Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Red Pyramid & A Movie

I think I told you that my son is totally into Rick Riordan. So I got him the Red Pyramid when it came out. He's been very good about getting all the Riordan books from his school library so far. But the Red Pyramid being home caught my attention on a lazy rainy afternoon and I took it up much to his pleasure. Suffice it to say I finished it off fast. It reads almost like any of the HarryPotter books and even seems to have some themes running in parallel. But the environment is quite different what with Egyptian Gods fighting each other through the centuries and all. I am as you well know is a big time sucker for history. Mythology and ancient legends are so closely intertwined with history that I find those easy to read. A good book and a good author. It may not be as appealing to the adults as the HP books are, but comes close. So take it up if you were eyeing these books and wondering..

The Movie
Finally watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I  that I'd been promising my son ever since it came out. Now that Christmas holidays are here I thought the 3PM show on a Tuesday cannot be that bad since it's been a few weeks. Much to my surprise the theater was full by the time the movie started. A rarity around here. Even more interesting was the wide spectrum of people who came to watch the movie. From the old Grandpa with the cane to my girl who stubbornly kept her eyes open through most of the scary scenes. I as an adult totally enjoyed the movie. I guess the director got a chance for some character development this time since they are doing the last book in two movies. I loved how the 3 brothers' tale was portrayed in the movie. Very tastefully done. Do watch it with family esp if everyone is a fan of the books. Tangled is next in list for the holidays.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Orhan Pamuk

I am a fan of Orhan Pamuk. I even have an absurd pride that I picked up  "My Name is Red" from the library to read him for the first time and he won the Nobel Prize for literature later the same year. Me & The Nobel Committee on the same line. Not bad eh? Since then I had been very interested in his works and own a copy of Snow.  I know Naperville Mom shares my enthusiasm for Pamuk. There was a short Pamuk break but recently I happened to watch a Malayalam movie called 'Kaiyoppu' and in it the protagonist who is a budding writer has a talk with his mentor while they were discussing the current state of writing. He  quotes the first line from Pamuk's book : "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." Who wouldn't be intrigued by that? So that was enough for silly me to jump into the library site and put The New Life on hold. It was all worth it I tell ya. The book was not quite what I expected in terms of where it lead but Pamuk's writing kept its hold on me as always. He can be down to earth when he wants to and fly up into higher planes as easily. This Marquez of Turkey has been translated into many languages and is Turkey's best selling author. His writing is also reminiscent of many Malayalam novels of a certain era. Not a specific author but rather a specific time. Along with The New Life was Pamuk's latest : The Museum of Innocence. While reading the initial chapters I had a feeling that this is perhaps the least liked Pamuk book. Boy, did Orhan Pamuk prove me wrong!  By the end of the book I was completely back into Orhan's world. The Bospohorous plays a part in some of his books as a backdrop. I love the feel of a body of water bobbing up now and then in a book flowing so well. Ataturk looms large in all his books maybe because he played such an important role in shaping present day Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire? Orhan Pamuk also seems to know the effect his books have on people. That first line in A New Life is mentioned towards the end in The Museum of Innocence and his own name comes up many times as a minor character.  You will find yourself smiling and nodding when you come across the familiar name. You have to read Pamuk. That is if you haven't already!

The Bearkeeper's Daughter By Gillian Bradshaw
While swimming in Pamuk pages I had company from this book which oddly enough also has The Bosphorous flowing through it. Only this one was during the Byzantine Era when Istanbul was Constantinople:-) Very interesting story about Empress Theodora  who rose from rags to riches and ruled alongside her husband Emperor Justinian I. Her NurJahan to his Jahangir I guess. An easy read replete with history. As with well researched historical books Gillian Bradshaw's novel is a wonderful mix of historical facts and  brilliant fictionalization leading to a viable storyline. Good pick for curling up on the sofa with a warm cup of tea and some crunchy snacks..

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cutting for Stone By Abraham Verghese

Halloween is over. We had a 10 year old hockey wizard casting spells and a 6 year old bunny (cute bunny suit thanks to HAunt's sewing skills) hopping madly collecting candies helter-skelter. This is the most favorite holiday for the kids. Christmas holds its charm only due to the presents and long holidays. Who can resist dressing up in costumes and getting huge stashes of candy, all community approved! Sharing and bartering of acquired candies went on yesterday and now I can hear the calm rustle of candy wrappers from where I sit. My son has a bigger horde and is able to enjoy it over a long time since he is not as crazy about eating it all at one time. Little sweet tooth is in candy heaven for the moment without giving a thought to what she will do when her horde is over and cheta (big brother) still has a bunch left:-) I used to hide it all and give it away but not lately. They did work hard for it you know..

The other news is of course the matter pertaining to our title here. Yes, I finished this book that my husband spotted for me when we were at the Library the other day. Funny part is I had it on hold a few months back and took out the hold since the wait seemed interminable. I had read a review around the time it was published and had an inkling that I might like it. I think it was in 'More'.  A magazine that I discovered at my son's piano teacher's place. My husband homed in rightly onto this book and I am so glad he did. A wonderful book that tells the story of twins Shiva and Marion born to British Surgeon Thomas Stone and Malayali (person from the state of Kerala in India) missionary sister Mary Joseph Praise in Ethiopia. If it sounds a little distasteful or scandalous or Grey's Anatomyish don't worry. You will not feel any of that once you finish reading. Abraham Verghese is not just a Professor in Stanford School of Medicine but is an accomplished writer as well as a caring human. This last quality is what enables him to be what he is I believe. Reading his other works are naturally in the plan.

In the book he reiterates the beginning of Christianity in Kerala when St. Thomas the Apostle came to India. A fact most Indians at least are familar with I guess. But did you know that Ethiopia is the only African nation that remained independant during the coloniztion of that continent? I bet you only vaguely knew that Ethopia's last and most famous Emperor Haile Selassie I was the last of an unbroken royal line that is believed to begin from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon? Yes older than the Hapsburg line. Wait till Dan Brown gets a wind of this:-) Ethiopia and Kerala shares much in terms of preferring to wear white, and the presence of early Orthodox/Syrian  Christianity. This page describes how on his visit to Kerala after his much published coronation the Emperor was impressed by the thousands of uniformed school children lining the streets to wlecome him and hired an entire batch of Malayali teachers to teach in Ethiopia? Ethiopia always brought to mind the heartrending picture of a very famished child picking up after a cow to fill his tummy, but now it also brings to mind an independent nation with an outstanding history. In Verghese's own words, a nation of beautiful people emerging from a mingling of Persia and Africa with ancient traditions and a monarchy belonging to the House of Solomon. He goes on to claim that Ethiopian Airlines is one of the best he has ever flown. Verghese does not overlook the reality of Ethopia's impoverishment but this other aspect was never put forward as a rule. The book will be appreciated by expatriates anywhere in the world for its colorful descriptions of their trials and tribulations. So dear reader, take it up and you will have spent some entertaining and educational hours as the 500 or so pages draw to a close....

If you say you have read it, then answer me this: What treatment is administered through the the ear in an Emergency?
(See comments for the answer)

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Mystery Book From The Past & Others

Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Before I knew about genres, about mysteries, about Dame Christie herself  I had the chance to read a book that I had appropriated from my brothers' room. The brothers in question are right above me and my sister in the pecking order -er.. birth order- and shared a room at the other end of our house. The room contained a variety of books which was a constant source of fascination for yours truly. Oh.. they tried to lock it up and stuff in an effort to keep the pest of a little sister away. Me, I was rather resourceful and knew where the key was kept, what time they were likely to return etc and made a clean sweep of any books present as soon as the coast was clear. More than anything else I guess they did it out of a sense of personal space that we all acquire around the early/late teen years.

Coming back to our book, it was a Library book in Malayalam but the story was so foreign that I still remember it quite vividly. Books from the past are playing catchup with me now-a-days. First The Cardinal and now this. There was hilariously delightful book called "Vellappokkam" (flood) that I still remember from one of those forays. Only a few years back did I figure out that it was written by none other than Thakazhi Sivasankarapillai.

Few months back a book friend of mine gave me three books to read. Since she was not particular about getting them back anytime soon I had put off reading 2 of those by Agatha Christie for a later date. I had a bunch of Library books to finish off you see. The time finally came for me to pick up Crooked House and give it the read. On my way into the 50th page or so it dawned on me that I am familiar with this story and in fact had never forgotten it! Having read it in Malayalam by the name of "Ajnatha Khathakan' (Unknown Murderer) and not remembering the author's name at all it never occurred to me that they could be one and the same. Though I knew the mystery's answer Dame Christie's intriguing ways kept me a captive till the last page once again.  This is not a Ms. Marple or M. Poirot story by the way.

Aftermath: I finished the 2nd Agatha Christie in one sitting (The
                 Murder of Roger Akroyd) and fished out  "Ordeal
                 by Innocence" from the Library. Ordeal by Innocence
                apparently is one of two all time favorites of Agatha
                Christie. Crooked House being the second.Christie is
                a beloved writer who can get you through boredom
                 without fear of any long lasting effect and so what have you
                 got to lose? Get off that sofa and go get some for there is
                 no better medicine to cure a reading block:-)

A Death In The Family by James Agee

Memories always take precedence over exemplary writing. Mea Culpa. The subject/story is morbid as the title implies but the book is a literary treasure. What puts this book on the pedestal is not the all too familiar storyline but the evocative, moving pros describing the love, angst and care of all in the family when faced with a beloved person's death. It is autobiographical which I didn't know when I read the book. Young Rufus and deaf Grandma Catherine alike will take root in our hearts and refuse to go away with the last page.

That James Agee was gifted does not need to be said by the likes of me. The book was posthumously published and had an editing team arranging the manuscript in chronological order. The manuscript itself was finished before Agee died. A true classic and a must read. You will be a better person to have read it and I beg of you to do just that.

Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander trilogy

I know by now most people have heard of Larsson's  Millennium series. The saving grace is the heroine Lisbath Salander who is very contemporary and accounts for the wider spectrum of empathizers. I read all three books and while it is awfully boring where Blomkvist descriptions takes on a larger than life form,  it is quite an entertainer that could get you through train journeys and airport waits in a jiffy.  I  think the story could have been better told in 2 books instead of 3. The strength is the tightly woven dark story albeit with a more Utopian view of the world for certain aspects of living.

It is to Larsson's credit that he wrote the stories while living under threats to his life and was always an advocate for what he believed in. He also did not live to see the phenomenal success of his books.
I am not sure if he intended Salander to be the main character but that is what caught the imagination of the public and the reason for the success of the books. I feel Salander lives in the background except maybe in the 2nd book while Blomkvist looms large everywhere. Another all important fact is the window into Sweden's darker side which had remained relatively unknown to the outside world.I really enjoyed the first one esp taken as a mystery of the missingVanger heiress. There is a certain naivete to Larsson's writing that could be endearing or tiresome depending on the reader. To read or not to read is left up to you.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Devil's Advocate

You have to agree that the title is intriguing. Reading the preface will interest you even more because it will tell you all about the Devil's Advocate hereafter to be known as the DA. The Catholic Church has allocated this title to the person who will argue against making someone a saint. His edict is to study the saint-to-be's life and purported miracles and turn the skeptics' eye on  it. On an aside, reading Morris West's book took me back some years.

My father used to be the member of a book club called Book-A-Month (BAM) club. I have no direct memory of this because I never saw books arriving once a month. Based on some search links that turned up it could be a publisher rather than a club even. When I turned a book worm I hankered after every single book at home regardless of caste or creed. Luckily for me it was a large horde accumulated over the years by my Dad and older siblings. The encouragement to the reader in me was from my Mom and Mom only. MAB books were mostly great works of literature from other languages translated to Malayalam. One book in particular from that time stayed with me a lot and I have been looking for it for a while now with no results. 'Cardinal' was the name. It was about a priest named Stephen Fermoil who rose to become a Cardinal in the Church from his humble beginnings as the son of a trolley driver.

Definitely the styles are not similar between the two books but the general environment around the characters sort of are. I am so glad to have found this book to give me a certain closure:-)

I can't just believe it! I wrote up to the above line and saved and started searching again for the Cardinal on a whim. Contrary to what happened the umpteen times I tried, the Search Goddesses (aka, key words) aligned and brought out a whole bunch of links from the woodwork! So even if I had only intended to write on West's book this has now turned into one on The Cardinal too!!!! Apparently it was a very popular book and was even made into a movie. Note to self : watch movie. I also know the author's name now. Henry Morton Robinson. So it is official. I now have total closure over this hitherto unresolved issue..

Getting back to the DA, it is all about the DA himself under threat of imminent death from a terminal illness who is sent to investigate the path to saintdom of a man named Giacomo Nerone in rural Italy. You will find an unlikely hero in Father Blaise Meredith and will come to admire the man for his honesty and lack of flowery speeches. A good read doubtless.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Jean Hegland's book starts out describing a photograph. It is of a tree that has been split almost in two with the living part covered in blossoms against a storm charged sky. Hegland's gift for vivid descriptions is not the only reason to like this awesome book about two mothers living quiet different lives. When they meet at the end they willingly learn from the other's life and keeps on going.

I think Jodi Picoult does a good job in describing personal angst or deep feelings of the heart despite the popularizing aspect of her books. Yet, the subtlety with which Hegland approaches emotions has simply blown me away. And I quote : "We're all so alone, in mothering, " Anna went on , her voice low and raw.  "We can talk about how our kids are doing in school and the cute things they say. We can even complain about how they're driving us nuts. But we can't talk about how much it terrifies us to love them as we do, or talk about how much we scare ourselves, trying to stay sane while we raise them, We can't talk about how much they teach us, how much they cost us, how much we owe to them, Or- " She shrugged. "Maybe it's just me".

I bet each of you parents who are reading this will think how aptly Anna describes your own feelings. Hegland's is the credit! Hope to read her other books and you should too.

On July11, 2010 on the World Cup Finals Day
Wanted to add another book that I am reading right now on loan from my husband's cousin.
Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Covin
This is very similar to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Some themes even run in common with The World Is Flat and so don't want to make a separate post of it. Good read about what goes on with the practical lives of this world. i.e, when we get the time to think/ponder such things. If there is no time then reading this book will give insights into some parts of it for sure. Talent in itself is likely to be a perception and if we look at the successful people in any field including music we could see that the linearity is along hard work rather than just plain talent. I happen to agree with this but with many corollaries to factor in personalities, open mindedness etc. There are other angles too that I hope to read about by the time I finish off the book.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Giuseppe Pontiggia's Born Twice and other such books.

I had finished reading Tilt written by author and poet Elizabeth Burns and meant to do a post on it. Unfortunately it's been a while and I have forgotten the nuances and the immediate feeling which usually makes for a good write up.  I'll just write down what I can now since it is not to be missed. Burns has proven she is as good an author as she is a poet. The sufferings of a couple in a nuclear family with 2 kids where one is a disabled child only gets worse when the father's schizophrenia lifts its ugly head and the Mom takes refuge in deep depression. There is a sort of redemption in the end which helps the reader to feel better for the Mom who is the narrator. A good book that makes you take a step back and count the myriad of blessings that are yours without asking.

Born Twice has an interesting hardcover and since I like works of translation I just couldn't resist this famous Italian author's first foray into the American market. I was well rewarded with a masterpiece! At times the style reminded me of Umberto Eco. Not sure if that is because both are translated works from Italian. It happens to be a style that I love anyway but mostly the book has its own splendid style. Oonagh Stransky did the translation. The story/theme resembles Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Haddon has the kid narrating his life while for Pontiggia it is the father who takes us into the realms of growing with a disabled child.

What took my breath away in Born Twice are the snippets of analysis/philosophy on the various situations in life, be it related to the disabled child or not.  It was a pleasure to read through all that the father puts forward to make sense of his own and other's actions. I thought I alone had the need for this sort of analysis:-) Giuseppe Pontiggia has the unique ability to put feelings from the deep recesses of the mind onto paper keeping the reader's interest and pique the said reader's mind at the same time. Dostoevesky was especially gifted in putting his Freudian points accumulated from a hard life into readable form but I'd say Pontiggia has simplified the process and makes it more accessible to readers. So don't say I didn't tell you. Include this in that short list of books to add to your personal collection. It will remain a cherished asset.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Some Cherries & a Movie

Enjoy these cherries from the orchard. Not ours of course! We went cherry picking on the Memorial Day weekend and this year the harvest was exceptionally juicy, firm, sweet, ripe and scrumptious all at the same time! Must be the season. Our neighbors as well as colleagues agreed whole heartedly when offered some.

Coming to the movie, the four of us went and watched Karate Kid this weekend and I have to say that it is the most wonderful family movie that I have watched in a while. Reminded me of Spielberg's Jurassic Park I even if they belong to different genres. It is a remake of the original and I really loved this version. Will & Jada Smiths's son Jaden Smith is awesome and is perhaps the reason why the story and the triumph was so persuasive. Jackie Chan was his usual charming self and Taraji P Henson wasn't too bad. So watch it with kids and you have a home run.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Ori &Rom Brafman are brothers and did some broad research before coming up with this book. Like other books of its genre it states something that is obvious to most but a little difficult to overcome. Very easy to read as one can identify with many of the situations. Although easy to read, the authors sometimes follow a train of thought, then trails away from it and fails to come back in time. By the time they do, the reader is engaged in the new events. You may not learn anything new but it could be interesting/comforting to know that most people in the world are in the same boat as you when making irrational decisions:-) The power of sway is somewhat similar to 'first impressions are the best impressions'. People are easily swayed by outward appearences as evidenced by how they totally ignored world class violinist Joshua Bell playing on his 3.5 million worth Stradivarius because he was playing on the New York Subway dressed as a street musician. They would pay through the nose to hear him if only it was in a concert hall! Or how an investor refuses to sell a stock that is slowly going underwater against the advise of his agent and lost all his investment in the process. I know many can empathise with this one including me.

All of this reminded me of a story I had read in India when little. I believe it was about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar but I have heard many variations of it. The story : One day this well respected scholar was travelling in a train with a youth. The youth did not find it amusing to go with this person in simple attire and showed his displeasure in many ways. The guy was going to attend a lecture by the famous Vidyasagar after all and belonged to the higher echelons of education.  Imagine his surprise and remorse then, when on reaching the destination he saw people waiting to garland the simple guy who travelled with him as the famous scholar! To  my delight I found a version of this story as well as more details on Vidyasgar here. I love telling this story to my kids. So the book Sway is a collection of many such instances helpful for the new generation where the old adages 'all that glitters is not gold' or 'think before you leap' etc. may not suffice.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kaffir Boy & Lying Awake

True, I'd been MIA the past few weeks but books were never far away. Reading is my favorite form of relaxation. Yes, above eating, sleeping and shopping!  I see at least a few heads nodding in agreement. So I got to finish a bunch of extraordinary books which will be shared as time permits. Time to go to the first of the two books featured today.

Kaffir Boy By Mark Mathabane

Mark Matahabane's Kaffir Boy strikes you with such force in the first paragraph that you feel as if you have no choice but to read it. And read is what I did. A visiting relative brought it with him and me being me, could not keep my hands off the book. He kindly decided to leave it behind. It is a painful read but you are forced to go on wanting to know how this incredibly strong person survived the tough life he was dealt.

This is an autobiography and Mathabane's is a success story but the pitfalls and sufferings he had to overcome simply blows the mind. Born in Alexandra, South Africa inside one of the numerous black ghettos that surround the city Mathabane had to live each day as it came. Apartheid was at its height and if it was not for his Mom & Grandma he sure would have ended up dead in some tsotsi gang fight or another. As it was, he managed to put himself through school, developed a voracious reading habit and had the lucky break of being introduced to Tennis through his Grandma's white employers. Tennis was the ticket that got him to America. The land where he knew black players like Arthur Ashe were admired and roamed freely. He has written a few books since then but none compares to the forcefulness of the events of his difficult life in this book. His relationship with Mom & Dad are also explored in depth. It simply had to have been cathartic for him to finally be able to express all the pent up feelings of living as a black man in oppressed South Africa.

Each page takes us through the abject poverty and utter cruelty  that the black people had to weather just for the bare minimum of survival. Think Dharavi and add to it a totalitarian state against the black people.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton has long been a favorite of mine for the story it tells as well as the almost lyrical, down to earth portrayals of both the beautiful country and its people. Hands going up. Yes I own it. Beautiful, beautiful book. In contrast, Mathabane's book talks of a similar plight but with a force that makes it impossible to look away. It took me a while to finish but couldn't dream of abandoning it. To do so would be a betrayal. The book is being used as school reading material as well as at College levels I believe.

Lying Awake By Mark Salzman

Having read his Soloist before I didn't hesitate one bit to pick up this Mark Salzman book. And what a read it was! If you liked "To Kill A Mocking Bird" or "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" then I need to say no more. Just find the book and read please. As for the content, Cronin's "The Keys of the Kingdom" comes to mind. It might appeal to you only from a certain stage in your life. It came to me at this right moment and I loved every single line. It reads like King David's Psalms. Sister John of The Cross goes through duelling phases of total faith and serious doubts in a cloistered Carmelite Monastery.  Salzman seems very attuned to spirituality in general. His portrayal of Zen Buddhism in The Soloist was revealing. I'd be getting any of his books that are available with the confidence of a fulfilling read.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Harry Potter - Yes, again!

I can't thank reflections enough for being staunch in her stand about the Potter books. I have finished all 7 of them and am completely bowled over. I guess it is one series that I don't need to waste words on for people to read it. This is for those with this giant block to get over when thinking of reading a fantasy book that seems infiltrated with magic. What can it offer other than wild creatures and things that do not make sense to the normal person? JK Rowling deserves all the accolades she has received and more. She has woven this fantastic tale about the young boy who always chooses love so well that I could not imagine the series coming to an end. Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore and Severus Snape are all still very much part of conversations with my son as we pull out imaginary wands and throw out spells at each other whenever. It is great fun I'd say. 'expelliarmus', impedimenta', 'stupefy', 'crucio' and 'avada kedavra' seems to be the most popular around here. Rowling skillfully wove together Harry's magical world with an easy to relate school life full of pranks and teachable moments. She structured the books ingenuously and brought the whole story together with ease. Harry's trips on the Hogwarts Express to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry reminded me of all those train journeys that I took during the undergrad years. We were divided into 4 houses in my school too but with names likes Red, Yellow, Green and Blue. I know, I know, nothing like Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherins or Hufflepuffs but it brought back some wonderful  memories:-) Rowling's usage of every word as it refers to magic are chosen with care for their simple elegance. She is quite unparalleled in her command on words and ability to unerringly create the right environment for each of the events. I can go on and on but of course it is not necessary. If you Muggles haven't read one, it is time to go look for one. It will bring out the child in you and yet the adult in you is equally mesmerized . The Lady is awesome! She knows her material and knows what it does for her readers. The dementors of Azkaban was particularly interesting.

Er.. Did you know that the members of the Black family are all named after stars from the constellation? The Weasley  family names came mostly from King Arthur. The charming and intelligent Hermione whose portrayal was what first pulled me into the series is loosely based on the author herself. Ok I have to stop somewhere and this is as good a place as any....

Sunday, April 11, 2010

March by Geraldine Brooks

By now books in our Library seem to know what it is that I am searching for. There is no other explanation for how this book jumped into my hands. True, there was the golden Pulitzer Prize sticker on the front page but still...  It must be the dog eared look that did it.

It was surprising to find out that the 'March' of the title is not the month and not a parade event but Mr.March from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Yes, Geraldine Brooks has made this irreproachable book around the mostly absent father of the four delightful girls. Brooks is generously endowed with talent which is evident as soon as you read a few pages. Soon we shed all the inhibitions of reading about a known character because the story that evolves can stand very well on its own. We rarely meet the family except through the letters from Mr. March. He writes regularly from the war front (American Civil War) on the side of the Yankees where he serves as a Chaplain. It is is his second time in the South which he had traversed as a salesman in his youth. This time around however, things are different and circumstances more complicated. As the war progresses we move with March to learn of his past and how it changes his present relationships. Family endures and by the time we meet Mrs.March coming to take care of her invalid husband in the hospital we would have gone through a lifetime worth of experiences ourselves. A classic of a book where the literary environment created by the author is simply not to be missed.

A second book
BTW, I just finished Gentleman &Players by Joanne Harris. It is a riot of a read. A fun yet serious murder mystery woven around an old prep school called St. Oswalds. In this Kazuo Ishiguro'esque novel Harris relies on her British background and it has paid off. Please guys, if you are in for a light and fun read, look no further.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Irving Stone - Lust For Life

Irving Stone was a biographer of immortals. I had read Stone's Agony & Ecstasy on Michael Angelo a while back and was on my way into another round when this post in pareltank came to my attention. Thanks! Afterwards, I had to visit a neighborhood library to get a copy of 'Bridge To Terabithia' for my 4th grader's class project. (A wonderful book. Do read the book or watch the movie of the same name.) Wandering around I found 'Lust For Life' grinning at me from the shelves. Grabbed that along with some for my Kindergartner and we left happy customers.

Stone's ability to inhabit the people and events of the period that he writes about is uncanny. He must really love/respect his subjects to be able to do that. This is probably why he was able to portray Vincent Van Gogh's life so realistically. This painter strove to capture real life characters and places into his canvass. At the height of his painting days it was imperative for him to finish a painting the same day that a scene or people caught his imagination. Irving Stone succeeded very well in making the reader understand the agony of creation that goes on inside a painter's head. To be a true artist one should have no inhibitions in the expression of the art. Van Gogh's paintings were ridiculed for being childlike and for portraying a lower class of people. He lived during a time of renaissance in painting but people were just getting used to the Impressionists and Vincent's time was still in the future.

Van Gogh's story is never complete without that of his brother Theo Van Gogh. It was Theo who stood by this lunatic of a brother - to ordinary standards - when he wanted to take up painting around the tender age of 27. An age when most men were established and married. The world would not have heard of a Vincent Van Gogh if it was not for Theo's ardent financial and moral support. I'd like to watch the movie Vincent & Theo someday.

Van Gogh was born in Holland and was part of a well known family. His father's five brothers were all well known in politics and in the arts. Two of the Van Gogh brothers had controlling interest in art galleries in London, Paris, Brussels, The Hague etc.. Vincent's father was the least known Van Gogh but was the beloved and intelligent curate of a small parish. His parents wished their son would be like others but stood by him as much as they could in all the decisions he took. He started off as an art salesman in a London art-gallery owned by his uncle and namesake Vincent Van Gogh. He was doing well and was even thought to inherit the Van Gogh art kingdom some day. Unfortunately Vincent was a man of strong passions and an initial unrequited love pushed him off the path of normalcy and into his ultimate destiny. He left the gallery and wanting to become a curate which eventually lead him to the disparate lives of miners in utter poverty in the Borinage. True to character Vincent tried to do them justice by giving up all he had for their betterment but it was more than anything he could do.  When Emile Zola wrote about miners in his book 'Germinal' he mentions having met many in the Borinage area who spoke highly of a Christ like Van Gogh who lived among them and loved them.  

When he could not be a successful minister Vincent got depressed and unhappy. He spent days barely eating and always in the clutches of a fever that stayed with him ever since. One day the urge to bring to life the raw people around hit him and that was the beginning of the artist.  Theo who was starting as an art dealer in Paris, stood by him in this with an understanding that defied norms. He promised to send Vincent a monthly allowance from his salary as Vincent had no other means of support. This was single most thing that let Vincent pursue his art in his own way. Unlike the existing norms Vincent was trying to capture the essence of true people - as he called it - into his canvass. He considered himself to be a peasant like his subjects. He lived in the outdoors or found models from real life such as laborers, and washerwomen when indoors. He spent every franc to pay the models and on painting supplies. This often left no money for food towards the last days of the month which in  turn would bring the fever and the cycle will stat again.

He lived with his parents for a while in Etten and fell in love with a widowed cousin. This was not acceptable to the families but at least this time he had his painting to look forward to. He went to the Hague where he got some guidance from Mauve who was a maternal uncle through marriage.  Here he lived with a woman Christine and her children for a year or two while trying to rescue her from street life. This was the only semblance of family life he had in his entire life. Running out of money does not conduit to a stable life and he was driven out of this life back to his father's new parish in Nuenen. There he painted prolifically while getting mildly frustrated in search of that painting that could ultimately satisfy the artist in him. He went out with easel and supplies in the morning and got back only in the evening. A routine he kept through the remaining years.

From Nuenen Theo took him to Paris where by now he was a successful art dealer.  This is where Vincent met most of his friends and was introduced to Impressionism. Paintings used to be generally dark till then but the exposure to Impressionism gave Vincent a new perspective.Theo was well loved for taking the side of new artists against established gallery practices. He fought hard to give the Impressionists a display space in the walls when the art buying world had not woken up to them yet. Vincent made friends with Georges Seurat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Zola and the likes. He was very fond of Gauguin and they hit it off well.

Vincent developed his own style after at first futilely attempting to copy the impressionists. The time had come to settle down. From Paris he went to Arles which is a sun baked little town with olive trees and vineyards. Here he rented a small yellow house that he loved and started on his famous sunflowers. The scorching Arles sun could not stop his relentless pursuit to capture life with character on canvass. His most satisfactory and productive years were spent here. The grueling routine and the inevitable lack of food got to him and started his epileptic spells. It was around this time that  Paul Gauguin came to live with him. They each harbored a solitary temperament which did not bode well for the relationship. It ended one day when Vincent cut off his ear while they were quarreling. Gauguin left and Vincent's doctor admitted him to a peaceful mental asylum in the countryside with Theo's permission. There at St. Remy's he painted the surroundings but the fire inside was slowly dying down. He also figured that the epileptic bouts came about once every three months. The waiting and the uncertainty of the attacks brought him further down but knowing an approximate time also gave him a certain amount of confidence. After a year, he went back to Paris to be near Theo who had married and had a child named Vincent. Theo placed him under the care of Dr. Gachet and Vincent chose a cheap place in Auvers where he stayed till his untimely death.

One page biographies will give you a vague idea of the person but Stone's book will make you a close acquaintance. At the end Stone mentions that almost all the events described are true based on his extensive research. It helped that Theo Van Gogh kept every single letter written to him by his brother. About 700 of them I believe. This is available as a book. Vincent died of self inflicted gun shot wounds in the arms of his brother at the age of 37. Theo died 6 months later. Theo's wife Johanna - herself the sister of a painter -  loved Vincent as much and was instrumental in bringing Vincent's life and painting to public attention.

Needless to say, I am on quest to read all of Stone's books. Oh and don't forget to listen to Starry Starry Night.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

HP - Look who is here!!

I have not read these yet. Reflections have always waxed eloquently on the inimitable HP and a little seed was planted. Got the whole set of 7. Will there be more? The son has finished 2 books already in 4 days! I don't know whether to be mad at him or amused. I am going to start from Book 1. This Percy Jackson movie is what brought it on. I thought if he can be that gaga over it, then he must like Harry H Potter and who am I to stand in his way? Being a little harried lately I won't be able to read it in bits and pieces from the Library and so got the whole set to read at leisure. It looks nice and feels great to have a whole series waiting to be read. So there it is. I am er...soon will be.. one of you. Checkout JK Rowling's page for details if you haven't already.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Intel's Andy Grove - Swimming Across (A Memoir)

It is rare to find a computer user who does not remember the famous 'Intel Inside' logo. During Andy Grove's tenure as Intel's CEO the company grew to its heights. Grove's earlier book Only The Paranoid Survive was well received in the business world. It offers great insights into redefining and conquering new markets while never sitting pretty with a measure of current success. Sounds tough but 'no pain no gain' is something anyone can agree on.

Swimming Across is a well written and highly readable memoir of this remarkable leader. My husband picked it up when he took the kids to Intel's Tech Museum as it was being offered for free there! Call me a snob but something about the 'free' froze me every time I tried to pick up the book to read. The presumption of a boring book was a high wall which I just couldn't jump over at least for a while. When I did I was quite taken aback by the simple and engaging style with which the book was written. The guy knows a thing or two about selling stuff I guess:-) I was taken with the book from the first page. It starts at his birthplace in Hungary (Budapest) at the age of three and goes through all those early years. The time that saw Hungary under Fascism, Nazi Germany and Stalin and the Soviet Red Army. He had me at 'I was born in Budapest':-) (Yup, loved Jerry Mcguire)

Grove talks of the war years under Nazi Germany when his father had to work in a labor battalion and he and his mother had to live as hideaways under non-Jewish sounding names. Fortunately although tortured and ravaged with illness, his father managed to return about 6 months after the war. Like son later, the father was a true soldier of spirits and went on to rebuild his life despite being under a slowly stifling Stalinist Russia. They had some semblance of a normal life for a while.

He tried his hand at journalism during school years and was successful. The country then being under the Soviets, he could not see much of a chance to succeed at it while also being true to the profession. Not to worry since he loved Physics and Chemistry too. Andy (born Andras Grof)  takes us through his adolescent boyhood years with a self awareness that makes it a useful reading tool for parents. He was in his second year at the university as a Chemistry student when Hungarian Revolution hit the streets. He had to find a way out of the place if he was to keep from being rounded up and shuttled off.

Grove sets of on his life changing journey to America, the dreamland of many an immigrant before and since. He was lucky to have family in New York but it was his own persistence and willingness to work harder towards a higher level of Academics that got him where he is now. From wanting to be a Chemist to becoming a Chemical Engineer, he succeeded with flying colors. Together with wife Eva, he drives to California after Graduation and never looked back. The last chapter where he dealt with being a first time arrival in the US and of life in an American University sounded a lot like mine sans the refugee part and I enjoyed it much. His parents eventually migrated to America. From his first job in Fairchild Semiconductors, Grove went onto be a founding member of Intel - the largest maker semiconductors- its CEO and its Chairman.

He never returned to Hungary. But the idea of writing this memoir retelling his life there took root with the arrival of grand kids. I am so glad he did as the world would have missed a rare peek into this successful and intelligent personality. I'll keep the book lying around in the hopes that both my son and daughter will pick it up to read as they get older. My son did make me a sort of a bookmark/memento with a picture of this book on it! I was rather pleased:-)

I hope you too will make time  to read this bestseller at some point. You will be as fascinated as I was to read all about the boy who later oversaw the deployment of Intel's microprocessors (computer brains) to computers across the world to the tune of 85% of the market share!! Not being a natural swimmer he took pains to master the art on his own in a small wild pond which was a harbringer of things to come. It makes this an aptly named book.See here for amazon reviews.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Elizabeth Maguire's The Open Door

Reading the preface, I wasn't quite sure that this is about a real woman author but later research showed it to be true. When you are done reading you are not sure who to applaud the most, the astute author who laid out such a lively picture of this independent American author ahead of her time or the character herself. Either way it is a good book to read. Compact in size and easy to finish too!

Elizabeth Maguire has taken great resources from within herself to make the book come alive. She had to feel a lot of empathy for Constance Fenimore Woolson to be able to write her thoughts and actions out so well. Woolson's platonic relationship with acclaimed author Henry James is a main thread in the book. Woolson herself had accomplished fame and money by colorful writings of the local American lives that she was so familiar with. James cannot take it that Fenimore - as he calls her - probably made more money than him in the writing business. He knows his is the superior work which Woolson accepts without contest, yet he cannot get over his jealousy at her financial success.

The story begins with the death of Woolson's mother who was under her care. Finally free of this loving but stifling bond, Woolson takes off for Europe never to return. One reason for the trip was to meet and befriend her favorite author Henry James. Once she caught up with him, they became rather fast friends. For the rest of her life, she did everything she could to keep this friendship out of jeopardy. She was afflicted with the depression that had plagued her father and in the end succumbed to its clutches. Reading about Woolson through Maguire, one gets the feeling that she really could not help it especially at that time when even the smallest of women's afflictions was dismissed as nothing serious by vaguely condescending male doctors. She did find some good physicians to help with the persistant ear problem that eventually denied her even the mere enjoyment of music. Throughout it all one can feel the will power and discipline that enabled her to have the life that she wanted regardless of the scant medical help. This hope inspiring and is recognised as such I believe.  It was  interesting to read about the time when James wrote The Portrait Of A Lady as that was a book I had liked much. Here is the Amazon review on Open Door.