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Book Nook - 15-10-2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Girl Interrupted
Rachel Kushner's bleak prison novel, 'The Mars Room', has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize this year and is a bestseller like yet last book, 'The Flamethrowers'.

Compared to that one, the new book is simpler, with a almost straightforward narrative; almost because there are a couple of odd digressions.

Even though Kushner has studied the American prison system, she can hardly add anything to what earlier books and films have portrayed already. The reader does not expect a prison to be a picnic in the park, and 'The Mars Room' is surprisingly less gruesome than one might expect; even the women on death row seem to be cheerfully hopeful.

Twenty-nine-year old Romy Hall is given two consecutive life sentences plus six years, for murdering her stalker. That a single mother with a small child was provoked by the terror a stalker inflicted on her, going so far as to follow her to another city (she moved to escape his unwanted advances), does not move the jury; she is judged by her past as a stripper in the scummy Mars Room, while the man was a disabled war veteran. Romy is too poor to afford a lawyer and the public defender assigned to her is too inept, overburdened or indifferent to care. As Romy observes, "The prosecutors all looked like rich, well-rested Republicans, while the public defenders were overworked do-gooders who arrived out of breath, late to court, dropping loose papers that already had the waffle marks of shoe prints on them from having been dropped before.”

Romy simply wanted to live in peace and raise her son, Jackson, when she is arrested and convicted. She says at one point in the book, “I don’t plan on living a long life or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.”

Romy is smart, educated and plain unlucky. The reader can understand and sympathise with her plight and the injustice done to her and her son who is thrown into the foster care system without a trace. The state takes away her rights over her child and gives her no choice over his fate.

The other inmates of the Stanville women’s prison in California include the usual assortment of  women and transgenders given a raw deal in life. Unlike many male prisoners, the women are not psychos or serial killers. They are poor, mostly non- white women who had abusive relatives or boyfriends and resorted to violence when they  could not take it any more.Those who have watched the TV show 'Orange Is the New Black,' would know just what to expect.

There is an idealistic and naive male teacher, whose sympathy for the women gets him in trouble.  Romy forms a desperate friendship with him, hoping he will help trace her son.

Kushner does not write it in so many words, but she does make a case for a more compassionate legal system.  And certainly a kinder prison system that does not tell the physically and emotionally battered women, “Your situation is due one-hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took.”

Still, Kushner does not make the book too brutal—the prison guards are cruel, but not savage. They are also portrayed as products of an environment that offers no hope. Even if a woman is released, there is seldom a welcoming committee waiting for her outside prison walls. For the ones with no chance of an exit, all they can hope for is a sisterhood of the damned

The Mars Room
By Rachel Kushner
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 352

Excerpt of The Mars Room
The trouble with San Francisco was that I could never have a future in that city, only a past.

The city to me was the Sunset District, fog-banked, treeless, and bleak, with endless unvaried houses built on sand dunes that stretched forty-eight blocks to the beach, houses that were occupied by middle- and lower-middle-class Chinese Americans and working-class Irish Catholics.

Fly Lie, we’d say, ordering lunch in middle school. Fried rice, which came in a paper carton. Tasted delicious but was never enough, especially if you were stoned. We called them gooks. We didn’t know that meant Vietnamese. The Chinese were our gooks. And the Laotians and Cambodians were FOBs, fresh off the boat. This was the 1980s and just think what these people went through, to arrive in the United States. But we didn’t know and didn’t know to care. They couldn’t speak English and they smelled to us of their alien food.

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white.

If you were visiting the city, or if you were a resident from the other, more admired parts of the city and you took a trip out to the beach, you might have seen, beyond the sea wall, our bonfires, which made the girls’ hair smell of smoke. If you were there in early January, you would see bigger bonfires, ones built of discarded Christmas trees, so dry and flammable they exploded on the high pyres. After each explosion you might have heard us cheer.

When I say us I mean us WPODs. We loved life more than the future. “White Punks on Dope” is just some song; we didn’t even listen to it. The acronym was something else, not a gang but a grouping. An attitude, a way of dressing, living, being. Some changed our graffiti to White Powder on Donuts, and many of us were not even white, which becomes harder to explain, because the whole world of the Sunset WPODs was about white power, not powder, but these were the beliefs of not powerful kids who might end up passing through rehab centers and jails, unless they were the chosen few, the very few girls and boys, who, respectively, either enrolled in the Deloux School of Beauty, or got hired at John John Roofing on Ninth Avenue between Irving and Lincoln.

When I was little I saw a cover of an old magazine that showed the robes and feet of people who had drunk the Kool-Aid Jim Jones handed out in Guyana. My entire childhood I would think of that image and feel bad. I once told Jimmy Darling and he said it wasn’t actually Kool-Aid. It was Hi-C.
What kind of person would want to clarify such a thing?

A smart-ass is who. A person who is safe from that image in a way I was not. I was not likely to join a cult. That was not the danger I felt in glimpsing the feet of the dead, the bucket from which they drank. It was the proven fact, in the photographed feet, that you could drink death and join it.

SHORT TAKES
Awaken the Durga Within is a “handy, easy-to-follow guide to help every woman assert themselves at home and work and reclaim their life. As a woman in a patriarchal country like India, they are often held back by family or society; and even education or employment does little to help improve their status.

“Bringing in the lesser-known and exciting stories about goddesses from the Hindu mythology, Awaken the Durga Within puts forward practical solutions that can be implemented immediately, without compromising on values and principles. These stories will help invoke the ‘Shakti’ within every woman so as to transform their minds and transcend their limits. Identify the fears holding you back and discover a pithy, three-step process to help you take control of your life and garner respect. Make choices that are right for you and experience the rewards. Discover the true spirit of feminism wherein women are given the same rights, power, and opportunities as men.”

Awaken the Durga Within
by Usha Narayanan
Published by Rupa
Pages: 235

The book Restless: Chronicles Of A Policeman, penned by Dr. V.R. Sampath, an ex IPS Office says that "India is on survival mode even after seventy years of independence; while life mode is work-in-progress even now. This struggle for survival has made Indians devoid of trust, compassion and humanity, more often than not. The book takes an honest and hard look at the definition of success and happiness. Dr. Sampath believes that people need to keep reinventing their life constantly. That is the only way to keep the spirit alive."

Restless: Chronicles Of  A Policeman
By Dr VR  Sampath; Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 295

Keki N. Daruwalla’s book, Swerving To Solitude is about “Seema, married to a Deputy Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, voices her dissent during the Emergency, which leads (inevitably) to marital discord and, less predictably, to a new reckoning of her mother’s private history – mama’s feelings for MN Roy, a major leader of the Communist movement in British India and abroad, and her struggles to be supportive even after his disenchantment with Communism.

“Suffused with paradoxes – empathy and arrogance, idealism and compromise, love and disdain, – Keki Daruwalla’s intricate and revealing novel follows the intertwined lives of the spirited and darkly humorous Seema and her unconventional mother. The story moves from India to Canada, from US to Mexico, deftly traversing upheavals from the Russian Revolution to the travails of McCarthyism, in a novel that is intimate, political and extraordinary.”

Swerving To Solitude
By Keki N. Daruwalla
Publisher: Simon &
Schuster
Pages: 240

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