Sunday, August 23, 2015

Daphne Du Maurier - Frenchman's Creek

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+Amazon India
@Virago Classic Books

When the east wind blow up Helford river the shining waters become troubled an disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores.

Thus starts the fourth novel by Daphne du Maurier.  The first chapter is a breathtaking description of Navron and the little creek in Navron, Cornwall.  A modern day sailor on a boat in the creek is suddenly disturbed by the visions of a beautiful lady and her French lover.

From here we zoom back into the Restoration period, perhaps 1650.  Dona St. Columb is a celebrated beauty in the court.  She is married to Harry St. Columb and has two little children.  She is an impetuous woman and given to hanging out with her husband and his friends in places of low repute.

Rockingham, her husband's friend,  fancies he can conquer Dona after they share a kiss.  Dona has no intention of following up on the kiss.  After an adventure, she finds herself sickened of the empty London society and on an impulse, takes her children and drives down to Navron, her husband's seat in the country.

Navron is a neglected place.  There is only one servant present, William.  He seems intractable and outspoken.  Dona, sickened of the fawning London society, finds him a refreshing change. Soon, the country house is in order and Dona enjoys the idyllic, lazy life there.  She takes walks around in the garden and plays with the children.

Her peace is soon shattered by the arrival of Lord Godolphin.  He warns her of a French pirate who has been disturbing the peace around here.  He robs the people on this side of the coast and quickly sneaks off to Brittany.  He wants Harry to come down from London and help capture this slippery pirate.

Dona discovers that the pirate has been using her house and anchoring his ship in the little creek close to her property.  She is captured by the pirates as she comes upon their ship in her creek.  She is captivated by Jean Aubrey and joins forces with him.

This is a beautiful novel.  The descriptions of flora and fauna around Navron are detailed exquisitely at every chance the author gets.

Du Maurier is known to set her novels around some wonderful houses. It was Manderley in "Rebecca" and Menabilly (said to be inspired by a real Menabilly) in "The King's General".  A later novel called "The House on the Strand" also has an ancient house that seemed inspired by Menabilly.

The author does not seem too comfortable in the London society scenes, but on her home turf, the great country house, she is in her element.  Whether it is an action scene, describing a pirate attack in a great detail, or life and manners in the country houses, she is perfect.

The novel is a fast-paced thriller.  There is action and a lot of romance.  When Dona St. Columb falls for Jean Aubrey, she does not hold back and they have a full-on affair.  There are captures and hangings and daring escapes and adventures.  Nary a dull moment, we can say.

This novel was adapted into two movies, one starring Joan Fontaine as Dona St. Columb made in 1944.  A later version starring Tara Fitzgerald (1998) departed so much from the novel right at the start, that I abandoned any attempt to view it.

This novel is not as famous at "My Cousin Rachel" or "Rebecca", yet it deserves to be.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Harper Lee - Go Set a Watchman

+HarperCollins Publishers
+Kindle Books

I will not comment on whether I think this book is written by Harper Lee or not. I will merely judge the book as it is. Is is a good book? Is the story good? Is the writing beautiful?

I cannot disassociate the book from To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even if it were a derivate, it would be hard not to be thinking of the book that came first.  Honestly, I ordered the book because I could not ignore it.  Harper Lee is the official writer and the book she wrote tops my best book list.

That said, I approached the book with zero expectations.  My expectations were justified.

The story picks up years after the happenings in To Kill a Mockingbird .  

Scout, or Jean Louise Finch, is now 26 and living in New York. She returns to Maycomb on a vacation. 

We get a look at what our favorite characters are up to. Atticus is in his 70s and suffering from arthritis.  Aunt Alexandra takes care of Atticus, Uncle Jack lives close by. Calpurnia has retired, Dill is visiting Rome and Jem is dead.  

Boo Radley is nowhere.  There is no mention of the Radleys at all.  Of course, years have passed.  The face of Maycomb is changing.  There are some constants, some variables.

Jean Louise returns to Maycomb to her childhood sweetheart, Hank Clinton. Aunt Alexandra does not approve of Hank, he is white trash and not quality folk like they are.  That makes Hank look all the more acceptable to Scout.

Jean Louise has to make a decision about whether she should marry Hank or not.  Hank is a lawyer now the right hand of Atticus.  He is quickly gaining a foothold in Maycomb society and has political aspirations.  Jean Louise does love him but is not sure if she is ready to settle down to domesticity.

While pondering over this, she is shocked out of her wits to discover that her idol, her beacon, her father, Atticus, is in favor of maintaining racial segregation.  Calpurnia seems disillusioned and the colored community is no longer in awe of Atticus.

The writing is nothing to write home about.  The novel itself is flat and undistinguished.  There are some flashes of spark when Jean Louise goes into flashback.  Our interest is piqued because it refers to the time that we know already and love so intensely.

There are too many descriptions of characters and events.  This stalls the novel and does not allow us the luxury of discovering the characters on our own.

I was underwhelmed by the novel.  But I was expecting to be underwhelmed.  The novel does not have the stamp of the author at all.  It reads more like a poorly written derivative fiction.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Anne Tyler - Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

@knopf publishers
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When the book opens, we realize that Pearl Tull is about to die. She is attended to by her son Ezra who lives with her.  Her daughter Jenny visits her but her oldest son, Cody is absent.

From here, we go into a flashback with the stories of Pearl, Cody, Ezra and Jenny unfolding gradually through their eyes.  The children have different reactions to their difficult childhood.  

Pearl had a hard time when her husband, Beck, just upped and left them.  The money that Beck sent for them was not sufficient to survive on.  So she took up a job at a store as a cashier.  Trying to manage three boisterous children and a house on a meager salary took its toll on her.  Sometimes she whacked the children.

Cody feels unloved.  He feels his mother and everyone around him, particularly the girls he brings home, love Ezra more.  He is poisoned by this thought and finds it hard to love anyone.

Jenny turns out to be bright and beautiful.  She wants to be a doctor and works hard for it.  She has trouble with her men.  It is hard for her to stay married.

Ezra is a gentle soul who loves feeding people.  He stays at home with his mother and runs a restaurant called "Homesick Restaurant".

The family meets often, but they are not close.  Each time they meet, they bring up some past grievance and part in a huff.  Ezra tries to get them all to have a dinner at his "Homesick Restaurant". Each time he fails.  They wind up having a row and leaving the table.

Anne Tyler dissects her characters thoroughly.  We get to know about their failings and their dysfunctional nature.  In fact, it is so intrusive into the minds of the characters that it gets to be depressing.

I am not sure I liked the ending.  I don't want to give it away, hence I cannot discuss it.  It seemed too pat.  I am not sure I wanted the characters to get this kind of a closure. People are likely to die as dysfunctional as they are when they are alive.

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite writers.  I have read many of her books.  She has this unique ability to make the commonplace seem interesting.   Her characters lead a humdrum life, but Tyler makes us see something unique in them.

So far, I have loved Breathing Lessons and A slipping down life most.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Nirupama Subramanian - Keep the Change

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+Amazon India
+HarperCollins Publishers

Writing by Indian authors in English can be categorized into 3 broad types.

One is literary writing, where the subject is heavy, writing is excellent and the book is very edifying in all respects.  Writings of authors like Anita Nair, Shinie Antony, Cyrus Mistry, and several other writers who are settled abroad, like Devkaruni, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh fall into this category.

In the second category come a lot of good writers whose subject matter is something frothy and peppy, writing is pretty good, usually full of Indian-English, catering to a discerning audience who want a well-written book, but do  not want to be weighed down by a heavy subject.  Luckily, there are quite a few contenders for this slot. Madhulikka Liddle, Anuja Chauhan, Vani, Rupa Gulab, Kiran Manral, Andaleeb Wajid spring to my mind instantly.  I am sure that are more, may their tribe increase.

Lastly, there are many many writers whose writing is terrible and subject matter headache-inducing. The only thing in their favor is that they have a very good marketing plan.  Discerning readers marvel at their success and the readers who actually do read such books.

Keep the change belongs to the happy second category. It is well written and well plotted.

Damyanthi Balachandran has lived all her life on Amman Kovil street in Chennai.  She has excelled academically and is a CA, now working for SSV and Sons as an accountant.  At home, she faces the anxiety of her mother who wants her married off to a well placed Tamil Brahmin boy.  She is happy in the simple life, spends her time reading books, and rather uncharacteristically, watching Sex and the City on HBO.

Her mother's efforts to get her married get to her eventually and she decides to leave home.  She gets a job with First Global Bank and moves to Mumbai.  Damyanthi's first brush with the Corporate World is not very good.  Luckily, her colleague, and a fresh recruit like her, Jimmy, becomes a chum.  Together they move around the bank like flotsam and try to find their moorings.

Damyanthi's mother has new anxieties now.  She wants to make sure her daughter does not stray from the path of  "virtue".  Damyanthi would like to be a little more adventurous but finds herself holding back at key moments.

The book follows Damyanthi's journey into a new world and how she finds her feet.

The book is written, interestingly, in the epistolary fashion.  Damyanthi writes to Vic, short for Victoria, a friend who is very rich and settled abroad.  Vic has a very interesting life, unlike Damyanti.  There are times when we wonder if Vic is really Damyanthi's alter ego.

Nirupama Subramanian is obviously a very interesting author to follow.  Her second book, Intermission, is supposed to be very different from the first.  It should be an interesting book to read as well.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Amitav Ghosh - Flood of Fire

Publisher: +Penguin Books USA

This is the grand finale to the amazing Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. What a journey it has been.

Sea of Poppies set us on a journey abroad the Ibis with a motley group of Indians, Americans, British and Lascars.  We learned about the languages and the cultural milieu that its various characters came from.

River of Smoke set us down in Canton to find out about the opium trade. China buys opium but is torn apart by its use.  Commissioner Lin is determined to stop the opium trade even if it means going to war with the British.

Flood of Fire begins with the story of Kesri Singh, Deeti's older brother and a havildar in the East India Army.  He has just heard that Bhyro Singh has been killed abroad a ship, also Bhyro's nephew and his sister Deeti's husband, Hukum Singh has been killed. This news intrigues him as he did not hear anything from his own family about Deeti being widowed. It sets him reminiscing about his past and how he came to join the army at the behest of Deeti and Bhyro Singh.

We learn about the curious recruitment process in the various armies at the time.  There was the Mughal Army at Delhi which was deemed to be the best.  Then there were various principalities who were looking for soldiers. The recruit had to be canny and pick a good army that would pay it a good and regular income.

In Bombay, Shireen is devastated by the news of Behram's death.  Even more, she has to bear the ignominy of Behram having died bankrupt. Her brothers are determined to wipe out Behram from their lives.  Further to this, Shireen has come to know that Behram had a son by a Chinese woman in Canton.  Shattered by this discovery, she decides to go to Canton to meet the boy and also try to recover the money Behram lost.

In Calcutta, Zachary finds himself facing a lawsuit for the murder of Bhyro Singh on his ship and the escape of convicts.  He is cleared of all charges, but his license is held back pending a fine of 100 rupees. He gets a job with Mrs. Burnham to tidy up a boat they confiscated from Raja Neel. He finds Mrs. Burnham taking an undue interest in his sexual health.

The scene shifts back to Canton where fierce fighting is about to take place between the Chinese and the British.  Many of the original passengers of Ibis are in Canton on various business. Their fates are still intertwined and they keep running into each other.

For a while, I felt a little tired out by the stories of Shireen and Zachary.  They seemed neverending.  But once the characters land in Canton, Macau, and Hongkong, all was well. The story trotted along very well.  I was afraid the lives of all the Ibis characters would not knit together well.  I fretted about the absence of Deeti and wanted to know more about her.  In fact, I even sneaked peeks into pages ahead just to find out how things were going to be eventually.

All I will say now is that the story does come together very well in the end.  There are some deaths, some heartbreaks, and some meetings.  A story of this proportions could not have ended well for all its characters. But I was completely satisfied by the end.

Amitav Ghosh has presented us with a modern epic here.  He has researched painstakingly into every minute detail of those times and the lives of people who belong to a variety of class and culture.  We get to know all about the peasants of Bihar to the Lascars who run the ships. From the highly cultured memsahibs to the way nawabs lived in those times. Parsis of Bombay and shipping merchants of Calcutta are brought together by a common interest, Trade.

It also presents us with the fact that it is Trade that makes the world go round.  But for the profits yielded by India and China,  the British would not have bothered with us.  On the heels of their greed to eke profits out of these regions came the need to rule over us.

We are also apt to blame the mixed Hindi-English, called Hinglish, upon the youngsters of today.  The fact is, the British and Indians were mixing Hindi and English as far back as the 1840's! Language has always been a dynamic thing that tends to break out of grammatical stranglehold and morphs into something new every few decades.  If this was not true, we would still be speaking like Shakespeare.  In this book, we get plenty of examples of how language was also evolving, along with the way of dressing.

It is a wonderful tale that makes the times (1840-1841) come alive.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Han Suyin - The Four Faces

@Panthar Publications
.bought @Blossoms, Bangalore (2015)

Books also follow fashion. Just like a wide leg or a low-rise pair of jeans, a certain author becomes fashionable and all the book reading public must read him.  At such times, book shops and libraries are flooded with titles by the author.  Once the craze subsides, just like shopkeepers who would not stock bell bottoms on their shelves, the once popular books vanish off the book shelves and readers wanting to get their hands on such books are left looking for them in vain.

Somewhere in the 60's Han Suyin became very popular.  She wrote candidly about her experiences as a half Belgian half Chinese girl growing up in China. I was lucky that my stepmother, who came from USA, brought several books by Han Suyin along with her.  I read several books by her during the 70's and 80's.   I even owned a copy of And the rain my drink, an excellent, fictionalized account of the time Suyin spent in Malaysia. 

Despite the merit of her works, Suyin has gone out of fashion, and her books are no longer readily available.  Some old copies are up for sale in USA via Amazon, but that is it.  Such is the tragedy of the publishing world, and of most businesses. They are so driven by pre-configuration of profits that they sometimes kill ventures that could be profitable in the long run.  I was lucky to procure some of her books from Blossoms, the celebrated second-hand bookstore in Bangalore.

This book by Han Suyin was published in 1963. It is not the best book by her.  Yet it is full of her signature themes. The tussle between Capitalists and Communists.  A small Asian country reeling under the war between these two that is taking place at their cost.

This time the country is Cambodia. A group of authors have gathered here to take part in a conference that examines the merits of being 'neutral'.  Cambodia has no intention of being aligned with either the Communists or  the Capitalists.  Ulong Serap, a venerable Buddhist monk and a Prince is organising this conference. He is also famed for predicting the past.

The conference is full of a cast of varied characters, Gion, who is returning to Cambodia to get another look at Angkor Vat and also attend the conference.  His cousin, Sumipoon, is attending with her husband and a brood of children.  She is related to Ulong Serap.  She is a writer of several successful romance novels.

Sheila Manley is a there with her father and stepmother.  Her father is an economist, come to conduct a study in Cambodia.  Her stepmother Eliza is a famous model and is being photographed against the monuments.

Gion and Sheila fall in love with each other but carry too much baggage to admit it.  Gion is too wrapped up in himself to try and understand Sheila.  He finds himself becoming aloof and jealous every time she talks to another man.  When the real test comes, he finds himself treating her like an object, just like the other men around him.

There is a rich cast of characters in the novel.  Mary Faust is an aggressive activist who likes riding roughshod over others.  Chandra Das is an erudite Indian who is in the thrall of Mary.  Mary's mousy secretary, Mabel Despair who must come into her own if she has to survive. Apart from them there are several others, the Frenchmen, Lederer, Paulet and Jean Deroulede. some Pakistani and American authors that make the gathering international.

In this heavily intellectual backdrop, the characters often pontificate on the merits of being communist or not. "Meeting at such porridgy places as congresses are philocide," exclaims a character in the book.

Sheila becomes involved in passing drugs unwittingly.  It puts her life in danger at the hands of drug dealers. There is a threat of a coup as well. Then there is a stolen artifact. On top of all this there are some mysterious disappearances and some deaths. These are the four plots running parallel to each other. Suddenly an innocent conference turns sombre when all this things start happening.

Gion, who has long been inactive and passive to things around him, finds he has to pull his weight and act if he has to save his beloved Sheila.

This is not the perfect murder mystery.  It is too bottom heavy.  There is a surfeit of action in the last few chapters.  The early chapters are full of explanations about the many characters.  Despite these flaws, it is a unique look at the world of Intellectuals who talk much and act less. Han Suyin has satirized some existing intellectuals of the time.  If the murders that take place in the book were not so grim and tragic it could be seen as a light-hearted satire.

"The only constant is change" says Han Suyin at a point in the book.  I feel, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  The drug dealing that fuels wars and coup in this book now fuels terrorism. Drugs destroy the place it is sourced from. The growers and locals are ruined by its use and trading.  No one seems to benefit by such things but some well-muscled big countries.

Shiela stands for all that is innocent in this world, she is merely looking for laughter and love. Gion stands for the youth of the world, apathetic and useless. He refuses to act even though he understands how the world works.  His apathy causes more damage than the machinations of the evil.

"Each one of us a Bayon, a tower of many faces, eyes staring blindly towards the world, but actually only preoccupied with our own reflection." This quote from the book puts a finger on why our relationships fail.  It is because we are too preoccupied with our own self.

As a thriller, the book may contain flaws, but it scores heavily despite it because it makes you think.

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