Shades Of Words

Best of our experiences


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The Four Graces by D.E Stevenson

The Four Graces is a pleasant, relaxing beach read for the discerning reader. Early 21st century England, life at the vicarage in a quaint parish, local gossip, eligible young bachelorette’s – it’s fairly staple Victorian fare. Not quite up the alley as Gaskell or Trollope, there is sufficient amount of plot to keep it interesting. The war clouds hovering over the story add some depth to the somewhat two dimensional storyline.

The Four Graces are the daughters of the Vicar of a small village (the name of which I can’t recall).  Sal, Liz and Tilly live with the father. Addie works in London. The book may as well have been called the ‘The Three Graces as Addie is hardly in it and is clearly not loved as much by all the sisters. She is painted as a self-centered, immature girl who does not have much regard for her sisters’ lives or hardships in the village. What I do like about the book is that the portrayal of the sibling relationship is realistic. The four sisters love each other, but there is does exist elements of friction over matters big and small.

As there are four young girls of marriageable age, the central plot predictably includes love interests. Several eligible men make their appearances. There is for instance the young Roderick Herd who inexplicably takes to hanging about the household, sending mixed signals to the girls about his interest. Then there is William Single, a professor type of indeterminate age, who comes to stay with them. A lot of space in the book is spent in developing their relationships with the girls.

There also is the annoying Aunt Rona, who imposes herself on the household and then goes on to become even less endearing by needless matchmaking.

In terms of character development, the book makes clear all the four sisters have their own personalities but does not really dive into them. Tilly, the youngest follows in Sal’s footsteps, but is much inspired by Liz and starts to find her own voice towards the end.    The most interesting character in the book for me is Liz – she is the only one who imbibes some quality of the modern women. She is outdoorsy, independent, witty, calls a spade a spade. For unfathomable reasons, she is not her dad’s favorite who tries to find the image of his late wife in them.

This book will pass very nicely as a young adult novel that introduces this generation to the Great War.  Even in the tranquility of the English village life, the realities of war are not far away. Everything is in short supply and rationed – salt, sugar, meat, clothes, patience, and faith. An extra guest is a strain on the resources. Small events in the village life take larger significance and are important distractions. There is the fear of separation and death. Men are on the frontlines, and women are also joining the services. Each family has a life or two at stake.

But days go on. People get married, have babies, gossip and plan village fetes.


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Just around the Corner

I step out from under the dirty brown awning of my three story apartment building. The grey cracked concrete walkway to the street is littered with a soggy, muddy old copy of LA Times, pages falling out of the flimsy string holding it together. An empty Starbucks plastic cup (tall) rolls over brightly printed car wash coupons, charred cigarette butts sneak from under the sun baked yellow grass, dead bougainvillea flowers sit degenerating into pulp in the crevices on the sidewalk where the rain water has collected and a faint odor of dog poop hangs in the air. A steel sprinkler half-heartedly sprays intermittent jets of water over the small yet lush green garden next door. The low lying jasmine hedges that line the street are in full bloom creating an illusion of white and green lace. Yellow and purple wild flowers spring out of gaps in the tiled sidewalk.

I turn right on to Keystone Avenue and walk north.  A battered IKEA loveseat, once navy blue, but now an unknown color, lies abandoned on the pavement. A dark spot stains the seat covers, the arms are worn out to the frame and the foam filling has sprung out from the bottom is falling out to the pavement.

Up ahead, a young Asian couple walks out of the Keystone University Apartment building. The girl’s dark hair is streaked with neon blue, further accented by the matching pashmina scarf she has thrown around her neck. She wears no make-up and Aviator sun glasses hide her eyes.  Her mauve paisley print dress flutters in the slight breeze blowing through the street. The boy’s tumbled dry hair and unshaven beard hints that he may have just fallen out of bed. His blue and yellow UCLA t-shirt is paired with khaki shorts. His loafers are untied and the strap drags behind his heels as he walks down the street.

I pause to let two teenage boys on skateboards rush past me on the sidewalk.  Headphones in ears, caps pulled low over the ears – both are dressed alike with front open shirts and shorts sitting low on the waist. An old balding man hunched over the steering wheel, turns his shiny red and white Volkswagen Beetle into a covered driveway.

On the intersection of Keystone Ave and Venice Boulevard, small wooden cargo boxes are stacked up to four feet and placed on the payment. “On Sale” sign is stenciled on alternating sides in charcoal black paint.  On top of the stack is a white cardboard placard with a hand drawn arrow pointing to the auto repair shop at the corner of Keystone Avenue.

Outside the shop is a public payphone that hasn’t seen much use in a while. A tattered LA directory hangs from a metal chain scraping the ground. The phone is off the hook and the receiver dangles in mid-air. The booth itself is covered in fluorescent graffiti with no hint of the original paint. “You suck!”, “peace y’all” and other important messages are scratched on the metal frame.

I take a deep breath and smell the familiar salty tang of the evening sea breeze that has just begun to flow inwards from Venice beach, which is three miles down the road. The sky darkens and stretches of pink, violet and orange paint the horizon. It’s time for sunset and the crimson red sun, barely visible behind towering city buildings, disappears slowly from the view.


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Frozen

 So, what’s better than a magical story about a  princess?

Simple – a magical story about two princesses. A lot has been written about how Frozen is a marked shift from Disney’s traditional romantic princess-in-distress-saved-by-prince-charming formula. Frozen is about a princess-in-distress saved by another princess-in-distress.

Hmm, I personally think the shift is debatable – why, for instance, do Elsa and Anna have to be princesses in the first place at all? They could have siblings in any kind of family. There is no denying the message Disney franchise keeps reinforcing that girls need to be princesses with pretty clothes and fancy houses.

However, there is something refreshing about Frozen. The animation for instance is very old school Disney. The ice castle, the kingdom of Arrendale, the snow monster – all with the beauty and simplicity of 2D dimension. The Nordic aesthetics of the movie are breathtaking. The action sequences are what cartoons should look like with no larger than life special effects – it’s a relief to not let CGI take over the story.

Elsa, the heir-apparent and the older of the two princess, is an x-man ( woman to be precise) and can turn things into ice. With no Professor X to guide and harness her power, she lives in fear of herself secluded from her sister and others. Anna, the younger princess, unaware of her sister’s powers,  gets all the love and freedom that a princess would, grows up to a happy-go-lucky girl waiting to meet her prince charming. She has no real relationship with her sister but carries the hope that one day things will improve.

Life gets interesting when on the day’s of Elsa’s coronation, Anna meets the love of her life, gets into a fight with Elsa who exposes her power in public. Being afraid of hurting people and being called a monster, she runs away and finds solace in an ice castle. Frozen is really about Anna’s journey to find her sister and release Arrendale from eternal winter.

On her journey she meets Kristoff, an out of business ice seller and Olaf, a talking snowman. Olaf is probably the most adorable of sidekicks – he is a snowman who loves warm hugs and summers !

There is something comical yet deeply dark about the song “In Summer” when Olaf croons

Bees’ll buzz, kids’ll blow dandelion fuzz
And I’ll be doing whatever snow does in summer.

With some of the wittiest dialogs in the movie  he provides most of the laughs.

Frozen works at several levels and I haven’t enjoyed an animated movie this much since Despicable Me. I definitely recommend watching it – it’s a great comfort movie. But to be one of the highest grossing movies ever?  I just don’t get it.


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The Things They Carried

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It can’t be an easy thing to write personal war stories – especially painful, gut-wrenching, embarrassing, shameful ones. But that’s what Tim O’Brien does in this semi-autobiographical collection of snippets from Vietnam War. He digs into his war wounds and slices them open and leaves them naked in front of us – wounds festering with blood, pus and dirt.
The Things they Carried is an astounding book that leaves no doubt in your mind on the true nature of war – there is no glory and it’s horror has endless depths.
Presented as a collection of incidents in no specific chronology, O’Brien brings to life the men of his unit, their quirks, the tragedies of their meaningless deaths and the burdens they carried, first into the war and then away from it.
It’s hard to put in words how O’Brien presents this. He talks about running away from the war that he did not want to join, he talks about the shame, both of joining the war and of wanting to run away from it. He talks about the fear that each soldier carried on his back along with several pounds of ammunition on their long endless marches through the swamplands of Vietnam. He talks about the dying – meaningless, tragic and final, almost comical. Curt Lemon blowing up accidentally on a minefield and his dead remains being peeled of a tree, Ted Lavendar shot in the head as he finishes pissing, Kiowa sinking in a shit field. He talks about how Rat Kiley’s pretty in pink girlfriend learns how to shoot, goes in ambushes, stars wearing human tongues as a necklace and becomes one with the war, lost forever – like the innocence of each man whom O’brien has known. He talks about a man who survived the war that followed him home, and that later killed him with a noose around his neck.
Each page is filled with such absolute truth whose knowledge can come only through what O’Brien endured. As you read every line, you want to turn to the next person to you see and make them read it too so that they can understand.
For instance, here is what O’Brien says about a war story
‘… A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil…..’
O’Brien’s writing is sharp with a haunting quality. You don’t know how each paragraph will end. His stories interconnect erratically over the pages and as the picture becomes clearer, the darkness gets murkier. O’Brien writes these stories to keep his memories alive – but there is no catharsis for the trauma of Nam. It will always be present no matter how many stories are told.

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The Casual Vacancy : Small town soap

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

J.K. Rowling’s foray into adult fiction is surprisingly good albeit a little depressing. I have enjoyed the Harry Potter series for its concept and plot and never from a literary standpoint. This novel on the other hand is stronger on the language and structure whereas the plot is tepid.

The narrative starts with a Casual Vacancy-created by the death of a council member of a Pagford, small fictional town in England. We are quickly introduced to the central cast of characters as they react to this news. Inner motives, emotions and political ambitions are revealed. The burning issue that divides the town of Pagford is the presence of a small poverty ridden settlement of Fields which falls under Pagford county due to an accidental sale of land 60 years ago. The self-labelled genteel folks of Pagford have been keen ever since to hand off Fields to the neighbouring town along with its problems. As the dead man was the only crusader for the case FOR keeping Fields,the vacancy is quite coveted. Of course, nothing is what it looks like and everyone appears to be hiding a dirty little secret which are revealed by a voice beyond the grave – or so it would seem. The social situation is explained through the stories of different characters on either side of the Fields fence, in a manner of speaking. There is enough drama in the snoozing lives of this town to keep the reader going on with a strong temptation to skip half a dozen pages or so, every now and then.

The Casual Vacancy is a not so subtle commentary on the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots, the confusion on effectiveness of government programs and deep prejudices that run in what has been an essentially a feudal society. However, there are times when it feels that J.K Rowling is trying too hard to make a point. All together they seem to work, but individually none of the characters are engaging. And there are so many of them. In a span of of the first fifty pages we are introduced to a dozen people that spot the social fabric of Pagford, and not one of them seem to be happy or healthy. It’s as if everyone in and around this little town is festering with frustrations and lost ambitions. Class clashes, domestic and sexual abuse, drug issue and racism abounds. Sometimes it appears to be too much and you keep flipping through hoping to catch the silver lining of the cloud. Is 21st century society in such a state of decline?

The only other note that I have that maybe this book could have been a hundred pages shorter. In fact, there are several character arcs that we could have done away entirely without impacting the story line !

It’s not one of the better novels that I have read, but it was not a waste of time. If you happen to find it in your reach, read it.

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It’s almost been 2 months now…

….and I am starting to hear my own thoughts again. Which is a relief.

Around the same time last year, Kapil and I finally decided that we have had enough of peace, quiet and enjoying our life. It was time to shake things up a little and throw ourselves a little challenge. So we decided to have a baby.

Following a bumpy 2013 which involved changing cities, jobs and several apartments, we ended the year with the final hump as we welcomed our son into the family in December.

Now a lot of my friends have had babies over the years and I have heard so many varied reactions that it has been hard to predict where in that spectrum my feelings will fall. Over the last 6-8 weeks there have more lows than highs, and several moments where I have questioned my sanity.

So here is the lowdown on what it means being a parent:

It’s overrated! - I know it’s too early to tell, but I don’t see any immense sense of satisfaction, reward or sense of achievement come my way soon. A friend of mine joked that we might have to wait for the day our child graduates to feel that! It’s nice being a parent, but I don’t think it’s the best thing to have happened to me. I love my kid to death but this is definitely not on my list of top experiences yet. Eventually it may be, but if you have just had a baby and don’t feel elevated to another level of happiness in the first few months, it’s okay.

Loss of “Me” time – For a person like me, who has always been fairly independent and enjoyed a daily dozen of ‘me’ time, this sudden yanking away of my personal space, is the hardest thing to adjust to. The first week after the baby was born, I was too busy recovering and trying to make head or heels of the situation. By the second week however, the loss of normalcy and the my old routine started to get on my nerves.  I was starting to resent my situation and several people told me that it’s perfectly normal to hate your life in the first few weeks.  I know having a baby changes some things but for me it’s important to remain in control, and this loss of self was not acceptable, so hubby and I worked out an arrangement, where I will get an hour or so for myself daily.  I used that time to take a walk, or read a book or just take a long hot shower – those few moments for myself went a long way in helping me deal with this new sensation of being a mother.

Change of LifestyleFor years and years I have been hearing, that having a baby will change your life forever. And I have been arguing that any major life event – getting into college, leaving your parent’s home for the first time, getting married, falling in love, falling out of love  – all of these events are life changing. And it’s a relief to be right. I do realize that my life has changed, but I so it has several times in the past and this is not any more difficult or easy than the last time.  It comes with its usual set of adjustments and ‘getting-used-to’ things.  It is a lifestyle change but even this change is not permanent. The best way to cope is to not over think it and just go with the flow.

The Drudgery– Having a baby is not the toughest things to do. If I look back at my life I have faced tougher mental and emotional challenges, but it is definitely the most draining thing I have done. Baby means work – lots and lots of work. No matter how you much love your baby, nothing makes endless cycles of changing diapers, feeding, washing and calming a crying child fun.  People will keep telling you that this too shall pass, but you won’t believe them.  You will feel like Sisyphus, rolling the god damn boulder up the hill for the rest of eternity.

I know this seems like a rant, it isn’t. Life as a new parent is not all that bad, the fact that I can take time to write about it is proof enough that things get better. And there are things that I enjoy….

My baby’s smileYes, I know this sounds terribly clichéd but it’s so true. While I won’t go as far as to say that my son’s smile makes my day, but it does make the work easier to deal with. It’s fun to watch his expressions as he looks around his new world and starts recognizing voices and faces. These are the moments when my love for him becomes a reality and the experience of being a parent takes actual meaning. Also, his smile lets me know that I am doing something right.

Slowing DownWhen we did not have a kid there was this frenzy to fill our spare time with stuff to do – go to the movies, concerts, travel, meet friends, shop, eat out etc . Now there is very little spare time to fill and very hard to predict when that spare time will show up. So you automatically slow down and savor the moments and life. Simple things in life have become fun again. K and I find ourselves enjoy a walk around the neighbourhood and sipping a cup of coffee in the café around the corner. Eating take-out food is cool again, and I am able to catch up on my reading.

Watching loads of TVIn the first three months, babies have very simple needs. They want to be fed, changed and put to sleep. Now books tell you that feeding should be a time to connect with the baby and you should not multi-task. To be honest, I don’t think my son cares. I know he cares only for the bottle. When he is hungry, he just wants his milk and he is not interested if we are talking to him or dancing the hula hoop. K & I have discovered that watching TV while feeding him or just holding him, is a great way to unwind for the day.

Toning those arm musclesI have hardly ever been to the gym in this life and my notion of exercise is a twenty-minute stroll around the block. I now have to lug my 10 lb son around for a good portion of the day. I know I am building some serious muscle strength!  The chores at home just add up to and I am more active than I used to be. Of course, I am not going to shed that baby weight just by working around the house but after the last trimester of pregnancy where walking left one out of breath, being up and about and always on the go is such a welcome change.

More family timeThis may be a little subjective but when a baby arrives in your family everyone wants to come over, help and spend time with you and the little one. This is a great time to reconnect with siblings and parents. As the new parents are high-strung in the initial first days it is important to establish boundaries and come to an understanding on how everyone can contribute.

At the end of the day everyone experiences parenthood differently – a lot of dependent on the pre-existing expectations and the kind of person you were going in. I know I will have fun eventually even if getting used to the idea of  being a mom will take some time.


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A Lost Lady

Written by Pulitzer winner Willa Cather, A LostLady is an example of American Pioneer literature. Of course, I did not know all this when I randomly picked this book in the local library. Pioneer literature covers the trials and tribulations of the American explorers who moved westwards in search of land and riches from the heavily populated East. Most of the expansion was by settlers who worked on railways which were being built to connect mining towns. Any Pioneer’s town population was often divided into two sets of classes. The management comprising of the land owners, or rich industrialists that came into the west with the railroad and mines. They set up an upper class of society which included their bankers and solicitors.  Then there was the working class – the farmers who leased the land, the miners and the railroad workers. While there existed no open resentment, the actions of the rich were subject of much observation and gossip as they continue to this very day.

The novella centers around Mrs. Captain Forrester, a young beautiful something who marries a man almost twice her age for reasons not clear initially.  Everyone around her admires her for grace, kindness, and vivacious personality. As a reader however, you can sense that something is not right or there is some flaw which is waiting to burst out the gossamer of beauty that is set up around her. The narrative is in third person and in most places presents the picture as seen in front of Niel, a young family friend of the Forrester’s. He is spends a lot of time at the Foresters partly due to his admiration for the Captain and the partly for his boyish infatuation for Mrs. Forrester. The story runs in two parallels.  There is the illusion and the dream of the west – of wealth, beauty and the old world gentility.  All this slowly falls apart as the economy collapses due to the bubble and the middle class then emerges, now in a position to negotiate for lands, jobs and deals that they had no chance at earlier.  The old values give away to the new more mercenary demands. The other story is that of our Lost Lady, Mrs. Forrester who to Neil is the promise of everything wealthy, beautiful and classic. Then as layers of her character and her unfaithfulness revealed, the illusion breaks. He realizes that everything about her is transient. What gave her beauty was not herself but her marriage to the Captain who was a better human being than her. When the Captain dies she is a rudderless ship and all restraint and class disappears – she is truly lost. Lost to herself and lost to the world.

The story primarily made an impression on me because it talks of a culture and time that I am completely unfamiliar with. There are some elements of feminism in Mrs. Forrester’s character and while she may not be the best of persons, she does seem a victim of the times as much as that of her own transgressions. I really did enjoy the writing too especially how Cather captures the untouched beauty of the west in her descriptions of the wilderness surrounding the small town in Omaha. One can’t help but yearn for a time and place so far away from the rush of our daily lives.

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