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.