he-said/she-said’s, no explanations or descriptions – just lines and lines of dialog. Stylistically very chic, don’t you think?

So he’s there. What—hitting on your wife?
No, that won’t happen. It’s not what he’s about. I’m pretty sure.
So what’s the problem?
He comes on like some prissy fuss-pot poet, doesn’t have it together, drives a junk heap, claims to have quit his teaching job but was probably fired. And, with all of that, you know he’s a player.
Yeah, I know people like that.
His difficulties work in his favor. He gets what he wants.

It’s about a man and his wife and their home and a weird old guy who just shows up in their driveway and sits in his car staring at their house. Feels like your kind of story? Check it out here.

Its not a story I would shout from the roof tops about, but it has inspired a writing prompt I am excited to try out: Write a short story entirely in dialog.

Anyone else wants to give it a try?

Posted in Short Story Month on April 24, 2010

Short Story: The Truth and All Its Ugly by Kylie Minor

If you had told me yesterday that I would be recommending a short story set in 2024 with impossible science-fictionesque assumptions and which features a father who encourages his son on his first experience with drugs, I would have laughed at the improbability.

But today is different. The Truth and All Its Ugly by Kylie Minor, published at Fifty-Two Stories is a wonderful wonderful read. The full text is available online here.

An excerpt to pique your interest:

It was pure joy, watching him lift that axe and drive it into that piano. Up until then his head was always in books or that damn computer. Dead trees, I’d tell him, got not one thing on milkweed and sumac, horsemint and sweet William. But now I wasn’t so sure, and now he’d caught on. “It’s what you do with the dead trees,” he said, like he was reading my mind.

Posted in Short Story Month on April 12, 2010

Distance makes the heart grow fonder

In the recent issue of P&W, Michelle Wildgen writes this:

“After years of thinking setting didn’t inspire me at all, I have come to realize that it does—but only after I’m gone. I’ve learned not to try to write about a place until I’ve left it, whether I was traveling or living there. For instance, I have written two books set in Madison, Wisconsin, but I didn’t feel an urge to set anything there until I had moved to Westchester, New York, to get an MFA. Once I was gone, Madison leapt into focus, and instead of looking out my window and going nuts trying to capture every little thing before me, distance let me edit and reimagine.”

So true, so very true!

Check out the rest of “Writers Recommend” here. Another one I liked is from January Gill O’Neil:

“There are some favorite phrases currently rolling around in my head: universal joint, hounds will hunt forever without any reward, silent as stars, boxed lunch, white athletic socks around hairy calves.”

“Part of the fun of poetry is making sense out of ordinary randomness, thereby making everyday experiences extraordinary.”

Posted in Writing on March 16, 2010

Singapore, the misunderstood child

A mail from a friend who has just moved to Singapore reminded me of this post – I had published it on another blog that I no longer maintain and was in danger of being forgotten forever. So this might be the first in the series of reposts from my almost-dead-other-blog, as relevant today as they were five years ago. I have preserved the old comments at the bottom of the post. First published on 1 December 2005


Nguyen Tuong Van will be hanged tomorrow. In Singapore. Because he was trafficking heroin. It makes me sad – this is in a world where terrorists go scot-free. Even people who had run concentration camps have had lesser sentences. I am against capital punishment, except perhaps in cases of the most heinous crimes. And in my books, drug trafficking just isn’t one of them. Much has been talked about Nguyen Tuong Van’s death sentence. I have nothing new to add, so I will just say “Peace be to all”.

But the incident has made me of think of Singapore today and put me in a melancholic mood. Its probably not the best time to talk well of Singapore. Yet, I feel like writing about Singapore, as I knew it.

Every once in a while friends and acquaintances, often those who haven’t stepped outside of Changi airport, decide to tell me their views on Singapore. Sometimes, they tell me it is such a beautiful efficiently run city. Some others just can’t believe how people can live in a place that has such a stifling government and care about nothing else, but their materialistic needs.

I don’t usually bother to argue. At the end of the day, its not my home country and my feelings of loyalty are, at best, stretched. But I can’t help but feel that Singapore is misunderstood. Singapore is the quiet girl in the class who gets straight As in the exams, but is never really popular in school because she is such a prude. Yet she tries really really hard to be the cool-kid. Her parents tell her that she should “seriously” have fun! Yet, they tell her that grades are all that really matters. The poor prude girl is really confused. Could anyone have known that beneath the pristine doll-like image, there is a silently troubled child, with a complicated and sullied inside, every bit as human as anyone can be.

People don’t see the real Singapore – the real Singapore doesn’t exist in the tall financial centers or the huge malls or the parliament buildings, where they make us believe democracy has some role to play. Singapore is not limited to the yuppies who aspire to buy the latest Porsche or the Armani-aspiring corporate mogul-wanna-be who couldn’t care less about what happens around them, as long as they get their 5 (or is it more now? )Cs. Thats just what is presented to the outside world. In fact, even many Singaporeans see themselves through those tinted shades.

If you want to see the heart and soul of Singapore, wander not through Millenia walk or Suntec city, but through the narrow roads of China Town or Little India or Arab street, or even the little parks around Bishan or Ang Mo Kio. The fat lady who sells you the Char Kway Teow or the little girl who brings you the ice kacang at the hawker centers, has a story to tell, if only if you had the time to listen. Singapore is not a land of boring, law-abiding people who don’t think and who work and walk like machines – its a place with as much life and emotion as any other, if only you would look beyond the surface.

If the heart of India is in her villages, the heart of Singapore is in her HDB flats. Thats where the dreams are dreamt and tears are wept. If the Singapore government doesn’t hear the collective sigh of the heartlands, they would miss out on reaching out to the real Singapore. And if they don’t let us see the real Singapore, we will all go back with our own false images. If Singapore seems to you like a land straight out of Pleasantville, its only because someone has put a thick filter which blocks out all the colours, somewhere between your eyes and the reality. And you know who that someone is. It is often one’s flaws that makes us human, and thus beautiful. As you desperately try to hide your flaws, you also hide yourself. Singapore, isn’t it about time that you let us see the real you?

The next time someone talks to me about Singapore, I just wish they would talk about not just the concrete buildings or the super clean streets or the democracy that doesn’t seem to be, but something less superficial. Lets talk about the heart of Singapore, shall we?



Comments (In the spirit of free speech, the comment moderation was off. But please note that the comments below are not my opinions)

  1. Singapore, the  misunderstood child

    "Singapore is the quiet girl in the class who gets straight As in the exams, but is never really popular in school because she is such a prude."
    S beautifully introduces us to the real Singapore behind the glitz and glamor of a fishing vi…

    Trackback by DesiPundit — December 1, 2005 @ 6:56 am

  2. Most Beautiful post I have seen in a along time, excellent post. Yes, every country has its hells kitchens and madhobani or as you said HDB flats. You or anyone couldn’t have presented it in a better way.

    Comment by tony — December 1, 2005 @ 8:41 am

  3. Continued…

Posted in Travel on March 12, 2010

The Smell of Rice


A heart-rending story  (via Bloomer) –

“ […]Her family was hungry, but her neighbors had rice; the smell of it was tormenting her. So her mother hugged and comforted her, which made her realize that her mother’s smell was so much more important to her than that of the rice. Then her mother died, but before she did, she asked her husband to take some of the little money they had, to buy her daughter some rice. She wanted her daughter to have that comfort.[…] ”

The original story is at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website.

There is no worse fear for a mother than the fear of not being able to feed her child. It’s been only fifteen days, but I know.

Someday, I should re-write this tale from the mother’s POV.

Posted in Writing on January 5, 2010

Short Story Review: Departure by Alistair Morgan

Today, I read Departure by Alistair Morgan, a poignant story that appeared in Paris Review last summer and surprise! is available to read online.

The story, set in South Africa, is about a couple, Anna and Miles who are checking out the venue for their upcoming wedding. From the start, it is obvious that they are not madly in love with each other, as you would expect a newly engaged couple to be. We soon know why, with some back-story into their life in England. The “story” starts with a drunk man literally running into their car. Anna insists on getting him to a hospital, even though Miles would rather leave him to the care of the companions. At the hospital, they meet the young doctor, Miranda who invites them to her house. The rest of the story revolves around the events in her house, and subsequently a visit to the hospital to check on the drunk man.

I am not quite sure why I like this story – yes, admittedly, I often have that problem with short stories. But it kept me reading, from beginning to end. If you ask me questions like, “What did the protagonist want?”, “did she get it in the end?”, “what was the conflict?” – I would probably just say I am not sure.

But the suspense remains throughout the narrative. And the language is beautiful. I am a sucker for good descriptions, and there are quite a few of them peppered through the narrative.

“He reached over the gearstick and squeezed Anna’s thigh through her skirt. He held his hand there for some time, steady and firm, like a sailor keeping his hand on the tiller in rough weather. ”

“Although Miles could recall some of the song’s lyrics, he couldn’t remember who the singer was. It was like meeting a forgotten acquaintance whose face he recognized but whose name had slipped loose from his memory’s grip.”

““Miranda, I want it off. Just take it off!” Anna was writhing inside the dress like an animal trying to shed its skin. “

Now, Alistair Morgan is definitely not known for writing the most PG of stuff, and you would not read this story expecting it. But even then, there was a certain passage which made me think that when my daughter grows up and starts reading, I wouldn’t want to leave this issue lying around. Bordering on the perverse, but definitely within the limits of artistic, there is a beautiful depiction of Miles imagining a sexual episode with the young doctor while she and his fiancée are having a conversation.

Living in a small town, Miranda was telling Anna, was a major adjustment after the city, but she was enjoying the work in the hospital, especially as she was one of only two doctors in the town. It must be difficult at times, said Anna, as Miles moved behind Miranda and gently pushed her facedown onto the table with one hand, while slapping her buttocks with the other.

Why else should you read it? A non-formulaic tale that keeps you entertained. And if you are the kind who reads award-winning stories, this one won the 2009 Plimpton Prize for, as the Observer puts it, “uncommon dedication to plot: “stories that are actually stories, full of event and surprise.”

Posted in Short Story Month on December 4, 2009

Short Story Review: Chechnya by Anthony Marra

When I thought about short stories I loved, this is one of the first few that came to my mind. I must have read it, perhaps, a month or two ago, but it lingered in my mind. The hard part was finding it again. I remembered neither the title nor the author, but the story and the characters remained vivid in my mind. Finally, the search gods relented and I found it back. You can read it here (may require free sign-in)

Tim October summarizes the story thus:

This story is about 7,000 words long and it is really three stories which sort of “center” on the character of Sonja, a doctor in a nameless1 Chechen city. Sonja is a doctor in the city hospital who has a mysterious man arrive with a small girl. The story follows the man2 and his quest to protect the little girl he brings to the hospital, Sonja as she finds in the little girl a reason to go on, and on Natasha, Sonja’s sister and one of the reasons3 that Sonja is so damaged.

It is a reasonably simple story – the first line tells you what the protagonist wants (she has been ravaged by war and is struggling to find meaning in life) and the rest of the narrative has been carefully crafted to lead us to whether she finds it or not, complete with the several conflicts and resolutions along the path. Every new character introduced and back story told somehow contributes to the resolution of this MDQ. I am one of those who believe that such formulaic story telling ruins the beauty of a story, but somehow in this story, it works. I wasn’t even aware of it, till I started looking for it to write this review.

The characters are sympathetic. The circumstances are cruel. And I found myself transported into a world I did not know much about. A short story that satiates my craving to be a virtual tourist – excellent!

Posted in Short Story Month on December 2, 2009

Short Story Month

I have a love-hate relationship with short stories. In fact, if you had asked me less than half a year ago, I would have probably told you that I don’t like them at all. But since then, I have read a few brilliant ones – the kind that makes you go ‘wow’ at the end. The kind where the idea seems just right for a short story, not the kind that keeps you yearning for more, and definitely not the kind where you are left wondering at the end, “so what was all that about?”

I think one of the reasons I am disillusioned about short stories is that good short stories are hard to find. For every good short story I have found, I would have read probably ten others which I wish I hadn’t.

If you pick up a collection, you will like some of them, but not all. I am yet to find an anthology where I liked all, or even most, of the stories. Even short stories by authors I like or well-established authors are no guarantee that I will like the story. I read new writers, or new novels based on recommendations from friends whose tastes I like. But unlike novels, it is hard to find recommendations for specific short stories. For that matter, I am not even sure people have similar tastes in short stories. Do they?

I have decided that this month, I am going to read only short stories. I will try to recommend the ones I like, and if you have any you particularly enjoyed, do leave a comment or drop me note.

A google search seems to produce more links to help writers of short stories, rather than readers, but here are some links to start us off on this month: 

The Wall Street Journal thinks that short stories are finally poised to get their due:

This fall, a handful of collections from writers such as Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ha Jin have put a dent in the dominant view of short stories as an inferior cousin to the Great American Novel. And changing technology and reading habits have provided a boost for short fiction as more readers discover literature through online literary journals and Web sites, or download short fiction onto mobile devices

A bookseller’s view on the short story:

I love short stories for their simplicity. My tastes tend towards the spare, controlled story that turns on those inadvertent actions that all of us stumble through everyday. They are cooked in the crucible of a writer’s imagination until nothing but the bare essence is left. I think this sparseness reflects just how rich life is, how each passing moment is crammed full of possibilities both good and bad. A really good story leaves me breathless; with a need to stop and contemplate; and will crop up in my memory, unbidden, for decades. Why then if I am so seduced by their power do others not share my enthusiasm?

The art of short story at Fiction Addiction:

Paul Theroux has a useful suggestion: write a story like it has never been written before. The only way to do this is to rely on the uniqueness of your own perspective and life experiences. Psychologically speaking, each person lives in a different world. To write an interesting short story requires a temporary suspension of ordinary consciousness to tap into that world for inspiration.

I would really like a site that reviews short stories, not entire collections. But while I am waiting for it, here is one that at least focuses exclusively on short stories: The Short Review

That’s it for now, folks. I am off to dig into Ishiguro’s latest collection, Nocturnes. More on that later.

Posted in Catch-all on December 1, 2009

Synopsis, root canals and child birth

I have just written a synopsis I hate – of course, I am in love with my novel and no two pages is going to do justice to it (Did you say something about me being biased? I am ignoring it.)

While trying to figure out what I should change, I hop over to Nathan Bransford’s blog post on the topic. Here’s one of the comments on his blog by Kimber An:

Ug, I’d rather have root canal than write a synopsis. The only nice thing I can say is it’s easier and less painful than childbirth.

This was really the last thing I needed to read. Now I don’t know what I should pray for – the baby comes before I finish the synopsis (so I can finally walk instead of waddle ad breathe instead of gasp) or she waits till I finish the synopsis and query letter (in which case, that comment is tempting me to procrastinate it for a very long time). Where’s my dentist when I need her?

Oh wait, that’s another contraction! Arrghh!!! Looks like the li’l one has a mind of her own, doesn’t really matter what I pray for.

Posted in Asides on November 20, 2009