Goodbye, 2013. Thanks for the books.

Image via Goodreads

At the beginning of 2013, I promised myself I would read 30 books. Come December, I didn’t really make it – 4 books short of the gold – but I did manage to read 26 stories, and I thought I would share them with you. It’s not uncommon to see our social media feeds bursting with status updates about how successful someone’s year has been, so how many amazing things they’ve done. I thought about how I remembered 2013, and was surprised to find, it was through these books.

I started the year with East of Eden, which skyrocketed to the very top of my Favorite Books Ever list. It’s a retelling of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, and beyond that, it’s a story of life. There is so much beauty simply in the way the book is written – Steinbeck really pulls you into this world that is simultaneously profound and gritty, giving you the feeling that you’re learning something phenomenal, but leaving you with more questions than you’ve managed to answer. There is love, betrayal, devotion – on both a micro and macro level. The one thing I took away from the book was the story of the Hebrew word Timshel, which roughly translates into “thou mayest”. It was with that reaffirmation of choice – that we have the power to make decisions in our lives, whether to choose good or bad – that set the course of my entire year – one that would change my life, thanks to the books that guided my way.

After East of Eden left the taste of morality and betrayal in my mouth, Quasimodo taught me true compassion, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Having watched and loved the animated Disney interpretation as a child, I wanted to sing with Esmeralda, and swing from Notre Dame’s royal heights with the bell-ringer, but I was in for a surprise. The story is heart-breaking, with Esmeralda and her lover a far cry from the jovial couple Disney showed me. Quasimodo is no humble giant, but a monster and a simpleton with a heart. His caretaker is part evil villain, but part human, and in a gut-wrenching moment of shock, I was able to relate to his troubles. There is evil and magic and a consistent tearing away at your heart, until at the end, Quasimodo is dust, but you are still bleeding raw.

With two classics in my 2013 backpack, I turned to more contemporary fiction. Next stop: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared. Yes, that is the entire title. This lickety-split story of adventure had a wholehearted feel that had me chuckling the entire time. I’ve written a full-fledged review on it, and you should give it a click.

And so the year went on, one book leading to the next, with memories tied to each one. When a dear friend visited from abroad, she brought me Looking for Alaska, when I was suffering from insecurity issues, I read Valley of the Dolls and took shelter in Anne’s unwavering self-confidence. When I was complaining about my bout with gastritis, The Fault in Our Stars made me take back every ungrateful word and forget about my fever as I learned about love. On the same note, The Last Original Wife reminded me not to take any of my relationships for granted, and Empty Mansions made me grateful that I was not burdened with extravagant wealth.

So what did I do in 2013? I lived 26 adventures. I learned 26 lessons. I started paying less attention to the internet and more to my family. I stopped wasting money and time. I strengthened my relationship with God and pushed aside insecurities. In 2013, I lived, and I don’t regret a single page of it.

What did you read in the past 12 months?

P.S. There will be a full book of each of the books I read in 2013, one a week, every Monday.

Wishing you thrills and tear-stained pages,
Zainab

A Tale of Two Cities

What if your greatest act in life is to be killed?

Tale of Two Cities is a classic novel by Charles Dickens. Normally, I try to stay away from classics – this was the first I’ve read in around three years. All I remembered from when I was a kid attempting to dig through the never-ending tale of Moby Dick but a good friend convinced me that we would tackle classics together. This book was the first on our list, and it was a breathtaking journey. When two literature students spend a month slowly reading through such an adventurous novel, well, there’s nothing short of a literary adventure in the making.

The novel is based around the French Revolution (the mother of all revolutions in modern history) but it doesn’t just jump into the blood and gore right away. Instead, Dickens opens with a beautiful sentence – an extremely long sentence – depicting the times, the plight of the French peasantry as the aristocracy so daintily trampled all over them in the pre-Revolution years.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

A large portion of the book focuses on the pre-revolution period, slowly combining various story lines in the most subtle ways, and softly highlighting the mistreatment of the lower classes and the grandiose indifference of the rich. Often, when you read a classic novel, you read it more for the beauty of the mechanics than for the actual story line, but Dickens makes the plot line just as intriguing by introducing and maintain a connection with several protagonists. (To read more about what I mean by the “mechanics” of a novel, skip to the next paragraph.) We are introduced to Charles Darnay, a man who abandons a life of frivolous debauchery among the French aristocracy to earn an honest day’s bread as a French teacher in England, his subsequent love interest, a wrongfully imprisoned doctor who is barely hanging on his sanity, and an uppity lawyer with a sniveling little assistant. These characters lead completely separate lives and are brought together by the most deliciously unexpected plot twists, resulting in moments of catastrophic anxiety for the readers.

So what were the “mechanics” of this novel? Well, by using the word “mechanics”, I mean the way the novel functioned – how the story plays out with regards to the novel’s structure and how the development of the various characters ties in with the unraveling of the plot. Dickens proves his mastery in this regard by doing something that many modern-day novelists seem to have forgotten – he does not tell the reader how to connect the dots. Instead, he just lays the dots out and continues on his way, a merry story-teller till the end, and waits for you to pick up the pieces. Rather than stating the obvious, Dickens decided to have faith in his readers’ ability to keep speed.

Another aspect of the novel that I quite enjoyed was the polite way in which characters were mocked. The whole ‘the elite mistreat the poor‘ thing has been done so many times. Countless articles, novels, and documentaries have drummed this into our head. Studying the conflict perspective (conflict theory) in my university Sociology course this semester was really the last nail in the coffin for me.

Conflict theories are perspectives in social science that emphasize the social, political, or material inequality of a social group, that critique the broad socio-political system, or that otherwise detract from structural functionalism and ideological conservativism. Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast historically dominant ideologies. It is therefore a macro level analysis of society. Karl Marx is the father of the social conflict theory… 

- Wikipedia

Now instead of just bashing the thoughtlessly evil aristocracy with abstract words and preaching to his audience, Dickens takes you on a journey where you are auto-zoomed in and out various situations. In each scenario, certain characters come together and a scene is enacted. Then it is up to you to draw your conclusions or if you are particularly pre-occupied (perhaps your mother is yelling at your or your house has suddenly caught fire, or a man is offering to sell you his socks in exchange for a cookie) not draw any conclusions at all.

The two cities mentioned in the title are of course France and England, and many unflattering parallels of social life are drawn between England and France throughout the novel. The characters’ stories traipse back and forth so frequently that you almost forget there weren’t airplanes back then.

So that’s what I loved about the novel. It was a wonderful experience, and the adrenaline rush I got off of studying it in such depth (I couldn’t show you all my depth in one blog post without giving away all the spicy bits) that I have now embarked on a 22-book commitment to classic novels. Here’s to good literature!

For all your true bookworms, and those of you who have read the books, my friend Faria Kalim compiled a list of points to ponder. Whether you use this to help you with an English course of just exercise your mind, I guarantee it’ll get your brain juices flowing.

  1. Dark vs. light – Madame Defarge vs Lucie – the two main female contenders.
  2. Mrs.Pross kills Madame Defarge unwittingly , ‘for love’. Is it still murder or is it justified?
  3. Power of women – Sydney dies for Lucie, and Madame Defarge has wrought evil during the French Revolution, is ready to kill Lucie and Manetter, and does not heed her husband’s objections to the murder of innocents. The same gender which is the epitome of a homemaker can also produce a murderer. The theme of opposites is found everywhere in the book
  4. Golden hair – why is it such a big deal? Does this tie into the whole light vs. dark and purity/innocence thing?
  5. The superlative degree is characteristic of Dicken’s writing:
    “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
  6. Contrast between the Marquis and Darnay. Marquis’s beauty is described in terms of great fragility – which raises a few questions in our mind. Does the Marquis stand for the nobility? If so, does Dickens’ imply that the nobility is just as terrible, beautiful and fragile as the Marquis? Clearly, the arrogance that pervades them all is a most definite cause of their downfall:
    “We have so asserted our station, both in the old time and in the modern time also,” said the nephew , gloomily, “that I believe our name to be more detested than any name in France.”
    “Let us hope so,” said the uncle. “Detestation of the high is the involuntary homage of the low.”
  7. We must also remember that although Lucie is described as the most helplessly innocent and beatific female alive, (possibly a great offence to the feminists of today) she is the quintessential female of Dicken’s time. Even during the sorrow of her husband’s captivity, she does not falter from her duties: “She was truest to them in the season of trial , as all the quietly loyal and good will always be.” And is otherwise, it is said of this paragon : “Although the Doctor’s daughter had known nothing of the country of her birth, she appeared to have innately derived from it that ability to make much of little means, which is one of the its most useful and most agreeable characteristics.”
  8. Dicken’s style: Elaborate, verbose, with significant crescendos and diminuendos. Example: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon , that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
  9. Irony : “It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee and it was too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown-as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it – as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitable coming…”
  10. Humour – Example: Sydney to Barsad: “I could not better testify my respect for your sister than by finally relieving her of her brother.”
  11. Also, characters of Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher.
  12. Religious references: Perhaps a significant part of morality to Dickens’ is to have faith and belief in God, which is why Carton soothes himself at the end with references to the bible: “I am the resurrection and the life, said the Lord…” There may have been a contrast in Dickens’ mind between Christ who according to Christian faith, died for the sins of his people, and Carton who died to atone for his. There are also countless references to meeting in Heaven.
  13. Foreshadowing may include a comparison between Manette being “recalled to life” and Carton serving his purpose by being recalled from it.
    “You have been the last dream of my soul.”  And she literally is, also.
  14. Climax – the horror of being convicted by his own father-in-law.
  15. Does Carton truly reach is his pinnacle at the end of the book? Or is the real tragedy that a man who had finally begun to realize the worth of his life simply gave it away for another man? Or does Carton’s real achievement lie in the fact that he gave his life away for a cause that he deemed was worthy, and thus was content with his end, as he considered his life well-spent.

 

The Rishta Auntie Reading List

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Every young, twenty-something girl (and often younger in rural areas) in Pakistan notices that moment – the moment when her mother’s friends transform from The Nice, Jolly Aunties to Ruthless, X-Ray Scanner-at-the-Airport, Rishta Aunties. Now, instead of patting your head amicably and pinching your cheeks with big smiles of affection, The Rishta Auntie keeps her distance when greeting you, to critically analyze how you carry yourself. Oh, will you rush forward to greet her with enthusiasm? If you do, you’ll get points in the ‘Behavior’ section of this exam (Achi tarah milti hai baron ko.), but lose marks in the ‘Graceful-ness’ section. She doesn’t know how to carry herself, na. 

Will you step forward politely and kiss her cheeks in the repetitive mwah mwah mwah that we all attempt to copy from old French movies? If you do, she might decide you’re too WesternizedAllah maaf karey. (God forgive us.) Will you nod at her timidly, carefully positioning yourself one step behind your mother? This is a double whammy. Not only will you be considered shy, innocent and sweet (all good things), but you’ll also be awarded a bonus point for showing a submissive, respectful inferiority to your mother. You see, this is translated to mean that you will probably treat your mother-in-law the same way.

Whatever move you make, The Rishta Auntie will, after responding, start with your face and work her way down, marking off a secret checklist she has in her head. Good-looking, tick. Dresses modestly, tick. Carries herself well, tick. Nice dress sense, tick. Depending on what she’s looking for, this auntie will rate you on a ten-point scale. If she’s liberal and progressive, she’ll like you better if you’ve got blow-dried hair carefully arranged and a nice nude shade of nailpolish on, with designer heels and a dupatta casually laying across your shoulders. If she’s looking for a humble bride, she’ll want your eyes downcast, your hands folded together on your lap, and your most significant contribution to the conversation to be ‘Jee’ or ‘Yes, auntie.’

Your mother, of course, will be either beautifully oblivious to this entire process or will spend the entire meeting carefully positioning you to appear to be the most delightful, accomplished, charming young woman under the sun. Maliha ko to roti bhi banani aati hai. Kal raat ko zabardast khana banaya tha iss ne. Maliha auntie ko batao na. (Maliha knows how to cook roti too. Last night, she cooked us a delicious meal. Tell auntie about it, dear. Go ahead.)

After hearing several troubled stories from friends recently assaulted by this particular brand of Auntie, I decided to put together a small reading list for our beloved match-making, soul-sucking, X-Ray scanner. It’s so small, in fact, that there’s only two books on it: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Here’s why I picked these two:

Pride & Prejudice

This is the story of a girl who is one of many sisters, with a mother eager to marry them all off, and a father who can’t afford to keep them much longer. In a society that judges every woman by an impossible standard, the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, manages to avoid a proposal her mother desperately wanted, but which was not to her liking. She also finds the man she wants to spend her life with, overcomes personal as well as familial problems in order to find true happiness, and ends up better off than any of the other girls in town.

Pride and Prejudice is the story of a British family at a time way back when all the gossiping nosy neighbors and society as a whole considered a woman’s reputation of the utmost importance. Women were expected to behave in certain, predefined ways, and heaven forbid anyone ever try anything radical. (shudder) Stepping outside these predefined social norms meant ostracism for herself and her family. It was a disgrace to a family’s honor to have an “outgoing” young woman in the house. Does this sound familiar, ladies?

Just like in modern-day Pakistan, Austen’s England had clearly-defined class lines, clearly represented in characters such as the Bennets, who are a middle-class family, and socialize with their “superiors” such as Darcy, Bingley and Wickham, but are very are clearly their social inferiors. The author satirizes class-consciousness, for example in the character of Mr. Collins, who spends all his days sucking up to his upper-class patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins is a bit of an extreme, but it’s important to note that he’s not the only one to think this way. His conception class structure is shared by almost all of the characters – Mr. Darcy, who is very proud of his lineage; Miss Bingley, who is just downright disdainful towards anyone lower down on the social ladder; and Wickham, who is desperately trying to do anything he can to get enough money to chill with the big dogs.

Also, there are some important lessons to be learnt:

Your daughters are not ducks sitting in a row, waiting desperately to be married.
Sometimes the one that looks perfect, with his shiny red coat and overwhelming attractiveness, may not be the best one for your daughter.
Give your daughter time to think it through. This is her life, her future. It needs to be her decision.
The right rishta will roll around eventually. True happiness is out there for everyone, and sometimes you just have to have a little faith.
Sometimes it’s the men with a million apparent flaws who are good at heart, and willing to make an effort to reach happiness. They might not seem appealing in the beginning, but in the end, they’re gold. So give the ugly ducklings a chance.

And lastly, just to drive my point home, I’d like you to watch this lovely video, recommended to me by another blogger, and a dear friend, Maha Kamal. Check out her blog by clicking here.

Jane Eyre

From the very start of the novel, Jane’s character possesses a sense of her self-worth and dignity, a strong commitment to the values of justice and principle, a trust in God, and a passionate disposition. Her dignity and integrity are continuously put to the test throughout the story and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself so as to find contentment. When hunting for your son’s blushing bride, Rishta Auntie Ji, remember that there is more to value in a woman than just how many chapatis she can make or how well-dressed she may be.

Give others the benefit of the doubt. Being on the defensive doesn’t do anyone any good.

Because she was treated badly as a child, one of Jane’s deepest fears is that she will never feel truly welcomed and at home. Part of the reason she falls for Rochester is because he is the first one who has offered her love and stability.  Jane is desperate to belong somewhere, to find “kin,” or at least “kindred spirits.” At the same time, she desires autonomy and freedom. She needs to have an independent sense of self, while feeling supported by a family structure. In truth, this is what many young girls are looking for. Even those coming from loving, stable homes desire to fit in well with their husbands and adjust to a radically different new life. Many times, brides are expected to live with their parents-in-law and this can make the transition even more difficult. Rishta Aunties have a list of things they require their young daughter-in-law to be, but can sometimes forget their own role. There’s a reason it’s called “mother-in-law” – because you’re supposed to act like a mother and that love and affection needs to translate into a healthy relationship with the newest member of your family.

She doesn’t have to be a supermodel to have a good heart.

In her search for personal freedom, Jane goes through this whole phase where she doesn’t know what type of freedom she wants. Rochester is the love of her life, and could bring her wild happiness, but by being his mistress she would be sacrificing her dignity and integrity for the sake of her feelings. St. John Rivers presents another problem. She could travel the world and do lots of good, but this freedom would also constitute a form of imprisonment, because she would be forced to keep her true feelings and her true passions always in check by being with him, a man she did not love.

Young girls just starting their married lives might not always know what they want. Girls on the rishta circuit, as I like to call it, may have a vague idea of happily ever after, but for many, this is something that is not practically outlined. It’s important for these girls to find a balance, and it’s important for The Rishta Auntie to appreciate that some balance is necessary. It may make you happy to have a daughter-in-law who obeys your every command, like Rivers would expect of Jane, but she would not be happy, and this goes against what marriage is supposed to be – a joyful union. Aunties should know that everyone has a right to personal freedom, and that if you trust them, people usually know how to make the right choices.

Despite his stern manner and not particularly dashing appearance – I mean, it’s not like this is Brad Pitt we’re talking about – Edward Rochester wins Jane’s love. Although Rochester is Jane’s social and economic superior, and men were widely considered to be naturally superior to women in the Victorian period (and still are in Pakistan today), Jane is Rochester’s intellectual equal. This is what is most important in any marriage – that two people are compatible. It’s time to do away with old notions of male superiority and both parties need to respect and care for each other’s feelings. You must not clump two people together into a life that neither of them can be happy in because they’re beliefs, ideas, and feelings are not compatible.

And on that note, here’s to happy aunties, blessed rishtas, and less wounded hearts!

 

Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

This is a book most people have heard about. You’ve heard English teachers mention it, seen it hiding away in the corners of bookstore shelves, or maybe even have this old copy lying at home, collecting dust. That was the case for me, at least. I jumped to the conclusion that it was ‘just another one of those classics – hard to read, heavy on the intellectual, with small print and yellowed pages’.

.Rest assured, I was wrong. Okay, so what’s the main theme of the book? The slow but sure destruction of society and civilization and the degradation of mankind. A group of young boys are trapped on an island, where they crash-landed after being evacuated from Britain (on account of the fact that an atomic bomb had exploded – a point that is not immediately clear to the reader). These boys initially establish some rules and structure; they have elections for a chief, hold regular meetings, and even attempt to conduct a census. As time goes on, however, their structure fades, they forget who they are, where they’ve come from, and indeed, even the fact that they ought to be trying to get back home.

.A young boy named Percieval, who at the beginning of the book has his name, address, telephone number memorized, can no longer remember these central components of his identity as we reach the final chapter. There is rebellion, mutiny and murder – the latter being senseless, the lines of intention and accident blurred by savagery.

.Let’s take a look at the context. If you pay attention to the book, to the way you see civilization slipping from the hands of these young men, the whole message is quite disturbing. Golding wrote this book in the years after the nuclear bomb had been invented, when the effects of Cold-War-Arms-Race thinking had not yet subsided, when A-bombs & H-bombs were the next big thing. To a world of people trapped between feeling disgust, fear and euphoria about the vast power of this new technology, Golding writes to remind us of the true damage potential of mankind. Not only as we susceptible to egotism, greed, and power, but we are capable of the most vicious savagery.

.Golding reminds us of our weakest moments, of what we may become with the power of nuclear weapons, how what we have created as one of our greatest achievements might just as well destroy us.