Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Alex Rutherford - The Tainted Throne

+Headline Books Publishing
+Amazon India

This book is fourth in the Empire of the Moghuls series. It covers the reign of Jahangir and the power tussle with his son, Khurram.

The book opens with an account of how Jahangir quashed a rebellion of his eldest son, Khusrau.  He meted out harsh punishments to the rebels and imprisoned his own son.  He also sent an assassin to kill the husband of Mehrunissa in Bengal.

Most of the first few chapters deal with how he brings Mehrunissa to the Agra court and bides time to court her.  He marries after a certain period of time is over and falls completely under her spell.  His second son, Parvez is addicted to easy life and wine.  His third son, Khurram was beloved of his grandfather, Akbar.  He is a worthy contender for the throne and Jahangir comes to love him best.  The youngest son, Shahriyar does not seem smart enough for royal duties.

The Moghuls are extremely romantic, handsome and capable.  But they are also bloodthirsty and do not hesitate to maim and kill their close associates and brethren to suit their own ends.  The phrase to describe this is "Takht ya takhta" meaning "Throne or coffin".

The dire punishments meted out for rebellion does not seem to deter the Moghul Princes for making the attempt to seize the throne again and again.  The pattern is repeated with every Moghul Emperor.

The Moghuls ruled in India for more than 300 years, commencing from Babur and ending with Bahadur Shah Zafar.  This series about the Empire of the Moghuls starts with Babur.

Raiders from the North:
This is brilliant book about Babur's life in Ferghana as the crown prince.  He is routed out of his kingdom and forced to live the life of a nomad, a pillager. When all his attempts at reclaiming his Kingdom fail, he makes towards Hindustan.  He finds himself in his element here and puts down his roots after defeating Ibrahim Lodhi. Soon his empire extends from Kabul to Bengal.

This is, by far, the best book in the series. It is rich in detail about the life of Moghuls that we do not know much about, before they reached the shores of India.

Brothers at Arms:
The story continues with the tale of Moguls. After Babur, Humayun is the Emperor of Hindustan.  The story of the Moghuls nearly terminated with Humayun when he lost a major portion of his kingdom to Sher Shah Suri.

Humayun had to fight against the treachery of his brothers and Sher Shah's Army to regain his lost empire.  He did win it back but did not live long to enjoy its fruits.

His beloved wife, Hamida rallied to the cause of Moghuls by safeguarding the interests of her teenage son and successor, Jalaluddin.

 Ruler of the World:

This book seemed the weakest of the four that I have read, to my surprise.  Maybe I was expecting a lot more from the book about the greatest of all Moghuls, Akbar the Great.

The book concentrates on the relationship of Akbar with his older son Salim.  It is a shaky relationship, Salim is forever starved of any affection from his great father.  It is his sons, Khurram in particular who are beloved of their illustrious grandfather.

The four books I have read so far are rich in detail.  At the end of each book the authors make a list of their sources.  They also list the actual sequence of events according to history and let us know whatever characters and events that were invented by them for the sake of embellishing the fiction.  This, I feel, is the best part of their books.  We get to know the facts as well as the fiction of the books.

I have ordered and eagerly await the arrival of the final two books in the series,  The Serpents Tooth and Traitors in the Shadow.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

E B White - Charlotte's Web

 +HarperCollins Publishers
+HarperCollins Children's

Decades ago, an American girl I was pen-friends with, sent me some books as a gift.  I still remember the three books I received.  There was Sydney Taylor's All of a kind family, a story about a Jewish family of young girls.   Then there was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  Third book was Charlotte's Web by E.B.White.

Readers of young adult fiction will agree that these three are classics that every young adult MUST read.

On a whim, I searched for the e-book version of Charlotte's Web, and was lucky to find it right away.  Being an e-book version, I missed out on the lovely illustrations that my original book had.  Even so, the charming story cast its spell on me all over again.

Fern Arable wakes up one morning to find her father going off with an axe to kill the runt of his pig's litter. Fern is alarmed and runs after her father to save the weak little piglet.  She wows to care for him, and she does.  She feeds him warm milk from a bottle and carries him around.

Wilbur, the runt, survives and thrives.  Mr. Arable makes Fern sell the pig to his neighbors, the Zuckermans as he finds it hard to provide for the pig.  Fern takes to visiting Wilbur in his new home every day and gets sucked into the wonderful world of animals.

Mr. Homer Zuckerman has sheep, geese, cows and horses on his farms.  To her delight, Fern finds herself able to understand what the animals say to each other.  Wilbur makes friends with a spider called Charlotte. They are all happy together and Wilbur finds himself growing big and fat.

Just then, the sheep tells him that a Spring Pig (born in the Spring), like Wilbur, will be food for the Christmas table.  Wilbur is devastated at the news, he loves his life and does not want it to end.

Charlotte promises to help Wilbur.  She must do something to make humans feel that Wilbur is special and not any run-of-the-mill Pig who can be butchered for a Christmas feast.

The story is charming and beautifully written.  It deserves its status as a children's classic.  The reader will be sucked into the wonderful world of animals and how they all pull together to save Wilbur from a certain death.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Betty Smith - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

@Harper and Brothers
+HarperCollins Publishers

Francie Nolan is the daughter of Katie and Johnny Nolan living in Brooklyn.  Her mother is a janitor and father works as a waiter/singer whenever he finds work.  It is early 1900s and times are very hard for the Nolans.  They rarely get to eat enough.  Francie and her younger brother, Neely do some scavenging work to earn a few pennies.

Little Francie has two things that help her escape from the poverty around her.  Her habit of reading books and day-dreaming.  She observes people around her with a sharp eye.  Despite the hard times, her world is rosy colored.

Katie insists on her children getting good grades in school.  She is keen on her children doing well in life.  Her mother imprinted in her mind some rules for that - Education, saving a penny or two, reading aloud daily from The Bible and Shakespeare.

Francie's father, Johnny, is a drunkard but she loves him.  He sings songs, is fun to be with, and knows just what to say to lift Francie's spirits.  He even helps enroll her in a good school by fudging their address.

The book is all about Francie's life from years Eleven to Seventeen.  It chronicles the events and various friends and family.  It is a valuable glimpse into the life of a young girl of early twentieth century.  The cultural mores were different then, as was the lifestyle.

The book is based on the life of the author, Betty Smith. It may not be a faithful record of her life, but is close enough, I suppose. There is an array of colorful characters to liven up the story.  Francie's father is a singing, sweet talking drunkard.  Her aunt, Sissy Rommely has taken a number of husbands without bothering to divorce the previous one.

Betty Smith's other book, Joy in the morning chronicles her life with her first husband whom she married when she was Eighteen.  It is a sequel to this book and it is easy to see that Ben Blake of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is the Carl Brown of 'Joy in the Morning".

Betty's writing is light as candyfloss and you are carried along the narrative easily.  Her characters are all standout and not to be forgotten easily.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Han Suyin - Birdless Summer

@Jonathan Cape Books
@Blossoms Book Store, Bangalore

I have been looking for books by Han Suyin for quite a while now.  They are out of print mostly and not available on kindle.  My only hope is to come across her books in second hand book store; I depend on serendipity there.

I found some books by Han Suyin at Blossoms, the famous second hand book shop in Bangalore.  It was a treat for me.

The name Birdless Summer invokes a cheerless feeling.  It is a chronicle of a particularly bleak period in the life of the author.  She was pursuing her medical studies in Belgium in 1938 when she ran into an old neighbor from her childhood days, Pao. She was struck by nostalgia and marries him.  Not just that, she abandoned her studies and returns to war torn China to be by her husband's side.

Pao had just completed his military studies in London and is an officer in the Army.  He was full of idealistic zeal and ready to fight for his country alongside his beloved leader Chiang Kaishek.  Suyin too is full of patriotism for China and wanted to do something to serve her country.

They returned to find China in shambles.  The Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kaishek was losing badly to the invaders, the Japanese.  As is always the case, the poor people were the worst off.  They were living in sub-human conditions and things were getting worse and worse.  The people in power did all they could to live comfortably and avoid the ravages of war.

Suyin was appalled. China was sinking in dirt.  It was not just the state of China that was horrific.  She found Pao extremely conservative and narrow minded.  He abused and beat her routinely.  Suyin tried to justify Pao's behavior and tried to do as he wished of her.  But her spirits refused to be quelled.

She worked in a maternity clinic for a while, tried to do something useful.  Later, when Pao was sent to London as an attache, she went along and resumed her medical studies.  She was on a path to self-fulfillment. But her marriage was in shambles, just like China.

She found herself sympathizing with the Communist ideology and Mao TseTung.

The book chronicles the tumultuous decade in the history of China, 1938 to 1948 with vividness.  The horror of war is very realistically painted.  The fear, the maiming, the extreme poverty of those times, people scrounging for food, battling with diseases are well etched.

Han Suyin also writes about her bestselling first book, Destination Chungking.  She describes the circumstances in which she wrote that book.  It wasn't the correct chronicle of the time.  Birdless Summer is an honest re-write of that book, according to her.  It is hard to figure out the truth, as autobiographies are rarely brutally honest.  Anyhow, the political happenings cannot be denied.

Despite the book being a cut and dried account of war-torn China, it is not boring.  It is a gripping account of the time. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Anne Tyler - Digging to America

@Knopf publishers
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
+Kindle Ebooks Daily

One fine day the airport at Baltimore witnesses the arrival of two little baby girls from Korea.  There are two families present to welcome the girls into their family. Brad and Bitsy Donaldson are there in full force with their families and are busy taking videos of the event.

Sami and Ziba Yazdan are also there with Sami's mother Maryam.  They get talking with the Brad and Bitsy at the airport and become friends.  Soon they are swept into Bitsy's social circle.  They are having dinners together, comparing notes on bringing up the children and becoming close.

This intimacy brings joys to both the parties and also the attendant problems which are mainly to do with the different cultural backgrounds that the families belong to.  Ziba feels intimidated by Bitsy's directives on how children should be raised.  Bitsy wants Jin Ho, her baby, to stick to her Korean roots.  Sami's mother, Maryam, notices all the goings on between the family.  She is often invited to the parties and reciprocates the gesture by inviting them all to her place for Iranian dinners.

Things get complicated when Bitsy's father, Dave becomes interested in Maryam.  Maryam has been living alone for a long time and does not like the way her life is rearranged because of Dave's intrusions.  She likes having him around but does not want to change for him.

This seemingly simple story about the lives of two families reveals many layers.  Maryam had come over to America from Iran after marrying Sami's father.  This story is also about how she assimilated into American life and also managed to hang on to her identity as an Iranian woman, mainly through food and language. She visits her cousins from time to time and observes how they are getting along with their life.

Ziba and Sami, being second generation US citizens, are more anxious to live like Americans.  They call their adopted daughter Susan and don't want to foist any other identity on their child.

This novel brings out the essence of America; how it accommodates to include various immigrants.  It celebrates differences and celebrates the richness that differences bring into our lives.

The writing style is quintessential Tyler.  A quiet unassuming prose, seemingly busy in just describing everyday events to the readers until they are drawn into the story and living the lives of the characters.