Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cold Sassy Tree By Olive Ann Burns

It is while reading Olive Ann Burns' Cold Sassy Tree that I came to permanently discard that dream of writing a book one day. Guess anyone who read books will eventually toy with the idea of writing one and I thought I had it in me to write just one such book. Luckily for you that wish is gone for good:-)

Mrs. Burns wrote Cold Sassy in her later years and the sequel Leaving Cold Sassy was published posthumously from a partially completed manuscript. I own both books and consider them good acquisitions. Burns describes her efforts at writing a book in the sequel. In fact half of it is a reminiscence about the author's life by friend and editor Katrina Kenison. This brought to surface the practicalities of such an effort and I understood that I simply am not up to the task. Luckily for me google came along with this perfect spot where I can 'publish' what I write if that is what I think it is or keep a journal if that is how one looks at it. Nice setup. Eh?

So Mrs. Burns deserves the credit for showing me the light and google's blogger deserves the credit for giving me closure. Seriously, we are talking about a true classic here. This book will be read by many more generations after other books have been read and discarded. It is a sweet and simple account of small-town Southern life in the post civil war era America. It revolves around young Will Tweedy and his strong and colorful  Granpa Blakeslee and the family and people that surround them. Read here for a summary of each of the chapters. The google link in the first sentence will let you read a whole lot of pages from the book. Read here for amazon reviews. Fictitious Cold Sassy town was named for a tree of the same name that stood on the road leading into the town. When townfolk felt they needed a new name Granpa Blakeslee will hear none of it. The book is replete with such stories and more. Read here for a complete summary.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Syringa Tree By Pamela Gien

It seems good things come in two's. It was only a few weeks back that I watched the wonderful German film Nowhere In Africa based on a book by Stephanie Zweig . It was autobiographical. And now this gem of a book also happen to be based in Africa. It is fictional but since Pamela Gien was raised in South Africa it has autobiographical elements strewn throughout. This is one of the best books/ new finds that I have had recently. The language is elegant and captivating. I ransacked my brains to give an example of an equivalent style and it dawned on me that finally I have found someone who writes like the cherished Malayalam writer Lalithambika Antharjanam. The Syringa Tree started out as a play starring Gien which she converted later into a full fledged novel.

Every line is a treat. Allow me to quote, "In the fleeting African spring, over before you can say Jack Robinson, rude August days of 1964 had already burned away the the first blossoms. Giving all things new and delicate no moment to shine. The syringa buds that survived this sudden heat burst in seconds into full clusters of shooting lilac stars, hanging heavy and fragrant too soon. In the blink of an eye, it was summer again. My mother hoped this would bring rain in fantastic thunderstorms with displays of afternoon lightning that would send whimpering dogs scurrying under beds. Rain would relieve and settle us." I didn't skip a single sentence for fear of losing the simple enjoyment of words regardless of where the story was.

For 6 year old Lizzy Grace, South Africa is her own land and so she does not understand why it is not really so in the eyes of different kinds of people. Afrikaners think of her family as not belonging anywhere being made up of a little bit of the Afrikaner, some Jewishness and some Catholicism. The blacks with whom they live together in harmony imagines them to soon be going back to their own homes across the sea despite her parents being born in South Africa. More than her own mother whom she seems to understand very well, it is Salamina, her black nanny who has Lizzy's heart. She considers Salamina's daughter Moliseng to be her own little sister and in the end related events drive her out of Africa and into US. There is a (spoiler link ->) murder in the book and I have never before been so affected by the murder of a character. Such is Pamela Gien's gift of mingling words and emotions in the gentlest of manners to draw the reader into her book. The syringa tree is not indigenous to Africa but grew roots in its soil and is the solace of Lizzy's loved but insecure childhood. She nested in its branches whenever bothered by daily events . Salamina, The Syringa Tree and her Mother completes a cozy triangle of motherly love for Lizzy in this story.

Sweet Moliseng is so endearing as a baby and a toddler that just like Lizzy we end up anxiously awaiting her dramatic entrances. The little speck held the heart of the Grace household. Dr. Grace is a hero for both Lizzy and the reader as he does all he can for the changing South Africa hurtling towards Apartheid and its ensuing evils. Little brother John, Grandparents and neighbor girl Loeska makes up the rest of her world. A world which is enchanted and threatening at the same time in a way unique to South Africa. What can I say... Every character is portrayed so well that I just love all of them!! It feels a travesty to call them characters as they feel like acquaintances rather. I hope there will be more stories from Pamela Gien. This book is a keeper without doubt and one for the home rather than the Library. Read here for more on the book from the author and here for more on the book from other readers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Out of Place, A Memoir

Edward Wadie Said's autobiography is a testament to his towering intellect and amazing analytical powers. This most famous Palestinian after Yassar Arafat, is an amalgam of such contradictions that just reading what he has written down is an experience in itself. No, his is not a sob story and is not mysterious in any way but the precise and in depth analysis of a life lived belonging to a homeland mired in controversy. Being a natural born American Citizen among other things only amplifies the paradox of his life. Add on to this the fact that he is an Arab Christian of Palestinian descent with an entire childhood lived in colonial Egypt under British. Most of it was spent attending local British and American schools by virtue of his father's wealth, his Christian background, and the odd Citizenship again through his father. His father Wadie along with his mother dominated Edward's early life. Wadie had fought in the American Expeditionary Force in his early wanderings of the world before eventually returning home and becoming quite successful through brilliant entrepreneurship and business acumen.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is not that the book depicts grisly war stories or heart wrenching pictures of families being torn apart - that aspect is represented very well and takes up good space- but rather it taxes the mind by forcing us to go through everything the author perceived and assimilated. Said's material shines with extreme intelligence and honesty in telling the story like it is. Like Said we also do not judge his autocratic father, vacillating mother or even the circumstances of his highly privileged but restricted life. Everything is laid out as bare facts but with enough empathy so the reader will see its oneness with the author. He has penned quite a few well acclaimed books and started writing this autobiography towards the end when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This could account for the analytical clarity and integrity that comes through his words but I believe these are qualities that permeate all his works. Pick it up only when you have time and willing to finish it. It is not an easy read but it makes you want to keep on reading and so you will finish it. It took me longer than usual but I will read it again just for the pleasure of going through Edward Said's brilliant presentation of his eventful life.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road

I read about Boyden's book while blog hoping. I can't for the life of me remember which blog it was especially since the post was not a recent one. If it is your blog do let me know and please receive my appreciation for the introduction to this fine book. Since then I heard a lot about it and decided to give it a go. So here I am a newly minted Joseph Boyden fan! Found the book in the Library shelf waiting just for me and it never hit the floor till I finished. A fantastic book by this new author who is blessed with the wisdom and gift of an experienced writer. I know he has many more books waiting to form in his story arsenal and each an experience to treasure for the reader.

It was interesting to find that 'Three Day Road' was also one of David Davidar's first publishing efforts in his capacity as Penguin Canada's President and Publisher. He was richly rewarded with Canada's prestigious Giller Prize being awarded to Boyden for his second book Through Black Spruce which I have not read. It is a sequel to his first book and it seems a third book is also planned to complete a trilogy.

Three Day Road is complex in story and character and quite captivating with its World War I backdrop. I didn't think I could take War activities in my stride but Boyden has succeeded so well that I flew past page after page of trenches, grenades and sniping not to mention all the other grissly details in complete empathy with the characters. Xavier Bird or 'X' as he is known is the narrator that sticks with you to the end. His Aunt Niska and close friend Elijah Weesgeechak (used in story as Whiskeyjack) also are strong in their narration of the events that shape their lives as Cree Indians as well as Canadians taking part in the War on behalf of their country. To me the story where the heroic but quiet Xavier being ignored for the impulsive but well spoken Elijah runs in parallel to Canada's quiet but courageous participation in the War alongside the more eloquent and applauded United States . Read here for an excerpt from the book to get a feel of Boyden's genius and here for more on the book itself.

"The real cold settled in with the moon of the exploding trees". This is how Boyden begins to describe the forest on a harsh winter night when the Cree where going through an extremely severe year. His language is picturesque and deep. Being of Irish Catholic ancestry sprinkled with traces of Metis and Mi’kmaq, Boyden has drawn on the Native American part well enough to have an authentic feel for this book told mostly through Cree Indian insight. If you don't read this book it will be your loss.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Short Stories by Ghassan Kanafani

I was rather disillusioned with a book that lost its storyline and style in the midst of reading. It was historical fiction about the Middle East in the colonial era. True to character I finished the book yet it felt incomplete. A Jordanian acquaintance who is originally from Palestine suggested that I might find reading Kanafani a different experience. Found 'Men In the Sun' in the short story section. It includes a novella of the same name and several other short stories.

Kanafani is a gifted writer and I could see a future O.Henry if only his life was not cut short so tragically early in his career. Like Henry's famous stories, Kanafani's stories too have a life
lesson to teach be it related to the plight of his people or just the normal everyday lives that many of us live.

One aspect of the title story 'Men In The Sun' is a theme familiar to the unemployed who are only too aware of the sufferings and trials to fulfill that elusive dream of finding a job to survive. A lot of the times for many it used to be about reaching the Gulf somehow and this story also describes how some of the Palestinians displaced from their homes reached Iraq in the hopes of making it to Kuwait through means straight or otherwise. It describes how these innocents from all walks of life are played back and forth by swindlers and smugglers who make a living by feeding on their dreams.

The story 'A Hand In The Grave' where two Med students attempt to steal a grave for a skeleton is one that many can identify with. One of them believed that he poked his fingers into the eyes of a dead body through a hole they dug and came off screaming. He eventually quit Med school while the other carried on. Years later they all learned that the graveyard was a fake one. The owner built it as a camouflage for storing wheat and flour and to keep them away from thieves. Reminded me of a recent movie that I watched called Delhi-6 which portrayed the fear that we all carry in our hearts in the form of 'Kala Bandar' aka 'Black Monkey', a phantom rumored to be roaming the streets and the cause for all the troubles. Read here for more on the book.

As the translator points out, Kanafani's success as a writer comes from the humanization of his stories by not limiting them to a particular people but rather presenting them as universal truths. This renders integrity to his stories and makes them classic in nature. I could only wonder what this author could have accomplished had he lived longer. His writing style is evolving and the story endings could use more finesse but the greatness and control of his stories are not easily found elsewhere.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Catching Genius by Kristy Kiernan

A rather endearing tale of two sisters where one was declared a genius when they were still kids. This lead to a separation that lasted well into their adulthood. The estrangement started gently enough with older sister Estella staying away from little sister Constance for fear of giving her the high 'eyecue' she was diagnosed with that threw their parents into a frenzy. What made it worse for Connie was the abandonment also of her Dad who took up Estella's cause in the belief that this greatness could only have come from his own illustrious ancestors. Their Dad passed away and in later years it was their Mom who gave them the chance to mend fences by inviting the two to pack up their childhood home for sale. Tensions flared, revelations happened, forgiveness asked and given and love withstood the test of time and events. Estella 'the math genius' was even able to offer assistance to Connie's older son Gib trailing in algebra. They came to terms and even found ways to protect Connie's younger son Carson who ended up being 'discovered' as a musical prodigy. Finally Mom revealed her own ever absent Father's penchant with numbers which gave closure to Estella who could never really fit her gift into her Dad's side of the family. Kiernan is a first time author and has done very well. The cover proclaims her to be welcomed by Jodi Piccoult's readers but I believe she has her own style and way of looking at things. She has written two other books since then.

This by the way was my husband's pick rather than mine from the Library since my luck had completely dried out and I had no browsing time to pick one with care. He has done a wonderful job and I am thinking of appointing him my book selector from now on:-) He always picked the right books whenever he thought of giving them to me as gifts. Read here to know more of the author and here for more on the book.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Love, The Painter's Wife & The Queen of Sheba

This is a single book and a small one at that. Queen of Sheba and other ladies of The Old Testament were and still are a constant source of fascination for me. I am eager to read up anything about them especially in my favorite form of fictionalized history. Reading the title, I didn't really think this book had any connections to true events. Imagine my amazement then when I stumbled upon the fact that the painter Piero della Francesca is a historical figure and had actually painted those pictures alluded to in the book. French author and critic Aliette Armel has produced a well written book. This is the second book I read featuring Bilqis the Queen of Sheba. Both books that came out of independent research seem to be very similar and thus render credence. Armel traveled to Yemen for the book.

The story is about Piero and his wife Silvia and how Silvia helps Piero find his muse to do a historical series of paintings. She achievs this by artfully retelling the story of the Queen and her visit to King Solomon of Israel. Through the story telling we get to know not just Piero & Silvia but Queen Bilqis and King Solomon too. The Queen had always stood out for me among those old stories. I have often pictured this courageous and smart woman traveling to Solomon's Kingdom. It was a difficult journey rife with bandits and she also had to brave the fear of a potential annexation of her small Kingdom by the powerful King. The trip ostensibly was to experience first hand the fabled wisdom of Solomon. His wise resolution in the story of the two women and one baby is a well known one.

I loved this book and with two brilliant stories in one, it is a bargain read!

Du Maurier's 'The Scapegoat'

I cannot skip a Du Maurier. Now that I think about it, if at all I would want to meet an author, it would be her. A writer with deep perception on people and how they affect each other, it is sheer pleasure to delve into Daphne Du Maurier's books. Thought I had finished reading all the titles by this author and so couldn't believe my luck when this turned up on the library shelves. This is her best book yet. Books like 'Rebecca' & My Cousin Rachel' are replete with mystery. The Scapegoat is mysterious but is equally readable by a non-mystery person. It talks about British Professor of French literature (John) switching lives with French man (Jean) who by a twist of fate is an exact replica of his physical self! Jean de Gue orchestrated the switch through deception to escape from the people in his life who were demanding. John on the other hand decided not to go to the police and instead live this French Count's life in his Chateau full of people which seemed very similar to what he had always wondered about through those pages of history. A classic for all times and all readers.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blink : The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist and it shows in this book. I read all of it with interest yet I had this feeling of being cheated of something. Well, 'cheated' is a hard word so let us put it as something missing instead. I figured it out soon enough and from then it was not bad at all. You see, the book reads like a bunch of articles sewn together. He did make certain names appear here and there for the sake of continuity but in essence the chapters were articles. That does not mean it is not a good read. In fact I did not skip over any part and did read all of it. I am just ambivalent about the reading experience that is all.

I am sure almost everyone has heard of the phrase " First Impressions Are The Best Impressions". Gladwell has written a book on this with ample examples to prove his point. I agree with most of what he says and since he himself did a good job of creating a good first impression on each of his 'articles' you will finish each with pleasure. See here and here for more on the book and here for more on the author.

Added on July23
Well, Gladwell has managed to make me conscious of what normally is an intuitive feeling. So read him at your own risk. I am adding this to write about how he does truly have a point and my recent experience just proves it.

You see, I work at this company where they have these huge conference rooms in the lobby with full paneled glass doors that everyone can see into and back. Most job interviews are held here because there will always be at least one or two of these rooms available. The last few days, as I was walking past one of the rooms I began noticing the same group interviewing with different people. Sometime two on the same day etc. I started slowly being aware of these candidates quite unconsciously and decided on one particular one as the most likely to be hired. It was arrived at almost as soon as I glanced at the candidate through the glass doors. Thought to myself that if I were to hire, I'd be hiring this person.

So...... guess who got hired in the end? Yes, "my" candidate. So the group didn't need to waste their time and money. All they had to do was to put the candidates in a lineup and ask me to point to the one:-))

Friday, July 3, 2009

Just checking in

I haven't gone AWOL guys. Just that my 'Luck' seemed to have run out finally. I know, couldn't have lasted that long. eh? The last few books from the Library were disappointments. Yup, nothing to write home about. But I do have some interesting reading going on and will update once I am done. Till then bear with me and Happy Reading!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Kamala Das- Madhavikkutti - Kamala Suraiya

I was away from the blog/net world and can't believe to have come back to this. This iconoclastic writer that I admire much has passed away. Any Malayali who likes books could hardly miss Madhavikkutti's books. Had to leave this quick but respectful note remembering this great author's life and contributions. I still have many books left to read. Her childhood memories are the ones that I love the most among her works. Read more here, here and here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Soloist by Mark Salzman

Nope, it is not the movie based on the life of Juillard's alumni and homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers which indeed is a compelling story. This rather is the book by Mark Salzman about a child prodigy who failed to blossom into the great Cellist that he was to be. Renne Sundheimer's present life is sort of aimless. He rigidly practices everyday on his cello, yet doubts of ever being able to give a concert. At this time a young Korean boy, Kyung-hee enters his life who reminds him a little bit of himself. This gives his life a momentum that wasn't there before despite his own misgivings. The interesting part is how Salzman has managed to weave into this fabric, the a murder trial of a Buddhist (Zen) monk during which Renne sits on the jury. The background of the murderer's life unfolded through the trial makes Renne more aware of how his own life is lived. Salzman talks at length of Zen myths and facts without it getting too complicated or out of place. Looking into more of his other books I see that he does add an extra dimension like this to most of his books. A serious author and a successful story teller is a wonderful find and Salzman is one. Having lived in China, having played Cello etc. must play a part in his writing.

The whole music part reminded me of my own feeble attempts to learn Indian Classical Music during my post undergrad days while waiting to get word on higher studies. The teacher was kind but much as he tried he could not bring himself to encourage me beyond what courtesy dictated. I got the message but since I had a few cohorts in the same boat we kept with it till the master just couldn't take it anymore and got himself transferred:-) Don't get me wrong though, The Soloist is all about true talent and how one so endowed lives with the hand he's been dealt.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Joanne Dobbson - A Mystery Writer of Interest

Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and in later college years, Robert Ludlum (The Bourne books) . There you have it. These are the authors I needed for my mystery fix. Even now I am perfectly happy reading these guys or watching related movies. Daphne Du Maurier can be mysterious but I love her for the style of writing rather. I believe I have read other mysteries but cannot bring them to memory at present. "The Hound of Baskervilles" can give me the chills even now. Of course any Hitchcock movies could do that too. Edgar Allan Poe has a vague place somewhere in there.

Hordes of 'Kottayam Pushpanath' stories brought home by my brothers from the local Malayalam Library is probably what started it all. Although his stories were populist with no credible storyline or a specific style to cry for, they served to instill a craving for the mystery in the young me. How can I ever forget the "woman who looked like a statue of Venus in the dim candle light and of Detective Pushparaj always suddenly needing to break his car while driving on the narrow and dangerous Carpathian Mountain Ranges to find a dead body blocking the road while wolves were howling in the distance?" My sister and I used to have lots of fun making up similar stories by mixing and matching many such lines from those books...

Like I mentioned before, the team that stocked up our Library seem to be kindred spirits. Encouraged by my many recent finds, I decided to stop by the Mystery section this time on a fast run in and out trip there. My eyes locked on author Joanne Dobbson's collection of books. Women writers of the 19th century and set in a college campus were enough to get me interested. Took two books and liked both for the simple mystery and romance and this most interesting way this author -who is also a University Professor - has found to introduce American women writers from the 19th century of whom very little is known to the general public. As she says here, the most popular of them - Emily Dickinson - couldn't have just been born into the literary world all on her own without any predecessors. It is this author's mission in life to use the medium of her books and other tools to make these unknown and brave group of writers better known to the world. I congratulate her on this and she has completely succeeded in getting me interested in these early pioneers.

The books I read and others are listed here. Since the characters seem to have continuance, it might be better to read them in chronological order. Either way these books are fast and easy reads with interesting nibbles of info on American women writers of .. you know... 19th century. This also brought back to memory the fictionalized book I have at home based on Emily Dickinson's life that I enjoyed immensely. "The Diary Of Emily Dickinson" by Jamie Fuller.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life Of Pi by Yan Martel

An out of the blue e-mail brought back to life memories of this immensely readable book that I had read a year or two ago. It was the orange and white flash on the cover and the use of Pi in the title that first attracted me to it. Once I started I could not bring myself to put it down except of course when one had to be at work. I enjoyed it so much so that I took to updating my husband on each day's progress. Finally when I finished this incredible story of personal perseverance and full blown adventure I had no doubts that it was a true story. I divulge this here because it actually does not take much away from your reading experience. Might even augment it a little.

Martel has done a fantastic job in making Piscine Patel (shortened to Pi Patel) and his improbable story true to life. Only when I did a little web research post reading that I realized that it was all really fiction. Aptly categorized:-) It is an incredible - did I use that already?- sea adventure that makes you sit up and pay attention to every detail. When I went to a book group meeting at the local church this was brought by someone and was received very well as a book enjoyed by all who read it. Read here to delve deeper into this Man Booker Prize winning book and its author. At the end especially after finding out that this was not based on one specific real story, I had this strange feeling that this will forever remain the author's best work. Some authors are one time wonders where the book is usually drawn from their own life which is what made it alive. This is not based on Martel's life, yet he was able to write it as if. Not sure if he can be as passionate and come alive in another such book. He will definitely need to crossover to full fantasy in the next and might be able to make it attractive in that genre. 'Life Of Pi' is rather on the cusp of being a fantasy and yet so real as to make silly me fall for it hook line and sinker! But hey, I am certainly not complaining:-)

Added Later:
Check here for a wonderful one liner from this book.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Stones From The River & Never Let Me Go

Whoever stocked up our Library this time has done a pretty good job. Most of my random picks are true blue reads. The two books that follow are just great and I will recommend them to anyone in a heartbeat.

Stones From The River By Ursula Hegi
German born Ursula Hegi has written a splendid book that is superb in content, character development and history. Hegi tells the story of Trudi Montag, a dwarf woman living in that time straddled between the two world wars in a small German town called Burgdorf. She is also a Catholic and the community is made up of Catholics and Jews alike. You know where that can lead to in Nazi Germany. I have read many books on the holocaust. This is the first from the point of view of the ordinary German from those times. Ursula Hegi has succeeded where many others have failed. To present all the sides of a particular story fairly and accurately. I can't even begin to describe the way her characters develop over the years. If you read Jodi Piccoult as an instant gratification tool for a good character, then Hegi is for when you want to indulge in a story and go deep into each character. Trudi Montag and her widowed Dad Leo Montag will feel like like family members by the time you finish the book. Together, they run a pay-library that is their main livelihood. As a Zwerg - German for dwarf - it is just humbling to know everything that goes through Trudi's mind and to feel for yourself almost what it is like to live that life. Hegi does this all with an efficient but poignant style that manages to bind you in its simple magic. A true literary achievement. Read here for more reviews on the book.

Never Let Me Go By Kazuo Ishiguro
I knew I will get all of Ishiguro's books available in the Library. This second one just stopped me in my tracks with the very haunting name. I cannot really say what the book is all about as that will take away some of the enjoyment from your eventual reading. But this is essentially the story of three friends who reminisces about Hailsham, the institution where they all had their schooling while growing up. Kathy is the main narrator and Ruth and Tommy make up the trio. Like a critic described, now one can portray the sense of loss like Ishiguro. There are some holes in the story when you look back on it but that does not take away anything from this awesome treatise on human relationships and how they evolve. A word of warning. Don't read it if you are not in a happy mood. As it is, I am still struggling to come out of the overwhelming sadness that the book evoked in me when I finally finished it. Read here for more on the book. Time picked it as one of the 100 best English-language books.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Five Quarters Of The Orange

A completely satisfying read! The book is replete with war, childhood, mystery, scandal, love, hate and best of all, recipes and cooking. Set in the tiny french village of Les Laveuses on the banks of river Loire, the story is told by chief protagonist Framboise Dartigen. Boise for short. Nice name eh? I thought so. Wait till you hear the name of her Mom, the even more mysterious Mirabelle Dartigen.

Mirabelle is a widowed mother who went about the wrong way to bring up her kids but with the best intentions. She treated them the same as the trees in her small but plentiful farm. Cassis, Reinette and Framboise are the threesome. Paul, a neighbor makes up an occasional quartet. It was too late even for the favorite - Framboise- by the time she figures out the tenacity with which her mom had loved the kids. Mirabelle is afflicted with migraine and the onset this is always through an imagined smell of oranges. A fruit effectively banned in their home. Their father was killed in the war which made their mom into an all the more stringent disciplinarian. Boise the youngest and the most like her mom couldn't but exact her revenge by laying her hands on any orange she can find and surreptitiously bringing it home. Joanne Harris has succeeded in telling the ultimate story that felt so complete at the end. I read her 'Chocolat' just before this and it was just OK. Yet, I could feel a pull to the way this author did her story telling and so got my hands on 'Orange'. Totally worth it.

The book is permeated with various aspects of cooking. Mirabelle left her scrap book of recipes to Framboise in her will and the story unfolds once a much older Boise is able to decipher her mother's handwritten notes scattered all over the book. Fell in love with the the concept from the beginning. That and the fact that I am a sucker for quaint french countryside descriptions of any form ever since coming across them in a biography of the french impressionist painter Camille Pissaro. The two may not track together much but as an outsider it was enough of a connection. OK, that one is coming soon since I want to read it again. Hope the Library here has a copy...

Read more on the book here and here and on the author here and here. I shouldn't forget to mention 'Old Mother', a rather large pike that nine year old Boise finally managed to catch from the Loire. The fish is present throughout the book and adds another dimension to the whole story. I hope you will get a chance to read this wonderful book if not for the story, then at least for the green tomato jam recipe:-)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Indian Clerk (Srinivasa Ramanujam)

This book by David Leavitt explores the life and times of the famous Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam mostly during his short but productive stint at Trinity College, Cambridge, England. The story develops as told through a series of speeches by Ramanujam's mentor and guide in Cambridge, G.H Hardy. Hardy is giving these lectures on Ramanujam towards the end of his own distinguished career to the students of Harvard. Some lectures occur only in his imagination and therefore more personal.

Being an Indian, I was surprised at Leavitt's intuitive understanding of the expatriate Indian's craving for food and family when far away from home. In the early 1920s England Indian food was not that easy to find and being a strict vegetarian Ramanjuam found it very hard to find stuff that he can eat. My only objection is the generous sprinkle of subtly sexual references -both hetero and homo sexual - that goes on parallel in this otherwise enjoyable book. If you can dismiss or understand as much of it as you think necessary, then the rest of the book is pure enjoyment. Perhaps the disappointment took such large shape because I was hoping to enjoy this book on the Great Indian with my kids. It rings a discordant tune when present in the same book on the mathematical and ultra conservative Ramanujam:-) Hardy's lifelong collaborator Littlewood is the third main character who along with Hardy was instrumental in recognizing Ramnujam's undisciplined but unique genius in that first letter he sent to Hardy. Two other professors at Trinity had ignored the Indian's letters earlier.

As GH Hardy take pains to impart in his lectures, Ramanujam's was not just a calculator kind of mind as portrayed in the media of those times, but true pure genius of the highest order. In real life, when asked about his achievements, he credited the discovery of Ramanujam as his best contributions to the world. Coming from this highly accomplished and well respected Mathematician on his own right it is very endearing. It seems the England of 1920s or rather its highly regarded educational institutions at that time had some of the best minds England had ever produced. Throughout this well researched historical fiction, it was pleasure to meet the likes of Bertrand Russel, Virginia Woolf, Niels Bohr, D.H Lawrence and Trinity's most famous son, Newton! The book also minimally explores Ramanujam's relationship with his Mom and his lack of it with wife Janaki. He died at the age of 33 almost a year after coming back to India. His health had suffered with chronic ailments in the cold English winters. From Leavitt's book I can almost imagine a pleasant and mild mannered Ramanujam trying to walk through the snowed in Cambridge streets in ill fitting shoes and layers of unfamiliar but necessary clothing with his mind constantly delving in formulas and numbers. He was a man who loved numbers unconditionally it seems. There is the story of how while measuring out lentil beans to make 'rasam' he came up with the beginnings of his partition theorem. The book has such interesting anecdotes all over to bring it to the layman's level. Hardy mentions Ramanjuam's penchant for coming up with original theorems and formulas almost out of thin air, having known the proofs in his mind already. Hardy worked hard to get him into the habit of also writing the proof down as otherwise it is as good as lost for posterity. Ramanujam was untrained in mathematical discipline having been dismissed from college for not paying attention to any subject other than mathematics. Conversely this absence of discipline rather enabled him to wander freely into the Mathematical realm and chart new and hitherto unexplored paths.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wilma Mankiller - A Chief And Her People

This is only the tip of the iceberg. The story of the native people of America who were called 'The Indians' not to be confused with the people of India. My son was doing his Native American Report last week and his tribe was 'Cherokee'. While collecting information about the tribe, an acquaintance of Native American ancestry kindly lent me this book that she was reading at the time.

This is the autobiography of Wilma Mankiller, a Cherokee who is one of the most admirable women I have come across in person or in print. Not only did she rise to the post of Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, she went through numerous personal struggles and came out victorious each time. A person of unending will power, she says coming back to her family's roots was one of the things that helped her to get a better perspective on life. Her story is so enormous since it is not just her story but also that of the Indigenous people in this continent and is difficult to contain in a few sentences. She is well read and her experiences transcend race or creed and is a shining example of what can be achieved through personal power. Her name by the way is derived from a military title held by one of her ancestors. The book is sprinkled with Cherokee stories of old handed down through generations in addition to a closer look at the history of her people. The Cherokees originally lived in the southeastern US and were driven through what is referred as 'The Trail of Tears' in the 1800s to the west of Mississippi by the earlier administrations especially that of President Andrew Jackson. They lost millions of acres of land through inefficient or ambiguous policies designed just for that purpose. They also had their own internal struggles with the lose of culture and assimilation. Cherokee at present are the second largest Native American tribe in the US next to the Navajo.

Mankiller speaks of the 'Iroquois' and other native people who were here long before Europeans ever set foot in the Americas. How they always had their own government councils and culture and how the government to government treaties between the Indians and the settlers were rarely honored and the list goes on. It is said that the constitution of the Iroquois that existed long before is very similar to the US constitution and the main difference is that while the US constitution excluded women, the former had women as an equal constituent. A much more evolved society I guess. They also knew of the balance and harmony of nature that needed to be preserved for the good of mankind long ago, akin to present day environmentalists and conservationists.

Mankiller served as chief for 10 years and continues to this day in her efforts to help her people be aware of their own strengths and to help them know their roots. I feel like I have a barely half baked knowledge on the whole subject and so will not go further and will let you at least take up this book for an interesting window into the deep rooted and rich culture of the Cherokee people.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Roald Dahl and other Children's authors/books

I simply don't know how I managed to skip this writer till I got here and watched a movie called 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' with my son. Came to know that it was based on the book by a guy named Roal Dahl and didn't think much more of it. Then came my son's birthday and guess what he got? A bunch of children's books authored by none other than Mr. Dahl! My son immediately finished reading 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' and that was it. He was onto other peer reviewed interesting books by authors like Barbara Parks (Junie B Jones), Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid) and of course Star Wars and the ilk. We did get the kids stories from Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, TinTin, as many 'Amar Chita Katha' I could find in stores etc all of which my blooming reader devoured in no time.

He wasn't too much into chapter books that looked a little dull or long. My husband finished reading 'Swiss Family Robinson' from the Illustrated Classics with him and again that was that. But once we got the full set of the 'Treasury of Illustrated Classics' (which unfortunately seems out of print now) he had also reached the right time. We started him off with one chapter at a time which he just had to finish by himself before we got to the next day's turn. Sherlock Holmes was what started off the frenzy I think. Now he started scouring the house and of course the Library for books to read. So finally I was able to turn his attention to the 'Roald Dahl' books. This is when I also discovered how fun they are to read! My daughter who is into 'Panchatantra' stories, who then slowly drifts off to sleep while the reading is going on has started to sit back up to listen because the adventures are such fun. We are reading 'Danny The Champion of The World' now which I think is the best ever by Dahl! There are still more of his books (Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, BFG etc) to finish and I can't wait for each.

One book that he had to learn in class was by actress Julie Andrews that is greatly entertaining is: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles . He also got me 'Death of Superman' from the school Library although he had already read it. Am I not lucky?:-)) I am glad we are past Arthur, Dr.Seuss , etc which are indeed great kid books (my daughter finds them very easily laid out to read all by herself) but I wouldn't be able to talk much about with the kiddos. I do love Avatar stories. We have '1001 Arabian Nights' at home but it looked so bulky that even I couldn't bring myself to read them. My husband found some audio stories (storynory) online for long car trips which the kids enjoy a lot. It had 'Alibaba and the 40 Thieves' which was so popular with them that now I am on the lookout for a simple 'Arabian Nights' edition.

Speaking of car trips, all 4 of us -especially my daughter- love listening to the Laurie Berkner Band in car. She also loves to listen to old Yesudas classics:-) To my surprise, they are enjoying the 'Alice in Bibleland' stories that I had bought hoping to substitute for a mildly anchoring religious aspect we might not be able to provide here due to a busy life and the lack of extended family - read grandparents- around. Step into Reading books are no brainer buys for kids who are in various stages of learning to read. My son didn't take much to Magic Treehouse but I think my daughter might like them. Her all time favorite and first love is Arnold Lobel's Mouse Soup which happens to be one of her brother's favorites too. Well folks, I have some more children's books to gush about but I think it is time to step off the pulpit and let these permeate. Hope your kids will find at least one new author/book/genre here and will come to love them.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

P.E.T - a parent self help book by Dr. Thomas Gordon

I never believed in self help books. I always knew what was good for me. I used to take pride in the fact that having grown up in a large family with all kinds of people I knew all I could learn about people right at home. Wrong! I also hadn't accounted for the ones who were brought into this world solely by me and my husband and whose lives depend on us for nurturing. Living away from the cocoon of extended family makes this role more visible. For the record, I was raised in a household where there was no spanking and therefore needed to find something that will work like the untold chain of love, respect and discipline that existed in my childhood home. P.E.T (Parent Effectiveness Training:-)) didn't provide all the answers but it was a good reference.

Whenever I am in a dilemma I search for more information. This one book shone with wisdom and had effective ways to handle things that agreed with my policies. They have little examples. Some are extreme but when we know how even those can be handled wisely and peacefully then we build a certain confidence. I see that it is not very easy to adhere to everything the book says, but then we can adapt what we read and try to shape it into what works. It also helped to know that there are a large majority of new parents seeking similar insights into effective parenting. It talks of the strict households and the permissive households and shows a middle ground to do things more effectively. Even if you don't follow the book, it is a good read especially if you are the kind that sometimes wonders whether you are indeed providing the right environment for those sweet little bundles of joy that God entrusted to you. Read here for a rather critical review I found in Amazon that will provide another side. This wiki page gives some insight into the book's philosophy and this page gives more on the book. You can know more about Dr. Gordon who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Three Books

I went to the library and got not one but three that I thought worthy to bring home. Two of them were really good and a third not too bad. All in all pretty good I'd say! I always worry when I search for books in the Library and move along the aisles that if I am passing up little gems as I walk away to the next row. Many a times I had wished that I'd have word of mouth info from a kindred spirit about each of those books. This is among one of the many reasons for this book blog. To give a would be reader a thumbs up or down. Most are thumbs up as I turned out to be lucky in the ones that I latch onto. Let us get to the ones for today:

The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz
Translated by Catherine Cobham

This Nobel prize winning author was an unknown to me till last week. Our local Library seems to have had a renaissance in quality as well as quantity. Or maybe they are just being shelved better. Anyway this one or rather the author's name caught my eye and I liked what I saw. I am glad his books got translated from Arabic to English. The cover pages make it clear that this book is more like 3 of the author's other popular books - The Cairo Trilogy - and so maybe the rest are different. I am going to find out soon as I can't believe an author with such a deep perception on life can be anything but readable no matter what the style of narration is. Take this book 'The Harafish' for example. 'Harafish' means 'the common people'. It could also mean 'the riffraff'. Think R K Narayanan only he is in Egypt and not in India:-) This is in terms of the theme but in narration Mahfouz has quite a unique and quaint style. I believe his expertise is in being able to tell a saga of depth with as little words as possible. He is able to tell a story spanning many generations of the Al-Nagi family succinctly and in detail. How is this possible? I myself was amazed at the short number of pages written for each generation yet the content didn't lack anything. I could be partial to this style of narration, having been attracted to the stories of the Old Testament not only from a religious view but also for the pure fun of it:-) We used to read a chapter a day at the evening prayers from this large Black Bible. When my tenure started as a real listener and the chapters moved from the sleepy 'Genesis' and the likes to to the more entertaining Juedan Kings I just had to read it all myself instead of waiting for the chapter of the day... Mahfouz's style strongly reminded me of those. Yet just like those Bible stories though the content is very entertaining and light, gems like this are scattered throughout the book : "If wrong existed, right must exist too. It must be constantly renewable, and if it was possible to suffer lapses, it must also be possible to ensure that they didn't recur". Need I say more?

David Long's The Falling Boy

This book looked almost like "Snow Falling on Cedars" which is what brought me to it. Then the reviews on the front and back kind of stood out from the usual jargon that we get. David Long seems to have quite a following among the critics based on his short stories. This is one of his initial attempts at the long form of story telling and I think the expectations did not fall short. I liked the book and how the author presented his characters and the story. It follows an orphaned and amicable contruction worker's - Mark Singer- life with remarkable clarity especially when handling relationships from Mark's perspective. Some female characters lacked depth towards the end but I am sure Long is on his way there or is already there. Will surely read his other books. Read here for more on the book.

When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Loved the name of the book. Loved what was written in the book unlike two other books that I had put back right away after a few glances and wanted to bring this one home. I was right through more than first half of the book but somehow it fell short in the last half. Not sure what happened as the disappointment was sudden and real. Couldn't really get through the last pages yet the story of Japanese prison camps in the US during World War II is a compelling one. Wish it could have provided a better experience for such a poignant theme. Maybe it is just me being unable to appreciate the depths the author tried to portray.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ian McEwan's Saturday

After 'seeing' Atonement written by McEwan, I had determined to read some of his books. Didn't think I will get a chance so soon. Sure enough, the author lived up to expectations. In the book McEwan takes us through one particular Saturday in the life of Dr. Henry Perowne of London. One might be reminded of Arthur Hailey's 'Airport' in that respect.

'Saturday' leads us gently and with enough suspense through the lives of everyone in Dr. Perowne's family on that day. I for one was able to completely empathize with all of his characters including even the meanies! The novelist succeeded in transporting his characters into the minds of the reader. Like its name, I finished the book in a day on Saturday. So do pick it up if you need a good but short read any day of the week:-)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Colleen McCullough - An Author of Excellence

I can't seem to get Gaius Julius Caesar out of my mind and Colleen McCullough is why. I had read her 'Caesar's Women' a first time just few years ago and had left it at that thinking it was not quite what I expected from the book. Now during a cleanup I came across it again and before donating it to the Library wanted to read it one last time especially as I was fresh out of books to read. My goodness what a path it lead me to! Reading it this time I understood the author's original intent that it was really all about Caesar and who he is rather than his women. Doing a little more research I discovered that this was quite true! I hadn't known -being a frog in the well as far as McCullough books were concerned- that this is the 4th book in a series that she had been doing on the Master's of Rome. Seven in all. And yes though she did write about the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic I think it is Caesar she really zoomed in on among all that patrician pageantry.

Since the US elections just got over and with the latest senate seat peddling scandals in the mix etc, I just couldn't help but see how everything is just a repetition of history. That is right folks! There is nothing new in this 21st century -all the technological breakthroughs duly acknowledged - that hasn't been done before. Rome was the old 'New World' that Romulus created around 750 B.C to which flocked the enterprising people who wanted to make a new life for themselves.

The Roman Republic came into being with a Senate and a House of Congress to boot - I mean the Plebeian Council - and there were elections and armies and commissions and reports all orderly and recorded to the hilt. All remind one of the political systems of the world we live in now especially that of the US. I bet Thomas Jefferson had imbibed extensively on the Roman political system before he started on the US constitution. The main difference being 'The Consul' - the highest electoral post- was elected only for a year instead of 4 years for the US Presidency. That and the Senate was initially only for those of the patrician families while the Plebeian Council was for anyone. All of this was gradually changing for the worst towards 100 B.C around when Julius Caesar was born.

The Republic was formed around 500 B.C after a revolution of sorts with the last King of Rome executed by none other than - are you ready? - a great great ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus, the same Brutus who is attributed Caesar's murder which in turn lead to the spawn of the Empire .

McCullough's series is about how the Republic ended and the Roman Empire came to be and revolves around the leaders of Rome who were instrumental in this. The first books tell us about Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, then comes Julius Caesar with Pompey the Great, and finally Marc Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian aka, the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. But Caesar is ever present whose entire lifespan from infancy to death is covered in the first 6 books. The last book talks of Antony & Cleopatra and the formation of the Empire by Caesar's grand nephew Octavian. Caesar and the great orator Cicero were contemporaries. The author has presented Cicero in less flattering terms than one would expect. Maybe because Caesar is said to have been an orator on par with Cicero in addition to his many other qualities and vices. You may not need to read all the 7 books as there could be repetitions galore in such a complex historical series. But do read one or two and it will leave you intrigued and thirsting for more things Roman. I was vaguely aware that the Calendar we use had something to do with Julius Caesar with July definitely being named after him. Didn't know that what we follow today is mostly based on the 'Julian Calendar' that Caesar personally implemented with some important changes added later by Pope Gregory to make it a 'Gregorian Calendar'!

Reading McCullough, one comes off with the unbelievable feeling of an extremely handsome and charismatic military leader who was an astute political leader too. When you see Caesar's statues or busts it will all fall into place. The Roman busts were made from wax molds of actual faces and so they show real physical traits. He reminds one of a Socrates or Plato albeit dressed in military uniform. Whether contemplating political or military actions, Caesar always thought and planned ahead. He was way ahead of his time which didn't endear him to his peers. This link is a must read if you are interested in Caesar's policies and what made him standout so. And if you don't believe me about the history being repeated part just go on over to this page in the link and go down to the section titled 'The Empire' paragraph 3 and tell me if it reminds you of any of the current day economic measures:-)

It is true that McCullough seems to have fallen for Caesar much more than any other 'Masters of Rome' including Pompey but it still is a good read. She is a good story teller which was evidenced by 'The Thorn Birds' I had rather shockingly read oh, so long ago. I am not planning to read any more of the Rome series except maybe 'The October Horse' but won't hesitate if they happen to fall into my hands. I am however planning to read her latest as I thought it'd be intriguing to see how this master storyteller put a spin on one of another master storyteller's rather obscure characters.