City of Girls

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My first encounter with Liz Gilbert left me unimpressed. I remember hearing all the buzz around this new movie called ‘Eat Pray Love’ a couple of years ago. Apparently it was based on some bestselling book by a lady who rediscovers herself. How unoriginal I thought. I was of course, in my teen years at the time. Still quite some way from any discovery, let alone any re-discovery. At a time in my life where everything felt achievable and the lives of most people older than me felt like stale bread, full of mistakes I was never going to make (you can laugh) and completely unglamorous, the idea of reading a book about a middle aged something who takes a trip just to, what…find herself again? Ew.

Skip to a couple of years later, I finally saw the movie in my twenties. By this time my worldview had become slightly more balanced, and I was also going through one of the first (though certainly not the last) heartbreaks in my life. And so naturally, I didn’t want to surround myself with people who were having a better time then I was. I wanted to unite with my fellow failures. This is how my second meeting with Liz was on better footing. She had one failed marriage behind her and I was newly jaded. She wanted to get back out into the world and eat to her heart’s content, and I had newfound appetite for donuts. Specifically, eaten in my bed. She was feeling spiritual, and I was…ok well, I was lighting incense sticks in my room to battle the donut smell. That counts for something. She wanted to find new love. I was completely uninterested for myself, but curious to see how it turned out for others before I even thought of venturing out again. I can tell you, I really enjoyed the movie. I think I even cried in it. I never managed to read the book though.

Skip to now. I received two of her books as a birthday gift form a favorite cousin. City of Girls and Big Magic. I won’t talk about Big Magic here, because it deserves a post of its own. But I will take some time to talk about City of Girls. I have to say, my appreciation for Liz has only gone up. Much like ‘Eat Pray Love’, I feel like City of Girls found me at the right time. As things often do. On the cover of the book sit says this is a book about celebrating female friendships. But it is a lot more than that too.

Honestly, it didn’t even feel like I was reading a book. The tone of the book is so conversational, you almost feel like you are being narrated the story by a close friend of yours. A friend, who, though you like very much, you cannot get behind every single decision of hers. And this is often the truth. Things are so much more fun when they aren’t clear cut. Because which one of us doesn’t have a friend we simply cannot support in all areas of their lives? We like them, yes, but we like them enough to admit they can be a pit of a pain sometimes. And would we live our lives like they live theirs? Absolutely not.

It also talks about friendships that you have to let go of. Some because you grew apart and some because you messed up. Both are equally hard to accept as I am finding out. Let me tell you about a friend of mine. Back in the day (not too far back though, I am not as old as I pretend to be sometimes) I was friends with a girl who was dating a man I could not stand. And I wasn’t overreacting or being imposing. None of my other girlfriends could stand him either. He had that quality about him, as some people do. But in all my youthful arrogance I thought I naturally had a say in the matter (a mistake I have since repeated many, many times). So, I went up to my friend and told her she should break up with the man. Simple as that. I won’t keep you in suspense as to what happened next. She didn’t break up with him. Not only that, she broke up with me! The audacity. She was kind enough to do it gradually though. To an outsider, it would almost look like we naturally grew apart. But I knew what the reason for this newfound distance was and I wasn’t happy about it. I absolutely refused to see how I could have been, maybe, wrong in this situation. And so, for many years after that, I could not get over this. How could someone I was so close to choose not to keep the friendship alive? With me?! But after a while it stopped being a why question. It stopped being an anything question, it just was. And the book put into words something I have felt for a long time now. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it just gives you some perspective. Am I still hurt over that friend? Probably. But I also get it now. Some things you just cannot control.

Another thing I loved about the book was when the protagonist talks about all the fun she has as a youngster about town. I love how unapologetic she is about it. I think that for a lot of us, especially women, fun is treated as a finite quantity. In some cultures, certainly in mine, it is also treated as something that will inevitably have bad consequences. I don’t know how to put it into words. But there is this idea that was drilled into us from a young age where I’m from, “don’t have too much fun, you’ll regret it later on.” Or, “if you laugh now, you’ll cry later”. Or, “don’t look so happy, someone might jinx it.” And to that I say, um, why not? Sure, you need to understand that there are consequences to everything you do. If you drink too much, you will have a hangover. If you drink too much over a long period of time, you might run the risk of becoming an alcoholic. But surely not all fun needs to be so severely monitored and quantified? What about harmless gossiping with friends over coffee, or laughing at stupid things, or taking spontaneous trips, or healthy flirting? I like how Liz talks about all the fun her protagonist has. There is a part in the book, where our heroine talks about how she and her friends would head out every night to look for trouble, and hit the city “full throttle”. I loved it. You have all your life to be serious, but only right now to have fun. So, for those of you who are looking to spend a couple of days in the company of friends who know how to have fun unabashedly, I highly recommend the City of Girls.

Women who run wild

Link

As you know sometimes, when I have no particular agenda, I talk about or present to you excerpts from books I am currently working my way through. The one I am in the middle of right now is called ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. The purpose of the book, if self-proclaimed, it to help us in “contacting the power of the wild woman.” As you can probably tell from the title, the target audience of this book is, well, women. But that shouldn’t stop you from picking this book up, no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum. The author talks mostly to women, about women-centric issues, but honestly, I can see how reading this would benefit everyone. I usually make my way through books quite quickly but I have been spending some time on this, and I’ll tell you why.

The Author says we should

Yup. That is correct. How often does it happen that you pick up a book and the author has told you, in very exact terms, how the book should be read? Maybe it does happen a lot and I am just new to the space, but I have never felt such literary intimacy with the creator of a work. And I really liked it. Before you start reading this book, make sure you skip to the end. There, Estes talks about what led her to write this book, what inspired her, why she chose the format she did, and how we should read her book. She says the book is a product of many years of hard labour. It took many attempts to get to the end of the book, and there were a lot of gaps, of varying sizes, in the middle of it. And so, in the spirit in which it was written, the author recommends that we keep coming back to the book to discover different parts of it. It wasn’t completed in one go, and we shouldn’t attempt to make our way through it in one go either. There are different parts of the book that talk to different parts of our psyche, and are addressed to us in different parts of our lives, and so there really isn’t any need for continuity in the ways in which we are accustomed to it.

The Format

I used to be a purist when it came to books. In my younger days, I didn’t really like reading books that didn’t follow the already set rules of prose writing. But I have since tried to expand my horizons. I have made my way through books that don’t have any punctuation, books that have inconstant margins, books that have been written in a single sentence and what not. So much so that now I almost look out for these unusual formats when I buy books. Like a book I read sometime ago. It is called ‘Minor Detail‘. I want to try and explain to you what the format of Minor Detail was but I know I won’t do a good job so I’m just going to ask all of you to check it out if you have the time. But anyway, back to the wolves. In this book, every chapter starts off with an introduction which tells us about the particular culture we will be borrowing a folk tale from for the purposes of that chapter. Then the folk tale. This, I have to say, is my favorite part of the entire book. The stories that have been brought to me. And after every story, the author breaks it down in parts and walks us through these parts, all the time giving us invaluable and free therapy for our souls.

Let me give you an example

By therapy I mean of course the absolutely heart warming things she writes. The kind of things that you wouldn’t miss in your life at all till someone said it, and then you’d wonder how you made your way through life without having come across this thought before. I’m not saying this is all chapters, but some of them definitely make you look twice. Here is something I liked:

Although I caution you, the exact placement of the aperture to home changes from time to time, so its location may be different this month than last. Rereading passages of books and single poems that have touched the,. Spending even a few minutes near a river, a stream, a creek. Lying on the ground in dappled light. Being with a loved one without kids around. Sitting on the porch shelling something, knitting something, peeling something. Walking or driving for an hour, any direction, then returning. Boarding any bus, destination unknown. Making drums while listening to music. Greeting sunrise. Driving out to where the city lights do not interfere with the night sky. Praying. A special friend. Sitting on a bridge with legs dangling over. Holding an infant. Sitting by a window in a cafĂ© and writing. Sitting in a circle of trees. Drying hair in the sun. Putting hands in a rain barrel. Plotting plants, being sure to get hands very muddy. Beholding beauty, grace, the touching frailty of human beings.”

Now read through that again and tell me it doesn’t feel like the home we all want to get to but find difficult to describe.

Fitzgerald in a bookstore

In the book I am reading right now, the best friend, or at least one of the friends, comments that all authors should write books as if they were going to be beheaded the day they finished writing. Extreme, yes. But what a thought. The book is called ‘This Side of Paradise’ by G. Scott Fitzgerald. It is quite famous, so I’m sure this is not the first time you’re hearing of it. It is one of those books everyone knows about, and that adds just the right amount of sophistication and distinction to your conversation if you ever mention it in polite company – regardless of whether or not you’ve actually read it. I’ve known about it for sometime. But having read the book Fitzgerald is best known for (The Great Gatsby), I never really felt any real need to check out his other books in a hurry.

I picked out this book by chance. I was away from home on a family holiday where I visited a small and fairly unknown bookstore that sells old used books. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve wanted to get into the habit of buying second-hand books and buying books without knowing much about the book or the author (if you’ve been around for some time you know I like to do a lot of research before committing to a literary purchase). Visiting this bookstore seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out my new shopping resolution. I failed, quite miserably. I saw a lot of old books, books without names, books where the name of the author was faded or scratched out, and most importantly, books that did not have a summary. I picked them up and read through them, and some of them seemed quite interesting too. But I just couldn’t get myself to buy any of those titles. Maybe in some time. So, anyway, after spending about two hours searching for books to buy, I landed up on the modern classics section and I ended up picking up authors I had heard of but not necessarily read before. Like, did you know that there was a third Bronte sister? Anne. She wrote a book too, though her achievements (clearly) almost always get overshadowed by those of her more famous sisters. Apart from the fact that I find such concentration of talent in one family mildly upsetting, this was news to me (I picked up her book too – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

Now unlike Anne, Fitzgerald is a a literary giant. I’ve read his work before, and I enjoyed it. Plus I was getting out of a Gossip Girl re-watch phase so I decided to give his book (his first novel) a shot. Don’t get thrown off by the Gossip Girl reference. It isn’t as random as it seems. The character Dan Humphrey is a loose retelling of the character of Fitzgerald himself, and the world Gossip Girl creates is also reminiscent of the worlds our author is obsessed with, and describes in all his books (some variation of, at least). Now I will be honest with you, I probably came across this theory somewhere a while back, but I can’t remember the source, so I’m just telling you what I remember. Please feel free to discuss and analyse this comparison as much as you want, and let me know if you disagree with me. Dan is Fitzgerald in that he is obsessed with the lives of the super-wealthy, and is constantly insecure because he has no access to it, to them. So, he does the only thing he can think of, and writes himself into this world of obnoxious privilege. Suddenly makes Gossip Girl look intelligent does it not?

Apart from the fact that I wanted to sound exciting in drawing room conversations and the Gossip Girl comparison, I was also interested in this book because a lot of people say it is semi-autobiographical. Amory (the main character) is supposed to be Fitzgerald. He wrote the novel in a rush too, because his marriage to Zelda (an extremely fascinating character in her own right – and the author of some of Fitzgerald’s better works according to some conspiracy theories) depended on his publishing this book. Plus the book celebrated a 100 years last year I think. With all this background, I am determined to get as much enjoyment as I possibly can from this book.

I’m halfway through right now. The first reaction I have to this book is one of alienation. I knew what I was getting into – the frivolous lives of the elite full of their imagined difficulties made worse by their inconstant temperaments. Even with that in mind, something about the book just isn’t sitting right with me. I love superficial characters. I love characters that are so fundamentally flawed they have to spend the entire novel justifying themselves. But even I find it difficult to like Amory. It isn’t just that he is conceited. He is also vapid in a lot of ways. Plus I think the pandemic has something to do with it. If I had read this novel when all the clubs were open I might have enjoyed it more. I might have even tried to relate to it, and tried to be as superficially condescending as our protagonist is. But because I am stuck at home, and because there has been a massive shift in my perspective, I just don’t find the book enjoyable. The dialogues all seem like a bunch of close friends are discussing issues you have no business, and moreover, no interest in listening to. The whole affair seems like a dull party that you only ended up attending because you had nothing better on your social calendar. There is some voyeuristic pleasure in looking into their lives yes, but I don’t know why everyone hails this as one of the best novels in modern literature. At best, it is just okay. Maybe I will change my mind when I finish the book.

Other books I bought –

  1. Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  2. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Beautiful and the Damned
  3. Margaret Atwood – Cat’s Eye
  4. V. S. Naipaul – A Turn in the South
  5. A.S. Byatt – Possession

The Midnight Library

Every time I get done with a major item on my list, my entire routine goes for a toss. Take my recently completed GRE for example. I hadn’t been studying for it too hard, but ever since I’ve gotten done with it, I have been feeling listless. I don’t have a routine anymore – no list of youtube videos on GRE preparation to get me through my day. I hated preparing for it, but now that I am done with it, I kind of miss it. I wish I had studied a bit harder. Given the chance to do it again, I know I would act in exactly the same way I did the first time round. That still doesn’t stop me from harbouring teeny-tiny regrets in my chest. Not just about the GRE though, about almost everything in my life.

But at least, until now that is, I don’t have any major regrets in life. I wonder what would count as a major regret in life. I’ve started thinking along these lines after I read ‘The Midnight Library‘. It is a book about a library the protagonist visits after she tries to kill herself as she hangs in an in-between state of limbo. The library is full of never ending shelves, all stocked to the brim with innumerable books. Every book contains one of the infinite lives the protagonist could have had if she had taken different decisions. It isn’t just about the bigger decisions, but about every day decisions. In any day, you will have a number of small decisions and every time you decide to act in one way instead of another, you will change the direction of your life. It is kind of like what that motivational speaker said – you are one decision away from the kind of life you want.

But the book wasn’t about building a dream life alone. It was a little bit about that, but not entirely. The book talks about how all of our other lives are happening simultaneously. I think they tried to incorporate concepts from quantum physics and talk about stuff like the multiverse – but the author doesn’t spend too much time on it. The main idea, from what I could tell, was that you harbour all these regrets in your heart, when in fact, regardless of the outcome you would probably have turned out to be the same kind of person. Like, I could go through life thinking it turned out to be so trashy because I went to law school instead of medical school, and then live my entire life in misery under the weight of this one mega incorrect decision (or so I think), when the reality is that I would probably have been unsatisfied in a life where I went to medical school too. Your outcomes may differ, but a desired outcome may not necessarily make you as happy as you think it will. The appeal of each option then, is that it remains untested.

I liked this way of looking at things. I didn’t enjoy the book too much on the whole. I thought it felt a little forced in parts. But I liked the idea that you shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about all the different regrets you have or how differently you could have lived life if one random thing had gone a certain way…in the end it might all amount to the same thing. A little fatalistic, but just the kind of vibe I was looking for this week.

September Reading

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So, as you know (or maybe not, so here it is) I’m on a mission to build up my personal library. I started in October of 2020. I’ve accumulated 59 books as of today. Till now, I’ve only bought books after carefully planning out what I am going to buy, researching the authors and checking online reviews. I put in a lot of effort into deciding what books I want to buy only when I buy physical copies. On Kindle, I usually read whatever I want. This may sound off-beat, but I have an idea of which books are ‘good enough’ for me to invest in owning physical copies of, and for everything else, I just buy the e-book version.

I’m sure all of you have your own reading styles too. What books you like, how you like to read them, your own ideas about the kind of libraries you want to build, if at all. I like listening to other people’s ideas on this too. A while back, I was listening to an interview by Naval Ravikant. For those of you who don’t know, he’s a pretty impressive start-up investor. He started the company ‘Angel List’ and has spearheaded many successful ventures since then. He’s a total bibliophile too. In the interview, he talks about his philosophy of book collecting and reading. Apparently, he doesn’t read a book in a single sitting. He treats all books like a collection of thoughts or articles (which is technically correct I guess) and picks and reads specific chapters or things he likes from within the book whenever he feels like it. And he reads multiple books at the same time. I do this too. I can never read a single book and then move on to the next. At any given point of time, I will be making my way through at least three to four books. Also, whenever he likes a book, he doesn’t mind buying up multiple copies of the book so that he always has access to it whenever he travels. He’s a big believer in re-reading the same book multiple times if it appeals to him. He talks about other, equally impressive things too in his interview. If you’re interested here is his almanack on how to live life – wealth creation, living to your fullest potential and the lot.

Fascinating isn’t it? To see how differently people treat the same activity. What I liked about his interview was the genuine affection he had for books. I didn’t agree with all of it though – for example, I could never bring myself to buy multiple copies of the same book. I couldn’t bring myself to re-read the same books again either, not when there are so many wonderful books still out there. Have you seen the movie ‘About Time‘? If you haven’t, then I recommend you go watch it. If you have, then I want you to try and remember the protagonist’s father. His love of books, and the way he talks about them, is exactly what I’m like.

I’m also a frequent scroller on a lot of literary websites. My favourite is LitHub. Even when I can’t find a decent recommendation, I never feel like I waste time on this site. But recently, I have had a slight change in my philosophy. I will probably change my mind a lot of times, but for now I have decided on a couple of things.

Don’t plan everything

I want to stop researching every single title I buy. Most of the titles I buy are so well thought out, I already have a fairly good idea of what the book is going to be about. As a kid, whenever I visited my grandparents’ house, a lot of the books were so old they had to be re-wrapped and rebound in plain paper. Many of the times, the person doing this (my grandmother I suspect) forgot to put the titles on the new cover. Or, even if it did have a title, that was all you got. Picking up any book in their house was a gamble. Sometimes it paid off. But just the idea of picking up books solely on the basis of a title – without worrying about the plot, the reviews or the ratings, is appealing to me now.

Buy second-hand

This brings me to the cost. A solid reason for why I research so much before buying physical copies is because they are significantly pricier than their Kindle counter parts. If I had unlimited funds, then yes, sure, I would buy them all the time. But I don’t. So, if I want to start buying books without looking into them too much, I need to find ways to cut my cost. Which means, inevitably, that I won’t be able to buy too many first-hand books. I like this idea a lot for other reasons too. I love picking up old, used books, and reading messages people had put into them when they bought them for the first time. Old books remind of me of old dogs. I love them as much, if not more than new puppies. Lastly, I’m sure buying second hand is better for the environment too.

Making a registry

The idea behind this collection, as some of you know, is to share it with people or to donate it some day. I want to start being a little more organised with the books I have. I’m good at buying books, but I also want to document them properly. I want to start keeping a record of the books I have, the date I bought them on and also (maybe) try and make summaries of the books.

I bought two books this past September – the Midnight Library and the Book of Queer Prophets. So, my cataloguing starts now.

On resilience

I just finished reading a book called ‘The Book of Queer Prophets’. It is a short collection of essays, letters and write-ups written by people who have struggled to reconcile their queer identity with their respective faiths. People who are deeply religious, but felt that they were being pressured to give up this integral part of themselves because they had been told it comes in ‘conflict’ with another, equally integral part of their identity.

I especially loved the chapter by Jarel Robinson Brown. It is in the form of a letter he addresses to his future nephew. Here is my favourite passage from the chapter:

My saying this to you might tell you something about the time in which I live. By no means are all people free, and not many people can live the truths they know about themselves. We exist in a time when people are supposed to be unbreakable, and if they break, rather than calling them human we deem them weak. Resilience has become a requirement of this age, and only a handful of have the wit or the courage to ask of the times why resilience is necessary. Your uncle gave up resilience a long time ago, not because I do not possess it, but because it is unnatural. Our hearts are made to feel, and some minds, weighed down by the burdens of reality, break. I sometimes cannot help but wonder how much better life would be if we allowed people to be as human as they could possibly be. If we could create a world in which the masks we wear, and exert so much energy maintaining, simply became redundant.

Relatively short post I know, but I just wanted to share this before I forgot.

Reading Habits

Growing up, I didn’t like reading books. I don’t think I touched a book till I was about 11. This might not seem like a huge deal to a lot of people out there, but my family is full of readers. To them, this was unacceptable. My parents are voracious readers, and to my mother especially, my reading habits (or lack thereof) were very displeasing. Especially since she always had the ready comparator in my brother (who was finishing Harry Potter books by the time he was 8 – yeah I know, talk about healthy sibling rivalry). I don’t remember how I started reading. I do, however, remember that the first book I ever read was Heidi. I must admit, I didn’t fall in love with reading immediately. But I do remember being proud of that one book I had finished.

Somehow, along the line (to the great relief of my parents, and my mother especially), I developed a taste for reading. Soon enough, I was a regular at the local library. On a side note, I think libraries are just about the best place on earth. So yeah, I spent a lot of time at the library reading through whatever I could find. I read mostly fantasies in the beginning. Which kid doesn’t dream of adventure and quests and dragons and and magic. I met some of my favourite people during these years – Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Stroud, Terry Pratchett. I was in love. The found family trope, the idea of kids my age getting together and setting off on adventures – whats not to love.

In some time, with age, I graduated to romantic fiction. When I tell you I’ve been through all the motions, and all the phases in the life of an evolving bookworm and rightly earned my place, I mean it. As with many other women of my generation, and girls my age at the time, Meg Cabot was a huge deal. I started with All American Girl. There was no looking back after that. I read through every single Cabot book I could find. Every. Single. One. Eventually, I moved past teenage boys with curly hair and blue eyes to gentlemen in tail coats. I don’t think any one forgets their first encounter with Jane Austen (especially if you’re a bit of a romantic at heart). What a time to be alive, and what lovely gentlemen friends to make, even if only in one’s imagination.

Later, the mystery-thriller-detective bug caught me. And my trusty companion through all of it was none other than Mr. Hercule Poirot. I loved the little Belgian man with a huge ego, and an even bigger moustache. We exercised our little grey cells together for many, many happy months.

Anyway, the point is not to take you through the evolution of my reading habits and taste in books. Not entirely, that is. Sometime ago, I read a book by the author Murakami. In the book (I think it was either Norwegian Wood or 19Q4) there is a gentleman. A gentleman who owns a reading room. It isn’t a library per se. It is just the private collection of books of a very wealthy gentleman who, after his death, leaves the reading room to the children of the town. He sets up the reading room with a trust, and someone to take care of the books. Every day, the room is opened up for the children (maybe everyone was allowed and not just the children) of the town to come in, read books for however long they want, and leave in the evening. You’re not allowed to take books home. What you are allowed to do however, is to spend as long as you want just sitting there and reading to your heart’s content. I don’t remember much else from the book but I do remember the wealthy man and his reading room.

A couple of months after reading that book an idea struck me. I should make a reading room of my own! Aren’t we always reading about all these rich and famous people leaving behind private collections? I may not be wealthy, but I do have some years (hopefully) ahead of me. So, I’ve started buying books and building my collection. I’ve bought about 60 books since October of 2020. Believe me when I tell you, I don’t think I have ever been prouder of something in my life. Or if I have, I don’t remember it. I love to see my bookshelves getting filled with books. I haven’t thought through the entire storage space issue yet, but I set aside enough money to buy about 5 – 10 books a month. I buy them whenever and wherever I can find them. I have this habit, whenever I get a new book (regardless of whether its new or second-hand) of writing down my name, the place where I bought it and the date on which it came into my possession (on the first page of the book). Like every other self-respecting bookworm I consider all of my books to be my friends, and this bit of information just makes it that much more intimate. Kind of like immortalising the date on which we became friends.

One of the reasons for starting this blog was to write about any good books read, what I thought about them, and why I think it might be worth someone else’s time to get to know that book. Maybe I will do that too in some time. I hope I can talk to you about my friends sometime!