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.

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