Whistling Past the Graveyard

Title: Whistling Past the Graveyard
Writers : Susan Crandall
Published: 2013
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

I have realized that I have a special affinity towards books with children as their central character. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry’ are some books that come to my mind. Added to that list is the latest one I read ‘Whistling Past the Graveyard’.

This book is about 9 year Starla who lives with her paternal grandmother (Mammie) as her father works at an oil rig faraway and her mother is in another town trying to become a famous singer. Starla is feisty, strong and stubborn and longs for the day when her mom will acheive her dreams and takes Starla with her, where her father too can join and their small family will be complete. She is brought up by her Mammie whose worst fear is Starla will turn out like her mother and hence uses strict rules to keep Starla in check.

While Starla and Mammie always had a not so loving relationship, things turn really sore on the Fourth of July when Starla is grounded in her room for something and she sneaks away to see the fireworks. She gets caught and she decides to run away rather than be sent to the reform school as per Mamie’s usual threats. She sets out on foot with no food and water to reach Nashville, where she is sure her mother would welcome her with open arms and keep her safe. On the way, she asks for a ride from a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby.

What starts out as a harmless ride in a stranger’s car turns out to be the most memorable, eye-opening and enriching experience of her lifetime – not just for Starla but Eula too. Eula has her own demons to fight – troubled childhood, teen pregnancy, lost baby and an abusive husband. Starla and Eula make up a great team where they fight for the same thing but in their own ways.

Starla and Eula’s journey along with baby James takes them to different towns and people. The highlight of this journey is the segregation and how badly black were treated back then (1963, where the book is set). Language of the book  mimics the language used in those days. The book is written in Starla’s POV and it is extremely difficult to see the world through a child’s eyes and describe that world to an audience mostly comprised of adults. (How do you explain sexual violence through a child’s POV?) The author, Susan Crandall, does an excellent job of this and keeps the child’s voice alive throughout the book.

What will remain with me though are the characters. Starla and Eula are poles apart but still similar deep down owing to their principles and good heart. These two vaguely reminded me of the characters in ‘Secret life of bees’ – quite a few similarities in the story too. This was an enjoyable read which raised some very important questions about how we treat our fellow human beings. What will continue to linger on with me is Starla and her feistiness.

I will leave you all with this excerpt from the book on why the reason behind the book’s title.

My daddy says that when you do somethin’ to distract you from your worstest fears, it’s like whistlin’ past the graveyard. You know, making a racket to keep the scaredness and the ghosts away. He says that’s how we get by sometimes. But it’s not weak, like hidin’… It’s strong. It means you’re able to go on.


All the Light We Cannot See

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Writers : Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

This book is set in the WW2 era and follows two parallel threads of story which ultimately culminate. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is one of the protagonists who lives in France. She is the daughter of a locksmith who works at a museum and loses her eyesight at the age of 6. She grows up in the warmth of fatherly love and curiosity fueled by her father and books. Werner Pfennig, on the other hand, is an orphan and lives in Germany with his sister. He is anti-establishment and often questions the system. Two contrasting characters and backgrounds, but they come together in an unexpected way and leave a lasting impression on each other.

Marie and her relationship with her father is one of the things I like in this book. Instead of showering pity on his blind daughter, the locksmith teaches her all the tricks to become independent in life. He makes a miniature of the town they live in and encourages her to ‘know’ the town through her hands. Werner and his equally inquisitive sister find an old radio which they manage to repair. They are hooked onto a regular broadcast where they listen to an enchanting voice with a French accent explaining the mysteries of science.

WW2 breaks out and we see it affecting both our protagonists. While Marie and her father flee from Paris and settle down with Marie’s uncle at a remote, coastal town, Werner enlists into the army and is fighting a battle of ethics  vs. duty. The story takes twists and turns and we see some interesting characters and finally the highlight of the book – protagonists meeting. This is one of the memorable moments. It was as if the reader knows all along that they are destined to meet and waiting for it with bated breath.

The book is not a fast read. And shouldn’t be read in a hurry, if you ask me. The book is beautifully written and has very memorable characters. It tugs at your emotions and gives you yet another glimpse of the havoc that WW2 caused on common citizens.

Key takeaway for me is Marie’s determination. Not a minute does she doubt herself because of her blindness. She charges ahead, overcomes hurdles and comes out winner in every single fight. They way she pulls her uncle out of depression with her charm, questions and perseverance is amazing. I couldn’t relate to Werner as much as I could to Marie. Werner appears as a confused soul who has not yet decided what he wants to do or become. His gutsy sister on the other hand – can completely relate to her, especially when she is angry with his brother for destroying the radio.

In short, a book worth not only reading, but savoring.


The Troubled Man

Title: The Troubled Man
Writers : Henning Mankell
Published: 2009
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

When I reviewed and discussed about the Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson on book forums, I heard many recommendations about crime fiction by Swedish authors. Among the many names that were recommended, Henning Mankell was repeated many times. I have read a few books by Mankell already and like them enough to read more books by the author. The Troubled Man is another crime thriller by Mankell, featuring his troubled inspector Kurt Wallander.

This book deals with the mystery of a man going missing, soon followed by his wife’s disappearance. Though Wallander is not assigned to the case, he is sucked into it as the disappeared man happens to be his daughter’s father-in-law. Hakan von Enke, a retired naval officer, goes on his morning walk as usual, but on the fateful day, never returns home from his walk. While the police and Wallander are playing with theories of kidnap and suicide, von Enke’s wife goes missing too. As the case is unraveled, we realize the roots go way back in time when von Enke was in the navy. Many secrets are revealed and many skeletons come tumbling out of the closet.

On a parallel line, we see Wallander’s health deteriorating with age. He notices incidents of memory loss suggesting the onset of Alzheimer’s. While Wallander is fighting his own battles, he is also fighting external forces as he reveals secrets which might shake his daughter’s and his own world.

As a crime thriller, this book is like any other Mankell book, with its strong plot and interesting twists. What makes this book special is the fact that this is the last book in the Wallander series. As Wallander’s mind deteriorates, it is clear that he cannot continue in this profession and that means the end of Wallander stories for the reader.

I have read many crime fiction books and there are many memorable lead characters. What makes Wallander memorable and stand out from the crowd is that he appears very human and readers can relate to him easily. Poirot and Holmes are in a different class altogether – by their place in society and their intelligence. Wallander is like any other common man, fighting the usual battles and working hard to earn his livelihood. He is not very happy in his life – divorced and guilt ridden for not giving his daughter a good upbringing. But, in the end, as his granddaughter arrives, he relives his daughter’s childhood and has many happy moments before Alzheimer’s completely engulfs him.

I am sad to see Wallander go, but I admire Mankell for giving this series a “natural” end rather than anything dramatic like him being killed or gone missing. It is a logical end to a great series and like Wallander, one which readers can relate to.

The Paris Wife

Title: The Paris Wife
Writers : Paula McLain
Published: 2012
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. It chronicles Hadley meeting Ernest, their courtship, marriage and the eventual divorce. Paula McLain became interested in Hadley after reading Hemingway’s memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’ in which he says ‘he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley’.

“The Paris Wife”, named so as the couple moved to Paris after their marriage, is written in Hadley’s point of view. It gives us glimpses of Hadley’s not-so-rosy childhood where she was labeled as “weak” as she used to suffer from migraines often. She is leading a boring, monotonous life, waiting for some change to come along and thus enters Hemingway. After a few meetings, they live through the long-distance relationship phase and eventually get married.They move to Paris to break away from the routine life and also with the hope that Hemingway’s literary career can reach greater heights. We get to see the couple go through some rough patches and their utlimate divorce.

It is interesting to read some popular names like Scott Fitzgerald and how the writers lived their lives. It gets boring at times with a recollection of events like ‘we vacationed here’ and then ‘this happened’ etc. Hadley comes across as a very confident woman who knows what she wants in life. She supports Hemingway all through by giving enough space when needed and nudge him to work harder. I liked how clear headed and sorted out she was during the initial days of their marriage. The incident where she loses all of Hemingway’s work is heartbreaking. I felt a strong attachment with Hadley as the story progressed. I lost touch with Hadley when she narrates Hemingway’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. It is hard to believe that someone who was so confident all through the relationship turned so desperate to hold onto her man that she put up with sharing her bed (literally) with another woman.

Leaving aside Hemingway’s presence, this novel is like any other book about a couple. Hadley’s character stays with you for sometime, but apart from that, I didn’t take away anything from the book.

The Leftovers

Title: The Leftovers
Writers : Tom Perrotta
Published: 2011
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

This book garnered a lot of attention after it was nominated as Notable Book for 2011 by New York Times. Not to say the cover art is so enchanting, I kept staring at before I would dig into the book.

The Leftovers refers to the people left behind on this earth when one fine day, all of a sudden, some people disappear in what is termed as ‘The Sudden Departure’. Amongst the leftovers, some believe this is an act of God where he chose the people who believed in him and took them to a better world, leaving the sinful souls behind to suffer and rot. Some dismiss it to say this was not about Christianity and try to find answers to the riddle.

There is a void, an unfilled gap in the lives of the leftovers and they struggle to accept the void and come to terms with their new life without their loved ones around. A middle aged woman loses her husband and her kids in the Sudden Departure and finds it difficult to move on in her life and finds herself hoping that they might turn up one day, just like how they disappeared.

The book starts with a bang and draws you in instantaneously. The basic concept of the Departure is so intriguing, you want to read on to see what the author does with this brilliant idea. The concept of G.R.  (a group of leftovers who give up speech and maintain silence in an attempt to say there is something wrong with the world and the people that are left behind) is another idea which makes you ponder. Sadly, the book fails to keep up the intriguing factor and loses momentum and after a point of time, it becomes yet another book of the dull lives of people, middle-age crisis and extra marital affairs. The characters who evoked sympathy and dread in you in the initial part, fail to touch your heart in the latter half. Laura’s character comes across as such a strong one as a woman who does not lose any immediate family member, but sees her friend lose her daughter, but the character is not used well in the second half.

The writing is beautiful and the characters are interesting, but this applies only to the first half of the book. Somewhere down the line, the author fumbles to make his point and tell his story.

If you are looking for an answer to the riddle of where the people went, then you will not find that in the book. That is not the point of this book anyway. It is a decent read overall, but I was disappointed with how the author treated his idea.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is about a mole, a water rat, a badger and a toad who has a penchant for expensive cars. Sounds interesting? You bet! It can be termed as a children’s book, but it is for everybody who is a child at heart. There is something very ‘cute’ about the book – the innocent characters, the simple story line, the language they speak and the simple, everyday things that the characters take great pleasure in.

When I saw that this book appears on BBC’s The Big Read – ‘Top 100’ and 30 books to read before you turn 30, I set really high expectations on this book. I had the memories of The Secret Garden fresh in my mind and I was hoping this book too is as likeable as the first one. While The Wind in the Willows is a good book, I don’t understand what the hype is all about. The book definitely does not deserve to be part of any ‘must read’ lists. The Secret Garden is a totally different book – it revolves around humans and the story is something that one could easily relate to. There is a very strong presence of nature in it which makes it even more charming. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy animated characters and animals dressed up and leading a more human life, but Willows just didn’t work for me. If I can relate to Calvin and Hobbes where the stuffed tiger lives only in the child’s imagination, I should be able to appreciate any animal character, right? But the rat or the mole or the toad just didn’t stir any feelings in me. All that stuff about the toad ordering expensive cars and wasting away his life and money, the rat and the mole being such good buddies and helping the toad find his goal in life – I could not digest all this.

Just a few words about this book can’t be called a review, but I am still blogging this because I need to air my views somewhere. Please do not be discouraged by my view of this book. I am known to dislike books which others just love. In fact, you should mark a book as a ‘have-to-read-it-no-matter-what’ if I give it a bad review. Told you, I am insane!

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

After thoroughly enjoying the first in the Millennium series The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I knew I will be reading the next book pretty soon and so I did! We meet the same characters Lisbeth Salander, the one with the tattoo and who apparently plays with the fire in this book and our hero Mikhael Blomkvist and a bunch of other supporting characters.

This time around, we have Salander in the hotspot – she is accused of triple murders and it is upto her friend Blomkvist to help her out in this difficult decision. The author takes immense pleasure in hanging the sword above Salander’s head and letting the readers wonder ‘Did she? Didn’t she?’ A journalist who is writing a book about sex trafficking, his girl friend who is writing a thesis on the same subject, a mysterious incident in Salander’s life which she calls “All The Evil” – add all these and you have a page tuner in your hands – literally! Just like the first book, Larsson creates an air of mystery around Salander’s so called evil incident and the reader is dying to know what the heck that is. Salander gets a few more layers to her – Larsson beautifully develops her character. Half the world thinks she is a psychopath and is dangerous to the society whereas the other half thinks she is the best thing ever that happened to mankind.

Larsson seems to be obsessed with the physical form of love. While the first book revolved completely around that and violence, Larsson could have easily avoided mentioning these in his second book, still he does. A more-than-necessary importance to lesbians and this really put me off. The author has an interesting plot on hands which will make the book sell like hot cakes, he need not resort to such cheap tactics just to increase the book’s sales!

Larsson’s writing is nothing great. As it happens with most murder mysteries, the importance is given to the plot, its twists and turns rather than the language and style and this book is no different. And I am totally fine with it. If I want to read good English and beautiful style, I will read some other book. When I read a mystery, I want to be given an interesting plot and so many twists and turns that I feel dizzy and Larsson’s books fulfill these criteria. But there is a limit to how much shabby writing one can put up with. Larsson gets so descriptive in every scene (why do I care how many Billy Pan Pizza did Salander buy) that it gets really irritating (are you sure she folded her right leg over her left one and not the other way around? Who cares?). Still, I enjoyed this book just like how I enjoy a Govinda movie any day! You might not recall anything in this book after you close it, but you will enjoy it as long as you read it.