Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop By Nina George

Let me be honest. I picked this book from the new arrivals shelf at the library mainly for one reason. That the full name of the author very much resembles names originating out of my birthplace. But by the time I checked it out I knew that this author is not a native or non-native Malayali . But a book with 'bookshop' in the title just had to be a delightful read. Not only were my expectations met but were exceeded by the end of the delightful journey that was this book. Nina George wrote the book in German although the story takes place in France.

George's adoration of books and love of reading spills out from every page as she takes us through the life of the leading man Monsieur Perdu. He is, wait for it..  a book seller at the aptly named  shop 'Literary Apothecary'! I am telling you there is not much to dislike here.  Perdu is the self appointed physician offering sure footed advise on what books each of his customers need to buy regardless of what they actually came in for. Wouldn't I have loved to be a customer there! There is more. He sells the books from a converted barge moored on the Seine. He keeps the vessel serviced so it is still seaworthy despite its static state. While prescribing ably for his customers Perdu is unable to mend his own wounded heart. He is besieged with memories of beautiful Manon. She had stormed into his life from Provencal France, ruled it for a while and then just left one day without notice. The bookshop with its loyal clientele and the occasional tourist kept him going. After twenty such long years, he meets sweet Catherine who is nursing a recently wounded heart and of course Perdu is there for the rescue with a perfect selection of books. This change prompts him to set off on a journey that will bring closure with Manon.

Perdu travels down the Seine on the now unmoored barge, deftly navigating its many canals and tributaries. He found some unlikely companions in this impromptu journey. Two cats named Kafka and Lindgren who used to frequent his shop and the young successful author Max Jordan who is suffering  from a severe case of writer's block. Later on they are joined by an old Italian friend of Perdu who helps them negotiate some of the practicalities of river travel. It helps that this friend also enjoys cooking. At Avignon he hands off the barge to the friend and goes on foot with Max in search of Manon among the vineyards of Bonnieux. Along with the cast of characters described so far, what ups the ante of this charming book are the ubiquitous books and lengthy discussions on various books. Perdu himself would love to write a book one day. A book of emotions that are neatly organized under each alphabet. Such a great journey to have had! There is even a section for delicious french recipes at the end of the book. If you liked 'The Book Thief', chances are that you will like this one too. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Man Called Ove By Fredrik Backman

You have to be a very patient reader to get into this book. If you do, you will be richly rewarded for having known the man called Ove. Be forewarned that you will need a wad of napkins to get through all of it. Ove is a Swedish retiree living in a housing colony made up of all kinds of people. His days are always the same and precisely set around the clock. Grumpy as he is, he finds himself getting involved with the Iranian family that moved into his neighborhood. Through the many interactions he had with them, we see that Ove's heart is in a far better place than many. I found it a little slow, but felt like if I don't finish it, Ove will disapprove. So honestly, I continued for Ove's sake. Such is the strength of his character, even though fictional. It is a good book to read with a refreshing take on this world where honesty and integrity are fast becoming jaded values. Ove might inspire you yet again to strengthen your hold on those and to live life as its true followers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

You Go Girl!

Finally the US can now say it is a developed nation without having to hide the gaping hole to this claim. We are not there yet but it is just great to see a viable woman candidate for the US presidential elections. I am not a Democrat or Republican and not particularly an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton. But she definitely beats the competition this election year and is clearly a capable candidate in her own right without the need for any labels. Still, when my son (his summer has already started) who is avidly following the elections texted to say Clinton is close to winning the primaries, I couldn't help but feel a certain thrill! I was surprised to see many women feeling the same across race, ethnicity or party lines. Now let us hope this nation can claim its rightful place in history by electing its first woman president. It's been 100 years since women got the right to vote here but better late than never..

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Legend Is Born! K.R Meera's ആരാച്ചാർ (Hangwoman)

Where should I begin? Should I start by saying that K.R Meera is as eligible for the Nobel Prize as Gabriel Garcia Marquez was or that her brilliantly written book should be translated into all possible languages or that I wish I could meet Chetna Grdha Mullick, the vibrant and quite unforgettable protagonist of this extraordinary tale?

K.R Meera is an amalgam of all great writers before her. In her writing I can see O.V Vijayan, Ashapoorna Devi, Marquez and a hundred others I can't quite place. But it is Meera's own voice that gives this novel its resilience, her heroine towering over the pages and not letting us get away so easily. It brings us back like migrating salmon swimming upstream to reach into its pages and make us lose ourselves in its enchanting diorama. Each page chock full of stories to last a generation, its heroine an eloquent narrator calmly pulling us time and again into the undercurrent of violence, disrespect, fulfillment and history, making it the saga that it is. Born as a legend from Meera's magic pen, this book will endure through time.

It has already been translated into English with the name "Hangwoman".  I haven't read that but I hope the subtlety of Meera's assertive language is not lost in translation. The heroine is India's first ever hang woman who is descended from a long line of Grdha Mullicks serving as hangmen going as far back as 400 years before Christ. The city of Calcutta is presented in full character, replete with freedom fighters of pre-independence India, the river Adi-ganga, Kali-ghat, the burning pyres of Nimtala-ghat, Sonagachi, all surrounded by tagorian lore so native to Calcutta yet so entrenched in the nation's soul. In this 552 pages long epic Meera has managed to touch on the entire nation's history while doing full justice to the city that she inhabited for a year or so to write the story. The only major omission I noticed was that of Mother Teresa, a name almost inseparable from that of the city to outsiders.

In their sparse house on Strand street with a steady stream of funeral processions to Nimtala-ghat filling the air with the smell of death, Chetna lives with her disabled brother Ramu, her parents, grandma/dhakuma, kakku/uncle, kakki/aunt and their two children. Like her grandma, Chetna knows the stories that made her family conquerors of death for so long. Each of her forefathers acted in the capacity of executioners for the ruling regimes of their times. While hanging through a noose is the preferred method of the Grdha Mullick family they have carried out justice with knives and lashes when required. I loved knowing the many names of the Grdha Mullick forefathers in the inner stories. Loosely based on real life events linked here at various places, Meera has created a powerful book from her vast imagination. Like the divided chambers in one of the numerous fables in the book, Meera skillfully weaves us in an out of many a chamber of luscious stories told through Chetna as well as her her grandma. It all seem to have started with one Radha Dharan Mullick, the first ever hangman of the Grdha Mullick family, from the time of the Nandas.

In her Dostoevskian thoughts on life and death, twenty two year old Chetna paints the turmoils of someone who has to dole out death as part of their civic duty. No one can make the knots of the noose as well as a Grdha Mullick. When the Government reluctantly agrees to extend the official hangman contract to this woman descendant of the Grdha Mullicks, TV channels and women's organizations were quick to tout her as the epitome of universal woman-power and self-confidence. A job that was never before taken up by a woman! Her father Phanibhushan Grdha Mullick aspired to be an actor but was forced to take up the family duty to make ends meet. He is eighty eight years old in the story and is only happy to take the center stage and play his part with panache in the tug-of-war between the news channels scrambling to bring the story of the first hangwoman to the public.

Chetna and Phanibhushan are caught in the intricate web of duty, journalism and money woven around them. Reporter Sanjeev Kumar Mitra plays a rather large part in this aspect of their lives.
To complicate things, Chetna finds herself falling in love with Sanjeev whose interest in her has many strange faces. Despite the myriad of sub stories that makes the book so long, the author has a firm hand on her story and keeps it going at the perfect pace for a reader fully along for the ride. That this momentous book written in excellent Malayalam is fully based in Calcutta with all characters inhabitants of that city, is rather startling. This gifted writer has a treasure trove of stories and the command of language and imagination to tell many such tales to the world. I will be waiting to experience that literary brilliance yet again...

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Maeve Binchy's Chestnut Street

Reading Maeve Binchy's Chestnut Street is like reading the Book of Proverbs. It may sound like a harsh attribute for a work of fiction. But as far as I am concerned, the Book of Proverbs is full of practical advise on how to live in this world. It is the Bhagavad Gita of Christianity. Each chapter in Binchy's book will provide you with a valuable lesson on life. Really the book reads like a combination of proverbs and Olive Kitteridge. Besides, who wouldn't like to live on a street named Chestnut Street?

Each chapter of this book is about a person or family that calls Chestnut Street their home. They could be living there, returning there or connected through family who lives there. At first I didn't like that the stories were not connected. But each story is so interesting that I ended up liking the format. It also allowed me to put the book down at good places to come back to. There are no barren spots which you want to turn over fast. Each chapter is a good read on its own. This is is just perfect for a time starved working mother who is addicted to books. What I love most is the age old wisdom that shines out from every page. It is  cleverly disguised and you will not know that you are getting this little nugget of advise until you are at the end of a story. By that time you are nodding your head in full agreement. A great book! Having no time is simply not an excuse when it comes to a book like this. I was sad to find out that Maeve Binchy is no more. Check out a free short story from this beloved author at her eponymous website.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Power Of One by Bryce Courtenay

I wish I had sat down as soon as I was done with this book to jot down my thoughts on it. It just was not to be and here I am wanting to post about this classic book yet not fully remembering all that happened in it. I just have this great feeling of having read a good book... First published in 1989 it fell into my hands only now. It was a gift from H for my birthday. Whenever he decides to give me a book as a gift he always gets it right. He says it is with the help of the clerk at the book store but I'll take a good book any day over other gifts.

It took me while to finish it. I put it down at times only because I had to. It tells the story of a boy somewhere at the beginning of the apartheid in South Africa. A lonely boy who learned to take that loneliness by its neck and turned it around to a place of inner strength despite or because of all the experiences that came his way. Please read it and you will find yourself pausing at times and going back to re-read some stuff time and again because it speaks to something in you. Here is one: "-how I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed". And another: "The power of one was based on the courage to remain separate, to think through to the truth, and not to be beguiled by convention or the plausible arguments of those who expects to maintain power."

Bryce Cortenay passed away in 2012 but he will live forever through the power of his words.