Commonplace Notebooks

Along with being a lover of books, I am a big fan of stationery. I still take notes in notebooks, still write thoughts down, make lists, and write letters. To me, writing is committing to memory, and the physical act of writing is important to me. Plus, I have noticed, people love receiving real letters.

There are many notebook brands I love. But my most interesting possession is my ‘Commonplace Notebook.’ A Scottish brand Waverley, make these wrapped with Kinloch Anderson tartan. Of course, it doesn’t get more Scottish than this. The one I own is the Mackay Ancient tartan, and I do love it because it is similar to the tartan I identify with.

Commonplacing was most popular amongst thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. These notebooks were used to jot down thoughts and ideas. The flap at the back was used for storing scraps. Greats who were known to Commonplace were David Hume, Adam Smith, Rabbie Burns and Virginia Woolf.

I use this notebook for the work I do with another wonderful Scottish organisation – Scottish Book Trust. All my meeting notes and reflections go in here. And the size of it means that it fits into a small purse or a large pocket, which is great. I do love this notebook, and must think of buying a larger one.

Do you have a notebook favourite?

The Oak Papers

I recently reviewed this book for TWR, and I wanted to cross-share it here. I really enjoyed this book. So much so, that it made me find my nearest oak tree and sit in its shade for a bit. If you are into nature writing, you will love this book. If you are unfamiliar with nature writing, this is a wonderful book to start with.

My review here: https://theweereview.com/review/james-canton-the-oak-papers/

More of an audiobook person? It’s read on BBC Sounds. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000ldfv

A Life Apart … a review

I had really enjoyed reading Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and so I turned to this book. I have been a long-time subscriber of my library’s digital subscription, but it had been years since I used it. And so, this book broke that chain.

A Life Apart is the story of a young Bengali man Ritwik, who travels from Calcutta to England to study at Oxford University. Ritwik is from a humble background, and this is the 60s, so the chasm between his life in India and life in England is huge. A parallel storyline is one set in early 1900s, that of Miss Gilby, who’s an Englishwoman in British Calcutta. Ritwik is writing her story, so she’s actually a book within a book, which was very interesting. Mukherjee has picked up Miss Gilby from a small character in a Tagore novel, and drawn it out through Ritwik’s pen.

This is definitely a debut novel. It doesn’t have the smoothness of writing of Mukherjee’s later novel, or the tautness of structure. However, it is an enduring debut, with character-driven storytelling. Perhaps this would be very impressive if this is the first of his books you read. I enjoyed the complexities of Ritwik’s life, his strugges with his identity and Miss Gilby’s adventures. A fine read.

The Rejected Writers’ Book Club … a review

I think I can be forgiven for thinking that this book was set in England from looking at its cover. It features writing, book clubs and a stack of pretty China teacups! However, it is actually set in the States. I really enjoyed this lighthearted read.

For one, it has a middle aged female protagonist. When was the last time you read a book that had one of those? Middle-aged women are frequently passed up for a younger heroine or an older, brooding man. This was a refreshing departure from it and introduced our protagonist, librarian Janet Johnson, into an older ladies club of failed writers. These women meet regularly, drink tea, eat cake and swap stories that they have written which have subsequently faced rejection from publishing houses.

But when an unintended story is sent away and selected, all hell breaks loose. Janet’s daughter faces some difficulties with her advanced pregnancy at the same time. Will Janet and her band of merry women fix the publication and the pregnancy issue? Well, you’ll have to read this book to find out. A beautifully written book about the warmth of unlikely friendships, skeletons from the past, and keeping away raccoons. A must read!

A Kitchen in the Corner of the House

This book is a collection of stories about the female lived experience of Tamil people. Yeah, let that sink in for a bit. It’s not a short read, rather, it took me quite a while to get through it. The book charts the lives of Tamil women, across class, caste, religion and socio-economic strata. I read it as an e-book because Archipelago were offering it for free but I might pick a copy up at some point. It’s the sort of book you keep.

The book is written by Ambai, which is the pseudonym of feminist author C. S. Lakshmi and was published in 1988. I found that in some ways it was representative of its time, but the wider themes of being a woman are timeless and universal. The translation is high quality, as an example, consider this

“Of course a woman reads Camus too. She reads Sartre. She also reads the Tirumandiram, Akka Mahadevi, and the Sufi poets. But when the entire family is engaged in creating the head of the household, a man, she has to find the nooks and crannies where she can create herself out of the evidence of her own being. It is because she continually asks herself philosophical questions concerning Being that she is able to redeem herself and come outside from the grave-pit of daily living. She lives in a world full of symbols. “Why are you at the window?” is the question underlying her life. The window is the symbol of the world outside. Her freedom lies outside the window.”

And so, you can see, it’s a book you go slow with, and savour. There are some elements which are foreign if you (like me) don’t know much about Tamil people and cultures. But if you are interested, let this be the book that guides you through the customs of one of the ancient groups of people in the world.

Smoke & Ashes … a review

In 2018, I saw Abir Mukherjee speak on a panel at the EdBookFest. As a Scottish-Bengali myself, I remember making a mental note to read his stuff. And I finally got round to it. This novel is the 3rd in the Wyndham series, but they can all be read as standalone books.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Set in 1920s Calcutta, this novel follows the sleuthing of Sam Wyndham, an officer of the Empire and his sidekick ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. While Wyndham battles an opium addiction, he gets embroiled in serial murders of a pattern. As India is poised on the brink of the Swadeshi movement, Wyndham and Banerjee must navigate political sensitivity and the machinations of the Raj to determine who the killer is.

The book is well researched to the point that a number of interesting plotpoints are woven into the story. There’s the opium trade, Subhash Chandra Bose’s rise in politics, the Christmas Day plot against the British – all of these make an appearance. But using these as hooks rather than the main basis of the story means that this is an easy read, perfect for the summer. The balance of detective thriller and historical fiction had me devouring this book in a matter of 2-3 days. I loved the interactions between the two protagonists that surpass cultural barriers, and also the description of the prime city of the Raj.

I will be reading the rest of the books in the series for sure (book 4 came out late last year). I can definitely say Mukherjee must have been wasted as an accountant because he’s clearly a crime writer. Highly recommend!

Kabul Beauty School … a review

Some kind and enterprising folks have started a ‘book swapping’ shelf downstairs. Of course, it has taken off. There’s everything on it from ‘How to write stand-up comedy’ to a 1000-page biography of the Queen Mother. This book is one I picked up. I put The Librarian of Auschwitz on the shelf in its place.

A middle-aged American lady, Debbie Rodriguez is fed up with her life and her relationships. To make a change to her life, she volunteers with an aid organisation to travel to Kabul in the mid-naughties. At this time, Afghanistan is war torn, with a heavily militarised capital that turns into a Taliban badland every night. Debbie ends up starting a ‘beauty school’, where she imparts hairdressing and makeup skills. Her students are women who come from all walks of Afghan life, and when the hijabs come off, their eclectic personalities shine.

I read later that this book has been controversial, because apparently events did not happen as Debbie claimed in the book. But to me, making one trip alone, never mind spending 5 years there, is courageous. And if she embellished some stories to spin a yarn then it’s fine by me. She does end up imbibing life enough that she marries an Afghan. In some ways, Debbie is a typical American – she never manages to learn the language, and she does present some cultures through the incredulity of a Western lens.

But the girls she introduces – from Roshanna to Nahida, are ones that will warm your heart. And there’s a multitude of experiences – from forced marriages to the utter hilarity of these women dancing with thongs on their faces. This is a lighthearted book with a serious war raging in the background. Don’t use it as the defining guide to Afghan life (for that, Khaled Hosseini perhaps?). But read it for a sneak peek into the women and their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I did enjoy it.

An un-August Departure

The end of June means the Summer Solstice. Usually, every year, this would be the time when the Edinburgh Fringe Guide arrives in the post. For those who don’t know, I lead an alter-ego life during August. Edinburgh is home to the largest arts festival in the world – the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. These, combined with Edinburgh Book Festival, mean that my city is overrun by tourists and art-lovers from all over the world.

During this time, I review theatre and events for The Wee Review. I do this all year round, but August takes up a big chunk. I watch stuff in the evenings, stay up late into the light nights writing these up. I use my lunch breaks at work to do some editing and submissions. I have had the fortune of meeting some famous people (Aditi, Vir) though this as well.

So normally, at this time of the year, I pore over the old-fashioned guides. I fill out the forms for the Press and the Journalist passes. I highlight all the programmes I really want to see, and those that I will try and fit into my schedule. I also mark out shows that I do not want to review, but just watch. My friends and I plan the shows we will watch together, and those that I will watch alone. Often, after shows, my friends and I will hang out in the food gardens, and the pop-up bars. We would run from one show to another, along alleyways and up old town slopes. Alongside the day job, I will watch as many as 50 events during 3 weeks in August. On the final evening, S & I have friends round at the flat for drinks and we watch the fireworks from our living room. It is one of the highlights of my year.

This year, of course, all festivals have been cancelled. It isn’t safe. The Book Festival is going online, which is some news I guess. But it won’t be the same of course. So this year, I will just attempt to watch the shows online. Of all the things Covid has destroyed, this has been my biggest personal loss. And I am very sad about this, so I just wanted to share that.

Hanging out with friends, 2019

 

 

 

 

Ticket stubs & notes, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Aditi & I, 2017

Yellow Crocus … a review

I picked up this book coincidentally at the same time as the BLM protests kicked off worldwide. Just as well, it added to my quest of trying to understand the black experience more deeply. This book is about the bond between a white girl, and her black nanny. Being brought up in a privileged land and slave-owning family in 1800s Virginia, Lisbeth is unduly attached to her nurse Mattie.

The family of slaves lives on their estate and so Lisbeth has the opportunity to interact with them quite closely. Over time the girl begins to see that these people are not so different to her after all. And they have the same hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations for themselves and their family. What I thought interesting was that the author herself is white, but she does portray the life of black slaves very well. Perhaps this is because she is part of a non-visible minority as well. Through her own personal experiences, she can channel the discrimination faced regularly by those perceived by the majority as ‘the other.’

As Lisbeth approaches her late teens and is encouraged to make herself attractive to a potential suitor, her own moral compass comes in the way of her decision. What will Lisbeth do? Will Mattie ever find the freedom she seeks for her family? What will happen a result of the Abolishionist movement? A fine book, not too hard going, and a toe-dipping exercise into understanding the contibution of slaves to the building of the so-called greatest nation in the world.

5 Books about the Black Experience

As I have said before, I find literature, particularly fiction, the most natural way of understanding the human experience. A number of people have reached out to me for suggestions on reading black authors, black books – so here’s a little pile that will take you comfortably through summer. This is in no particular order.

1. Gone With the Wind

A timeless classic, this book lays bare truly and honestly, the black peoples’ contribution to building the USA. There are many ways of approaching this book and picking apart its depiction of slavery. But I think it is a seminal read to see the relationships of slave owners and their slaves, the extent of reach civil war, and the motivations of people on both sides. It also shows how changing laws is the beginning of change, not the end. I would say if you can’t be bothered, watch the movie, but at 4.5 hrs runtime that’s no mean feat either!

 

2. The Color Purple

I had to read this novel for my degree, and that certainly took some pleasure out of it for me. But regardless, this Pulitzer prize winning book is fine literature. What is particularly devastating about this book is the amount of abuse it doesn’t shy away from depicting. A pregnant black woman is probably bottom of this world’s foodchain in some ways, and even if you ignore the colour of her skin, she gets trampled upon for her gender. This book made me come to terms with the fact that I will never truly grok the experience, and made me uniquely aware of my privilege.

3. Praise Song for the Butterflies

This is a shorter book, almost a novella, and what a fantastic book. This is a fictional story based on real life inspirations. If you have been feeling overwhelmed by the protests and would like to start easy, this would be your best best. The author’s style is lighter on the psyche, although continuing to deal with the hefty weight of its content. A young protagonist always provides some sense of hope, and eventual redemption.

 

4. The Secret Life of Bees

I am always surprised that this book is not better known. Set in Carolina, this is the story of a white girl, her black nanny, and their combined fight against the world. This book is more centered around interpersonal relationships than the wider experience. This makes it enlightening, because the author sees the differences in race through the eyes of the protagonist. This book does have a happy ending, so perhaps one for these tough times!

 

5. The Bluest Eye

This book depressed me when I read it. It genuinely brought me down because of the utter helplessness of its characters. I think it also comes closest to the ‘Indian – experience’, of young girls and women wishing for fairer skins. This book is the only thing you need to read to understand why Toni Morrison won the Nobel and why the Obama couple regard her so highly. Read at your own peril, it’s gut-wrenching.

 

Bonus:

I like reading topical books. And so I have borrowed ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. I didn’t include it on the list because it is autobiographical. But A recommended it highly when he read it a few years ago and so I am sure I will enjoy it.

Remember to keep educating yourselves, and support black authors where you can.