Sunday, September 30, 2018

Chronicles of Brother Cadfael - Ellis Peters

Author: Ellis Peters (real name Edith Mary Pargeter)

If you are looking to latch on to a series of books that are unfailingly exciting from book to book, look no further. Of course, you must like historical fiction which are a detective series to boot. For us, Sherlock Holmes is also a historical series, but Brother Cadfael walked in England much much earlier.

It was the twelfth century in England. Civil War tore apart the people. King Stephan and Queen Maud strive to claw at power. The aristocracy is divided into two camps. The people, largely unattached to either, hope for peace and prosperity and will sing the praises of any who brings it to them. King Stephan is in the lead for now. Shrewsbury in England is behind the King.

In a Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael is living out his retirement. He was inducted late into the order, after he had served in the Crusade and worked as a Sailor. He has uncommon knowledge of herbs. He is tasked with maintaining the herb garden at the abbey and also tend to sick people. He is shrewd and observant. Time and again he is called upon to solve a mystery.

There is a formula is often followed in all the books. There is a murder and also a love story in the secular world. Brother Cadfael gets interested in the murder or is called to help. His knowledge of people and their passions is as extensive as his knowledge of herbs. He makes use of it to solve these mysteries and set the lovers on the right path. Often there is monk in trouble over his faith. Brother Cadfael helps him too.

Despite the formula, the sheer inventiveness behind each book makes them virtually unputdownable. I have polished off a complete book at a sitting, a feat I have not achieved much in recent times. Luckily for me,  scribd.com has the complete series on its shelves. I am having a whale of time reading them up.  I have completed about six or seven of the total twenty so far. The way I am going, I am sure I will finish all of them by the end of this year.

The era is faithfully depicted and rings true. I am not knowledgeable enough to vouch for it, but everything sounds right. The language, the clothes, the customs. By and large, the monks and men of God are depicted in a good light. They do have failings, one or two are evil but generally are wise and pious. Same goes for the aristocracy. They are also mostly favorably depicted, with some exceptions. The common people are usually hard working and solid, again, with some exceptions. In short, the times are hard, the war between Stephan and Maud is difficult for the people, but still they are doing well. This may not be the truth, but it makes a good setting for the mysteries when an occasional serpent comes along to cause trouble in paradise.

Brother Cadfael is Welsh and there is a lot of reference to the different way of life of Welsh people. Sometimes people from Cadfael's past turn up, with a bit of back story and we learn a little more about the short stout monk bent upon doing the right thing. The core story progresses from book to book, some characters remain constant and some change. At times the monk leaves Shrewsbury on a mission and discovers adventures in a new place.  Hugh Beringer, the deputy sheriff at Shrewsbury is the monk's best friend and ally. They often aid each other in solving mysteries.

I have enjoyed all the books in the series I have read so far immensely, but the last one I read - Virgin in the Ice was by far the best. There was the mandatory murder, a young love pair and a confused monk, but there was also intrigue, runaways, capture and a battle replete with daring rescues. This was the only book where I could not figure out the murderer.

I suppose I will write a bit more about the series after I complete them or after I have read some more books. I hope I have kindled an interest in book lovers about this very interesting series.









Thursday, September 20, 2018

Zen Cho - The Terracotta Bride

Publisher: Self (?)
Author: Zen Cho
Title: The Terracotta Bride

Sometimes a book recommendation can be very rewarding. This book was pushed into my recommended reading by Scribd and I am glad it did. It is a short book of merely 51 pages. A novella or a longish story.  Its breathtakingly gorgeous cover is what first attracted me to it. I am glad the 'inner beauty' of the book lives up to its cover.

Siew Tsin died at a young age, perhaps only 18. On reaching hell she was met by her great-uncle who promptly sold her to the richest man in hell, Junsheng. Good news is, all the paper money, paper servants, paper mansions, paper gramophones that the devoted relatives burn for their dead forbears does reach them. It can buy them a comfortable afterlife. Junsheng is reveling in the offerings of his successors.

Soon Siew Tsin finds out that hell has its own rules, corruption levels and ambitions. She is blind to everything around her, bent only upon keeping herself occupied. When her husband brings home a Terracotta bride, her perspective changes. She has to learn about things going on around her and fast, as she is in danger. Also she learns that one may have to go to hell and back to find true love.

The novel is a quick and a heady fix of fantasy. We are flung into an other-worldly atmosphere as soon as we open the book. The Chinese customs of dealing with the dead, tenets of Buddhism, reincarnation and even the Terracotta warriors are mashed together to create this tale. The writing is superb. The sentences are short and elegant. The irony of being alive in afterlife after death is brought out nicely from time to time.

She lived, dead, unnoticed by her husband, the household, and even by her own self. 
Until the terracotta bride came.

I was so impressed by Zen Cho, that I immediately read another book by her, another short novella. More about it later. This is surely an author to watch. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Shen Fu - Chapters from a Floating Life

Publisher: Oxford Press (1960)
Author: Shen Fu
Title: Chapters from a Floating Life
Translator: Shirley M Black
Read on: Scribd.com

I often fantasize about books written by amateurs, maybe for self indulgence or for the pleasure of a few friends. They maybe typewritten or even hand written, filling a few pages and ordinary copy books. They maybe be manuscripts by authors who never found publishers, or merely diaries by people meant to be kept secret and to the heart. These could be works to rival those of great masters, worthy of being read by many people and called classics. So many beautiful books out there destroyed because they were private or neglected. Why, even Jane Austen nearly suffered oblivion at one time. Now we cannot imagine literary scene without her.

It was happenstance that led Yang Yin to a bookstall where a manuscript lay among second hand books. Yang Yin was the brother-in-law of Wang Tao, who was a prominent writer and an editor of Shan Bao, a prominent Shanghai Newspaper.  These two meritorious gentleman rescued the beautiful autobiography of Shen Fu, a painter, from oblivion. The book became a instant hit with the readers of Shan Bao in 1877 and is still being read.

Shen Fu lived from 1763 to 1825(?) during the Qing Dynasty. Whatever we know of his life is recorded in his book.  Out of the possible six chapters only four were recovered. He had a lovely childhood in the lap of nature and was fortunate to find a soul mate in his cousin Shu Chen (or Yuen). They had an enviable married life without much discord. What plagued their life was their poverty. Shen Fu was a painter but he could not eke out a living with this. He often picked up work as a Yamen (secretary), but there was no permanent work and the couple was always in debt, forced to pawn their belongings and move from place to place (hence, floating life).

The book is lovingly translated by Shirley M Black. It is said to be very poetic in Chinese, you get the same idea when you read Shirley Black's translation. It is equally poetic and gives you the impression of floating down the river in a gently rocking boat. It was impossible to find any details about the translator. However, the foreword states that she rearranged the sequence of the book and modified some parts of the original book to make it easy for the western reader. Ever since I learned that, I have been wanting to find some other translation that provides the text in translation as it is. I hope to learn more about it.

The book has been adapted into a ballet. I feel it could make a beautiful movie as well, starting with the discovery of the manuscript, its popularity, search for the missing chapters that segue into the captivating story of Shen Fu.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rumaan Alam - Rich and Pretty

Publisher: Harper Collins
Author: Rumaan Alam
Title: Rich and Pretty (2016)
Read on Scribd.

Sarah is rich. She has a privileged life, high profile parents a steady boyfriend. Lauren is the beauty, she works hard for her living, is doing very well. She is not able to sustain a relationship much.  Sarah and Lauren have been friends since school. They have kept in touch throughout their twenties and thirties as well.  Yet, it is Sarah who is the manager of this relationship. She is the one who calls Lauren, fixes lunch appointments, keeps connected. Lauren seems merely to respond.

Lauren has many temporary relationships, which seem to go well at the outset. Yet the minute Sarah starts feeling that this one is real for her friend, Lauren breaks up. It is almost as if Lauren cannot stand any scrutiny of her personal life by her friend and set out to destroy it. It is almost as if Lauren does not really want to be friends with Sarah, it is like Sarah does not want to let her go.

There is no particular plot in the book, it covers a few decades in the lives of Sarah and Lauren, from growing school girls to young women in their thirties. They keep true to their types throughout.  At the end of the book, Lauren is more committed to being friends with Sarah, she is the one anchor in her life. She is her family and her center.

This is art imitating life. Our life has some milestones, but our stories do not 'end' at any particular point, unless you start with birth and end with death.

Alam is able to be in the moment and describe whatever is happening with conviction. Whether we are looking and Sarah and Lauren playing as school girls, or Sarah declaring her engagement to Dan (her long time boyfriend). We get a distinct impression that we are trespassing on the lives of two good friends with the help of the author.

I read this book a while ago and was impressed by it. Even though at times I felt like it was flat reading, understandable, as the intent of the author is not in giving us 'hooks' and 'denouements'. Instead we are allowed to travel with the girls for a few decades of their lives.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Nevil Shute - The Far Country

Publisher: Heinemann
Author: Nevil Shute
Title: The Far Country

Nevil Shute is an author who never disappoints. His books are charming and weighty. He often makes a socially relevant comment through his books. In his book 'On the Beach' he explored the idea of the world coming to an end because of nuclear radiation. In this book we find how war hits everyone's lives.

Post-war England is impoverished. 'Doctors are earning less than dentists.' says Ethel Trehearn. She is the widow of a Civil Servant who served in India. Her husband provided well for her but life had other plans. England left India and the pension funds dried up. The proud old lady is reduced to starvation. Medical aid is in shambles. The hospitals cannot accommodate an old lady who is ill. Her family, a daughter, her husband and a granddaughter are busy trying to eke out a living themselves. Mrs. Trehearn does not let on that things are difficult. She starts selling excess furniture and little bits of jewelry to survive. Until one day she faints from starvation. Her granddaughter Jennifer Morton comes to look after her and discovers how bad things are with Ethel.

Ethel has a niece in Victoria, Australia and has been corresponding regularly with her. The niece, Jane Dorman worries about some things that her aunt wrote and sends her a cheque for 500 pounds. Ethel is too far gone to enjoy the money and hands it over to Jennifer. She urges her to go away to Australia. Jennifer meets a lot of people during this time who seem to advocate emigration and are disillusioned with the way things are in England.

Jennifer finds Australia very beautiful. Her aunt, Jane Dorman is affectionate and accommodating. Jennifer is determined to explore Merrijig, Victoria, to the fullest. She goes everywhere with her uncle, even to far off timber camps. It is here that she meets a Czech Emigre Carl Zlinter. He used to be a doctor in the Czech army. He is a highly qualified surgeon. But according to Australian immigration laws, he has to work for two years as a laborer. After that, he has to appear for an examination to qualify to serve as a Doctor.

This girl from England and this doctor from Czechoslovakia fall in love. There are too many impediments in their way though. Carl cannot work as a doctor for many years yet, he has no money to qualify as a Surgeon again. Things are pretty hopeless for the young couple in love. Yet they decide to make the most of the time they have together. A little mystery pops up when they discover that there was another Carl Zlinter, a buggy driver who lived and died in Merrijig. They do not know but this long dead Carl Zlinter does hold a key to their happiness.

Unlike the ominous 'On the Beach', 'The Far Country' is a sweet little romance. The times are hard and everyone is suffering, yet young people will find their way into love.

I read this book years and years ago when I was a teenager. I read it again to refresh my memory and write about it. It is such a sweet book it deserves to be read by the younger set.  For quite some time it was hard to get any of Nevil Shute's books. Now I am glad Vintage Classics is publishing some of his well known titles. I need to read some more books by him, he is such a marvelous writer, he never disappoints. He has a great imagination and writes in a way that makes us empathise deeply with his characters.

In 'The Far Country' we learn so much about people who have left their homes in search of livelihood. Mario comes from Italy and is desperate to make enough money to bring his sweetheart over. Carl Zlinter cannot think of marrying as he has no money to settle down. Jennifer has also seen many hardships in England, the sight of plentiful tables in Australia amaze her. We feel deeply for them.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Pearl Buck - Pavilion of Women

Publisher: The John Day Company
Year: 1946
Author: Pearl S. Buck
Title: Pavilion of Women

My reading spree of Asia based novels continues with Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women.  I have read a few books of hers. The Good Earth, of course, it was very good. I read it very long back and have only a couple of memories of it. Peony was about the life of a concubine in a big house.

Pearl Buck's parents were missionaries and she lived for many years in China. It gave her a ringside view to the society and customs of the country. She has written about China (and other Asian countries) in times when people had very little knowledge of what went on there. I am sure her novels were seen as quaint and informative.

In the current times, we have a wealth of literature from all countries of the world. Written by native authors as well as foreign ones. Even if we do not want to read novels about other cultures we can read about the history and geography of any country that we want. All we need is inclination and time.

Coming back to this novel, the plot was unusual for its times. Ailien Wu has just turned forty. She has been married to Mr. Wu for the past 25 years. She has four living sons. Her long standing wish is to retire from married life. She does not want any more sexual attentions from her husband. To fulfill this, she sets out to seek a concubine for her husband. This is such an unusual move that everyone around her is aghast. Her best friend, Meichen Wang cannot fathom it and accuses her of not loving her husband. But Ailien is implacable. Her excuse is that she does not want the shame of a late pregnancy.

Secretly, Ailien feels suffocated by her role as the head of a large household. The Wu family is the most important in their area. In fact, even in far off places, her family is well known and respected. She has been bearing this burden, unflaggingly, for a long time. Now she wishes to call her time her own, her nights undisturbed by her husband.  She cannot forgo the duties of looking after the household or travel, but she can withdraw from her husband and active social life.

She finds that the problems of her family keep drawing her back into the fold. The new concubine is too sensitive to enjoy the benefits of living in a large, rich household. Her eldest son is happily married and bearing children but her other sons are impatient and unhappy. She has to find a bride for her third son. Even though she has withdrawn from life, she finds herself pulling strings and meddling in everyone's life.

It is the arrival of Father Andre in their midst that changes things for Ailien. At first she is rather wary of the Priest, afraid he will try to convert them. She finds he is merely a very spiritual and a wise person and wants the best for all human beings. He teaches her the right way to let go of the world. She learns this and as is customary, loses something for the knowledge she has gained.

The inner journey of Madame Ailien Wu aside, the novel seems rather hastily put together. There are many events that seem to be there merely for wrapping up the story. I cannot reveal them without spoiling the story.

Pearl Buck is supposed to have churned out many books on similar themes. Readers who have read many of her books will perhaps start recognizing the similarities. On its own the novel is a pretty good read but I expected something more from a Nobel Prize winner; more literary merit for one, which seems rather lacking here. There is no mention at all of the political turmoil that China faced in the late 1880s and early 1900s. 

 
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