Friday, July 24, 2015

Harper Lee - Go Set a Watchman

+HarperCollins Publishers
+Kindle Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Anne Tyler - Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Nirupama Subramanian - Keep the Change

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+Amazon India
+HarperCollins Publishers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Amitav Ghosh - Flood of Fire

Publisher: +Penguin Books USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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