Category Archives: Cities in Books

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek #BookReview

Book: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Author: Kim Michele Richardson


I’d promised you (and myself) that I’d read and review The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek right after I read Moyes’ The Giver of Stars. The books are both based on women packhorse librarians of Kentucky and were said to be very similar in content. Finally, after wandering off a little bit, here I am.

The Story

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek tells the story of Cussy Mary Carter. Cussy suffers from a rare genetic disease that results in blue skin. She is called Bluet and is ostracised by the townsfolk, along with other ‘colored’ folks.

She joins the packhorse librarian initiative started by Eleanor Roosevelt, and brings books and other reading material to the people on the hills. Cussy loves books. The written word gets her pulse racing. She has read everything from Pearl S Buck to Aldous Huxley. She is perhaps the best-read person in the town. And yet, she is looked down upon, ridiculed and considered completely unworthy.

A curious doctor tries to find out the reason for her ‘blueness’ and succeeds too (It’s due to the deficiency of a particular enzyme). Bluet is cured for a while but hates the side effects of the drugs that include severe nausea and vomiting. Yet, so desperate is she to be a part of the mainstream of society that she goes along with it. However, the deeply ingrained prejudice against her doesn’t disappear with her blue colour. Finally, she chooses to stop trying to fit in.

Her work, hard and demanding as it is, is her only happiness. And that’s where she finds love too, though it comes at a cost.

What I thought of it

I’ll come straight to the point, without beating about the bush (did you get that?), and say that I loved the book.

The author tackles multiple issues, all close to my heart. She talks of racism and how cruel it was. It is even now, but back in the early nineties, it was way worse than we can ever imagine. It was sanctioned by law. For instance, there was a law prohibiting marriages between whites and coloureds.

Through The Book Woman, I got to know about the Blue people of Kentucky. I found out that they really did exist and also that there really was a place called Troublesome Creek.

And there’s more.

The authenticity

I’d give The Book Woman a hundred out of ten on authenticity. It is a wonderfully researched book. The tone, the language, the customs and traditions, all transport you to Kentucky of the early nineties.

Cussy, the Book Woman

I fell in love with the self-effacing Cussy. While she was the most docile woman you’d ever meet and also very conscious of her standing in the society (or rather the lack of it), she had a certain doggedness that made her persevere despite all odds. She traversed the most treacherously prohibitive terrain, through flowing rivers and heart-stopping narrow mountain trails to get to her readers. I loved how she zealously she picked out reading material requested by her readers. Her pleasure at the thought of their happiness was infectious. Also, I loved how hard she tried to get people to read, sometimes even tricking them into it. That was endearing.

The focus on books and love for reading

I loved how books were such an inherent part of the narrative. The love and longing for reading were touching. It was miraculous that the hunger people had for books, even young children, surpassed their physical hunger. One part of me tells me that’s unbelievable, impossible even, but another part of me wants to believe it – that the thirst for knowledge and the lure of reading surpasses physical needs.

The love story

Cussy finds love on the mountains. Not many pages are devoted to it, there is barely any romance, yet the love story is very real.

Richardson’s Book Woman vs Moyes’ Giver of Stars

It’s not right to compare two books but I had to do this because Richardson accused Moyes of plagiarising her book and that’s what led me to this wonderful read in the first place.

Here’s my review of the The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.

I wasn’t convinced about the charges but the fact remains that the two books are very similar in content. They are, however, different in their treatment of the subject.

The Book Woman is way better researched, way more authentic. Cussy’s passion for books and reading is greater than that of all the women put together in The Giver of Stars and that makes the book so much more of a treat.

In Moyes’ book, the individual stories of the women took up a lot of space and that wasn’t all bad because I did love the stories, but their job as librarians didn’t get as much of a spotlight as I’d have liked. However, that also made the narrative more complex with many stories entwined together. The Book Woman, on the other hand, is the story of Cussy with a simple linear narrative.

If The Book Woman were a classic, The Giver of Stars would be the pop version, more fluff, more drama, easier to read and easier to connect with.

If you ask me which one you should read, I’d say why choose? Read both.

Last thought: Go for it.

10 minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World #BookReview

Book: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Author: Elif Shafak

After January’s reading spree February was a month for slowing down. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds was the perfect pick for the purpose. One cannot open a Shafak and breeze through it. Her books are to be sampled and savoured at leisure.

But before I get carried away by my love for the author let me introduce you to the story.

The story

This is the tale of Tequila Leila – a prostitute in Istanbul. We are introduced to her as her body lies in a dumpster waiting to be found by friends or family.

The story stems from a piece of research that suggests that a person’s brain is active for about 10 minutes after the heart stops beating. 

Each minute of Leila’s time in the dumpster brings a memory.

Fragrance, flavour, sights and sounds translate into memories as she reaches into the depths of her mind to relive moments of her life. We piece together her story through each flashback. More importantly, we get to meet The Five; five of Leila’s friends who constitute the family she could never have.

That makes up the first part of her story – The Mind. There is also a second and third part – The Body and The Soul – that take up the narrative after Leila’s mind stops working.

You might also like The Bastard of Istanbul by the same author.

What I loved

One would imagine a novel that hinges on death would be about death and dying. Contrary to that, the focus of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds remains on love and friendship and the relationships we form throughout our lives. Here’s what I enjoyed about the book

The premise

I absolutely loved it. What a fabulous peg to weave a story! 

The poetic storytelling

While the story or the narrative is the life of a novel, there is also a special kind of charm in the way it is told. And that’s where Shafak excels. Almost every page of the book is a quotable quote.

Sample this one on friendship:

On days when she wallowed in self-pity, her chest cracking open, they (her friends) would gently pull her up and breathe life into her lungs.”

A sensory treat

Shafak’s story-telling stimulates the senses. So potent were her descriptions that the situations are forever tied up in my mind with the smells and sounds just as they were in Leila’s. The fragrance of cardamom coffee, the smell of sugar-and-lemon, the aromatic lamb stew as also the taste of watermelon and that of soil in her mouth – they will all remain with me forever.

The narrative

The first part was unputdownable as I followed Leila’s journey through the young innocence of childhood to her stormy and traumatic growing up years and then as she lands into prostitution. The individual stories of her five friends kept me glued. While I didn’t much like Part 2, the third part was beautiful, though a little short. 

The treatment

I loved Leila’s portrayal. I liked that despite the tough situations life threw at her, she didn’t turn cynical or bitter. If anything, she valued love and friendship ever more and made warm heartfelt connections. Which is why her friends are ready to go to any lengths for her.

Most of all, there was Istanbul

No one, absolutely no one, can describe Istanbul the way Shafak does.  Her love shines through each page even as she makes no attempt to camouflage its warts. Istanbul comes alive as a city with a million shades, innocent yet heartless, a city changing and growing constantly.

Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong… In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive

Quotes like these are liberally sprinkled, often innocuously placed in the narrative. They build a picture of the city without you even being aware of it. If I ever go to Istanbul, it will be Shafak’s version I’d be looking for. Here’s another quote I loved:

This city always surprised her; moments of innocence were hidden in its darkest corners, moments so elusive that by the time she realised how pure they were, they would be gone.

What could have been better

The ‘friend-list’

That’s my first gripe with the book – that her friend list, the ‘water family’,  seemed contrived. It was almost as if Shafak was collecting one misfit of each kind to bring together to the group.

The individual stories…

… were too too short. I’ve said earlier I loved each of them and I wanted to know more about each of them. Some, like Humeyra, got a very raw deal. Her picture was incomplete, truncated somehow.

The bonding

I would have liked Shafak to spend a few more pages establishing the camaraderie between the friends. I got their deep connection with Leila but they didn’t come together as a group for me. And that was crucial since they were working together as a team in the second part of the book.

The second part

This part, The Body, was to me, the weakest bit of the book. Moreso because the first part was so beautifully written. It comes as a rude shock waking one up from a poetic bit of writing to something almost caricaturish as her friends attempt to give her a befitting burial. A book like this didn’t deserve it.

Last thought: Despite the weaknesses, I’d say Read it.

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it for the prompt ‘a book gifted to you’. This one came from my dear friend and an exceptionally generous Santa, Shalini.

City of Girls #BookReview

Book: City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

This is my second book by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat Pray Love and I didn’t much care for it. I then tried liking the film but I just about managed to get through it only because Julia Roberts is one of my absolute favourite actresses.

So it was with much trepidation that I picked up City of Girls, on the assurance that it wasn’t like her previous work at all. That did prove accurate, for this one really is very different.

The story

19- year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York to live with her aunt Peg who owns and runs Lily Playhouse, a theatre company. From her small town existence, Vivian is pushed into this new exciting world peopled with amazingly colourful characters – actors, script writers, musicians and the most magnificent showgirls. Being an extraordinarily talented seamstress she fits right in. She falls in love with New York and with this new life of hers. She cannot have enough of it. Every night she traipses through it in a haze of men and alcohol savouring every moment of this new found freedom far from her parents and her small town upbringing.

Then one night she makes a mistake. A mistake so huge that nothing can set it right. Not only does it cause a massive scandal but also changes her life completely.

It brings to Vivian, a maturity as well, and a new understanding of herself and of what she wants from life.

What I liked

The book traces Vivian’s journey through life. In that sense it can be termed a bit of a coming-of-age book, only it goes much beyond, following Vivian into old age. It is also a bit of historical fiction with the backdrop of WWII during part of the narrative. Most of all it describes New York City and its growth over the years in fascinating detail.

However, for me, the best part of the book was the Lily Playhouse. Quite like Vivian I was taken in by running of a theatre company and the people who inhabited the world. Each character big and small added to the setting making it come alive, while retaining a special place for herself/himself. 

I loved the bits where Vivian scouted for clothes turning them into beautiful creations and the way the entire team at Lily Playhouse comes together to put on a hit play. I loved Aunt Peg. New York of the 1940s was enchanting and I could see exactly why Vivian was so enamoured of it.

What could have been better

The first half of the book, though fast paced had pages and pages of descriptions of Vivian’s night-outs and that grew tedious – sex and alcohol and then some more sex, till I grew tired of it. The book slows down in the second half and then it tends to drag.

The saddest part though was that I couldn’t warm up to Vivian. Oh there were many pluses to her character – she was spunky and adventurous and a good enough friend, but she was annoyingly immature. Perhaps that was the way her character was supposed to be in the beginning but I didn’t grow to care for her even in her grown-up avatar. Her obsession with having a ‘good time’ continued to irk me, quite similar to Liz of Eat Pray Love.

I couldn’t even connect with the great romance/friendship Vivian finds towards the end of the book.

All in all Gilbert’s heroines don’t seem to be on my list of favourites.

Joining the #TBRChallenge2020 hosted by @shalzmojo and @she_booked_it for the ‘free hit’ prompt.

Last thought: A racy read yet pretty meh. Avoidable.

City Vibes #BookBytes 23

Hola folks! 

It’s #BookBytes time and today we’re talking cities, through book quotes, of course. The best way to get to know a city, other than actually living there, is through a book. If only geography was taught through fictional tales I’d have absolutely fallen in love with it. The sights, the sounds, the streets, the markets, pubs, bistros, coffee shops – an author has the power to bring it all alive for us making us live the city with his/her characters.

I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The City of Girls and it gives a wonderful feel of New York of the 1940s. I have travelled to Istanbul with Elif Shafak (The Bastard of Istanbul), Afghanistan with Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and closer home I roamed the lanes of Malgudi with RK Narayan (Malgudi Days), the streets of Mumbai with Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance), and Calcutta with Dominique Lapierre (The City of Joy). What an absolute delight these books have been!

I’ve picked a quote from Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, a book I read long time ago that describes Bombay with accurate poignancy.

“Mumbai is the sweet, sweaty smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it’s the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It’s the smell of Gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay. Its the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the island city, and the blood metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and the waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and love that produces courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of hundred bazaar devoted exclusively to perfume, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers. That smell, above all things – is that what welcomes me and tells me that I have come home.

Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

Have you read a book that brought alive a city for you? A contemporary read?

If you had to describe your city in a word, or a sentence maybe, what would it be?

As always, thoughts from fellow Bibliophiles brighten my day. I’d love to hear from you.

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If you stumble upon a quote, a line (or two) or even a passage from a book that leaps out at you demanding to be shared join in with #BookBytes.

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The next edition of BookBytes goes live on Tuesday, February 4th.