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.