Saturday, December 30, 2017

Carrie Bebris - North by Northanger

Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Author: Carrie Bebris
Title: North by Northanger

I do wonder if Jane Austen has spawned more derivatives than any author.  I certainly come across more of them. Such books have familiar characters you can latch on to immediately.  The rest is in the hands of the author, how successfully they are able to carry the illusion of a story taken forward.  Many fail miserably.  They make a hash of beloved characters and take the story into unbelievable places. Carrie Bebris, thankfully, does no such thing.

Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, are still happily married a year after we left them in our beloved book.  They are expecting their first child.  On their way back from visiting Jane and Bath they are asked by Fredrick Tilney to stop by and visit them in Northanger Abbey as he wishes to reminiscence with them about friendship between their mothers, Anne Darcy and Helen Tilney. Mystified but curious, the Darcys agree.  What follows is deceit, false accusations, loss of family heirlooms, unfair imprisonment and discovery of a beautiful friendship through letters.

The story draws you in immediately.  The best part, in my opinion, is the very apt and beautiful quote at the head of each chapter taken from Jane Austen's correspondence with her sister Cassandra and also her various books. Sample these:

My hearing nothing of you makes me apprehensive that you, your fellow travellers and all your effects, might be seized by the bailiffs...
                                              Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra

I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.
                                               Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra

Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.
                                               Jane Austen, letter to Fanny Knight

These series go by the name of Mr. & Mrs. Darcy mystery.  Mr. Darcy, in this novel, does the footwork; Visiting places and gleaning information, chasing and apprehending criminals. Elizabeth gathers information, reads clues and figures out the mystery. Oh, she also gives birth to a baby.

The only thing that annoyed me a bit towards the end, was the sudden popping in of all the family members.  It seemed too contrived.  I am pretty sure no one gatecrashed at each others houses in those days.

At the start of the book there was a little Rebecca like atmosphere as Elizabeth feels overshadowed by references to her late mother-in-law Anne Darcy.  She is vital to the story, as most of the mystery Mr. & Mrs. Darcy are trying to unravel belongs to the past.

I loved the way the writer combines the characters from Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. I was sad that Catherine Tilney makes no appearance in it.

All in all this is a very interesting book. I look forward to reading other Mr. & Mrs. Darcy mysteries.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Jack Thorne - Harry Potter and The Cursed Child

Publisher: Scholastic Inc
Author: Jack Thorne
Title: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child

There is a reason why we run after derivative fiction.  We have fallen so hopelessly in love with the characters that we are not ready to see the back of them.  Hence we go and buy the various Jane Austen derivatives, the sequel to Gone with the Wind, what Sherlock Holmes did when he was old and so on. Sometimes we are rewarded, sometimes repulsed yet we recognize that we are really not free of the story we read.

When Harry Potter and The Cursed Child came out, there was an uproar among the readers. Of course, they had to all grab the book hot off the press.  Some were outraged at the new angle to the story, some charmed.  I am afraid I was influenced by the naysayers and refrained from reading the book.  It was time to amend that when I went to the neighborhood library in Houston and found posters for The Cursed Child all over the children's section.

The book starts where the last book ended.  The scene on the platform where Harry is sending off his second son, Albus Severus to Hogwarts.  For Harry and Hermoine the magic world was a splendid gift, as they came from the muggle world. Albus Severus is born into a Magic world and not really kicked up about going to Hogwarts.  He feels rather overshadowed by his famous father and is both mortified and thrilled that he is not sorted into Gryffindor but Slytherin.  On top of that, he makes friends with Scorpius Malfoy, the only son of Draco.

Along with Delphi, Cedric Diggory's cousin, Scorpius and Albus go off on a time travelling adventure through the past, trying to save Cedric's life.  Soon the boys realize that trying to rectify the past can have very serious consequences. 

As a fan of Harry Potter books, I admit the pain I felt when Voldemort roared, "Kill the spare" and ended the life of Robert Pattinson ... oops... I mean Cedric Diggory.  I hoped The Cursed Child would amend that awful bit.  It was a wonderful hook for a new story.  It adds a lot of spice to the book. The story is great.  It was conceived by J.K. Rowling after all, along with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne.

It was great to meet all the beloved characters once again.  Harry, Hermoine, Ron, Ginny, Draco, Prof. Gonagall, Snape, Cedric, Prof. Dumbledore and many others. Snape's famous acerbic wit was intact, thank the lord.  It was Ron who suffered in this sequel, he is seen as a jokester, a cool uncle but little else.  Hermoine is the Minister of Magic which is nice, but she does not really shine. We get to find out more about Draco and he is really the best part of the book (among the oldies).  The kids, Albus and Scorpius are wonderful.

This is a published script of a play, written by Jack Thorne on the story thrashed out by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne.  I can imagine how hard it must have been to stage such a play, which is required to be full of magic and spells and sudden change of scenes.  It would have been wonderful to watch, I am sure.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

David Sedaris - Naked

Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Author:     David Sedaris
Title:         Naked

Writing an autobiography can be both easy and hard. Here is a ready made story that you are privy to, your life. That is the easy part.  The hard part is being honest. Being honest about your own self may yet be easier but it is hard being honest about the people around you.  There are scores of relatives, parents, siblings who could be pissed off mightily by your depiction of them. This is the hardest part, in my opinion.

Naked contains memoirs of David Sedaris, narrated not as continuous story but in an episodic manner, picking up on a phase or a person in his life.  Hence, the chapter titled 'a plague of tics' deals with David's Tourette syndrome he had as a child, because of which he shook his head constantly and licked light switches or other objects. His teachers had no understanding of this and merely thought he was being difficult. 

His mother was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker.  His father was a penny pinching Greek.  His grandmother was a weird character who liked to crawl up the aisle in church. He read pornography as a little child and shared the books with his sisters. He went hitch hiking along with a quadriplegic girl. He spent summers picking apples and working in shady factories.

This is no story about whitewashed houses, sweet children, a mature father who imparts life wisdom to his children, a pretty mother who keeps the house spic and span and understands her children. This is a story of a dysfunctional family, which is pretty much the reality everywhere in the world. This is an account that invites you to look into a gaping wound.

If this makes you think this is an angst ridden work, no, it isn't. The narration is matter of fact and even funny. It is a parody of all the sweet autobiographies that you have read so far. There are several times that you will laugh out loud at the life of Sedaris children that is more Addams Family than Wonder Years.

Among the various blurbs about the book, I was struck by this accurate one.

Sedaris's prose is fierce and funny, full of feeling yet unsentimental. He brings people's flaws and foibles into a harsh and unforgiving light, often to delicious comic effect.
                                                                          ----Sam Hurwitt, San Francisco Examiner


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rhys Bowen - Royal Blood

Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime, New York
Author:     Rhys Bowen
Title :        Royal Blood

What I love about libraries is the surprise they throw up now and then.  I can pick up titles without worrying whether I will like them or not.  If it is something boring, I can always return the book unread.  If I like it, well, I have discovered a new good author.  Also, the pressure to return the books within 15 days makes me read them quickly, unlike the books on my kindle which I take for granted.

I was browsing through the books in Jungman Neighborhood Library and feeling a little lost among the bookshelves.  This feeling is quite common when you are new in a library.  The way they arrange titles is a little novel and you need some time to get accustomed. So as I drifted up and down, I spotted these books by Rhys Bowen.  I could see that they were a series. In my confusion, I picked up No. 3 in the series, quite a crime in my eyes.  Something I will atone for by immediately reading up No. 1 and No. 2. Luckily, the books are standalone enough to be read randomly.

Lady Georgiana is 34th line to the throne, she is a cousin of King George. This does not make her a royalty we all would envy.  She has the title, the breeding and the schooling, but no money. If she wants to live the royal life she is entitled to, she will have to marry a rich Prince.  This is something her uppity sister-in-law Fig wants, so does the Queen, in fact.  They are always trying to put her in the way of some stinky rich, fish-faced royal.

She is called upon to do some sleuthing work now and then by the Queen, like trying to keep the Prince of Wales away from a frightful American divorcee. However, this time her assignment is simple, she is called upon to attend the royal wedding of her school friend Maria Theresa with Prince Nicholas of Bulgaria in Romania. It seems like a simple assignment, if a bit tiresome. She hires a highly inappropriate maid and sets off.

She is delighted to find that she is friends with the groom Nicholas, not so delighted to find that her unwanted suitor, Seigfried, is the brother of the bride. Fish-face Seigfried is pursuing her once more. Her best friend Belinda, who is only an Honorable, has also crashed the wedding.  Her mother has also landed up on the arm of her current boyfriend, Max, who is the godfather of Nicholas. 

Things get messy soon for Georgie.  A young man crashes into her room, seemingly bending towards her neck.  The bride is spotted with her mouth stained bright red.  Is is possible that she has walked into a lair of vampires?  A very important guest keels over at the dining table and dies, poisoned by cyanide. One more person falls off dangerous stairs and Georgie's maid goes missing.

Before she knows, Georgie is thick into another mystery that she has to solve quickly, before two important royal houses start a war with each other.

It was simply delightful to stumble across this engrossing well written book. It drips with humor and I was chuckling loudly as I read it.  Despite dealing with Royalty, it is not stuffy.  Lady Georgiana is constantly required to behave in a certain manner and has to struggle to maintain her status.

It is set in 1930s when King George reigned along with his consort, Queen Mary.  There are several historical references to real life personages to keep you in touch with the times.

The book is a potpourri of delights, a historical mystery about a fictional person set in real history. On top of it, it's funny and light and perfect for a quick read.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Honor Arundel - The High House

Publisher: Piccolo Books (1966)
Author: Honor Arundel
Title: The High House

Good books stay inside you forever, no doubt about that. I read this book when I was in my early teens, during the 70s. How it came to be in our house in Bangalore, I don't know.  My father was a compulsive book collector and somehow this was among his stuff. What could a Professor of Political Science have in common with a young adult novel? Nothing. Maybe one of his students left it in his house and he just lugged it around.

Whatever the reason, it was  fortuitous for me. I loved the book and read it several times. Later, nothing remained in my mind except that it was probably called High something and was about an orphan girl forced to live with her eccentric aunt.  I had to look for various combinations, trying my search via the name 'High Place' or something, and also via the plot. After much searching, I hit paydirt when I found a mention of the book on Goodreads.

From here it should have been plain sailing. But wait. The book was no longer in print, not on kindle and available only in certain countries. As I have a daughter in one of the countries, I asked her to buy the Emma series for me.  When I visited her, the books were on the bookshelf.  The first thing I did, before I had been cured of my jetlag, was to read them.

The High House is about a newly orphaned 13 year old girl, Emma, and her brother, Richard. They have lived happily in London in the comfort of their house, loved by their parents and looking forward to a good life. Tragedy strikes when their parents are killed in a car crash.  They have two aunts, sisters of their mother and father, who decide to take one child each.

Richard is offered a home with Aunt Laura, their father's sister, as she has a son already and figures that the boys will be good company for each other. Emma gets her mother's sister, Patsy.  Patsy is an artist and lives in Edinburgh.  She has a reputation for being eccentric.

Emma is methodical in her ways, a creature of habit.  She is horrified by the untidy aunt who cooks and cleans fitfully.  However, she is very kind to Emma.  After comparing notes with her brother, she finds that Aunt Laura would have been more suited to her tastes.  She is the one who runs her house like a ship, with set timings for everything.  In fact, once their Insurance money comes in, Laura may taken in Emma as well.

When the time comes, will Emma like to go away from her school, her friend Elizabeth, the ancient High House where Patsy lives, and her life in Edinburgh?

The book is beautifully written in a sparse style where more is conveyed through less. In skillful words we get a wonderful sketch of Emma, Aunt Patsy, Richard, Aunt Laura and the attractive city of Edinburgh.  It is a charming book and I can imagine why it did not leave my head even after nearly 5 decades.

Publisher: Piccolo (1968)
Author: Honor Arundel
Title: Emma's Island

This is a sequel to the wonderful book listed above.

Emma is now 15 and her eccentric Aunt Patsy and her new husband Stephan have suddenly decided to go live on Stranday, an island near Oban.  So poor Emma is uprooted once more.

Life on a small island is quite something else, and Emma soon learns how to tackle it.  Aunt Patsy cannot do without her, it is clear. Stephan also depends on Emma a lot and she is happy to be of use.

Things cannot remain the same, however.  Emma has to decide what to do after her school is up.  She ought to be thinking of college but is loth to leave the island.

She also feels the pangs of first love when she meets Alistair.

Publisher: Piccolo (1970)
Author: Honor Arundel
Title: Emma in Love

The lovesick Emma decides to continue her education in Edinburgh.  It would be lovely to be close to her brother Richard once more, not to mention Alistair who lives in nearby Glasgow. She returns to the school she went to when she last lived in Edinburgh, Parkhill and reunites with her friend Elizabeth.

Emma has a tendency to be a doormat because of which her brother Richard and her Aunt Patsy are content to walk all over her.  She is able to meet Alistair, but not as often as she likes.  Our beloved Emma has yet to learn of life and love.

These are young adult books and they are lovely. All written in a simple style and bring out the predicaments of Emma very well.  They are a far cry from the kind of young adult books available these days.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Utkarsh Patel - Kannaki's Anklet

Indus Source Books
Utkarsh Patel
Kannaki's Anklet

Silapapadikaram is a well known Tamil epic poem of the Sangam Era.  The authorship is credited to a Jain monk called Ilango Adigal.

I had heard of Silappadikaram and knew the outline of the story. The book has been translated into English but I never got around to reading it. When I discovered that Utkarsh Patel had brought out his version of the classic, I had to read it.

Kannagi (or Kannaki as Utkarsh prefers to call her) is a lovely damsel, daughter of a prosperous merchant who lives in Puhar, a port town in Chola kingdom.  She is married to  Kovalan, who lives in Puhar too and is the only son of another merchant.  They are over the moon to be married to each other, being young and beautiful. Their life is full of honey and happiness. On a silly whim, one day, Kovalan pays for the favors of the courtesan Madhavi.  He is smitten by her wiles and refuses to return home.  He keeps sending for money to lavish on Madhavi and reduces his family to penury.

His wealth depleted, his poverty earns him the ire of Madhavi's mother which opens his eyes and he returns home.  He has nothing, his father's business is gone, his reputation is in shreds.  He decides to go to Madurai with Kannagi to make a fresh start.  Will Kannagi finally lead a long and a happy life with her beloved Kovalam in Madurai?

Patel's book has two parts, Puhar and Madurai. The first part deals with Kannagi's life in Puhar. It is full of the anticipation of the young Kannagi, about to be married to the prince of her dreams.  Their wonderful time together as a newly wed couple.  Their life in Puhar, the various legends attached to temples and people there. The wretchedness that Kannagi faces when her husband goes to Madhavi. In contrast, Kovalan and Madhavi have some wonderful moments together.  The description of various festivals of Puhar are beautifully depicted.

Madurai is another gorgeous part where Kovalan and Kannagi embark on a journey by foot to Madurai.  The road is hard and beset with dangers. They are fortunate to find a Jain Sadhavi Kavunti to accompany them. She becomes their guide and protector. They meet all kinds of people on the way, a fool, a lecher, some wise men, even a wood nymph who tries to lure away Kovalan.  There are numerous legends associated with the places they visit which are recounted for our edification and entertainment.

Patel has done a wonderful job of narrating this classic tale.  The prose part is in a simple and direct language. The poetry in it is charming and lyrical.  In fact, it was the poetry part that I read as an excerpt on Facebook that drew me to the book.

The book had me turning pages and despite my busy schedule, I finished the book in two days.

In the Acknowledgements section Patel writes, "This book is a result of the quest to look for female heros in  mythology." He succeeds, I must say.  The fire and brimstone that Kannagi spews at the end of the book and brings down a King and a City is worthy of Heroine.  As explained elsewhere in the book the path to righteousness should be followed assiduously no matter who you have to face.
Remember to focus on the principle; Not on who it is against
If you wish to be acquainted with the story of Kannagi, this book is the best place to start.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Alex Garland - The Beach

Penguin Books
The Beach
Alex Garland

I came across the book in a very roundabout way.  I first spotted Leonardo Di Caprio in a wonderful movie called Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann. In my mind it was wonderful to see characters in modern settings mouthing Shakespeare.  Titanic mania swept me as it did the rest of the world which in turn, chasing Leo, brought me to the breathtaking cinematography of The Beach.  It was later that I learnt about the book.

I expect I read the book sometime in early '00. Most times I was just checking the book to see how much the movie matched to it. I loved the book, of course, but for some strange reason failed to absorb it.

It was a remark by my mother that brought the book back to me.  We were staying on Khao San road in Bangkok on a recent visit and mother said that the road became very famous after it was mentioned in the book. I wanted to re-watch the movie and re-read the book as soon as I returned home.

I had spent 12 hours travelling back to Chandigarh and all that staying awake wearied me.  I fell asleep within 2 hours of reaching home. I woke up at 1.30 in the night and started searching for The Beach on my bookshelf.  I read a couple of pages, found myself captivated, and fell asleep again.

I watched the movie, went back to the book and read my eyes out.

The movie is not a patch on the book, this is how most movie-book comparisons end up being described..

The book starts with Richard arriving in Bangkok and making it to a guesthouse on Khao San Road. He describes it to perfection.
The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.
Khao San Road has more foreigners than Thais. The Thais here speak English and know the ways of the tourist perfectly.  Tuk Tuks and Taxis cruise the narrow streets during the day. At night the road is taken over by hawkers and tourists sit and drink or eat al fresco, watching the gaieties. There are live bands and festoons and lights and the street does not seem to sleep.

A little while later Garland describes a Canal with a shanty market beside it which sounds like the thriving market beside the Chao Phraya river.  Soon he gets down to business. There is a crazy guy in the room next to his who gives him  a map to The Beach, a secret getaway no one else knows about. Along with two other backpackers, Richard sets off on the quest of this pristine beach where no one may go.

The book is an amazing piece of work.  Travel here is an extreme adventure, not staying in hotels and travelling to tourist spots.  It is a nod to the itinerant life of  backpackers, who are forever on the move and forever in search of an unspoiled destination, a willingness to live and travel rough. It is also a sort of a coming of age novel as Richard has taken to travel to escape being dumped by his girlfriend. It worked. The minute he sat in a plane, he forgot about the life in England, his imminent heartbreak. He learned to cope with life.

At the start, when Richard and his companions, Etienne and Francoise, reach the beach, and start living with the commune there, it is like 'The Swiss Family Robinson'. A bunch of people devising means to survive away from civilization. It descends into 'The Lord of Flies' soon after.

Garland's description of Richard's time on the beach is both real and psychedelic. It is both believable and a fantasy. It is a travelogue to a place that does not exist. From start to finish it is a gripping book that makes the most mundane of things look interesting.

I especially liked the short chapters, it makes the book succinct, like a terse report of the happenings.

The book is also about the loss of innocence. Richard, Etienne and Francoise have wandered into Eden and soon discovered the serpents.

It is an amazing debut for a writer, to turn out a book like this, about such an off beat topic with such conviction.

I am grateful to the movie for having drawn my attention to the book, and to Leonardo Di Caprio to have drawn my attention to the movie.  But that is about it. The movie does not capture too much of the book.  By its very nature, it is forced to summarize and let go of some characters.  It could not, for fear of attracting censorship, give us the full impact of the madness that is the climax of the book. It serves, with its stunning visuals, a good image for the beach, and to imagine what Richard looks like.

It is particularly off-putting that western movies cannot bear the thought of their protagonist going without sex for a long stretch of time. The book does not put any emphasis on sex lives of the characters, unlike the movie.

The unkindest cut I feel was the book being shown as a sort of an airport read in Bridget Jones, the Edge of Reason, when it is so much more.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bae Suah - Nowhere To Be Found

Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Author: Bae Suah
Translator: Sora Kim Russell

The trend in publishing these days is novellas.  Short novels, tad longer than a short story are found to be the best reading for time starved people of today.  In the hands of wrong people such Book Shots (as the novellas are sometimes called) can go horribly wrong.  In the hands of right authors it can become a potent weapon.

I have read two short books today. One was The Vegetarian by Han Kang, not a very long novel. This is my second read, this novella Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah.

The girl in the story is in her early twenties, a college graduate, but a drifter.  She is not able to make any headway in her career by two seeming reasons. One, she does not seem to have any particular ambition; Two, she has to work hard just to put food on the table.  Her brother is a low paid janitor. Her mother is a nurse who cannot work because she is an alcoholic. Her younger sister is in school and her father is in jail.

Even so, while working in mind numbing jobs, she observes everything acutely.  She notices that the people she is in touch with now will not have any memory of her in a few years time, while there are people that she runs into on the subway who will become known to her in future.  This same fluidity is incorporated in the story when she goes to visit a 'sort of' boyfriend at his military base one day.  Due to a mix up at the reception, she is led off on a wild goose chase after her boyfriend through a bleak cold countryside.  All the time, she was carrying a bag of chicken that the boyfriend's mother had prepared.

All through the bad day, she gathers hatred for chicken, and hatred for the kind of life her boyfriend's family leads.  The day becomes a benchmark for all things horrid for her.  A day that she revisits in her mind for a long time.  Yet that day was transitional for her. She is no longer in touch with her boyfriend of the day.  All she has are the feelings she gathered.

Through disjointed narrative, Bae Suah takes us into a journey through a girl's mind.  A girl who is ordinary on the outside, but fiercely independent and strong.

The prose is sharp as knife and does not make any allowances for its readers.  It seeks neither to explain nor describe.

The story was nominated for PEN Translation Prize for the year 2015.  Bae Suah is an acclaimed writer from South Korea.

Han Kang - The Vegetarian

Han Kang
@Changbee Publishers
@Portobello Books

This book won the Man Booker International Prize for the year 2016.

We go through life expecting it to run smoothly and on predictable lines. We are born, we go to school, find a job, marry, have children and in turn, watch our children go through the same cycle. What if the life throws us a curveball? How do we react?

Life throws a curveball at Young-hye and it affects the lives of two families, Young-hye and her husband, her sister In-hye and her husband find themselves shaken by a dream that Young-hye has one night.

Young-hye dreams of a violent massacre of life which suddenly turns her off meat.  She throws out all eggs and meats out of her house and refuses to cook or eat them.  Her husband is immediately affected as he is fond of his non-vegetarian diet.  He feels his wife is being unreasonable and stubborn.  He is supported by Young-hye's parents who try to talk her out of her newfound vegetarianism.

Her parents decide to convince Young-hye again when they meet at a dinner at her sister's place. When their pleas fall on deaf ears, her father loses his temper and tries to force-feed some meat to Young-hye.  This pushes her over the edge and she tries to commit suicide.  This is the watershed moment to which other family members reactin  different ways.

The novella is narrated in three books, representing the varying viewpoints of three people in Young-hye's life.  The first section, The Vegetarian is narrated by Mr. Cheong, Young-hye's husband. The second section, Mongolian Mark is narrated by her brother-in-law, who is an artist and finds a strange fascination for Young-hye after the suicide incident.  The third, and the most intense part, is narrated by In-hye. She cares for Young-hye after her suicide attempt and tries to go deep into the psyche of her sister in an attempt to understand her.

The different voices of the narrators make us feel differently about the affliction of Young-hye. At the end of it we realize that without deep love there can be no understanding.  In-hye has to go to the core of herself to understand what Young-hye is feeling.

The novel left me feeling emotionally wrung out.   It has been translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith.  It is an excellent translation.  The language is spare and evocative. The author does not fear to look deep within the minds of her characters and lay them bare for us. As can be seen from the example here.

This is the first novel I have read by a Korean author. Previous to this, The only Far-Eastern novelists I have read before this are Japanese authors Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto whose works also dabble in the internal workings of the mind.  There is such a connection between these authors and Kafka.  If you get goosebumps from reading about Gregor Samsa, then The Vegetarian should be a mandatory read for you.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Agatha Christie - Death Comes as the End

@Dodd Mead and Company
@Agatha Christie

Death comes as the End was the only historical whodunit that Dame Agatha Christie wrote.  Considering the fact that her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, was an archaeologist in Egypt, it is easy to see what inspired it.  During her stay in Egypt Agatha Christie read some ancient letters (translated by Battiscombe Gunn) by a man who wrote home frequently complaining about the behavior of his family and the mistreatment by them of his concubine.  These letters formed the basis of the plot of this book.

Imhotep is a Ra-priest in charge of a tomb that is to be maintained by a large farmhouse surrounding it.  He is aided in his work by his adviser Hori who has been with his family for a long time and is devoted to them.  Imhotep has three sons, Yahamose, Sobek and Ipy.  His daughter Renisenb is recently widowed and has returned to her father's house.  She is still grieving and wants to find comfort in the well known patterns of her family home.

Things change very soon when her father returns from a business trip with a beautiful young concubine, Nofret, in tow.  The family is unhappy at this new development.  Things take a nasty turn when Nofret is found dead, fallen (or thrown?) from a high path.  Things do not rest here and there are other deaths that cannot be wished away as accidents. Are these deaths the work of some evil spirit or some disgruntled family member or employee?  Suddenly, everyone is a suspect.

From the Wikipedia entry I learn that Agatha Christie had a different ending in mind.  For one wild moment I also thought of an ending that was much darker and involved the main protagonists.  Even so, the ending is satisfactory and is explained well.  Agatha Christie brings out the life in the times of 2000 BC Thebes very well.  The novel is fast paced and you race along, loth to put it down.  You are made to swing between various suspects and wonder who really did it. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Larry McMurtry - The Late Child

+Orion Books
+Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry is a prolific author with many books and screenplays under his belt.  Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize and was converted to a television series.  He co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.

The Late Child is a sequel to The Desert Rose. I was not able to find the book to re-read for a long time.  It was on my wishlist and one day I discovered that a vendor had put up his copy for sale.  It was a delight to re-read this wonderful book once more.

Once more I delved into the life of Harmony Palmer who was once the prettiest showgirl in Vegas. She now works in a recycling factory and lives in Las Vegas with her current boyfriend and her five year old son, Eddie.  The story opens with Harmony getting a letter from a friend (who also claims to have been the lover of) her daughter, Pepper.  She died of AIDS.  Harmony has a hysterical fit which scares her boyfriend off.  He takes to his heels.  The only thing that grounds Harmony is the need to take care of her son.

Her friend, Juliette comes to her aid and helps her call up her sisters in Oklahoma.  Her sisters drop everything and come to help Harmony in this difficult time. One thing leads to another and Harmony finds herself on a road trip.  Her belongings are stuffed into a U-Haul, pulled by a car borrowed from Gary (her best friend), trying to drive to Oklahoma via New York.

She wants to go to New York to meet Laurie, the girl who wrote to Harmony about Pepper's death. Her son, Eddie is keen to go up the statue of Liberty.

Her eventful road trip is punctuated by the pain she feels at the loss of her daughter.  Harmony has to learn how to come to terms with her grief and also decide what she wants to do next.  Should she settle down in Tarwater, Oklahoma with the rest of her family or return to Las Vegas.

She also gets to see the mess her sisters, Neddie and Pat, are in.  Her brother is in the prison for stalking a girl, but seems very happy there.  Her mother has turned into a terrible shrew and her father is ready to walk out on her.  She sees them all facing their troubles and understands that facing troubles is a part of life.

As in The Desert Rose, we are again captivated by Harmony Palmer.  She retains her innate decency no matter what she faces.  She draws comfort from her beautiful and sparkling son, Eddie.  Her close friends, Juliette and Gary, are always around her.  Her kind nature prompts her to be nice to everyone, a trait we see replicated in Eddie.

I loved this portrait of people who live in a glamorous place like Las Vegas, yet are far removed from the glitter.  The ordinary people who are has-been Showgirls, Security Staff, Fashion designers etc. who work in the shadow of bright lights.  Then there is the limited life of a small town like Tar Water in Oklahoma, where kids do not know what to do.

Even in New York, we get to meet people who live in dumpsters and are to scared to move out of there and go any place else.  Eddie and Harmony (accompanied by her sisters), meet up with a trio of drivers Omar, Salah and Abdul who are described as Sikhs masquerading as Muslims.  It struck a bit of a discordant note in me.  If this was true, then just a while later, it must have backfired badly when the USA was rocked by anti-Muslim sentiment post 9/11.

This bit notwithstanding, the book is a rich portrait of ordinary people, happy in their small lives, besieged by sudden troubles and learning to cope, like all people do.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ruskin Bond (Ed) - The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories

+Penguin India
+Amazon India
Ruskin Bond

Indian Railways are a marvel.  They criss-cross across our vast country and take you to nooks and crannies you never thought existed.  They have been transporting people from one point to another ever since 1853, even though the start was a modest run from Bombay to Thane.

I remember traveling with my family from Jamnagar to Delhi during the 60s.  We used to travel unreserved.  Being a large crowd, we would spread durries on the wooden benches and bag a compartment. Our bogie would travel from Jamnagar to Mehsana. At Mehsana we had a longish break and our bogie would go for a shunting and get attached to a train that was traveling to Delhi. We would embark on the train from Jamnagar at around 5 PM, spend two nights in the train and in the morning of the 3rd day, we would be at New Delhi Station.

The steam engine would pump soot into the air and my hair would be coated with it.  There was no chance of a bath, which would come only after we reached my cousin's house in Delhi.  There were high points of the travel we looked forward to. Dahi Bade at Abu Road, Rabri at some other station. We carried water in a small earthenware surahi.  There were no bottles of Bisleri, and we filled up the Surahi at any Railway Station that was handy.

Those days are gone. Now I turn up my nose at stinky poo Railway bathroom, don't drink anything but Bisleri and avoid local food.  If the travel is likely to be more than a day's worth, I look for flights. Yet, on my way to Delhi on the Shatabdi, the train often stops at a small station in Haryana called Diwana, waiting for a signal.  It is not a scheduled stop and I never see a soul there.  It is a single brick building built smack in middle of a farm.  It always brings back memories of sleepy stations that seem almost ghost-like from my childhood train travel.

Being Indians, I am sure almost all of us have traveled by railway, over long distances or short. There are many among us who love the slow chug chug of train travel.

In this collection of Railway stories curated and edited by Ruskin Bond, he brings us the best of the lot.  The first story is culled from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1875 Phileas Fogg passes through India in his quest to cross the world in eighty days.  He is let down badly by the Railways in India, but manages to hire elephants to continue his journey. There are two stories by Rudyard Kipling, one by Flora Annie Steel and some stories by anonymous authors, and one by J.W, Best. These stories are listed under Part I which are stories from the Pre-Independence era.

In the Post-Independence section, we have stories by Jim Corbett, Khuswant Singh, Ruskin Bond himself, Manoj Das, Intizar Husain, Satyajit Ray, Bill Aitkin, R.K. Laxman, Victor Banerjee and Manojit Mitra.

When I completed the Pre-Independence section, I thought, "There goes the best of it. Surely the Post Independence stories will not be as good."  Happily, I was proved wrong.  All the stories, start to finish are delightful.  I had no idea Victor Banerjee wrote such lovely short stories as well.  Bill Aitken's description of the POW (Palace on Wheels) is hilarious.  Khushwant Singh's story, Mano Majra Station is taken from his chilling novel, Train to Pakistan.

Ruskin Bond's preface to the book called Soot Gets in Your Eyes is alone worth the price of the book. At Rs.250/- so much goodness is a steal.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Khushwant Singh - Delhi A Novel

Khushwant Singh
+Penguin Books UK

Delhi A novel starts with the protagonist, A Sikh Journalist, returning to Delhi from abroad.  He is loafing around, visiting his cronies in Coffee House, going around the city when he is asked to escort around a woman who has come down from London.  She has to look over the architecture of Delhi.  Our hero almost has an affair with her.

However, his one enduring affair is with Bhagmati, a hijra whom he had once saved when she had fainted by the side of the road. Once on a visit to Shamsi Talab, he comes across a stone inscribed with the name of Musaddi Lal, devotee of Nizamuddin and resident in the era of Balban. In the next chapter, we zoom into the life of Musaddi Lal in 1280 and thereabouts.  Musaddi Lal was a kayasth whose father was a scribe in the court of Balban.  When his father died, he was offered the same job.  He became a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin and hobnobbed with Amir Khusrau as well.  The life in that era is described beautifully with Musaddi Lal as the narrator.

From here the novel takes turns describing successive eras (with big jumps in time - it would have become a huge tome otherwise) and coming back to present time (which is somewhere from 1970's to 1984). From Balban we jump to a first hand account of the massacre led by Taimur.  Then comes the very touching story of Jaitoo, the Mazhabi Sikh who had the sorrowful privilege of carrying the sheesh of Guru Tegh Bahadur to Anandpur Sahib after he was executed by Aurangzeb. Through the eyes of Jaitoo, we learn how life was like amongst the very poor during the reign of Mughals.

After this comes an account from the pen of Aurangzeb Alamgir himself.  How he found himself sidelined by his father who favored Dara Shukoh. How he tricked and killed his brother and landed himself on the throne of Delhi.  Nadir Shah relates how he came to Delhi and was captivated by a concubine.

Mir Taqi Mir lived from 1722 to 1810. He tasted everlasting fame, but had to live in penury for most of his life, like many other great artists did.  The chapter where Mir describes his life and time is one of the best in this novel.  It sheds light not only on the life of Mir, but also the tumultuous times he lived in.

From Mir we go on to the events of 1857 which are described through the eyes of Alice Aldwell.  She was the daughter of a Kashmiri Muslim girl and an Englishman.  She shed her Anglo-Indian identity by marrying a 50 year old Englishman Aldwell.  She has to scrimp and scrounge to crawl up in the English world. Just when she has made it, the mutiny breaks out.  The English identity that she had built up so painstakingly is now shattered. Along with Alice Aldwell's account, we are also treated to the views of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the Mutiny.  We also go on to read about Nihal Singh, the Sikh orderly under the command of Major Hodson.

In the next historical segment we get a glimpse into the building of the Lutyen's Delhi.  For this who can be better than an eyewitness in the author's own family.  His father was at the forefront of action when Delhi was named, for the final time, the Capital of India.  To the author's credit, he spares no criticism, even of his own forebears and gives us a candid account of the way contracts were handed out.  How his father and grandfather maintained contacts, bribed, presented inflated bills and made a lot of money.  He also lauds them for their thrift and hard work that was also necessary.

The last historical chapter is about Ram Rakha, who becomes an RSS activist in Delhi for the lack of any other employment.  He has to instigate violence against Muslims in 1947-48.  He is also required to spy on Mahatma Gandhi as he fasts.

From the dark times of 1947 we jump to 1984.  Starting from Operation Blue Star in June to the Sikh Massacre in November, when humankind showed that it was not civilized yet.

The book does a very good job of traversing through 700 years of history of Delhi.  The best part is, of course, describing the events through the eyes of a contemporary.  I like the accounts of ordinary citizens much better.  In the story of Musaddi Lal, he does not like Amir Khusro initially. Older and mellower years later, they become good friends.  In the later story of Jaitu the untouchable, we are given a piteous account of how they live.  After he carries the head of Guru to Anandpur Sahib he is known as Rangreta Jaita.

The author does a very good job of getting into the skin of the characters and makes the era they lived in come alive. He lets the warts of his characters show, be they Kings, Commoners or Poets.  Bhagmati, the hijra the main protagonist is enamored of, is the emblem of corruption that Delhi has sunk into.  There is even a story in the book, in the form of a joke that foretold that hijras would inherit Hindustan in the year 1947.

Khushwant Singh claims that he spent twenty-five years writing this book.  I can imagine the research it entailed.  I remember reading an extract from the book that was published in a magazine. It was about Nadir Shah and his tryst with Noor, the concubine.  Typically the focus in the press was on the salacious bits of the book.  When I read the book first about a decade ago, I was very impressed.  I liked the juxtaposition of modern and ancient times. I liked the way he does not mince words when indicting the actions of people throughout history, whether they were Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, even Christians.  They were merely frail humans who wronged each other grievously.

In general I am not fond of Khushwant Singh's books.  He claims to be irreverent, and that is a good thing, but the substance of his books was rather thin.  But with Delhi A Novel, he has come up trumps because his subject is so sound.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Carrie Fisher - Shockaholic

+Simon & Schuster Books
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Carrie Fisher was best known for playing Princess Leia in the legendary movie series Star Wars.  She reappeared recently in the episode VII, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and seemed all set to appear in further Star Wars series. Unfortunately she died on 27 December 2016.

For a girl who did not care for fame, Carrie Fisher garnered a sort of an undying fame. Her appearances in the Star War movies ensured that. A movie star may be forgotten after a couple of decades, remembered only when the movies are re-run on television or played on online forums. Not so for Carrie.

Once you achieve the admiration of the Nerd-Herd, you never die.  A couple of generations have passed since the first airing of George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977, but the movie has not been allowed to die.  Despite the less than worthy continuation of the original trilogy and Jar Jar Binks, they have a special place in the hearts of all fans. No wonder even Carrie Fisher's books have her on the cover as Princess Leia.

Carrie Fisher, despite what seems to us as a charmed life, actually had it tough as a celebrity kid. She was the daughter of the beautiful and very successful Debbie Reynolds.  Her father was Eddie Fisher who was later married to Elizabeth Taylor.  Her parents divorced very early and her father was barely present in her life.  Her mother was working all the time and dealing with bad marriages of her own. Carrie had drug related issues and also a big problem with her weight.

However, instead of going under all these problems, which celebrities usually face, she came up again like a tough survivor.  She wrote eight books, three screenplays, did a lot of theater and worked in movies.  She took care of her sick father, mended fences with her mother and always presented a humorous and a positive face to the world.

In Shockaholic, she writes about Shock Therapy, which is now known as ECT, that she had to undergo as the result of her depression.  Despite all the scary references to it in movies like 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest', 'Frances' and such like, she found it was not really bad, and really helped her cope with her problems.  She goes on to mention her relationship with her father, her step-father Karl, Elizabeth Taylor, Micheal Jackson, and one very memorable dinner with Ted Kennedy

She writes with such humor and such deep feelings that the people she is writing about come to life. Her father, despite his numerous failings, springs to life as a charming man who lived life king size. Micheal's need to recreate his childhood and befriend people who will treat him as a human and not take advantage of him is so well depicted.  Elizabeth Taylor's love of jewellery and her superstardom, her fart happy Step-father Karl and the obnoxious Ted will stay in your mind for a long time.

I don't hardly hate ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.
This is the essence of Carrie Fisher and her warm heart springs out of the pages of her book.  She writes fondly of a ring she 'inherited' from her father.  Rumors were that the ring was a real heirloom, an expensive piece of Jewellery until an Opal merchant revealed the truth.  She has such a talent for story telling that it is a pleasure to turn the pages of her book.

I am going to get and read all her books.