Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Anne Tyler - Breathing Lessons

Maggie is a nursing assistant at the geriatric hospital in Baltimore. Her husband runs a framing shop. Maggie's high school friend is facing bereavement and wants them present at the memorial service. Maggie's life is ordinary and unambitious. All she yearns for is that her life be unchanging and full. She wants her children around her. She wants her son's broken marriage patched up again, she wishes she had her granddaughter around her. She wishes her daughter was not going away to college. She is willing to alter the truth and meddle around till her objectives are achieved.

Breathing Lessons is the a day in the lives of the Morans. It starts from their drive from Baltimore to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, and ends when they are ready to sleep. Throughout the events of the day Maggie re-lives a lifetime. She goes back and forth in time, and acquaints us with the pretty picture of Ira and Maggie, in love and content with each other. Maggie wishes for her world to be fuller and more perfect, to encompass her children and grandchildren too. Ira is content to have just Maggie around him.

The charming ordinariness of their lives comes alive through the magical descriptions of Anne Tyler who crafts her characters with love. She breathes a life into them and makes them come alive for us. She has an uncanny ability to weave a story out of everyday happenings. She knows exactly when to imbue a character with mystery and when to strip it away. In the end, we wind up knowing everything about all the characters, and loving them all the more for it.

We love Ira for his mysterious ways when he is wooing Maggie, and we love him all the more when we realise that he regards Maggie as a huge gift, someone to love when he had no hopes of having anyone. We love Maggie for the scatterbrained way in which she tries to fix things and winds up making them worse. We love Ira and Maggie for loving each other and living their lives and braving the various domestic storms.

"I mean you're given all these lessons for the unimportant things - piano-playing, typing. You're given years of lessons in how to do in normal life. But how about parenthood? Or marriage, either, come to think of it. Before you can drive a car you need a state-approved course of instruction, but driving a car is nothing, nothing, compared to living day in and day out with a husband and rising up a new human being." (from Breathing Lessons, 1988)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

This book of Mark Haddon's is really difficult to write about. I had picked it up out of the library and had no idea about it.

In recent times, I find it hard to read a book at one go. Too many distractions at home, my attention span is getting lesser. But this book I read in one go. I rolled on my stomach, Sat up, lay on my back, my feet up, sat on a chair, kept moving so that my body wouldn't get jammed up. But the book I could not put down. That should describe the grip the book got on me.

What is the book about? Now even describing that will give the story away. So all I will say is that the book is about a young man, a very young man who had trouble dealing with people. He tries to solve a mystery. Someone put a gardening fork right through the neighbour's dog, and Christopher wants to find out who did.

His attempt to unravel this little mystery spills secret out of all corners of his little life.

The novel is about growing up and also parenting. Parents think they are doing a favor to the children when they are trying to shield them from Truth. Not True, in fact they do them a big disservice.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Neel Kamal Puri - The Patiala Quartet

The Patiala Quartet by Neel Kamal Puri, pages 174

It is easy for me to be overwhelmed by nostalgia while reading this book. It is set during the 80s and 90s when I was living in nearby Chandigarh. These times are my times, this is my language and my culture.

Two sisters of a royal lineage belonging to Patiala marry into different families. Minnie and Monty's mother marries a businessman without any pedigree, Karuna and Micheal's mom marries right Their lives are undone by defunct husbands. One is defunct because his business fails, another because he chooses to while is time away like a rich wastral. Their unhappy life has a bearing on their children. What happens to the children is what forms the story. They go through their lives falling in love, falling into depression, falling from motorcycles. They see happiness, severence, tragedy, accomplishment in the short span of their youth.

The story is plausible and meaty, what undoes it is lengthy digressions that seem to pop up at the wrong spots. You can't write about Punjab in the eighties and nineties without talking about the effect of terrorism on the lives of people who lived there. So it is written about, but again, as I said earlier it does not integrate well with the story and has a choppy effect. The story of the four cousins is touching and you feel for all the characters. They are pretty well etched.

The language, the idiom, the dresses, the ambience of Punjab of the day are well brought out. The peculiar traits of kakas (rich young boys) and their ways are well described. It is pretty funny in parts. That kept me turning the pages. I liked the feel of the book. I wish there was a good editor handy to hand out some good tips that would have enabled the author to refine the tale better.

The language goes from lyrical to okay in a matter of one paragraph.

Now, as I said right in beginning, I am familiar with the language, place, culture and people. I have no idea how a person who does not belong here feel about it. The novel lacks clarity and a lay person could fail to understand what is going on.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Khushwant Singh - Delhi

I knew of Khushwant Singh when he was at the prime of his career. He was editing the Illustrated Weekly of India and wrote some pretty irreverant stuff. He took a lot of flak for being an exhibitionist and mouthing (penning) controversial stuff. His writings seemed to revolve around wine and women and seemed to be deliberately contrary to what people said. That is the image I had of him. His columns were generally trashy and pieces of trivia, laced with jokes and shairi. I read a short story or an excerpt of his novel here and there. The pulled out pieces were usually erotic and simply reinforced the general image of him as a boozing womanising old man. A Dirty Old Man he was called.

Years later he happened to visit my office with his wife. I was surprised to see an old man walk in with his wife. There was no bulb over his head and no glass of whiskey in his hand. About a year or so back I read an interview where he had described his daily routine. Early to rise, he listened to direct telecast of kirtan from Darbar Sahib on the radio, ruminated on some shabd or kirtan, wrote some mandatory pages each day, and generally seemed to lead a very disciplined, sedentary life. Highly commendable from someone who is an nonagenarian.

Then I took out a book called Delhi from my library. I am going to digress a little here. I don't have much fondness for pulp fiction. Sometimes I have picked up Mills and Boon romances, some books that seem like light hearted read to pass time. I have even tried to read some Shobha De but found her insufferable. Her book, Sultry Nights, wasnt pulpy or interesting enough to keep me engrossed. But this book is the mother of pulp fiction. Khushwant Singh turns all the rules on their heads. The hero isnt a handsome rich dude, but a middle-aged, ugly Sikh. His heroine isn't a beautiful woman with a thousand virtues like Tess, she is a hermaphrodite, Bhagmati. He lays bare his soul, his lover's warts, and through them both he lays open the grandeur and the grime of Delhi.

The magnificent, the merciless, the munificent, the marauder, these are the people who uplifted and raped Delhi in quick succession. We are taken from the times of Balban to 1984 when Delhi was shaken by the anti-Sikh riots post Indira Gandhi's murder. Of course not in detail, or it would take a number of books. Rather than relate the history of Delhi to us in a mundane manner, he chooses to let some character of those times tell us the story. Therein lies the beauty of the novel. It is extremely readable, the first requirement of anything that passes through the printing presses.

KS is totally irreverent, liberal with erotic descriptions, and busts many historical myths. He does not fear to call a spade a spade and that is what makes his novel such a great read. I realise now that the fearsome reputation he garnered was probably bestowed upon him by jealous colleagues. He was ahead of his time by decades and stood by whatever he said and believed in.

Of all the pulp fiction I have read, he is the best. He is so good that he threatens to invade into territory usually occupied by Literature.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Sonia Falerio, Kavya Vishwanathan, Samit Basu

If you are an avid reader of fiction chances are you have heard about The Girl, Opal and Kirin. Ok so maybe hardly anyone has read about the The Girl, some know about Kirin and everyone knows about Opal. These are the literary offspring of Sonia Faleiro, Kavya Vishwanathan and Samit Basu. They are on my list together just to present the different faces of contemporary fiction by young Indians, I don’t intend to compare them with one another.

Sonia Faleiro’s book, The Girl, was the slimmest and the most difficult to read. The fault could be mine. She has been published by Penguin and quite likely has a niche readership for fiction of her kind. It is a soulful, dark, existential kind of literature. Not my cup of anything. The plot is slimmer than the book There is this girl (always referred to as the Girl in a very Rebecca-ish way) who is coping with loss in a small village in Goa called Azul. Her mother and grandma just died. Her uncle decamped with the all that was worth owning in their house, sold the house, dumped the grandfather in an old age home and abandoned the Girl to her devices. Cruel ! The Girl's mom left her a house in Azul so that’s where she lands up. She is kind of passing time, in a haze of depression from the recent events, when a foreign tourist, Luke, enters her life. After a while, maybe bored or restless, he leaves. The girl finds herself pregnant, and unable to cope with the rejection and a baby on the way, she commits suicide. But don’t expect the story to told to you in a straightforward manner. Most time the novel meanders around some small details. The young (and pretty) author does not flesh out her characters and they float through her narrative like ghosts. I found the novel quite tedious to read and the story hard to extract. There are some loose ends, what did happen to the priest who disappeared? Was Luke just lurking around somewhere? Why does he return to Azul after the girl dies? Simon is supposed to love the girl, but he is just on the border of the story, hanging around.

Kavya has been written about extensively, thanks to the passages worked into two books simultaneously by the creative agency that helped both the authors write the books. Okay, that is a categorical statement, but that is what I have deduced as the truth behind the whole scam. Poor Kavya fell between two stools of trying to fulfill her own creativity and trying to live up to the expectations of her publishers. Moral of the story is, write only to fulfill your creativity. How Opal Mehta … has been classified as Chick Lit for young women. The writing is perky, full of interesting incidents that carry the story forward. The plot is simple: Opal is asked what she likes to do for fun during her admission interview for Harvard. All she has to say is that she likes to solve an unproven physics theory for fun. But she is a child of rote education. Her parents have taken over her brain and think for her. Hence she is freaked out by this question she has not prepared for and thinks (a wish that lies latent in her heart?) that she needs to get a life. Get a life means getting drunk, kissing boys, getting into trouble etc. Her parents are determined to make her succeed and lay plans for her get a life. This is how a studious, plain Opal is transformed into a teenager who drops famous brands from the tips of her eyelashes (MAC) to her Jimmy Choos (good thing her parents were loaded). She takes further wrong steps and lands into a mess. Until she realizes that she has to think for herself, and tell her parents, please people, stay out of my life. She does get into Harvard, but only when she lets out accidentally, (she never does understand his question) to her interviewer that she solved the unproven physics theory for fun.

Samit Basu writes a comic SFF. In India we are inundated with fantasy fiction. We have jataka tales, fables, epics, folklore, ghost stories strewn around us. On top of that if you are an avid reader of comic books starring some kind of a superhero, and SFF fiction of all kinds and varieties, you have a merry grist for your mill. But still, you need a rare kind of a talent to spin a yarn. Samit Basu, thankfully for us, has that talent. So far he has unleashed two books upon us, Simoqin Prophecies and The Manticore’s Secret. He brings out this unique story of an alternate world (the center of which is KOL -Calcutta?). It is a story of demons and superheroes, bad and good people, secret agents and assassins, dwarves, magical devices, magic people. He uses all the cliches of the super-world and then turns them on their heads. His James Bond is an ugly dwarf who happens to be a natty dresser. His heroine keeps a Bridget Jones like diary, his hero is a villain, and you aren’t sure whether he intends to destroy or save the world. He manages to weave the story skillfully, keep our interest alive and by golly, we are salivating for the third and conclusive book! (Replace we with I in case you don’t like this genre)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

3 books same sensibility

1. The Radiance of Ashes by Cyrus Mistry
2. Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
3. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

The prime sensibility here is Mumbai. All the books are set in Mumbai. I have yet to read the 3rd, am waiting eagerly to do so.

1. Whattabook! the least hyped of the three. not the best book ever, but certainly top of the line. a flawed hero copes with life in Mumbai. the author tells his story simply, then whammy! there is a gorgeous paragraph or a line that leaves you gasping. It was born of an award winning short story that begged to be extended. and Cyrus does that with aplom, fleshing out some good characters. I get the impression that it was written by a shy bespectacled retiring kind of a fellow. someone who would withdraw possessively if you tried to discuss the book with him.

"Twenty five stories below, the city looked different. Almost beautiful."

For years to come, some avid lover of books is going pick this book out of the shelf of a library or bookstore, leaf thru a few pages and pick it up for reading. In doing so the reader will be charmed anew by his lovely prose and a delicate story.

2. Suketu Mehta is the richest author of the three. His book was commissioned and he had good money to write too. Not to detract from the book, of course. He is more than capable of the charge. Although the book is a documentary, it reads like a novel. He called himself 'bi-textual' a cross between a fiction writer and a reporter. His book takes you thru a roller coaster ride of Mumbai's various features, underworld, bomb blasts, politics, topography, food, bar girls, movies, police and even a description of the Jain diksha ceremony. His 'bi-textual' facility guides you easily through the book. the real characters with fictionalised names are garnered with spice. the famous names are left bare for all to see.

Just when i was admiring the fact that he seemed so non-judgemental while describing killers, Suketu kind of spoiled things for me by being judgemental. but i suppose he couldn't help it, maybe he was overcome by disgust. Anyhow, he does not pull punches (if he does, he masks it too well for me to notice). The book punches you in the solar plexus (to borrow a word I read a lot in the James Hadley Chase novels) knocks the wind out of you and shakes you up.

3.. Wait guys, I have yet to read the book
The book bestows a charmed status on that dirty ungainly crowded traffic infested monstrosity that is Mumbai. The people who love it love it a lot, I know not why.

Aniruddha Bahal - Bunker 13 - Review Part II

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Borrowed @ Browser, Sector 9, Chandigarh

Well, Bunker 13 went a little haywire in the end, though the reading was fun. It was a guy kind of book, all about guns and mayhem.  Most times I felt as it was written for the glorification of the main protagonist, Minty Mehta, a Defence Correspondant.  Wink Wink, if you get my meaning.

So dears pick it up at your peril. if you are in defence.. please do