Book Review – A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Poetry
Publication Date: May 12th, 2015
Publisher: Speak

“I’m a lone palm tree towering over grassy fronds of rice in a paddy field, yearning to touch the sky although I get lonelier the higher I go.”

A Time to Dance has a simple but absolute beauty. It is a captivating portrait of the rise, fall and spiritual rebirth of a young dancer, Veda, who loses her leg to an accident, yet is more determined than ever to dance. Veda’s dance is so valuable to her, so demanding of her body and spirit, that any pride that held her back before is no longer worth losing it.

I pretty much devoured this book in a night. I love the way this story is captured in loose but flowing prose that blossoms as naturally as flowers. The relationship with Veda and her grandmother was especially beautiful, always an offset to the strained feelings Veda seems to grow with everyone else.

The character development is well-executed, showing whose heart is shallow and whose is true when they treat her differently after her accident. Veda feels as if she is re-enacting in her own life, a smaller and more human version of the epic poetry she portrays on stage. The intertwining parallels between the narrative and Hindu mythology are creative, I have to say, and I also appreciate that the romance was not written at the forefront of Veda’s achievements.

“The strangers’ presence feels warm as a blanket, but not warm enough to thaw the sea of unshed tears frozen inside me.”

I don’t like to compare this novel with one of my most loathed, because I enjoyed A Time to Dance quite a lot, but it reminds me of a more sensitive, good version of Izzy Willy Nilly. They’re both about a promising athlete losing her leg and having to prove herself capable. I realize what I hated so much about Izzy Willy Nilly is that the protagonist never does overcome her struggle. That book was uncomfortably focused on blaming her for her misfortune. So much victim-blaming. There was nothing meaningful but reliving someone’s pain, with no hope nor retribution towards the one actually responsible for the accident.

Venkatraman’s poem avoids all of that to tell a personal saga, and is so much better for it. The characters are well-rounded, realistic, and importantly, it accepts that sometimes misfortune can just happen. That it’s something we all have to triumph at some point in one way or another, and it tells so beautifully. You definitely should read this, if it interests you in any way. It’s very difficult to find much to dislike about, and is one of the better free verse novels I’ve picked up.

“Mukam karothi vachalam; pangum langayathe girim. – God’s grace moves the mute to eloquence and inspires the lame to climb mountains.”

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Book Review – I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: August 17th, 2011
Publisher: Random House

“We have lived a painful history, we know the shameful past, but I keep on moving forward, and you keep on coming last. Equality, and I will be free.”

It is difficult to pin a specific emotion to this collection, if even there is one. Angelou’s poetry contains the chemical potency of all emotions. From rage to rapture, the soul of her work remains bared.
I Shall Not Be Moved is more confrontational by nature, however. The last book I read by her, And Still I Rise, was more about creating something good from out of the ashes – renewal. By comparison, this collection is more focused on never letting yourself fall in the first place. Tugging at the roots of one’s unhappiness to see what the source could be and what treatment will be needed. Never giving detractors and bigots the pleasure of seeing you crumble.

Angelou’s commentary on bigotry is biting. To break the surface tension of such flowing prose is to unveil an absolutely brutal put-down of prejudice and those who perpetuate it through racism and fundamentalism. Bigotry is crueler than a lie, but controlling someone with false promises may outdo both. Ritualism and tradition for tradition’s sake, along with unchecked anger leads to a lot of ingrained prejudices, and eventually it no longer is a spiritual thing anymore but becomes more of an unwarranted punishment on people who often don’t deserve it.

“Preacher, please don’t promise me streets of gold and milk for free. I stopped all milk at four years old and once I’m dead I won’t need gold.”

Not all of these pieces are going to resonate with everyone. That may be the hardest part of doing justice to good poetry, no matter how long you’ve been a part of the genre. There are a few I didn’t really like or relate to, but that’s going to happen. It’s a given. Poetry is so individual that if there wasn’t at least one that didn’t have an effect, it would be strange, even with a writer as powerful with prose as Maya Angelou. My path is not hers and it can’t ever be, so some little nuances were lost on me.
That being said, as a collective experience it stands perfectly, like a finished jigsaw puzzle. Carrying on the message from And Still I Rise, this book is a new goodness formed from the leftover bones of old hardships.

“We grow despite the horror that we feed upon our own tomorrow.”

Quotes

  • “The man who is a bigot is the worst thing God has got, except his match, his woman, who really is Ms. Begot.”
  • “They kneel alone in terror with dread at every glance. Their nights are threatened daily by a grim inheritance. You dwell in whitened castles with deep and poisoned moats and cannot hear the curses which fill your children’s throats.”

 

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Book Review – A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: October 11th, 2012
Publisher: Penguin

A Thousand Mornings – as sweet, as gentle as the rustle of lavender in a spring’s breeze, arm in arm with nature and its delicacy fine as webs.

Reminiscent and nature-inspired poetry can be a hit-or-miss game for me. They can be the opening of an emotional drain, or they can be the brew of sappy cliché in place of any real feeling.
Oliver’s work leans toward the former, though it’s not an emotional punch, but rather a waft of sensitivity that rises and falls like the winds. It’s never poorly written. It does get repetitive in its fervor for forests.

To tell you the truth, I was drawn in by the fogged ambience of the cover. Extremely fitting, the cover is. While not my all-time favourite, Mornings evokes a similar, beautiful feeling. I suppose you could call it “purity”. It feels like clean waters pooled beneath a mountain, somehow bottled into words.

Quotes

  • “Oh the house of denial has thick walls and very small windows, and whoever lives there, little by little, will turn to stone.”
  • “As long as you’re dancing, you can break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules is just extending the rules. Sometimes there are no rules.”
  • “For some things there are no wrong seasons. Which is what I dream of for me.”
  • “And therefore who would cry out to the petals on the ground to stay, knowing as we must, how the vivacity of what was is married to the vitality of what will be? I don’t say it’s easy, but what else will do if the love one claims to have for the world be true?”