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, 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:

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. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Margaret Drabble - The Red Queen

Publisher: Penguin
Author: Margaret Drabble
Author: The Red Queen

It is a coincidence that my post on Lady Hyegyong's Memoirs directly precedes the review of this book. I have read other books in the meantime; I wasn't able to write about them as I was traveling back to my home and struggling to get the house back on track after a long absence.

I came across this book when I was looking for Lady Hyegyong's memoirs. I set the book aside as it was available only as a paperback in India.  After I was relaxing after setting my house back in order, I ordered the book.

The first part of the book is titled "Ancient Times". In this part we get a chronological order of Lady Hyegyong's life. I say 'chronological order' because her diary touches on important events according the person she is addressing. When she is writing for her nephew, she touches on her early life and barely mentions 'that event', the death of her husband Prince Sado. When she writes for her son, King Jeonjo her narrative is different and she touches on events that are of importance to that era. She opens up about her husband only in the last part   Here, Margaret Drabble summarizes Hyegyong's life in correct order.

In the second part of the book we meet Babs Halliwall who is on her way to South Korea for a conference. She has packed some books to read, among them Lady Hong's (Hyegyong) memoirs which was a mysterious gift received from Amazon. She never really tracks who this gift is from. Reading the book on her flight, she is struck by the story and decides to visit the palace and the tomb of the queen.

Once she is at the conference she finds there are a lot of people who know about Lady Hong and are willing to help her visit the places the Crown Princess lived in. She also talks to the star of the conference, Jan Van Jost about the Crown Prince Sado and the memoirs of his wife. Jan Van Jost is equally captivated with the story and accompanies Babs on her pilgrimage to the Palaces.

The story of Babs and Jan obstructs the story of the Crown Princess which was supposed to dominate this book.  The tale tells us how memory travels, how books are adopted by various agents to make it more popular.  Yet the story of Crown Princess does not travel enough for us to get a sense of that.  Most people Babs meets in Korea already know about it.  She conveys it to Jan and later to another companion. It does not merit the effort the 'ghost' of Lady Hyegyong puts in to popularize her story.

Also the 'ghost' talks of parallels she has found in stories of other queens, a perspective she gains after she becomes a ghost and was able to access the information, interrupts the narrative.  Korea is merely a destination for Babs and never really comes alive, her visits to the Palace are desultory and not given enough mention.  It is Babs own story with Jan Van Jost that claims all the attention.

As for me, I was drawn to the story of Prince Sado after watching a South Korean historical TV series that featured King Jeonjo. He talked about his father Prince Sado and that set me off on some research about the unfortunate fellow. Subsequent viewings of Korean TV series based on the Kings who were Sado's predecessors and successors have honed my interest and knowledge. There is no evidence of such a wealth of information in the book.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lady Hyegyong - The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong

Publisher: University of California Press
Author: Lady Hyegyong
Title: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong
Translator: JaHyun Kim Haboush

I was reading one of my earlier posts today about Amanat's Inder Sabha where I talked about references in popular (mass appeal) art which often led to some classical works. This book is another case that supports that theory.

I have lately become addicted to watching Korean Series also known as K-Drama. They are unabashedly mainstream, depending on trusted tropes and situations. Their aim is to garner TRP's while constantly trying to gauge ways to please audiences. One such K-drama that I liked was Sungkyunkwan Scandal that was based in the times of King Jeongjo of Joseon Dynasty. Towards the end of the series things turned very political with the King wanting to find a poem written by his grandfather citing his regret over being forced to kill his own son.

I could not understand these references, hence I googled a little and came across a horrific incident that took place in those times.  King Yeongjo (Jeongjo's grandfather) had put to death his son Prince Sado by asking him to climb into a rice chest (a box that was about 4'x4'x4') and sealing it till he died a few days later. He was eliminated by such means because he could not be killed as he was a royal. If he had been disowned, his wife and child would also have been disinherited, or worse, killed.  Sado was asked to do this as he was mentally unstable and frequently killed people.  The information also listed that his wife, Lady Hyegyong wrote memoirs which described this incident in full detail.

Ever since, I had wanted to read these memoirs. Scribd.  thankfully had a copy. The memoirs are divided into 4 different years. The first few chapters are about the birth and life of Lady Hyegyong, how she was brought up by her virtuous parents, how she was selected to be the wife of Prince Sado. Later we read about various conspiracies that Lady Hyegyong's family members faced. The conspiracy part was rather tedious, frankly. Till now she spoke of the killing of Prince Sado indirectly, referring to it as 'that incident'. I thought that was all we were going to get. In the last chapter, after the death of her son King Jeongjo, she decided to write all about Prince Sado and what led to his end in full detail. This was because there were various erroneous opinion that she wanted to correct.

With admirable emotional restraint but with candor, she talks about Sado. How his father neglected him initially, keeping him away from positive parental influence and isolated among inferior maids and eunuchs. Later, as unsavory traits began building up in Sado, his father heaped scorn upon him, not caring to understand him or correct him. Things escalated to the extent that Sado became quite deranged. At one point Lady Hyegyong wished her husband had died of an illness rather that being forced to do away with himself. It was particularly touching to read this part. We become aware of how deeply she felt about seeing her husband being thus punished and the repercussions she faced all her life due to it.

It the the final chapter and the early one about Lady Hyegyong's life that are priceless. I can imagine what a rich source these memoirs were for historical scholars.

The translation by JaHyun Kim Haboush is truly excellent. At no point does the language rankle or seem inappropriate to the era. Lady Hyegyong wrote in Hangul and I am sure her language was courtly and formal, as befits a woman who tragically missed being a Queen. The same formal tone is conveyed in English. One can feel the loftiness of the original prose. Even while I was a little bored by the dull patches in the memoirs I never ceased being appreciative of the translation.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Philip Roth - Goodbye Columbus

Publisher: Houghton Miffin
Author: Philip Roth
Title: Goodbye Columbus

I read this book long back, in the late 1980s or early 1990's. I don't remember where I acquired a dog eared copy of this book. It was a big favorite of mine and I re-read the title story many times. In those days I read what I liked without trying to deconstruct why. I am like that still, at times, but writing many reviews had made me think more deeply about what impresses me about the book.

The book contains, besides the title novella, five short stories. But I will be talking only about the novella.

I revisited this book a few days ago to refresh my memory. It was like revisiting a much loved place. Neil Klugman lives in a middle class household in Newark. One day he meets Brenda Patimkin at an uppity club that his rich cousin has invited him to. He fancies Brenda and calls her up. They start meeting and Brenda seems to like him back. Her father is the owner of Patimkin Sinks and is very rich.

There is a divide between them despite them both being Jews. Brenda goes to a fancy college in Boston and Neil is a librarian at Newark library.  Can their summer romance survive the class difference.

The novella is full of details about the lives of Klugmans and Patimkins. Neil's aunt is obsessed about feeding different members of the family and remarks every time Neil incurs any cost. Brenda's mother also disapproves of Neil. Brenda also does not get along with her mother. The various uncles of Brenda slap Neil on the back and ask him to play his cards well with Brenda to be prosperous.

This young romance reminded me of Erich Segal's Love Story. That was a book about a WASP upper class boy who falls in love with a pretty not too rich Latino girl. In Goodbye Columbus the role is reversed and the shadow on the couple is not caused by ill health. In a way, Goodbye Columbus is like a more realistic Love Story. I adore Love Story but will admit that it is a mushy romance at its heart.

This comparison was brought even more sharply into focus for me when I found out that the film version of Goodbye Columbus had Ali McGraw in the lead role. She is the sweet, pert and witty Jenny in Love Story.  Brenda of Goodbye Columbus is not sweet, she knows the class divide between her and Neil and uses it to rile her mother. In Love Story Jenny accuses Oliver of liking her because of her middle class, non-white background. Brenda and Neil are also drawn to each other because of the gulf between them. For Neil, Brenda is a glimpse into a better life, and Brenda wants to show her independence by being with him.

It is a short novella, again like Love Story, but packs a lot more into it.  It cannot be read just as a summer romance.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Kevin Kwan - Crazy Rich Asians

Publisher: Anchor
Author: Kevin Kwan
Title: Crazy Rich Asians

The books starts with a Chinese family who walk in the rain to their hotel, Carltons, one of the poshest hotels in London. The manager takes one look at the bedraggled orientals in his reception and refuses them entry. The lady heading the group protests that they made confirmed reservations long ago, but are turned away. In desperation, she calls her husband in Singapore. A few minutes later, the group returns to the reception. The manager is irritated to see them back. That's when he spies the owner of the hotel with them and snaps to attention. Apparently, the lady's family has just bought the hotel. The first thing she does is to give the racist manager his marching orders.

The book starts with this anecdote to illustrate how rich some Asians can be.  Their daughters buy up couture collection before it is displayed. They buy jewelry, bags and shoes without inquiring the price. All this entitlement does not come cheap. The scions of these families have to toe the family line rigidly. They have to be good at studies, marry appropriately and multiply to please their families.

Then Nicholas Young throws a spanner in the works of his family by falling for an almost ABC (American Born Chinese) who has no background, no family to speak of. What of her education, intelligence and beauty - these are useless matters. Young's family gets together to break them up. It results in much fun and much heart break. But before that, we get an up close and personal look at how the Singaporean Chinese Crazy Rich families live.

The book was a fun ride. Designer Label names were thrown about recklessly. But it was not merely candy floss. We get a close look at how the high society of Singapore behaves. What a tight rope they walk. There are ones among them for whom the exercise is a cake walk. They were to the manner born, their wealth goes back for generations and their place in the society is decreed. There are others who have the money but not lineage. They are left scrabbling for power and position.  It is this 360 degree view of their society that makes the book such a compelling read.

Crazy Rich Asians has been made into a movie as well. It is garnering buzz. I took a look at the trailer and there seemed to be some departures from the book. I am hoping the movie is as much of a fun as the book was. There are two sequels to the book called China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.

When I was in the middle of the book I realised why I was enjoying the book so much. It was because the plot was so similar to many Korean Series that I have watched and loved. Dirt Rich Korean boy falling for dirt poor girl. No wonder I felt so at home. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kamila Shamsie - Salt and Saffron

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Salt and Saffron

Scribd threw up this book among a recommended reading shelf, based on my past choices. The name was intriguing and I picked up the book (i.e., opened the pages on the app) and dived right into the book. It was such a page turner that I was deep into the book before I realized that I had not saved it in my books. Easily remedied, as the name of the book was so catchy, I could not forget it if I wanted to.

Aliya is a compulsive teller of stories. She spends a long flight from USA to London captivating her fellow passengers with stories of her family. Her co-passenger Khaleel is impressed and just as they are getting to know each other better Aliya realizes he is from the wrong side of tracks.  She is a scion of a nawabi family that traces its roots back to Taimur the lame.  Also, she is drawn into the affairs of her family. Something terrible happened in her family because of which one of her aunts was ostracized.  Aliya had a falling out with her grandmother which is another issue that is rankling the family members.

Aliya finds herself confronting the history of her clan in a effort to understand the happenings of the present.  The story of Dard-e-dil, Aliya's nawabi family, has been handed down from generation to generation. They collaborated with Babur and later even tried to collaborate with the British, in order to maintain their independence. But Partition of India finally drove a wedge between the family and they were likewise divided. The how's and why's of this division form the backbone of this story.

I loved the easy telling of all the clannish tales.  All big families have stories that ultimately become legends, some embellished as they go along. It is all a part of our past when we had no other means of entertainment but telling of things. Here too there were numerous stories regarding encounters of various family members with household lizards. The story of the rift between three brothers who headed the family at the time of partition was likewise distorted and embellished in retelling.

The language finds the right balance between being faultless and mixed with just the right amount of vernacular to give it a desi feel. The exchanges between various characters are witty and replete with humor. It is like a more serious Moni Mohsin. Despite the light touch, the book addresses class divide which is the bane of all societies. Any book that harks back to the 1940s has to deal with the trauma of partition in this subcontinent.  As the migrants here were Nawabs, they did not steal across the border hiding in trains, having lost all their worldly possessions; they were taken across with an army convoy guarding them.

There are several reveals at strategic places in the novel. The problem of the ostracized aunt, Miriam is explained soon enough. The problem between Aliya and her Grandmother is also described in due time. The piece de resistance is the story of the triplet brothers in the 1940s. The story is good enough, but I was slightly disappointed that the story came from the lips of some characters. Surely a story that was so distorted needed to be found with more difficulty.  However, it is a minor dissonance, most of it in my mind, my opinion as a reader. The rest of the book is a delight and Kamila Shamsie is a find for me. An author whose works I will read with pleasure from now on.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Banana Yoshimoto - Goodbye Tsugumi

Publisher: Grove Press
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Translator: Micheal Immerich
Title: Goodbye Tsugumi

I had heard good things about Banana Yoshimoto's first novel Kitchen. It took me a long time to get hold of it. As the book was too expensive for me at the time, I scoured the net for a free ebook. I was not disappointed.

I have just started exploring Scribd. These days I like to check if the book is available on Scribd before I rush to buy it from other sites. I have noticed Scribd has a fair number of books by Asian authors. In fact, I was drawn to this app as it had books on which some K-series were based.  These are usually web novels in Korean and it is next to impossible to find them translated. Translators usually go for renowned works of fiction not pop art that feeds television series.  Yet there are some fans who translate these web-novels, bless their souls, and their compilations are on Scribd.

Back to Banana Yoshimoto, I wondered if she had written any books after Kitchen and checked in Scribd. Right enough, she has written several novels two of them, besides Kitchen, are on Scribd. I sent up thanks to the Book God who often sends me great books to read and dived right in.

Maria lives in Tokyo with her mother and father.  Whenever she faces hardships, she consoles herself by saying, 'This is not as bad as the things Tsugumi did.' To explain this phrase, she reminiscences about the time she spent in a little seaside village before she moved to Tokyo. Her mother was then mistress of a man who lived in Tokyo and was waiting for a messy divorce to finalize to legally claim his beloved and their daughter.

Maria's mother works at an Inn in the village which belongs to her sister and her husband. They have two daughters, Yoko and Tsugumi. Tsugumi, her youngest cousin is sickly.  She is not expected to last very long. Her illness has made her evil. She likes playing nasty pranks on everyone and speaks roughly with her sister and her cousin. Maria finds it hard to love Tsugumi, and finds it hard to hate her. They have developed a bond with each other despite the wayward behavior of Tsugumi. Most of the novel is about one summer that Maria spent with Tsugumi after she moved to Tokyo with her parents.

It is a coming of age novel. There is an undercurrent of imminent loss running through it, as Tsugumi is not expected to survive long. The loss is expected but has not happened yet as the three cousins live each day fiercely, savoring it.

The language is achingly beautiful, especially when it describes nature. What mars this beautiful prose is the colloquialisms used by the translator for the dialogue between the sisters - words like gonna, hey, wanna seem rather out of the place and made me grit my teeth. It is hard of course, to translate a book in another language faithfully, but I do wish the language had been neutral and not something an American Teenager may spew.

Yoshimoto's novels are quite short but intense. There are no extra add-ons and that enhances the focus on the subject.  I look forward to reading more offerings by the author. 

Monday, April 09, 2018

Maeve Binchy - Nights of Rain and Stars

Publisher: Orion
Author: Maeve Bincy
Title: Nights of Rain and Stars

We have several lovely ways of finding new books. Sometimes we find books by idly browsing through library shelves, leafing through some pages and deciding it is good to be taken. Sometimes through the book columns in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes through book clubs or book groups that you are members of. Sometimes you are gifted books that you fall instantly in love with. This book was posted on the Instagram page of my friend @eternal_fernweh. I liked what she wrote about the book and bought it immediately on Amazon.

It took me a while to get to it though. That is because this book triggered memories of other books that I had been searching for since long. I renewed my search and finally found them. So after I was done reading one of them, I turned to this. Like my aforementioned friend wrote I loved the way Maeve Binchy weaves everyday lives into lovely stories. With this book, Binchy joins the ranks of authors on my list who I want to read again and again. She ranks right there with Ruskin Bond, Anne Tyler, Alexander McCall Smith.

One one day Andreas spots a boat burning in the bay. He was busy in his restaurant high in the hill and not able to do much but look. He was joined by Thomas, Elsa, Fiona, Shane and David who had come to eat in his restaurant. Looking together at the tragic incident, too far to help, makes them feel a strange sort of solidarity.  In this little Greek village of Aghia Anna they keep running into each other. This is not exactly by design, it is such a small place that they cannot help it, more than that, they want to meet each other again and again. They find themselves mentored by Vonni, an Irishwoman who has lived in this place for the past thirty years.

They are all running away from some trouble back home. Thomas, from California, finds himself unable to share his son with his divorced wife and her new husband.  Everyone can see that Shane is a prize cad except his loyal, kind and loving girlfriend Fiona.  They have taken off from Dublin because, as Fiona endearingly believes, no one understands Shane. David, from London, is on the run from parents who expect him take over his father's business.  Elsa is absconding from Germany. She is in love with her boss but finds the relationship stifling. They are here to hide, rest and heal. But what is Vonni's story? What made her leave Ireland and live here?

There is much to discover in this lovely little book. Life in a tiny Greek village is so endearingly described that you wish you could pack your bags and go there immediately.

I wish I could call the book charming. It is charming but it is much more than that. It is an insight into people. The problems that the characters face in this book (indeed in life as well) are not merely bad bits of luck doled out by fate.  They are karma, results of the actions of these people. Their problems are not solved by fixing fate, but fixing themselves. They have learn to make amends, give up, return, accept offers of love and wait.  It is a feel good book, but makes you think about how you have to work to make yourself feel good.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Hope Mirrlees - Lud-in-the-Mist

Publisher: Collins
Author: Hope Mirrlees
Title: Lud in the Mist

It is curious how some books stay in your minds despite being largely forgotten.  All you remember is how impressed you were by the book, some details lingering, teasing you. I have often tracked down half forgotten books, aided by a few keywords. In case of this book, I remembered it was about straight laced folks in a town beset by fairy influence.  One by one, its citizens fall prey to the lure of fairies. Along with these plot lines I remembered a phrase 'blackish canary' used in the book.

After several failed attempts to locate the book based on plot, I typed the words 'blackish canary' in inverted commas in google and wrote 'book containing phrase'.  My search landed squarely on the amazon page of Lud in the Mist  almost as if the book wanted to find me too. A quick read of the plot of the book made me go 'Yes Yes Yes'.

I was surprised to find that the book was published first in 1926, not so surprised to find that it is a classic in the fantasy genre. More about the book after a quick plot outline.

Lud is a prosperous merchant town located between the rivers Dapple and Dawl in the state of Dorimare. The elite of Dorimare are a small group of merchants. They are conventional people, creatures of habit. The Mayor of Lud is Nathaniel Chanticleer, a man addicted to habit who loathes adventure. His familiar and humdrum life is disturbed by strange happenings. First his son admits to having eaten fairy fruit. He tries to control the situation with the help of the doctor, Endymion Leer. But things get out of hand when the students of Primrose Crabapple's finishing school run away to fairyland after consuming fairy fruit. Nathaniel Chanticleer is forced to forgo his staid ways and think out of the box to get the youngsters back.
The best description of the book I found was in this quotation ascribed to David Lanford and Mike Ashley,  "a moving book, shifting unpredictably from drollery to menace to a high poignancy that sticks in the mind".
Like all great fantasy novels, this is also an allegory perhaps, referring to the necessity of being receptive to new ideas and art. Nathaniel Chanticleer is opposed to change and like most of his upper class, fears any disturbance in his way of life. Fairy fruit that addles the mind and makes people dance is not even mentioned by them.

I found it to be a delightful mix of the droll and fantasy, almost like it was a mix of The Well at the World's End and Pickwick Papers. To get to the bottom of the fairy influence, Chanticleer has to exhume a murder case that is decades old. Which makes it a mystery also.  This mixes in well with the comic and fantasy elements of the book. The fictional world that Mirlees recreates is no less delightful than Narnia or the Middle World.  Do take a moment to consider that Lud in the Mist preceeds both, Narnia Chronicles and Lord of the Rings.

It is a magnificent book which must be on the list of all fantasy fiction readers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Anne Tyler - A Spool of Blue Thread

Publisher: Random House LLC
Author: Anne Tyler
Title: A Spool of Blue Thread

You can trust Anne Tyler to spin stories about people who are commonplace and unremarkable. If you pass them on the streets you will probably not give them a second look. Yet such a novel makes you pause and think about the wealth of details that make up each life. An old person has decades of stories behind him. If you had time to ask, you will find out that every person has some interesting bits of story to relate.

When we meet Abby, she is worried about her son Denny. He has just called and told his father that he is gay. Her husband, Red Whitshank, is typically taciturn about it. We learn later that Denny has long been a source of trouble for his family and likely to continue being so. Every time I read a book by Anne Tyler I picture the characters living in a spacious leaf lined house by a quiet road. Here the house is a prominent living thing which grew to life under the hands of Junior Whitshank who built it for others but fell so in love with it that he bought it off the owners.

The wide porch with a swing has seen many pattering feet, this is where Abby sat and swung slowly as she fell in love with Red.  We hear stories of three generations and leave when the house is put up for sale after a death. Abby is the centerpiece of the book and she binds the past present and the future together. All the characters are as flawed as ordinary people are and beg to be loved as they are.

Despite being a story of several generations it does not have the sweep of Searching for Caleb. It remains a story of a family going about their daily lives.  There is drama here, it is not highlighted and thrown in our face, as is the case with many books that seek to thrill its readers. It is merely stated and we are left to smile at it.  Tyler sketches the characters deftly and fills in the color with the times they live in. Junior Whitshank lived in depression and found it difficult to eat properly or provide for his wife. Abby and Red live comfortably with Red's construction business that he inherited from his father. His son Stem has carried on the tradition and managing the firm. His other son Denny is footloose and cannot hold down a career.

The book reminded me why I love Anne Tyler so much. There are readers who may find her middle class tales of ordinary people repetitive and humdrum.  What I see is a town full of people who are same but different. They follow different careers and have different stories. It makes her world so familiar and comfortable for me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Min Jin Lee - Pachinko

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Author: Min Jin Lee
Title: Pachinko

I found this book on my Scribd app.  Scribd app is like a paid subscription to a library which allows you read several books at less cost. I don't have to buy individual books. However, the books on offer are not unlimited, unlike on Amazon where you can get a vast number of titles. I was pointed towards this by a book group on Twitter which goes under #TSBC or #TSBCWedReads run by @TSBookClub. People are asked about the books they are currently reading every Wednesday and one can pick up good tips there.

Pachinko is about a Korean family that migrates to Japan around 1930. Despite their best efforts they find they cannot integrate into Japan. The reason is not poor assimilation on their part.  They are kept apart from Japanese because of deep rooted discrimination against the Koreans.

The story starts in Korea in the picturesque little Island town of Yeongdo near Busan. Sunja is the young daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin. After her father dies, she is busy helping her mother run a boarding house that they inherited from Hoonie's parents. Her life is humdrum but comfortable. Hansu is a businessman whose eye falls on this wholesome young girl. Sunja becomes pregnant and when she tells Hansu about this, he reveals that he is married but offers to keep the girl in comfort.  Sunja is shocked to learn this and rejects him.

One of the boarders at Yangjin's boarding house is a Christian Minister called Isak who offers to marry Sunja to give her unborn son a family name. He is leaving for Osaka soon to join his older brother and his wife and takes Sunja along with him. Sunja's son by Hansu is called Noa who suffers deeply when he learns about his birth. Sunja and Isak have a son called Mozasu who first goes to work at a Pachinko parlour.

Life in Osaka is not easy with the Japanese breathing down their neck and looking down upon them. Many misfortunes befall them but they persevere. Despite being good, hardworking and honest, they find they cannot make a headway in mainstream Japanese life.  They are relegated to ghettos.  The family eventually makes their fortunes in Pachinko parlours which becomes a symbol of the kind of life allowed to them.

Sunja's sons and grandsons achieve academic success they are not allowed into white collar jobs. Noa tries to do it but only at the cost of his identity. He pretends to be a Japanese and cuts himself off from his family. Mozasu's son Solomon finds it hard to work in a proper office even though he holds an impressive degree from a good college. Despite their education and qualification they are elbowed out.

The plot outline looks dull and depressing. It is not a book full of merry happenings but there was never a dull moment. The story proceeds at a breakneck speed, often jumping years to avoid tedium. It was close to 700 pages but I could barely put it down and completed it in 2 days. Like the book I read before this, it was a fast read.

Especially in these days when Immigration has become such a bad word globally, it is important to rake up the issue of how the host nation treats its immigrants. Even though the immigrants work hard and are honest, doing jobs that are shunned by others, they are treated sub-par and are never allowed to integrate. Often they wind up creating their own communities within the host nation.  It seems horrific but is true. It goes against the very tenets of humanity.

The book spans decades from 1910 to 1989. It starts from Korea and ends in Japan. The early parts of the book, set in Yeongdo, are breathtakingly beautiful. The author takes care with her characterizations. The life of Sunja's parents is described in detail. Sunja's seduction by Hansu is again well etched, with the author going deep into how Sunja's mind works. Later, the descriptions are not as unhurried and beautiful and story is trotted forward without much detailing.  Of course, if the pace of the book had remained the same, it would have reached nearly double its size. It is reminiscent of the times also. The early part of the twentieth century was unhurried and slow, later life also became fast and shallow.

By all means pick up the book. Do not let the number of pages deter you, reader. They will fly by, I promise.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Ava Dellaira - In Search of Us

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Ava Dellaira
Title: In Search of Us

I loved the author's first offering Love Letters to the Dead. I loved this inventive novel and  knew I had to pick up the second book by Ava as soon as it came out. I was already in middle of another book when this landed into my kindle on being launched.  So it took me a few days to get to it.

I started reading the book and felt a little disoriented, I could not really get my mind into it.  I wondered if this book would be a bad follow up to the wonderful first one. But as soon as I reached page 24, I found myself melting into it. I paused and retraced my steps from the first.  This time round I had no problems hooking in.

Marilyn is a single mother who has struggled to raise her daughter, Angie.  She has risen from being a waitress at a local diner in Albuquerque to being a bank manager. She is eager to let her daughter have all the love and care that was denied to her by her mother. When she is sixteen Angie discovers some pictures of her father that her mother had kept from her. This makes her dig around and find out that her father's brother is alive.  She wants to find out more and takes off to Los Angeles to search for her uncle.

One of the first things that occurred to me was that this was a little like Gilmore Girls, with more angst and less humor. There are some similarities of course. Like Lorelai, Marilyn is 17 when she finds herself pregnant.  They are both single mothers trying to raise their daughters without the intervention of their families. But that's where the similarities end. There is nothing open about Angie's parentage.  Marilyn has kept many things from her daughter.

Angie is biracial as her father was an African American. This has often resulted in problems for Angie as people did not immediately assume that Marilyn and Angie are mother and daughter, especially as the father is absent.

The story is told in the voices of Marilyn and Angie, when they were/are at the age seventeen. So we go back in time for Marilyn's story and come back to the present for Angie's. Marilyn's story is about her deep and abiding love for James, her neighbor, who is able to make her forget her miserable life and plan a hopeful future.  In current times, Angie is on the way to Los Angeles in search of her uncle Justin.  She hopes he will be able to lead her to her father James and also provide the missing pieces of her past.

The story is so well crafted and so well told that I was loath to put down the book.  I kept racing through it and completed the book in two days, a sort of a record for me in recent times.  The finale, the reason why Marilyn ran away from everyone when she found herself pregnant with James' child is well worth the wait to find out.  The racism that James and his daughter Angie encountered is heart rending.

I loved the love story of Marilyn and James. Marilyn's feelings of being in love, of being in lust are so well expressed. The best part of this book is the image of these innocent children exploring life and wanting good things for each other.

The present time love story between Sam and Angie was quite unnecessary I feel. Angie wanted to know about her father to feel more complete, it should not have tied up to her inability to open up to Sam. Manny lurking in the background as someone who has a long time crush on Marilyn is a bit of a cardboard cut out. Cherry and Miguel are there for convenience. Angie, Marilyn, James, Justin,  Marilyn's uncle and mother are the well fleshed out characters. They are the ones who are really integral to this beautiful story.

What I did not like so much was the neat wrapping up at the end. I guess I would have liked something left a little open to interpretation. Once the truth was out, the characters should have had a little more flexibility than falling into predictable slots.

I will be thinking about 17 year old, beautiful, full of promise, aspirational couple James and Marilyn cavorting on the beach for a long long time.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Catherine Lowell - The Madwoman Upstairs

Publisher: Touchstone
Author: Catherine Lowell
Title : The Madwoman Upstairs

Sometimes you stumble across a book which is completely to your taste. It is like browsing in a library, looking through a few pages and saying to yourself, 'I know nothing about this author but I will try reading it.' This feeling is precisely why I love browsing books in a library. 'If I don't like it', I think,' I can always return it.' There is no commitment via a purchase to hound you if you don't like it. 

I was a member of a private library called Browser in Chandigarh. For some amount, you could read any of the books on offer there.  If you wished, you could also buy a book from their library at a discounted rate. It was a good arrangement, but the library was far from where I lived and it was a bit of drag to come and go.  Now I have an app called Scribd where I pay a subscription and can read any of the books on display there. They don't have every book under the sun, but a good many. I get the same library experience without the pressure of due dates and visits.

I found The Madwoman Upstairs on Scribd. Just like I would do in a regular library, I flipped through a few pages and was hooked.  It is about a young woman Samantha Whipple, who has come to Oxford to study English Literature and is assigned to the dishy Professor Orville. Samantha Whipple is famous, she is the last living relation of Patrick Bronte, the father of the Bronte sisters. This has brought her a lot of attention, most of it unwanted.  Her father, Tristan Whipple was an avid student of his famous ancestors and an author in his own right.

Her father is now dead but the rumor is that he hid some Bronte relics. There are people who are interesting in knowing more about them and are hounding Samantha. She has to grapple between her own theories about her famous cousins, trying to locate the said relics and learning more about her eccentric father. On top of all this, she has to fight her attraction to the dishy Orville who is never happy with the papers she turns in.

If you like this kind of a book which is chockablock with literary allusions you have hit jackpot. Read this ASAP.  It is funny and smart, but without any pretensions. It propounds some really wild theories about the B sisters which are fun. Samantha is fixated on Anne Bronte, so get ready to hear some things about the least famous Bronte. The tower that Samantha lives in as a student is about as Gothic as the tower that Bertha Mason was locked up in.

It is not exactly a derivative as it references the books by Brontes directly. It references even the best known derivatives, Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea. Yet when you are ready to snap the book shut after a very satisfying end, you realize the book was a derivative after all, maybe of The Professor? The epilogue has a dreamy feel that makes you wonder, did this really happen?

It addresses the madness that descends on Literature students who want to unravel the lives of famous authors and find clues to what led them to write the books. The book, for this reason, kept reminding me of Possession by A.S. Byatt. Byatt had created a fictional writer and  his body of work. It was brilliant. Yet this book by Catherine Lowell does not pale overmuch by comparison, as it is very good. You will fall in love with the quirky, socially awkward, Bronte loving character of Samantha Whipple.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Greer Hendricks Sarah Pekkanen - The Wife Between Us

Publisher: MacMillan
Authors: Greer Henricks Sarah Pekkanen
Title: The Wife Between Us

Right in the first chapter the new bride to be is frightened when she thinks she just saw someone in her wedding dress. The image instantly reminds you of Jane Eyre. This feeling gets stronger when you read on to find that a soon to be married young couple is being stalked by a jealous, paranoid ex-wife of the groom.

Charlotte Bronte wrote about the mad wife in the attic because it was such a great twist, one of the best ever.  How can a couple in love ever surmount a problem like this? With Rochester married to a mad woman from the Caribbean, how could Jane ever be with him. This angle has been used so often in literature after this.  This book, however, starts at this point.  In these times, divorces have made it possible for married people to get unmarried and marry others. Yet, how does one tackle a jealous ex-wife who does not seem to be able to move on?

The book moves at a steady pace and there are many revelations, strategically placed, that alter your perception of the characters.  Halfway through, you don't who the bad guy is. It could be any of the protagonists. The husband Richard, is handsome, successful and rich.  He is a dream boyfriend, caring and understanding. But he takes unilateral decisions in the relationship and looks a little controlling. Vanessa the ex-wife is haunted by her breakup.  She is an alcoholic and seems paranoid. But is she more sinned against than sinning? The new wife is sweet as sugar and malleable but are her intentions honorable? Is she in this just for the love of Richard?

There are a minimum of characters which keeps the story lean and focused; Sam (Vanessa's roommate and bestie), Aunt Charlotte (the only family Vanessa has), Vanessa, Richard and his new bride-to-be, Richard's sister Maureen. I was rather amused to note that Richard is the only major male character.  So long women have cribbed that the spotlight was taken by male characters and at times (Lord of the Rings being a particular case) female characters few and far between.

I loved the way the story moves, you are taken through many bends and at each bend you are surprised and drawn in. This is very skillful as the narrator is only one.  It can be easy to narrate different viewpoints through different voices but to narrate different viewpoints through only one voice is very tricky.  It has been handled to great effect.  My only grouse with the book is that the climax was not as clipped and quick as the rest of the book. It was rather long drawn.  I am sure many readers will love the climax nevertheless. It did not spoil the book for me though.  I still love it.

There was a long queue on the book in the library, I can see why.  It is a new release and has got rave reviews.  I was also swayed into reading this book by one such recommendation and am glad I did.

It has been likened to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Like these books, you don't know what is coming next. Which character is going to do a perception change next? However, despite these similarities, this book is not a copy of those previous best sellers.  It is very much its own book and well worth picking up.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Alexander McCall Smith - Love over Scotland

Publisher: Anchor Books
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Title: Love over Scotland

Alexander McCall Smith is among the top of my favorite writers. He is contemporary, successful and consistent. He is most famous for his series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  I was in love with his Isabel Dalhousie series and was feeling a bit bereft when it ended.

I read 44 Scotland Street, the first book in this series quite a while ago. The title is the address of an apartment block in what is known as Edinburgh's New Town. The first book was primarily about some tenants of the apartment block. Pat is an art student who works part time at Matthew's art gallery. Irene and Stuart are a young couple in the same apartment block. They have a gifted young son called Bertie. Another resident, Domenica, is a social scientist.

There are short chapters that carry the story forward slowly, focusing on one or two characters at a time. So far I have read only two books in the series and they seem to chart the happenings a year at a time.

On the surface, the book seems to be full of small incidents, not very remarkable at times.  I soon realized that our life is like that.  There are a series of small events, things we would not even bother to recount to our friends but collectively they make up our lives.  Just when we are getting used to the small incidents, something big happens. Angus' dog Cyril is stolen, Bertie gets left behind in Paris by his orchestra mates

I was reminded of Sketches by Boz and also Pickwick Papers the latter especially when things get very funny. There were many times that I found myself laughing out loud.  The characters have their quirks which are well exploited by the author.  I found the exchanges between Irene and her son, Bertie very funny. Irene is very determined about what her son should do and rides roughshod over his feelings.  Most times Bertie just wants to be left alone which is something Irene never listens to.

Matthew was my favorite character in the first book and I was happy to see him more successful in this book.  Angus Lordie, Big Lou, Domenica, Pat, Matthew, Bertie, Stuart, Irene are described with such warmth that we cannot help feeling attached to them. 

I am glad that there are 12 books in the series, I can have a whale of a time reading through them.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Suki Kim - The Interpreter

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Suki Kim
Title: The Interpreter

Who are Interpreters? Those who convey the meaning of what is said in one language in another? Or those who interpret one way of life to another?

Suzy Park makes a living as an interpreter.  Her job is to translate the questions that the lawyer asks Korean people who are not conversant in English and also interpret their replies.  Interpreting comes naturally to her.  She spent her life doing it.  Her parents could speak only Korean and she and her older sister Grace habitually translated to and fro for them.

Until she left home, kicked out by her father when he found out that she was sleeping with a married man.  Some years after this, her father and mother were killed in their store, shot through the heart. Suzy goes into a tailspin.  She is heartbroken that she never got a chance to make up with her parents. What's more, her sister Grace has cut off all ties with her. 

She flounders through life until one day she chances upon a man who mentions her parents during his deposition. There is more to the murder of her parents than meets the eye. Only a person who knows the nuances of the way a Korean thinks can solve this tangled mess. In the process we get to see the messy underbelly of illegal immigrants, caught in a corner, working hard but never really making it. Some fall into depression and some turn to unsavory acts to survive.

While the first generation of immigrants is trying to make ends meet and survive in a country where everything is alien to them, the children have a task of their own.  Part of them wants to blend in to the American culture, part of them wants to stay true to their own culture. They are forever at odds with their own selves.

How fast you go though a novel depends on how interesting you find it. I was barely able to put down the book. (My kindle actually.) I am still a little panda-eyed from having stayed up to finish the book.
The book starts slow and you wonder why the protagonist, Suzy, is so full of angst.  Soon we are in thick of things. 

Even though the book is about murder and the mystery surrounding it, it cannot be called a thriller.
It can be called a noir psychological murder mystery which has to be solved, not so much by chasing after things, as by interpreting the events that have taken place in the past.

The interpreter, however, is the shadow. The key is to be invisible. She is the only one in the room who hears the truth, a keeper of secrets.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya - Parineeta

Publisher: Kadambari Prakashan
Author: Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya
Title: Parineeta
Translated into Hindi from Bengali by N. Chakravarti.

My eye was arrested by a book in Vietnamese language when I was browsing among the shelves of Jungman Neighbourhood Library in Houston. My mind had just started forming the thought, if they have books in Vietnamese.... when my eye fell on a shelf full of Hindi books. The pickings were slim, there were barely fifty books on that shelf. Quite understandable, they were trying to represent world literature and had to cater to so many languages. I had to take one, it had been a long long time since I read a book in Hindi. I picked Parineeta by Saratchandra. This was the only book by him here.

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya was a renowned Bengali author and this book has been translated into Hindi by N. Chakravarti. It is more like a novella really, a longish short story. It took me perhaps an hour or so to read it. I am pretty sure everyone knows the story well.  Lalita lives in Calcutta with her uncle who has been her guardian ever since her parents died.  Her uncle Gurcharan makes very little money and is a troubled man because he has to provide dowry for his daughters.  He has already mortgaged the house to his greedy neighbour Navinrai for a loan which he incurred when he was marrying off his second daughter. He is very fond of Lalita but is worried about her marriage.

Gurcharan has two neighbours that his family is very close to. Navinrai on one side and Manorama on the other. Navinrai's house is connected to Gurcharan's by way of a common roof. The children keep dropping into each others houses at all hours. Navinrai is a greedy man but his wife Bhubneshwari is a kind and an affectionate lady who is particularly fond of Lalita. Their younger son Shekhar is also very fond of Lalita.

Things get moving when Manorama's cousin Girin comes to stay with her.  Girin is attracted to Lalita and tries to spend time with her.  Shekhar is jealous and it changes the way he looks at Lalita.  On an impulse they exchange garlands with each other. Shekhar kisses Lalita to seal the deal. Things happen to keep the couple apart.  Their marriage is secret and sacred - to Lalita at least. Their families, however, fall out with each other.

Navin Rai is angered when Gurucharan pays off his loan and gets back the papers to his house.  Navin Rai was plotting to turn Gurucharan out of his house and build it over as a new unit for his second son, Shekhar.  Gurucharan, under the influence of Girin, turns to Brahmo Samaj.  Navin Rai is furious at Gurucharan for losing his religion and constructs a wall between their homes on the roof, stopping the easy access they had to each others house.

I will stop here with the plot.  Those who have seen the movie or read the book will know how things unfold for the couple. There are two Hindi movies based on the book that I have seen. One is Pradeep Sarkar's and the other is Bimal Roy's film made in 1953 starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari as Shekhar and Lalita. The Bimal Roy movie is far superior to the one made in 2005 by Pradeep Sarkar. For one, the actors in the Bimal Roy movie do not get larger than life. Second, the movie follows the book very closely.  Even the dialogue from the book is used to great effect in the film.

The Bimal Roy film departs from the book in a few major ways.  In the book Lalita is barely fifteen at the time of the exchange of garlands, in the movie her age is not discussed but she seems to be older.  In the book Girin marries the younger daughter of Gurucharan who is much younger than Lalita, but in the movie the girl is as old as Lalita. The ages of these girls were tweaked with to keep in mind the 'modern' times as the book was written in 1914.  The movie chickens out of the issue of Gurucharan changing his religion. In 1953 this idea was still very radical, and not something a viewer would accept easily.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It is a very slim book. Yet Saratchandra delineates each character with care. Interestingly, the good and the bad characters are married to each other. Navin Rai is greedy and divisive. He would happily toss Gurucharan out of his house and force him into penury just to add more to his wealth.  He is deeply entrenched in his regressive views and is untouched by any feelings of kindness.  His wife, Bhuvneshwari is the epitome of kindness and love.  She is forever trying to make things easier for others.  She wants Shekhar to look at the girl he is to marry before committing to her. She loves Lalita like her own daughter and worries about her.  When she learns about Gurucharan's conversion, she is not disgusted, she understands why he did that and wants to leave a door open for him.

Lalita is a submissive girl, docile and yielding.  She is firm about not giving up on Shekhar, even though he does not give her any positive signal post their 'marriage'. Her firmness of character and loyalty to Shekhar wins him back in the end.  Shekhar is the most interesting character and the one that develops the most.  At the start he is bossy about Lalita, then he gets very jealous when she is in proximity of Girin. After the impulsive exchange of garlands with Lalita, he kisses her on the lips. Later he feels it was a flash of physical attraction and also is too scared to follow up the wedding with acknowledging it. He is relieved when Lalita leaves with her family to go with Girin to Munger, he feels like he need not be responsible for her any more. After she goes, he starts missing her and finally realises he is in love with her.

I was shocked at Lalita's young age in the book. It was written more than a hundred years ago, I had to remind myself.  Saratchandra's views on the ills of society were quite radical.  Gurucharan's problem is that he has four daughters and has to marry them off with decent dowry each.  His back broke when he had to marry his second daughter.  He took a private loan from Navin Rai by mortgaging his house. Now he finds himself unable to pay back his loan. He feels ditched by his community when they are quick to lay down rules but not generous enough to help him. In fact, despite the fact that he is also a Brahmin like Navin Rai, the two do not even contemplate a wedding between their children because Gurucharan is too poor to afford the kind of a dowry Navin Rai expects.

Saratbabu also admitted that Shekhar kisses Lalita out of physical attraction, in itself quite a forward looking, I think. Something that Bimal Roy wasn't ready to depict on screen even in 1953.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kathryn Stockett - The Help

Title: The Help
Publisher: Penguin
Author: Kathryn Stockett

There are times when you feel like thanking the movie for leading you to the book.  One fine day I found myself watching the movie, The Help on television.  I was impressed, it was a very well made movie, very engrossing. Much later, a week or so ago to be exact, I came across the book.  My daughter had picked it up from the library and it was lying around.

Like the movie, the book just drew me in. The major players are a handful of women, Skeeter, Hilly, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Minny and Celia. Yet they recreate a mini world where the voices of thousands of white and black women resound. The period it is set in, 1963-64 is exciting and when things are on a very important cusp of change.  On the one hand there are conservatives who want things to remain as they are and then there are those who are impatient to move forward.

Skeeter is a fresh graduate with a college degree. She wants to live in New York and work for a magazine.  On an impulse, she applies for a job with a publishing firm. She finds an unexpected but a tough mentor when Elaine Steen replies to her application with some sage advice. Skeeter is asked to look for a job at the local paper and find something big to write about if she wants to be published.  Skeeter starts thinking about something exciting to write about and gets a job at the local paper writing housekeeping tips. The irony is, Skeeter has never done a day of housework and is not qualified for writing about housekeeping. So she starts taking help with the tips from Aibileen, who is the help of her childhood friend Elizabeth.

In the upper cream of society, the well born women, Hilly is the undisputed leader. She runs the league, she calls the shots on who is in and who is out. Like lemmings, the other women follow suit. Hilly does not use her position wisely, she is mean and a bully.  If you cross Hilly, you might as well leave Jackson.  Skeeter finds herself heading for a face off with Hilly. It could break her and turn her into a pariah in Jackson.

Skeeter finds the big idea she wants to write about, the plight of black maids in Jackson.  It would be in the form of a series of interviews. Skeeter enlists Aibileen for the job. If the word got out that they are writing about this, they could face death.

The hardest part of the job is to find at least five or six other maids who would be willing to help them. No one is willing to help them. Minny is Aibileen's loudmouth friend. She is forever getting into trouble because of her short temper. Minny is wholly against the idea of the book, but agrees to share her stories reluctantly. Minny has done something unthinkable with Hilly and is apprehensive.

Skeeter cannot blame the black women for not wanting to get involved with her book, but she knows it will not work unless she gets some more women willing to share their heartbreaking stories. Will she be able to complete her book at all? Will it be good enough for publication?  I knew what was about to happen, yet I was turning pages, eager to find out more.

This is Kathryn Stockett's debut novel and boy, what a novel. Such sparkling characters, fleshed so beautifully, Hilly, Skeeter, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Minny. Their deeds and misdeeds have us flipping pages.  I had seen the movie and knew what was coming, yet I was eagerly turning pages to find out more.  Frankly, the movie had such good actors that I had no trouble at all visualising the characters.

Most of all, I loved the way the era is brought to life in the book. The slower life, the heavy dependence on 'society' for entertainment. The way TV is beginning to dominate lives, the slow onslaught of new ideas, the events. Kennedy's death, Man in space, the advent of television remote, air conditioning, women wearing frocks with shorter hemlines, the hair. This charming world has dangerous undercurrents when a black man can easily be disposed of. But even that is gradually changing.

This is a novel about women and men are a little too absent from it. There is Leroy, the abusive husband of Minny. There is William, Hilly's husband. Skeeter's father gets a bit of footage. The one most in evidence is Stuart, Skeeter's boyfriend. Skeeter knows his faults, but is overcome by her need to have a man in her life.  It is a very real situation. Not that you really miss the men, you know.

Hilly is a little too much in control, I felt.  Surely there were many older women who were around who would not have put up with her bullying. However, we can take Hilly, Elizabeth and Skeeter as the three types; Hilly is bossy and very conservative, Elizabeth is helpless and too much of a follower, Skeeter is the forward thinker and an agent of change.

The movie is more or less faithful to the book.  It has shortened some parts, the labour, the time, the fear and secrecy in which Skeeter's book is written. It has added some very valuable parts about Skeeter's mother and the story behind the sacking of their Help, Constantine. The movie version of it was much better.  I felt the book did not bring out the tragedy of Constantine well enough.  After all, it is Skeeter's bond with Constantine that spurs her on to find out more about other black maids.

I will end with a lovely quote from the book.

Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky hot body.  Cooling a heat that's been burning me up my whole life. Truth, I say inside me head again, just for that feeling.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Han Suyin - The Enchantress

Publisher: Bantam Books
Author: Han Suyin
Title: The Enchantress

Han Suyin is now out of fashion, her books are forgotten and out of stock. I read her in the 70s as some books of hers were scattered around our house.  My mother was a fan of hers, soon I was too.  I have never passed up a chance to pick up her books and have been greatly enriched by them.

The story begins in 1752 near the city of Lausanne where Colin Duriez lives with his twin sister Bea, his older half-brother Valentin and his mother and father. His father is a former pastor who gave up his calling to marry his mother.  The love between them is great. His father makes automata, little machines that are able to walk and do things.  His mother makes linen and lace and also ministers to woman with troubles who come to her for healing.

From this pastoral paradise, Colin and Bea are forced to undertake a long journey to Malabar, Yangchou and finally to Ayuthia. They find themselves in love with the beauty of Thailand and dazzled by the riches of Ayuthia. This is the eponymous enchantress. Here their life is blessed and they find love.

The riches of Ayuthia also draw the enemies to her. Burma invades her frequently. The King of Siam, Ekkathat is senile and under the influence of evil courtiers. General Taksin, half Chinese and half Siamese puts up the only resistance. Bea has long been in love with Taksin, a feeling that is not reciprocated.

The beauty of the book lies in vivid descriptions of lives in Lausanne, Geneva, Malabar, Yangchou and Ayuthia in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It was a colourful time when the world was on the cusp of the age of science.

Han Suyin's beautiful language brings to life those times.  We cross the seas with Colin, feel the journey arduous with him, are captivated by the sheer color and magnificence of Asia along with him. It is not so much a story as an experience.  I was led to believe that The Enchantress of the title is Bea Duriez, by the picture of a beautiful girl on the cover. It was actually the City of Authiya that was the true enchantress

I visited Ayutthya just a couple of months ago in November 2017, and took pictures of the Chedis burned down by the Burmese. Many golden Buddhas were hidden downstream by the Buddhist priests, these floated down and were rescued by the people and installed in various new chedis. The magnificent gold statue in the Emerald  Palace in Bangkok was also rescued in the same fashion.  The King's Palace was razed to the ground and Ayutthya is dotted with such ruins.  I saw the beautiful canals, the lush greenery of the place, and could imagine just how enchanting the place must have been in its full glory.

The seductive and vibrant Far East comes alive in this book.  We learn of the brave, heroic and prescient Taksin who is able to halt the Burmese, wrest the land back from them and lay the foundation of the modern day Thailand.

The story of The Enchantress just not end with sack and recovery of Ayuthia, it continues in Lausanne and ends in a most unexpected fashion. I was blown away by the last part of the book.

The book is so rich in detail, so evocative that it is perfect for a movie version or even a TV series. How I wish someone would bring it life on screen.