Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

The Agony and Ecstasy of Michelangelo

Friday, May 27th, 2016

I just finished reading Irving Stone’s 664-page tome The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. Yes, there’s agony, and plenty of it. Michelangelo is a man who desires only to be free to pursue his calling, to carve into pure white Carrara marble, which he considers “the heart of the universe.” And yet, again and again, forces bigger than himself thwart him. It’s heartbreaking, really, and the feeling is like going on a quest, getting past one obstacle, taking a breath, thinking now our Florentine genius can carve his David, only to come face-to-face with an armed Roman soldier around the next bend. Aargh! The young sculptor’s father opposes his choice of profession, his beloved mentor dies, and rivals malign and attack him with increasing rancor. One even punches in his nose, crumbling it into his skull. Michelangelo survives periods of poverty, the plague, wars, the sacking of his studio, an attempt on his life, and a circus of narcissistic Popes who bend him to their will, taking years away from his fruitfulness.

On the other hand, the world would not possess the marvel of the Sistine Chapel ceiling if it were not for Pope Julius II forcing Michelangelo to abandon sculpture in order to paint. When Michelangelo finally returns to marble after four long years, the misery of separation has given way to the ache of wisdom. “As he stood in the center of his allegorical blocks, he divined that time too was a tool: a major work of art required months, years for its emotions elements to solidify. Time was a yeast; many aspects…which had eluded him before now seemed clear to him, their form matured, their definition resolved.”

But wait, there’s still more agony. Michelangelo spends ten years working on a tomb for Pope Julius II, only to have the next pope, Leo X, stop him cold. Michelangelo begs to complete it, “You must not stop me. It’s a crucial moment for me. Holiness…I implore you not to do this terrible thing to me….Give me time…but I must not be tormented in mind and spirit.” Pope Leo X is unmoved and adamant, “A Medici artist should serve the Medici…we wish you to undertake a façade for our family church… We will protect you against the Roveres.” Years later, after Leo’s death, however, Julius’s relatives, the Roveres, enact their revenge, accusing Michelangelo of defaulting on the contract, and going about trying to ruin him.

Michelangelo despairs, “What am I to do? I’ll be bankrupt, my life savings swept away…How could it have happened? When I started out so full of love for marble, so consumed to carve, to work at my craft? When I have never wanted anything else in the world?” He’s forty-seven years old at this time, struck with deep anguish, wanting to give up, and believing he’s at the end of his career. Despite all his success, he must reckon with inner demons, with anger and sense of unfairness at the world, and with the sick feeling of being abandoned by God. “I have talent, energy, enthusiasm, self-discipline, singleness of purpose. What am I missing? Fortuna, luck? Where does one search for the leaven of luck?”

After such defeat, where does he turn? Back to trusting in a divine order, for the God whom he accuses of desertion is the very same divinity that sings through him as he carves. So Michelangelo returns to his marble. And this is the sweet ecstasy. “For him the milky white marble was a living, breathing substance that felt, sensed, judged… In the back of his mind, a voice said: This is love…Marble was the hero of his life; and his fate. Not until this very moment, with his hands tenderly, lovingly, on the marble, had he come fully alive.”

It is love then, love for his stone, love for fellow human beings (he never married but loved three women and one man deeply), and love for God that lifts him up again and again. Despite the many obstacles he must face in the long, exhausting quest of his life, he creates Genesis and The Last Judgment in the Sistine, and carves the Pietà in St. Peters, his David, Moses, Day, Night, Dawn, Dusk, and dozens of other sculptures that stir our collective heart. His entire life is a haunting dedication to the belief and stubborn insistence that “the forces of destruction never overcame creativity.” For an artist, for all artists, that is all we can ever ask.


Yann Martel’s “The High Mountains”

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

The High Mountains, like Life of Pi, is a book filled with wonders, sublime emotionality, and a bit of implausibility. There is, too, the ingenious bond between human and animal, in this case between a man and an ape. This theme, critical to the story Martel tells, begins with the slave trade and a Portuguese priest’s revelation that humans are “risen apes, not fallen angels,” then circles forward in the third novelette to Peter, a retired politician living with his ape companion, Odo, realizing that, “what’s come as a surprise is his [Peter’s] movement down to Odo’s so-called lower status…While Odo has mastered the simple human trick of making porridge, Peter has learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing. He’s learned to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself…” Martel seems to be implying that in becoming this “risen ape,” humans have lost something immeasurable, something vital, something soulful.

The book is filled with laugh-out-loud humor, gorgeous detail, and moments of such tenderness that the heart can’t help but ache. The second novelette, however, acts as some sort of rubbery glue, consisting of a mini-dissertation on the Bible and Agatha Christie which, though intense and fascinating, feels out of place, interposed with a strange, surreal autopsy which produces a chimp inside a corpse. This is one place where Martel falls short in his mastery of storytelling.

But  moments where self and the other meet, as in the case of the priest and an imprisoned slave woman, are shattering. “She turned her head & looked me in the eyes… My tongue was stilled of any priestly cant. I am transformed. I saw. I have seen. I see. That short gaze made me see a wretchedness that until then had never echoed in my heart. I entered that cell thinking I was a Christian man. I walked out knowing I was a Roman soldier. We are no better than animals.” And later, full circle again in the third novelette, Peter recounts the remarkable moment when his ape truly sees him. “To be so imperatively summoned by the ape, and therefore so forcefully acknowledged – he is shocked. He feels as if he’s just been birthed out of nonexistence.”

What is human, what is animal? Slaves were considered animals, creatures put to work the soil, lesser, equated with brutish behavior, inferior status, intelligence, and morality. But as Martel shows us by the third novelette, to be an animal is to embody emotion, compassion, dignity, love. To be an animal is to understand the present moment, to revel in it, to have no past, no future, to “[burst] dramatically…then [make] way once more for the blue sky, the permanent blue sky.” We are human and animal both. We must no longer see them as a clash between superior and inferior, sacred and profane, but a merging between two sides of wholeness. To reach for the greatest qualities in each is to discover our highest potential.


Jessie Burton’s “The Miniaturist”

Friday, March 11th, 2016

Jessie Burton’s novel, The Miniaturist, is a world within a world. She’s the real miniaturist, bringing 17th-century Amsterdam, a time of intense global trade across Europe, Asia and Africa, alive – not with excessive detail but with a masterful eye for the perfect detail. A young woman, Nella, marries successful merchant Johannes Brandt, twenty years her senior, receiving a miniature of their home as a wedding gift. The miniaturist in the story possesses an unnatural power: she can see into people’s souls, thus she can see into the soul of a house and its inhabitant’s, knowing secrets that are hidden, knowing too the forces that loom unseen, ready to uplift or destroy. Nella must find her place in a home long occupied by her husband Johannes, his matriarchal sister Marin, the irreverent servant Cornelia, and the quietly intelligent Otto, an African rescued from a Portuguese slave ship. The miniature house, as entrancing is it is, holds more promise than it delivers, for Nella remains powerless in the face of it all; nothing she does within the little house impacts her larger life, and that’s a shame. But the merciless rigidity of society, its coldness and false piety, its desire for hatred and vengeance, set against the slow, sweet melting of love amongst the members of Nella’s family is a beautiful contrast. In the end, her family finds their strength in truth. Truth doesn’t save lives, but it saves the soul. Perhaps that’s what the miniaturist wanted for them all along.

“Best-seller Internacional”

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

The first Spanish reviews of my book, Haunting Bombay, are just coming out.  The national newspaper La Razon, titling their review “Best-seller internacional” said this: “There are writers like Shilpa Agarwal who were born to tell stories, to suggest magical environments, to track and retrieve Proustian smell sensations from lost memories, who can recount the details of an inner world as rich as its culture, both refined and realistic, a mixture of tenderness and cruelty as in ancient Hindu folktales.” Click here for the full article.

Intense, Special, Mysterious, Cruel and Nostalgic.

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

This latest review is by Paola Zoppi, the artistic director of LibrIn Terra Arts Festival in Valperga, Italy on the Italian edition of Haunting Bombay.  The review, of course, is in Italian but Paola was kind enough to translate a few lines for me.  She writes, “The reader will discover the Mittal family through fascinating language, sharp and rich… Agarwal paints a family gripped by their own guilt… the ghosts that knocking at the door are the voices with they have to deal, sooner or later, in their life….”  Additionally, Paola writes of Haunting Bombay that it is “intense, special, mysterious, cruel and nostalgic, it caught me until the end.” Click here for the full review.

Truly A Work Of Art. A+.

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

I was delighted to see this review of my book written by a blogger who is attempting to read every fiction book in the Bella Vista Library. She writes, “Agarwal’s first novel is a brilliant story…more than just a ghost story; it’s a story of love, hurt, great loss, vengeance and understanding… This novel was truly a work of art. In fact I love it so much that I am giving it an A+.  Click here to read the review.

Masterpiece of Multicultural Fiction

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Since I’ve published Haunting Bombay, it has been reviewed by a number of book bloggers out there in cyberspace.  One of my favorite bloggers is Swapna of S. Krishna Books whose reviews are consistently well-written and thoughtful.  I was thrilled when she reviewed Haunting Bombay this week, calling it “a masterpiece of multicultural fiction” and “compulsively readable” with writing that is “beautiful.”  Swapna also writes,  “It is difficult to tell that this is [Agarwal’s] first novel – her prose has the skill and confidence of a master of the craft.”  Click here for the full review.

One of the Best Books of the Year

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Fantasy Book Critic reviewed Haunting Bombay this week, calling it “easily one of the best books of the year” with writing that is “captivating and elegant” and “a sheer pleasure to read.”  Click here for the full review.

Siren Song: Haunting Bombay on Virtual Tour

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

I’ve been doing a lot travel in the past months, speaking at various literary events and this weekI had the opportunity to go on a virtual book tour with TLC Tours.  Book bloggers have hosted me on their sites, reviewing my book or inviting me to write a guest blog – and all this without ever having to leave my home or pack a suitcase.  Here’s what they are saying about Haunting Bombay:

Darlene at Peeking Between the Pages writes, “From the beginning of the book I was hooked and I just kept turning those pages in an attempt to find out what was going to finally happen. It was a book that kept me on the edge of my seat a bit while giving me shivers up and down my spine.”

Ramya of Ramya’s Bookshelf writes, “The prologue instantly gripped me – the mysterious air, the freaky characters, a subtle hint of deaths and more, etc and I couldn’t put the book down. From that moment, until I turned the last page – I was hooked to haunting Bombay. It has been a while since I read a book that engrossing.”

Wendy at Musings of a Bookish Kitty writes, “Haunting Bombay lives up to its title. It is a haunting tale full of mystery, forbidden love, dark secrets, and mysticism. Shilpa Agarwal’s writing is beautiful, her story intense. I fell in love with this novel on the very first page and that feeling never wavered. If anything, it grew with each turn of the page.”

Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit writes, “Agarwal’s poetic language is like a siren song, pulling the reader into the Mittal family’s struggles with one another… Readers looking for a ghost story will get more than they bargained for with Haunting Bombay. It’s a ghost story, mystery, and historical novel carefully crafted to hypnotize the reader.”

A Captivating, Transporting Novel

Monday, July 27th, 2009

This insightful review just out from the Portsmouth Herald, a newspaper serving New Hampshire and Maine, makes the observation that I have set “the arc of this debut novel to the rhythm of India’s climate. The parched heat strains tempers, and the still air lies heavy with secrets. The first monsoon rains bring giddy relief, renewing married love and awakening forbidden young hopes before the relentless wetness seeps into every crack and corner of the place, sprouting mold and hastening decay.” Click here for full review.