Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

I had been intending to read this book for a long time, but it just sat idly on my Kindle. Finally I got around to reading it and subtly understood why this book was pushed to the deepest recesses of my to-read shelf. To put it simply, my subconscious was guarding me against the utter tedium of this Pulitzer prize-winning novel. I am still in a state of shock and distress as to how a book which has garnered much attention in the literary world could be so mind-numbingly pedestrian.

The premise is interesting and was full of barred potential – a collection of short stories narrating lives of different characters, all entwined by one Olive Kitteridge in Crosby, Maine. But somehow all the stories were insipid despite overarching themes and characters that threaded them together. The only two chapters that were worthy of any consideration were “Pharmacy” and “Ship in a Bottle“. Other than that, Elizabeth Strout has just woven a unidimensional and vapid portrait of a town chock-full of detestable characters, all leering at each other’s lives and silently judging one another, all the while harboring contemptible thoughts and being indescribably unhappy.

This book reads less like a collections of stories and more like a cautious tale on how not to age, lest one adopt attitudes that makes one as horrid as the central character, Olive Kitteridge. If she had any redeeming qualities, the book might have been a passable read. For many stories, an irrational central character makes sense as their insensitivities have a direct bearing to the plot and other characters. However, this wasn’t the case here. Olive’s prejudices are banal in their standing, her judgements are groundless. In fact this is was the same with all the characters introduced in the book. Their irrationalities and aversion to life’s elements are baseless, and their personal stories are uninspiring and depressing just for the sake of it.

Fortunately, I don’t look forward to picking up another book by Ms. Strout anytime soon.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • And any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours—all this receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy.
  • There would be for Henry Kitteridge a flash of incredible frenzy as though in the act of loving his wife he was joined with all men in loving the world of women, who contained the dark, mossy secret of the earth deep within them.
  • You get used to things, he thinks, without getting used to things.
  • In the pharmacy he saw that she walked around in a state of unreality; he found his own life felt unbearable in a way he would never have expected. The force of this made no sense.
  • Henry stares out at the bay, at the skinny spruce trees along the edge of the cove, and it seems beautiful to him, God’s magnificence there in the quiet stateliness of the coastline and the slightly rocking water.
  • “States and traits,” Dr. Goldstein had said. “Traits don’t change, states of mind do.”
  • At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of her voice, he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure.
  • Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.
  • There was nothing to explain what he felt was happening to him, that he’d been put into a transparent plastic capsule that rose off the ground and was tossed and blown and shaken so fiercely that he could not possibly find his way back to the quotidian pleasures of his past life.
  • People like to think the younger generation’s job is to steer the world to hell. But it’s never true, is it? They’re hopeful and good—and that’s how it should be.
  • “It makes you feel old, though, doesn’t it? Once that ring is on the finger.”
  • She appreciated how this young man did not seem bored. So many doctors made you feel like hell, like you were just a fat lump moving down the conveyor belt.
  • Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different.
  • The music took over the church. It took up all the space that wasn’t filled with people or coats or pews, it took up all the space in Jane Houlton’s head.
  • No, she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.
  • She lost weight, looked better than ever for a while, which lacerated her heart with the irony.

Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations by Craig Ferguson

★★★★★ (5/5)

One of the interesting quirks of the aging process is that events that seemed to have little or no impact at the time resonate with a thunderous importance later on, like an expertly constructed detective novel.

From the very beginning, I settled on two words which described this book perfectly: delightfully sad. Craig has a unique way with words. He spins and weaves intricate emotions with exceptional brevity and boundless wit. As evident from his most notable stint as a host for a late night talk show and his previous writings, Craig really is unapologetically himself – conscientious, illimitable and of course thoroughly entertaining. From the profane to the most discerning of life’s elements, Craig writes his memoirs with a charming nonchalance that I attribute to his Scottish heritage.

Action creates thought, not the other way round. Not the rather grand Descartian proclamation “I think, therefore I am,” but rather a more pragmatic philosophy of “I am, therefore I think.”

In a brief unraveling of his life, he sheds light on what it means to be an assimilated immigrant, a self-destructive dipsomaniac, a loving father and husband with a marred albeit joyous childhood, an introspective aging adult and an empathetic society man. His sage anecdotes are not didactic but hold an endearing familiarity. There are no high-falutin ideals pursued, just a fantastic truth molded from nostalgia and the past. One of my favorite passages from the book is when Craig describes a particularly inconsequential yet gratifying experience:

“I remember standing in a fantastic, congenial crowded pub at about 1 in the morning when a little puddle of seawater that had been lodged in my ear canal ran out. The water had been heated by my own body temperature, and the sensation of it trickling out is still one of the most delicious physical experiences I have ever had. I will remember that moment until the day I die. To this day whenever I take a swim, it crosses my mind that I might get lucky again.”

The narration is so sublime, so scintillating, the words so lofty and full of purposeful expression that I am tempted to read the lines over and over.

Having read his previous autobiography American on Purpose, blanks left in this memoir are filled with ease. Both memoirs complement each other. The former being a chronological narration of his life, the latter being a collection of anecdotes and incidents that have perhaps contributed to Craig’s perception on a life lived and loved. The very last chapter of this memoir is a testament to Craig’s talent as a storyteller. He is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite authors to look forward to reading and I hope I get to revisit Between the Bridge and the River soon.

In my memory now I still do as I did that day. I brush off the loose stones and debris that attached to me after my fall, and this can’t be true but it is. In the clouds ahead I see your face and the faces of our children and I smile and then I roar with delight as I run as fast as I can toward you.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Aging

  • It seems to me people make up stories to fit their perception about you. They don’t just do it about me, of course. It happens to everybody. I do it to myself. I’m getting older now and the shadows are getting longer. When I look into them I see shapes move and stir and I think I remember what they are, but maybe I’m just making it up to suit a reality about myself that I find comfortable.
  • I want to grow old like Dennis and pantomimes. Busy, enthusiastic, noisy, colorful, politically incorrect, and singing.
  • Old people are from a different tribe than the young. The young are in firm denial of their own mortality. That’s why they can be talked into being kamikaze pilots or suicide bombers, or take shocking risks with their own personal safety through stupid stunts and excessive alcohol and drugs. The idea of not being is incomprehensible to them.
  • An odd but, I’m assured, common phenomenon of the aging process is that childhood memories long thought to be forgotten seem to resurface with shocking and vivid clarity. I am unsure whether to believe in the verisimilitude of these recollections or whether they are just one of the entertainments of a decaying brain.

Wise Gems

  • I’ve never found the notion that “things would have worked if circumstances had been different” to be particularly helpful. Circumstances are what they are.
  • These people were great artists despite their appetite for self-destruction, not because of it.
  • The acquisition of power tends to draw the worst people in our species. The narcissistic, sniveling demagogues who are so insecure about themselves and their ideas that they have to oppress all discussion and dissent, whether by force or by decrying any contrary opinion as treason or lunacy.
  • Fear doesn’t deal in fact. It lives in untruth and rumor, like a modern politician. It’s a voracious weed that needs just a whiff of uncertainty to thrive, because fear needs to conceal itself from plain sight in order to be really effective.
  • In fact, going by feel without having an idea of where you are in the scheme of things will often get you in very big trouble in life

Astute Observations

  • As my late-night show came to an end, I kind of went to pieces. It’s not that I didn’t want to leave; I did, but even if I had not, I felt that there was a change in the wind, that the late-night television world was resetting itself and there was no longer a place for someone like me.
  • Loyalty is not borne so much out of admiration or respect for their candidate, but more out of the hatred of the opponent.
  • The look of utter terror on that poor man’s face. It wasn’t a face built for fear; it was a face for beer and fun and laughing and life. Maybe sadness, but not fear. Seeing fear on that face was an abomination; it was terrifying, but it was the noise that shocked me more. Davie was wailing like a giant terrified child.
  • But more importantly he taught me about connection, that sense of cheeky impudence that I believe is essential for a comedian.
  • So in order to keep bad things from happening, it would seem to make sense to worry about them as a preventative measure. If you don’t worry about things, then they happen.
  • I began to realize that I had a responsibility toward him that transcended my own comfort. I believe this is at the core of real love.
  • There’s nothing sexual for the victim of a so-called sexual assault. That experience belongs to the predator. Call the assault brutal or criminal or disgusting, but calling it sexual in a headline is disingenuous.

Across the Atlantic

  • James Joyce said of sentimentality that it was “unearned emotion,” which I imagine is a belief he must have picked up from his Irish mother.
  • I reject the idea that inheritance is worthy of social status. I resent that the old-boy network propels others forward while leaving others behind regardless of ability.
  • My father always told me, “If you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late,” and I believe that to be true.
  • There is the notion that if you have to be diligent and industrious and persistent at a creative venture, then you must not be very good.
  • He and his hundreds of thousands of brothers-in-arms who marched away to war and never returned are at the root of a titanic melancholy and despair which is still palpable in Britain today. Not just because of the horrific carnage or the despicable propaganda that they were laying down their lives to end war in the world rather than being abused in the death throes of feudalism in service of a twisted spat between Victoria’s children.
  • I believe the real reason that the Brits love the monarchy is their inherent love of theater and gossip, both of which the royal family provide. The pageantry and ceremony of the religious and military roles played by the queen and her family is nice, especially along with the more relatable but still salacious family tribulations.
  • Like most Scots I have a profound emotional connection to this time of year; it plays into our dramatic, cinematic sense of ourselves and affords us the opportunity to gaze glassy-eyed into the distance and feel emotions about loss and hope that frankly we don’t usually have time for.
  • “The best thing that ever came out of Scotland was the road to England.”

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • It also seems to me that the phrase riding the elephant contains a perfect description for a life which seems to take any direction it chooses, paying scant attention to my instructions or commands. The big gray fucker just goes where it wants.
  • In the time before I loved you, I never thought of the world as precious. It had value to me only in its sensuality and its ability to satiate my appetites. This was the time when I was ruled by the tyranny of desire. If I couldn’t eat it or snort it or own it or drink it or make it cry or laugh or give me money, then it was invisible to me. I had no empathy, but used sentimentality and wit and slurred prose to cloak my ugliness.
  • A job on “ra mulk” was highly prized among my contemporaries. I remember the solitude of these mornings as some of the most beautiful and evocative moments of my early life. The sunrise in the west of Scotland is incandescent and sometimes—often—it’s the only time of the day when it doesn’t rain.
  • It horrifies me now to think of the amount of nighttime drunken swimming I’ve done in my life. I wouldn’t so much as take a bath in candlelight these days, but I was a wilder version of myself then.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

★★★★★ (5/5)

A clear picture of the killer was emerging out of the mass of disconnected evidence, and the image was stark and terrifying: a case of obsession, of violent rage, of a calculating, brilliant but profoundly disturbed mind.

Literary conceit, distrusting authors, solicitous publishers, and an unpublished book full of riddles and metaphors at the core, topped with a gruesome murder followed by a thrilling chase for the truth and you have Robert Galbraith’s sensational “The Silkworm”. Much like the title, the innards of the story are cocooned by a myriad of suspicious characters, each with cryptic skeletons in their closets.

Running away was her life’s blood and he had been her favourite destination, freedom and safety combined; she had said it to him over and over again after fights that would have killed them both if emotional wounds could bleed.

I very much enjoyed the multiple threads of subplots, some adding more drama to the pivotal mystery, others being loose ends but without any digression. As a reader, this complemented my own inquiries into who the killer might be. The ending reveals the most unlikeliest of characters as the murderer, but in retrospect all minor details leads up to it. Galbraith has employed deliberate misdirection in proportion, where the reader isn’t misled at all. It is remarkable how throughout my reading of this book, I was tethered to the edge of my seat, eagerly waiting for the importance of clues to be deciphered.

He ought to have proceeded with finesse, eased himself into her confidence the way he had done with Lord Parker’s PA, so that he could extract confessions like teeth under the influence of concerned sympathy, instead of jack-booting to her door like a bailiff.

Cormoran Strike appears more grounded as a private detective in this novel. His personal and business life entwines is a very sensible fashion – neither being unnecessary to the events which unravel in due course of time, nor weighing needlessly upon the other. He acknowledges his own physical and mental handicaps, which makes him distantly endearing. His mercenary attitude is balanced by an innate kindness directed at those who need it most. Even side characters enjoy their much deserved limelight, abetting the main mystery all the while inhabiting their own private lives.

He thought Anstis competent but unimaginative, an efficient recogniser of patterns, a reliable pursuer of the obvious. Strike did not despise these traits– the obvious was usually the answer and the methodical ticking of boxes the way to prove it– but this murder was elaborate, strange, sadistic and grotesque, literary in inspiration and ruthless in execution. Was Anstis capable of comprehending the mind that had nurtured a plan of murder in the fetid soil of Quine’s own imagination?

The methodical unraveling of plots and characters, exhilarating dénouement along with a writing style reminiscent of crime noir made this murder-mystery an electrifying read. It was devoid of glamour and stifling descriptions that haunted The Cuckoo’s Calling. I now look forward to reading Career of Evil and Lethal White.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Wise Gems

  • Experience had taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive. Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps.
  • Strike had always marvelled at the strange sanctity conferred upon celebrities by the public, even while the newspapers denigrated, hunted or hounded them. No matter how many famous people were convicted of rape or murder, still the belief persisted, almost pagan in its intensity: not him. It couldn’t be him. He’s famous.
  • ‘We don’t love each other; we love the idea we have of each other. Very few humans understand this or can bear to contemplate it. They have blind faith in their own powers of creation. All love, ultimately, is self-love.’
  • They had come because they wanted a spy, a weapon, a means of redressing some balance in their favour or of divesting themselves of inconvenient connections. They came because they sought an advantage, because they felt they were owed retribution or compensation. Because overwhelmingly, they wanted more money.
  • …difficile est longum subito deponere amoren, difficile est, uerum hoc qua lubet efficias… it is hard to throw off long-established love: Hard, but this you must manage somehow…

Vivid Descriptions

  • A strange asymmetry, as though somebody had given his face a counterclockwise twist, stopped him being girlishly handsome.
  • He viewed her engagement as the means by which a thin, persistent draught is blocked up, something that might, if allowed to flow untrammelled, start to seriously disturb his comfort.
  • Having put away his provisions and cooked himself pasta, Strike stretched out on his bed as night pressed dense, dark and cold at his windows, and opened the missing man’s book.
  • Strike had met men like Matthew in the army: always officer class, but with that little pocket of insecurity just beneath the smooth surface that made them overcompensate, and sometimes overreach.
  • A respectful little distance had been left around the head of the company, like the flattened circle of corn that surrounds a rising helicopter,
  • The cab was stuffy and smelled of stale tobacco, ingrained dirt and ancient leather. The windscreen wipers swished like muffled metronomes, rhythmically clearing the blurry view of broad,
  • Both of them, Robin could tell, had suddenly remembered that all the time Quine had been showering them with effusive encouragement, interest and praise, the characters of Harpy and Epicoene had been taking obscene shape on an old electric typewriter hidden from their eager gazes.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • With a hundred million sperm swimming blindly through the darkness, the odds against a person becoming themselves were staggering. How many of this Tube-full had been planned, he wondered, light-headed with tiredness. And how many, like him, were accidents?
  • After this, she and Matthew felt that squabbling about Strike was in bad taste, so they went to bed in an unsatisfactory state of theoretical reconciliation, both, Robin knew, still seething.
  • And a faint glow of hero worship, almost extinguished by years of neglect and unhappiness, of putting up with his airs and tantrums, of trying to pay the bills and care for their daughter in this shabby little house, flickered again behind her tired eyes.
  • Strike could barely feel his knee now. He had become six foot three of highly concentrated potential. This time she had no advantage; she would not be taking him by surprise. If she had a plan at all, he guessed that it was to profit from any available opportunity.
  • She had once before used the plural pronoun when Strike’s faith in himself had been at a low ebb. He appreciated the moral support, but a feeling of impotence was swamping his thought processes. Strike hated paddling on the periphery of the case, forced to watch as others dived for clues, leads and information.
  • ‘She’s happy there,’ he says. ‘She has an enviable capacity for enjoying the familiar.’

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Even though I enjoyed this story, there were some disjointed scenarios that made me question the intentions of the author. Did this book make a case for or against the poor? The main character of Balram Halwai is able to overcome the odds of abject poverty and becomes a self-professed entrepreneur; does this not objectify poverty as a lifestyle choice? Isn’t this the very stance of plutocratic culture which propagates that destitution is a result of choices an individual makes and is not rooted in prevailing systems of, namely, Capitalism and Consumerism?

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

The Diseased Nation

  • And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.
  • These are the three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever.
  • The Great Socialist’s enemies would try and steal the election from us, the poor, and take the power away from us, the poor, and put those shackles back on our hands that he, the Great Socialist, had so lovingly taken off our hands. Did we understand?
  • There you have it. That was the positive side of the Great Socialist. He humiliated all our masters—that’s why we kept voting him back in.
  • Of course, a billion servants are secretly fantasizing about strangling their bosses—and that’s why the government of India publishes this magazine and sells it on the streets for just four and a half rupees so that even the poor can buy it.
  • A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.
  • Every big market in Delhi is two markets in one—there is always a smaller, grimier mirror image of the real market, tucked somewhere into a by-lane.

On the Rich & the Privileged

  • The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.
  • Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly.
  • The police searched for me in darkness: but I hid myself in light.

The Perennial Struggle of the Poor

  • No boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school
  • A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog’s collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.
  • Don’t test your chauffeur with a rupee coin or two—he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny.
  • We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in.
  • The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs.
  • When you retain semen in your lower body, it leads to evil movements in the fluids of your upper body. In the Darkness we know this to be a fact.
  • He was hypnotizing himself by walking like this—that was the only way he could tolerate this cage.
  • You see, poor people in the north of this country drink tea, and poor people in the south drink coffee. Who decided that things should be like this, I don’t know, but it’s like this.
  • Maybe once in a hundred years there is a revolution that frees the poor.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • And when I grin, is it true—as you no doubt imagine by now—that my lips widen into a devil’s rictus?
  • The road is a jungle, get it? A good driver must roar to get ahead on it.
  • and transferred that money into a bank account in a small, beautiful country in Europe full of white people and black money.
  • Coal was taught to make ice, starting the next morning at six. Three hundred rupees, plus a bonus, will do that. We practiced in a taxi.
  • Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are the only three nations I admire.
  • When headlights hit them, the shards glow, and the wall turns into a Technicolored, glass-spined monster.
  • Iqbal, that great poet, was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave.
  • All I wanted was the chance to be a man—and for that, one murder was enough.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome.

This novel is A Man Called Ove meets Forrest Gump meets The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, but with more unlikely circumstances thrown in to increase the length of the novel, maybe. Initially the novel caught my attention but soon became tedious. Multiple unresolved plot threads and insipid characters made it a dull read.

The premise is unassuming. An elderly man decides to walk to an old friend who is dying of cancer. He believes that time, distance and his intentions will delay the inevitable. During the course of his journey, he unravels aspects of his past life, seeking answers and clarification to muddled memories of an abandoned son, an unhappy marriage and a lonely childhood. He meets a myriad of characters on the way and many join him. Thus a simple walk becomes a pilgrimage of sorts.

Sometimes he believed he had become more memory than present. He replayed scenes from his life, like a spectator trapped on the outside. Seeing the mistakes, the inconsistencies, the choices that shouldn’t be made, and yet unable to do anything about them.

Despite a simple plot, the novel is trite in its structure and story. Characters who have no bearing on the plot are introduced aimlessly. Even though Harold’s resolve is admirable, the nature of his walk and overall treatment of elements of surprise are contentious. The overblown spectacle of the pilgrimage comes down to nothing – it just dissipates into Harold and his wife Maureen’s sudden reconciliation.

I really wonder how and why this novel was longlisted for Man Booker prize in 2012. The writing is neither poetic nor does the story hold much gravitas.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • ‘Does anyone work here?’ shouted a man in a pinstripe suit from the counter. He rapped his car keys on the hard surface, beating out wasted time.
  • Harold Fry was a tall man who moved through life with a stoop, as if expecting a low beam, or a screwed-up paper missile, to appear out of nowhere.
  • It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.
  • He hoped there wouldn’t be a row. He hoped they weren’t one of those couples who said in public the dangerous things they could not voice at home.
  • Small words were exchanged and they were safe. They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.
  • As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went.
  • You could never describe Joan as affectionate, but at least she stood between her son and the clouds.
  • The reason she had stayed with Harold all these years was not David. It wasn’t even because she felt sorry for her husband. She had stayed because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.
  • In accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility.
  • If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.
  • If you had the wherewithal, you could even follow his journey on Twitter. Maureen hadn’t the wherewithal.
  • They chose a coffee outlet on the ground floor of a department store because she said you could always trust the things you knew.
  • We hang on by so little, he thought, and felt the full despair of knowing that.
  • Once she had been a woman called Queenie Hennessy. She did sums, and wrote with an impeccable hand. She had loved a few times, and she had lost, and that was all as it should be. She had touched life, played with it a little, but it is a slippery bugger, and finally we must close the door, and leave it behind. A frightening thought for all these years. But now? Not frightening. Not anything. She was so tired. She dropped her face against her pillow, and felt something opening like a flower in her head, as it grew heavy.