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Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life - Mark Twain

Updated: 2017-01-07T00:12:04.473-08:00


A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo


Title: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for LoversAuthor: Xiaolu GuoFiction: HardcoverPages: 304 Publisher: Nan E. TaleseAcclaim: Shortlisted for 2007 Orange Prize for FictionHailing from Zhe Jiang, a province of southern China, Guo wrote several chinese books before writing for the English audience. Originally she wrote several award-winning documentaries and screenplays including her first feature film 'How is your Fish Today' which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2007 International Women's Film Festival. Shortlisted for Orange Prize, this novel is her debut work. Drawing from own diaries she used to keep when she moved from China to London, she paints a humorous, albeit poignant story of a 23 year old Zhuang, a peasant girl from rural china, who embarks on a journey to London to study English. 'I not having life in West. I not having home in West. I scared. I no speaking English. I fearing future'. If reading these broken sentences puts you off, then it might be hard for you get into this book. However, I think thats what makes this book very authentic, though I promise the writing improves gradually. The protagonist of the novel, Zhuang, finding that English people finds it difficult to pronounce her name, calls herself 'Z'. Z's parents sold their land to start making shoes for a living. As per her parents wish, she arrives in London to study English, to earn a diploma from the West. 'Birds have their bird language, beasts have their beast talk. English they totally another species'. Often, frustrations accompany when you begin to learn a new language. It only compounds when you live in an alien country, grappling with the cultural etiquette and language nuances. Especially, try learning Japanese or Chinese, the hardest of all (at least for me). Many times in the past, I have failed miserably trying to learn Mandarin and even during my visits to China, I have never spoken any more than 'Ni hao' and 'she-eh she-eh'. It is interesting to see that Zhuang finds English equally difficult to learn too. 'Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But, English language is boss of English user'. Often, her observations about the nuances of English grammar are hilarious, at times even astonishing. 'Mrs. Margaret teaching us about nouns. I discovering English is very scientific. She saying nouns have two types - countable and uncountable. You can say a car, but not a rice" she says. But to me, cars are really uncountable in the street, and we can count the rice if we pay great attention to a rice bowl'. Zhuang find the cultural clashes a bit jarring, even those immigrant Chinese family she lives with, finds her alienated, nervous and scared. Similarly, Zhuang finds them rude, mean and distant as well. No wonder, she comes across like an alien in the Eyes of English. 'The day I arrived to the West, I suddenly realised that I not Chinese. As long as one has black eyes and black hair, obsessed by rice, and cannot swallow any Western food, and cannot pronounce the difference between 'r' and 'l', and request people without using please - then he or she is a typical Chinese: an ill-legal immigrant, badly treat Tibetans and Taiwanese, good on food but put MSG to poison people, eat dog's meat and drink snakes' guts'. A month into her stay, she moves in with an unnamed Englishman, about twice her age, an ex-anarchist, eccentric fellow who makes grotesque nude sculptures that he keeps in the garden at a cinema hall. She struggles to make him understand her feelings, owing to the cultural divide and his bisexual nature. 'Love, this English word: like other English words it has tense. 'Loved' or 'will love' or 'have loved'. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is 'ai'. It has not tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future. If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite[...]

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple


Title: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern IndiaAuthor: William DalrympleEdition: HardcoverPages: 284Publisher: Bloomsbury UKWilliam Dalrymple, who has lived in Delhi on and off for the last 25 years, is one of the most eminent historian and travel writers of all times. His books have won several literary prizes and his focus and interests include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, Mughal rule and religious aspects like Hinduism, Islamism, Buddhism and Jainism. This is my first attempt at reading Dalrymple and I must confess that I am mightily impressed with his astounding work and the amount of research that has gone into it. 'Nine Lives' is truly a treasure trove of information unraveling some of the myths, legendary practices and religious beliefs, some of which are on the verge of extinct as India is modernizing in a frenetic pace. This gem of a book reveals so many astonishing facts about almost extinct religious practices and deep-rooted traditions still practiced in rural India, that even many Indians would begin to wonder if this is really the country they grew up in. It would be a tough feat for anyone to grapple with the many idiosyncrasies of the past, as the country is so steeped in rich traditions, divine stories and godly practices (both barbaric and non-barbaric). The progress of India in the global sector has seen an astonishing growth over the past decade and India is predicted to overtake Japan as the third largest economy in the world. However, for those who practice the diverse religious traditions and live them out everyday, no economic reforms have been meted out, yet their futures are uncertain as the practices are on the verge of becoming extinct. As more and more software companies sprout like weeds around every corner of big cities luring the younger generations, What will become of those traditions that are handed down by lineage? Will they survive or perish? I am glad some of these complicated issues are addressed here, so at least people can put on their thinking caps as opposed to acting oblivious to the situation. Divided into nine non-fiction short stories, they are narrated by the characters themselves. Dalrymple takes a backseat, gently guiding them allowing themselves to open up. Nothing here is altered or twisted and the stories comes out purely honest and compelling thereby offering an unflinching look at how some of these people are coping with living in the eye of the storm. 'For a while the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.'Its hard to write a book about India - especially if touches upon religion & sacred beliefs - without talking about sadhus, vedas, monks and monastries. Dalrymple couldn't have had a better subject for his novel, For India, being the cornucopia of traditions, people, culture and topography, fits the bill perfectly. Dalrymple's focus on this book is more of ordinary humans who turn into monks, nuns and in one case, a prison warden who becomes a incarnate deity for just two months in a year. Many of his subjects are quite enigmatic - a former MBA-educated, sales manager with Kelvinator - (a Bombay electricals company), who renounced his worldly desires to become a sadhu and is now trekking up the Himalayan mountains seeking salvation in his half-naked, ash-smeared divine form. Tapan Goswami, a tantric, who lives in a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal, practices spirit-summoning and spell-casting using cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. He is forbidden to speak of his sinister practices by his sons who practice opthamology in New Jersey. Tapan himself is contemplating about living in the West, albeit being an enthusiastic skull-feeder. His enigmatic subjects of the book have led extraordinary lives, driven by a[...]

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed


Title: Black Mamba BoyAuthor: Nadifa MohamedEdition: PaperbackPages: 280Publisher: Harper CollinsAcclaim: Long listed for 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.Now you depart, and though your way may leadThrough airless forests thick with hagar trees,Places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,Where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach -Yet may God place a shield of coolest airBetween your body and the assailant sun.- Gabay by Maxamed Cabdula Xasan'Black Mamba Boy' depicted a grim tale of war-torn North Africa during the period of Second World War, when it was ripped apart under Italian fascists and the British invaders. The hero of the story was a 10 year-old Jama who embarks on a treacherous journey through Northern Africa with the sole purpose of reuniting with his father. Set in the 1930s, the story covered the deserted lands of Northern Africa including Somali land, ploughing through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea, Abyssinia, Sudan and Egypt - some of these countries were seldom focused in modern literature. The author's exceptional work portraying a lively Somali, decades before the Second World War offered a refreshing outlook (though short-lived) for those minds which always conjured up poverty-stricken, disease-ridden people at the mention of many African nations.Like expected, the journey was perilous and I was subjected to deaths, torture, violence, hunger, crime and all sorts of atrocious things that happen in the name of war. The vivid portrayal combined with the bloodstained history was quite enough to bring me to tears. Especially, I found the chapters on African history during the colonization heart-wrenching. What I found fascinating were those little snippets of information regarding different african clans. It was so heartwarming to realize how most of the clans worked well with each other, always lending a helping hand when necessary. When Jama travelled through the African landscape, he always found good hearted african people ready to offer him help. Not entirely convincing, but glad to see it happen at least, as a figment of imagination. Though the first half of the book was utterly compelling, I felt that the second half could have been a bit more succinct. Often, I kept wandering off the pages, mindlessly skimming over the lines, struggling to keep my focus on the page. The overly long descriptions and the stale scenarios bored me and I should admit that I expected a bit more fresh content and adventure. However, the story picked up pace towards the fag end, especially the chapter that narrated Jama's adventures on a British ship sent shivers down the spine."They rode a lorry together towards Abyssinia. They travelled for five days in the back of the lorry, marvelling at the paradise they passed through; the landscape was a juicy emerald green, with wild mango trees full of frolicking, singing birds, herds of giraffe and zebra gathered around blue watering holes. Jama would have been happy to jump off the lorry and stay in this small heaven but shiftas and patriots lurked amongst the trees and long grass. It was unsettling to see a place so lush, so full of promise without one tukul or any kind of human dwelling.""To appease the hungry demon in his stomach, seething and cursing from his cauldron of saliva and acid, Jama had fought with stray cats and dogs over leftover bones. He tried to be brave but sadness and loneliness had crept up on him, twisting his innards and giving him the shakes."Whether it be describing a lush landscape of Africa, or a painful hunger gnawing your guts, Nadifa's writing was rich, luminous and evocative. One particular instance that really gave me the shudders was the time when one of Jama's friend got mutilated by the Italians for stealing food to stave off hunger pangs. I was almost shaking in terror, crying out in pain as I read those horrific passages describing their barbaric acts. Another chapter that really moved me to tears was the last one that described the events that happened aboard a British ship 'Runnymed[...]

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney


Title: Human ChainAuthor: Seamus HeaneyGenre: PoetryEdition: HardcoverPages: 85Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux"Had I Not Been Awake"-----------------------------Had I not been awake I would have missed it,A wind that rose and whirled until the roofPattered with quick leaves off the sycamoreAnd got me up, the whole of me a-patter,Alive and ticking like an electric fence:Had I not been awake I would have missed it,It came and went so unexpectedlyAnd almost it seemed dangerously,Returning like an animal to the house,A courier blast that there and thenLapsed ordinary. But not everAfter. And not now."Miracle"-----------Not the one who takes up his bed and walksBut the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in -Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handlesSlippery with sweat. And no let-upUntil he's strapped on tight, made tiltableAnd raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.Be mindful of them as they stand and waitFor the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,Their slight lightheadedness and incredulityTo pass, those ones who had known him all along."Human Chain"------------------Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to handIn close-up by the aid workers, and soldiersFiring over the mob, I was braced againWith a grip on two sack corners,Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugsTo give me purchase, ready for the heave -The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswingOn to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drainOf the next lift. Nothing surpassedThat quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,A letting go which will not come again.Or it will, once. And for all."Herbal"----------Between heather and marigold,Between sphagnum and buttercup,Between dandelion and broom,Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,As between clear blue and cloud,Between haystack and sunset sky,Between oak tree and slated roof,I had my existence. I was there.Me in place and the place in me.*Where can it be found again,An elsewhere world, beyondMaps and atlases,Where all is woven intoAnd of itself, like a nestOf crosshatched grass blades?[...]

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi


Title: Earth and AshesAuthor: Atiq RahimiEdition: HardcoverPages: 67Publisher: Other PressTranslated by: Erdag M.GoknarAbout the Author:Born in Kabul in 1962, Atiq Rahimi was only 17 years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He fled to Pakistan during the war and was granted political asylum in France in 1984. After the end of Taliban regime in 2002, he returned to his home country where he filmed an adaptation of Earth and Ashes. The film was in the Official Selection at Cannes in 2004 and won several prizes. His first novel 'The Patience Stone' won the Prix Goncourt in 2008."... these days the dead are more fortunate than the living. What are we to do? We're on the eve of destruction. Men have lost all sense of honor. Power has become their faith instead of faith being their power. There are no longer any courageous men..."This slim novella begins with a bleak landscape, a torn bridge that connects northern Afghanistan to Kabul, dry river-beds, a dirt track that runs sinuous between the scrub-covered hills leading to a coal mine. An old Afghan man, Dastaguir squats against the railings of the bridge, his eyes fixed on the dusty road waiting to hitchhike a ride to the coal mine. A bundle of dust-covered apples and a stale bread lay beside him. But, what weighs him down is unbearable grief, solitude and loss. As the old man strikes conversation with the benevolent shopkeeper, truck driver and the guard at the post, the readers slowly begin to understand the grave situation he is in. Dastaguir's son Murad left to work in the coal mines years ago, leaving his family with Dastaguir. "... Over the four years Murad has worked at the mine, you haven’t had a single chance to visit him. It’s been four years since he entrusted his young wife and his son Yassin to you and left for the mine to earn his living. The truth is, Murad wanted to flee the village and its inhabitants. He wanted to go far away. So he left…Thank God he left." The Russian Army has just bombed his village, reducing it to earth and ashes. Dastaguir's family perished in the disastrous event leaving him in despair. Unable to bear his solitude and grief, he bears a terrible news wondering how to convey it to his son Murad who works in the coal mine. Only a handful of survivors remained - including his young grandson Yassin. But, Yassin lost his hearing during the bombing, though he doesn't know it yet. "They must've come and taken the voice of the shopkeeper and the voice of the guard... Grandfather, have the Russians come and taken away everyone's voice? What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice? If you hadn't, would they've killed you? Grandma didn't give them her voice and she's dead. If she were here, she'd tell me the story of Baba Kharkash...No, if she were here, she'd have no voice... Grandfather, do I have a voice? You answer involuntarily, "Yes". He repeats the question. You look at him and nod "yes', making him understand. The child falls silent again. Then he asks, "So why am I alive?"Written from the perspective of a second-person, the writers invites the readers into the hearts and minds of their bleak lives, the desolate souls who have lost everything in the war. That makes it very powerful, a clever attempt on writer's part for sure. The prose is sparse, poignant, his characters profoundly empathetic. In a meagre 67 pages, the author tries to pack centuries of Afghan history into a slim, bleak novella. It offers no hope only grief, no pleasure just pain. For Western audience its quite an ambitious effort, yet the prose is strikingly beautiful, words sharp as a dagger ready to plunge your heart in deep sorrow. I read this book in one sitting, though I went over it a couple of times to read fragments of text that I really loved. For instance. "You know, Father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb that,[...]

Animal's People by Indra Sinha


Title: Animal's PeopleAuthor: Indra SinhaEdition: PaperbackPages: 374Publisher: Simon & SchusterAcclaim: Commonwealth Writers Award winner, 2007 Man Booker Prize NomineeDec 02, 1984, Bhopal. It was an unforgettable night permanently etched in our sorrowful memories, scarring many people's lives forever. The Bhopal holocaust which killed thousands and thousands of people, burning many of them alive, is a shameful past we all struggle to forget. Every year, this time around, the TV media, newspaper articles and Internet bring back those horrific events alive again and again. The Gas Tragedy: Built in the 1970s, the Union Carbide factory jutted through the already polluted skies of Bhopal claiming to make pesticides in an effort to aid the country's green revolution. When the expected green revolution didn't go as planned due to monsoon failures, the authorities decided to shut down the plant. However, no buyers came and the company went on a cost-cutting spree. Workforce halved, safety standards diminished. Minor accidents occurred, a few killings here and there due to gas spill. Despite safety audits, warnings and repeated articles in the newspaper condemning the government's neglect in imposing safety rules, no actions were taken. Safety sirens were permanently switched off so as to not disturb(!) the surrounding neighborhoods. One of the most lethal substances, MIC (methyl-iso cyanate) used during the first world war gas, was kept in huge tanks inside the factory. [Methyl iso cyanate is such a deadly, toxic gas, so volatile that unless kept under freezing temperatures, it can explode and cause catastrophic reactions]. On that fateful night, from inside the Union Carbide factory, what began as a thin plume of white vapor soon morphed into a dense venomous fog, cloaking the night in its devious veil. Nudged by the wind, the fog crept down the alleys, walkways wrapping the shoddy neighborhood, throttling its throat with its monstrous grip. People woke up in the middle of that night, with burning eyes and throat, with flaming lungs. They ran into the streets, coughing and choking, eyes searing with pain, tripping over hundreds of dead people including children. Desperate for their lives, they ran and ran, among many others, including cows and dogs trampling them, ignoring those who just dropped dead. Many struggled to breathe, the gas ripping their lungs apart, gasping for clean air. Over 8000 people died that night and till date the death toll rises over 20,000. More than half a million people remain injured. The aftermath was catastrophic. People suffered (and are still suffering) eye defects, lung cancer, chaotic menstrual cycles, neurological damages, crippling birth disorders, high cancer rates, diabetes, mental illnesses and much more. Future generations are affected as well. Even as we speak, children of Bhopal are still born with mental illness and physical disorders. The city's polluted waters remains poisonous as the monsoon rains plants poisons deep into the soil which seep into wells and ponds. More than 100,000 people remain chronically ill while they await for any compensation from the government and Dow Chemicals (which later acquired the Union-Carbide factory in 2001). The meagre compensation that was promised perhaps could cover a cup of tea for the rest of their lives. The factory remains uncleaned since neither the government nor DOW Chemicals is reluctant to take up the responsibility. As the nation's biggest scandalous event ever witnessed in the history, the Bhopal holocaust remains a threat to humanity. The apocalypse that gripped the city that night, the terrors they witnessed, the horrific aftermath all comes alive in this heart-breaking novel written by Indra Sinha. Photo courtesy: GuardianMore pictures in the 'Big Picture' here: Sinha, a France-based author, himself w[...]

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell


Title: After You'd GoneAuthor: Maggie O'FarrellPages: 372Edition: PaperbackPublisher: Penguin Book LiteratureFrom the blurb:"When Alice Raike's sisters come to pick her up at the train station, they find her wild-eyed, confused, and insistent on returning to London that very minute. Only a few hours later, they receive terrible news - Alice is lying in a coma after an accident that may or may not have been a suicide attempt. While her life hangs in the balance, Alice's family gathers at her bedside. As they wait, argue, and remember, long-buried tensions rise to the surface. Alice, meanwhile, sliding between different levels of consciousness, recalls her past and the end of a tragic love affair..."I have to admit that my first attempt at reading this novel was an utter failure. Most often I begin reading my books a little distracted and entirely rely upon the author to pull me into the realm through the plot, style of narration or both. Hence, when the book failed to grasp my interest the first time, I put it down after reading a few pages, perplexed and a little disappointed. Then I wondered if it was my apprehension towards reading new authors combined with worldly distractions that needed to be blamed upon. I decided to give it another try. With a feverish concentration and a wrinkled forehead, I devoted a good amount of time reading the first few chapters of the book and this time around my efforts certainly paid off. The book follows no chronological pattern, often narrated by various characters over different periods of time. The subjects of her novel often shift back and forth between past and present which might confuse or frustrate the readers at the beginning. However, once the initial premise is well built, the book races through the plot for a nail-biting finish. The story mainly focuses on three women Elspeth, Ann and Alice spanning over 3 generations. Elspeth, mother-in-law of Ann, nurtures Alice more than anyone else. Despite knowing some dirty family secrets, she strives to keeps the family bonds intact. Ann, who never properly loved her husband, remains loyal to someone else. Her adulterous behavior brings out negative emotions and her guilt leads to unpleasant encounters with Alice, which are often hysterical and painful. Alice who was never loved by her mother, comes across as a disturbed child and grows up to be cold and distant with her parents. The choices she makes in her life though poor at the beginning, flattens out eventually when she falls for the man who is a real sweetheart. But her self-doubts and insecurities try to rip apart the beautiful life she created. When she finally gets a grip on, she lost it altogether to fate. Though I didn't like Alice initially, the more I understood where she came from, the more I began to empathize with her. The author touches upon several sensitive issues like religious clashes and infidelity but her triumph comes from those beautiful prose expressing several emotions ranging from love, loss, grief and self-neglect. She is adept at dealing with complexities of family relationships and it clearly comes through her writing. Especially, the passages describing the agony of grief-stricken Alice, the time when she bawls over the phone narrating her insecurities to her sister, unable to get on with her life, her losses - everything moved me to tears. It almost felt as if I was going through all the grief Alice was experiencing. I had to put down the book and cry for several minutes before moving on. What I really liked about the book was the fact that her characters seemed so real, their emotions not fabricated. Though the story constantly churned out several twists, most of it was predictable and it was not a surprising end altogether. In that way, I found it a little comforting that no more heart-breaks need to be endured. Highly recommended![...]

Hope and other dangerous pursuits by Laila Lalami


Title: Hope and other dangerous pursuitsAuthor: Laila LalamiEdition: HardcoverPages: 196Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill"Tarifa. The mainland point of the Moorish invasion in 711. Tariq Ibn Ziyad had led a powerful Moor army across the Straits and, upon landing in Gibraltar, ordered all the boats to burned. He'd told his soldiers that they could march forth and defeat the enemy or turn back and die a coward's death. The men had followed their general, toppled the Visigoths, and established an empired that ruled over Spain for more than seven hundred years. Little did they know that we'd be back. Only instead of a fleet, here we are in an inflatable boat - not just Moors, but a motley mix of people from the ex-colonies, without guns, or armor, without a charismatic leader..."Four Moroccans decide to illegally cross the border over to Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar in an inflatable rubber boat with many others. As they set off in their tiny vessel, the "Fourteen Kilometers" they are about to sail, under the cover of the night, might make a difference of night and day in their lives. Alternating between past and present, the novel offers an unflinching account of stories of each passenger who undertakes this journey in hopes of a better future. Murad - an unemployed university graduate makes his living hustling the streets and serving as a local guide at the 'Tangiers'. A decent job is the only thing that would ascertain his status in the household, after his father's death. Aziz - also unemployed and newly wed works as mechanic, but barely could make ends meet. His illegal emigration is imperative to realize his goal of starting his own business. Halima - a young mother of 3 children, flees her abusive husband and her determination to survive the ordeal makes her more desperate for a new beginning. Faten - an activist of Islamic Student Organization and a university student who repeatedly flunks her exams is now at crossroads after expulsion from school.The initial part focuses about the dangerous journey itself and the possible outcomes of undertaking one including deportation, arrest and even death. The hunched passengers on the boat gripped with fear, the ruthless sea, broken promises and uncertainties makes a stellar opening for the book. Many of the voyagers are perfectly aware of the imminent dangers, yet their yearning for a better life is so strong they take this journey day after day no matter what. Some make it, some get deported, some just disappeared in the seas altogether. Though it reads fictitious, this still happens everyday at the borders and will resonate deeply with many Moroccan readers. Not much different from what we face at the Mexican-American borders today, isn't it? The second half of the novel concentrates on the lives of her four pivotal characters before the trip and what brings them together, whether they are successful with the choices they made. Her characters appear so real, you could feel their pain and yearnings. In that process, she touches upon a lot of sensitive issues like the Islamic women's rights, illegal emigration from Africa to Europe, human rights which people in some parts of the world are still battling with today. Even today, in Asian countries, a foreign education and job opportunities in the West are highly acclaimed and not to be debated about. That might change in the next decade or so, when more economic growth opportunities start moving towards the East and emigrating to the West might lose its appeal among the Eastern population. Yet, as of today, touting the West and all its glory is still prevalent in many cultures and population. The promise of a new beginning itself is worth the risk for many of them. Do they all succeed? Even if they do, what do they lose at the end? And, What becomes of those who utterly fail to make a living, who have nothing but shattered [...]

The Japanese Lover by Rani Manicka


Title:The Japanese LoverAuthor: Rani ManickaEdition: PaperbackPages: 448Publisher: Hodder & StoughtonFrom the blurb:“Parvathi leaves her native Ceylon for Malaya and an arranged marriage to a wealthy businessman. But her father has cheated, supplying a different girl’s photograph, and Kasu Marimuthu, furious, threatens to send her home in disgrace. Gradually husband and wife reach an accommodation, and the naïve young girl learns to assume the air of sophisticated mistress of a luxurious estate. She even adopts his love child and treats Rubini as her own daughter – a generous act which is rewarded by a long-wished-for son.But it is a life without passion, and Parvathi dreams of loving – and being loved – with complete abandon. When the Japanese invade Malaya, in WW2, they requisition the estate. Marimuthu dies and Parvathi is forced to accept the protection of the Japanese general who has robbed her of her home. For the first time, she experiences sexual ecstasy. And gradually, her sworn enemy becomes the lover she has always yearned for”This book holds a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf, because it came to me as a birthday gift from my dear blog friend Susan Abraham. Susan, a gifted writer and a bibliophile, runs her own blog here. Her irresistible love for books reflects deeply in every one of her posts. She has such a divine gift with words and her thoughts and expressions on books clings to your skin like a sweet fragrant perfume just applied. It had been long since I had read anything Asian, so I couldn't resist myself when she offered me a copy.As soon as I unwrapped, the first thing I noticed (apart from the new book smell that totally sedated me) was the truly gorgeous cover - a picture of a geisha dressed in a 'kimono' holding an umbrella designed with cherry blossoms. The strikingly contrast colors on her dress, the brilliant red shade of paint on her lips, the long curvy eyelashes entirely mesmerized me and I was rooted on the spot gazing at the cover for several long minutes. When I read the blurb, I was hooked and could hardly wait to finish it. I read it over the next several days, I loved the character names since they were very Indian and it seemed like the right kind of novel for my mood. Also, I was hoping to learn more about the Japanese invasion of Malaya since the novel was set during the WWII period.Much to my dismay, I walked away feeling rather ambivalent about this book. I liked the book to some extent, don't get me wrong. However, it didn't satisfy my cravings on a deeper level. In fact, I thought some of the characters were not fully developed as I needed more depth in the story to understand them well enough. Parvathi who married the ill-fated husband, was rather submissive, inert. She relied on Maya, her cook, healer and a spiritual being, to make her choices and confront her enemies within. She was too fragile and weak showing no exuberance whatsoever. When She fell in love with the Japanese General, I still couldn't feel the intense love and longing she felt towards her lover. Perhaps because, it was written from Parvathi's perspective alone. It would have helped immensely if the author had included a few love letters or such from her Japanese Lover so the readers can truly feel the intense love she experienced. The book touched lightly on every subject - love, betrayal, spiritualism, WWII but never went indepth on any of these, which left me confused and unhappy altogether. Especially, I struggled to connect with the spiritual aspects of the story, as they seemed to be out of place for me. Having said that, I don't mean to say that I hated the spiritual parts of it, In fact, I loved to read about Maya's take on life as such and I looked forward to reading more as I progressed deeply into the novel. However, it just didn't blend well with the sto[...]

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah


Title: The House of the MosqueAuthor: Kader AbdolahPages: 436Edition: PaperbackPublisher: Canongate booksKader Abdolah, born in Iran, in 1954, joined a secret leftist party that fought against the dictatorship of shah and subsequently against the Ayatollah during which he wrote illegal journals before publishing novels. He arrived in Netherlands as a political refugee. He published his original dutch version of this novel in 2005. It took almost 5 years for the translated version to appear for the western audience. What allured me to this book was the intriguing art on the book cover and the constant buzz about the novel that circulated in the blogosphere. 'Never judge a book by its cover' never applied to me. I always bee lined towards books that had artistic, intriguing and charming book covers. That beguiling little bird on the minaret of the mosque, standing next to the hunched man in front of the TV set, the hordes of faces that peek out of the windows of the mosque, the stylish turbans, unveiled women and the erotic kissing couple on the inside cover almost made me yearning to devour it at the very first chance. When the opportunity surfaced itself last weekend, I swan-dived into this gem of a book and lost myself into a space and time that left me breathless at the end. Even though the political upheaval during the 1979 Iranian Revolution took the center stage in the novel, the book served as a window to the Muslim culture as a whole. The beautiful renditions from Koran (extracted from various pieces and loosely coupled by the author), the beautiful villages of Iran with its ever cawing crows, and migrating birds with its fascinating feathers that land on the minarets each day, the ever buzzing bazaars run by adept carpet merchants, glass blowers and such, the beautiful women concealing their flesh behind their chador during the day, yet adoringly bold and seducing, the subtle eroticism evoked through the poems and passages, the many traditions and customs of the Iranians, their weddings, funerals, birth and all, no other book could ever come so slightly close to what the author had attempted through this novel. Beginning at the shah regime, the novel would certainly pull the readers deeper and deeper into the dark times of Iranian history, leading up to the revolution and the return of Khomeini and finally to his death. Aqa Jaan, the head of the bazaar, carpet merchant and the family of mosque, enjoyed a high reputation among his people and was much adored by everyone in the little town of Senejan. He was also the keeper of keys and jotted down major events in his journal. His wife, Fakhri Sadat, helped Aqa Jaan with his carpet business, by designing patterns for the beautiful carpets that were sold worldwide. How she came up with such exquisite patterns was simply a wondrous feat. With a son training for Imam and two wonderful daughters, Aqa Jaan led a peaceful, quiet life. Alsaberi, the imam of the mosque, was weak and inept at the task of leading his people. His Friday sermons were never fiery, but he kept the mosque goers happy with his renditions from Koran and ancient stories. Even though parts of Iran were covertly opposing the shah regime, Senejan plays a neutral role. Nevertheless, Qom (revered as the 'Vatican of East') dissatisfied with Alsaberi, sent Khalkhal, a young imam, to stir things up in Senejan. Khalkhal asked for Sadiq's hand and quickly took over Alsaberi (after his sudden demise) as the imam of the mosque. His fiery friday sermons slowly awakened the people of Senejan from a deep slumber, finally leading up to the riots against the queen, Fariba one day. Khalkhal fled Senejan, leaving Sadiq pregnant only to return with the Khomeini as Allah's judge. He lashed out punishments to anyone who opposed the Ayatollah and times were difficult for everyone, e[...]

William Henry Davies (1871- 1940)


William H. Davies - Welsh poet and WriterExcerpts from 'Songs of Joy and Others'Leisure-------What is this life if, full of care,We have no time to stand and stare.No time to stand beneath the boughsAnd stare as long as sheep or cows.No time to see, when woods we pass,Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,No time to see, in broad day light,Streams full of stars, like skies at night.No time to turn at beauty's glanceAnd watch her feet, how they can dance.No time to wait till her mouth canEnrich that smile her eyes began.A poor life this if, full of care,We have no time to stand and stare.Fancy's Home-----------Tell me, Fancy, sweetest child,Of thy parents, of thy birth;Had they silk, and had they gold,And a park to wander forth,With a castle green and old?In a cottage I was born,My kind father was Content,My dear mother Innocence;On wild fruits of Wonderment,I have nourished ever since.In the Wood---------I lie on Joy's enchanted ground:No other noise but these green treesThat sigh and cling to every breeze;And that deep solemn, hollow soundBorn of the graves, and made by Bees.Now, do I think of this packed world,Where thousands of rich people sweat,Like common slaves, in idle fret;Not knowing how to buy with goldThis house of Joy, that makes no debt.What little wealth true Joy doth need!I pay for wants that make no show;I pay my way and nothing oweI drink my ale, I smoke my weed,And take my time where'er I go.Songs of Joy------------SING out, my soul, thy songs of joy;Sing as a happy bird will sing Beneath a rainbow's lovely archIn the spring.Think not of death in thy young days;Why shouldst thou that grim tyrant fear? And fear him not when thou art old,And he is near.Strive not for gold, for greedy foolsMeasure themselves by poor men never; Their standard still being richer men,Makes them poor ever.Train up thy mind to feel content,What matters then how low thy store? What we enjoy, and not possess,Makes rich or poor.Filled with sweet thought, then happy ITake not my state from other's eyes; What's in my mind -- not on my fleshOr theirs -- I prize.Sing, happy soul, thy songs of joy;Such as a Brook sings in the wood, That all night has been strengthened byHeaven's purer flood.[...]

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy


Title: Fruit of the LemonAuthor: Andrea LevyPublisher: Headline Book PublishingPaperback: 340 PagesAccolade: Winner of the Orange Prize for fictionFrom the publisher:Faith Jackson has set herself up with a great job and a brilliant flat share. But life is not that perfect. Her relations with her overbearing, though always loving, family leave a lot to be desired, especially when her parents announce their intention to retire back home to Jamaica. Perplexed, even furious, Faith makes her own journey there, where she is immediately welcomed by her Aunt Coral, keeper of a rich cargo of family history. Her aunt's compelling storytelling unfurls a wonderful cast of characters from Cuba, Panama, Harlem and Scotland in a story that passes through London and sweeps over continents.I had totally forgotten about Andrea Levy's books until it recently popped up in some book discussions, especially her much touted literary master-piece 'Small Island' which garnered so much prize and attention all over the world. Before I got around to reading 'Small Island', I picked this book, just because it was a tad smaller than 'Small Island' and I wanted to get a taste of her writing first. She didn't betray my expectations. In fact, she swept me off my feet with her beautifully crafted, richly detailed and vibrant story of 'Fruit of Lemon'. From London to Jamaica, Cuba to Scotland, she conjured up beautiful images of the sceneries, of the people and their lives. She intricately wove a web of stories, each vividly imagined and so wonderfully portrayed. Lemon tree very prettyAnd the lemon flower is sweetBut the fruit of the poor lemonIs impossible to eat~ Will Holt, Lemon TreeHer stories, especially from the Caribbean, were so refreshing. In 'Fruit of the Lemon', she took the protagonist of the novel, Faith Jackson, on an unforgettable journey of 'self-discovery' from London to her homeland Jamaica. What was revealed by her Jamaican Aunt Coral was an extraordinary account of Faith's ancestral past which make up the latter part of the book. With a little over a half dozen short stories that spread over the globe, they were golden nuggets, so impressively detailed, wonderfully described and standalone tales that could easily pass off as independent short stories. The family trees that were interspersed throughout the book, which initially seemed superfluous to me, made sense as the novel progressed. No way, I would have been able to keep track of all her characters without that family tree she put together. Even with that I lost myself in the maze as I dug deeper into the book, leaving me a little confused and frustrated. However, Only when I decided to let it all go and enjoy Coral's stories as independent anecdotes, I really began to enjoy the book. What I like about Andrea's writing was how she set up the premise of each story. Her passion and fervor for writing clearly came through her words, the emotions still clinging to the passages even after I moved on. More than the first half which dealt with racism and black immigrants in London, I was captivated by the second half which focused on the stories set against the Caribbean backdrop. Her vivid imaginations of white sand beaches, the women in floral-print skirts swaying their hips to the rhythms of music, the men in panama hat sipping on pineapple rum tantalized me so much, I almost wanted to book an airplane ticket to the Caribbean Islands.They laid a past out in front of me. They wrapped me in a family history and swaddled me tight in its stories. And I was taking back that family to England. But it would not fit in a suitcase. I was smuggling it home. The first half of the book that began with the story of Faith Jackson, her work as a dresser in a British Television Company and about her pare[...]

The Writing on my Forehead by Nafisa Haji


Title: The Writing on my ForeheadAuthor: Nafisa HajiPublisher: William MorrowHardcover: 320 PagesBay Area's notable fiction for 2009 - SF ChronicleFrom the publisher:From childhood, willful, intelligent Saira Qader broke the boundaries between her family's traditions and her desire for independence. A free-spirited and rebellious Muslim-American of Indo-Pakistani descent, she rejected the constricting notions of family, duty, obligation, and fate, choosing instead to become a journalist, the world her home.Five years later, tragedy strikes, throwing Saira's life into turmoil. Now the woman who chased the world to uncover the details of other lives must confront the truths of her own. In need of understanding, she looks to the stories of those who came before—her grandparents, a beloved aunt, her mother and father. As Saira discovers the hope, pain, joy, and passion that defined their lives, she begins to face what she never wanted to admit—that choice is not always our own, and that faith is not just an intellectual preference.Several reasons allured me towards this book. First and foremost, it is a family story of a Muslim woman of Indo-Pakistani descent. Second of all, the little attestation on the book cover by one of my favorite writers 'Khaled Hosseini'. I love immigrant stories. Especially, one that involves family history. Having devoted most of my childhood years with elders more than my peers, I am naturally inclined towards stories linked to ancestral history and all. One of my favorite pastimes during adolescence was spending limitless hours of time with my grandma (Dadi). She would trace back our paternal lineage, traverse up the family tree, detailing the lives of our ancestors as much as her brain would allow her to siphon. I used to sit on her lap (or by her side, as I grew up) utterly mesmerized by her animated stories, sometimes exaggerated, at times witty, but mostly entertaining. I beseeched her to repeat several of her tales, relishing the memories, reveling in the past. My favorite story used to be the one about my great-great-great-grandmother, who won an award in the court of a 'Chola' King for astonishing him with a delicious dessert made from 'Shikakai' (a bitter powder mainly used for washing one's hair). I still remember how I used to walk tall and proud, my head up, chest out, heart bursting with pride and happiness, for several days after. Once my thirst for the ancestral history was quenched, her stories were later confined to my dad's antics, birth stories of my uncles and aunt. Even though, no dark secrets or shocking truths were revealed during our conversations, she knew how to hold my attention very well. Having raised more than half a dozen children with a meagre income from Dada, poverty took a central stage in her anecdotes. I had been a hapless witness to hunger pangs, sufferings and misfortunes. Though I felt a little powerless over her past, I acquired knowledge, derived hope and gained strength from it. I offered her hope, a promise, a better future. My knowledge of maternal lineage is comparable enough, thanks to Nani. I was not her favorite grand-daughter, though I never held her against it. We used to talk for hours, mostly about Nana, who died even before I was born. Our conversations were held usually after lunch or nap - me sipping a hot cup of tea and munching on pakoras or biscuits while Nani reclined on the Easy-Chair, her eyes closed as she traveled back in time to a period, a place where she really belonged. Nani used to recount every single anecdote with such interesting details, I almost forgot when and where I was. She used to be very detail-oriented, having kept a daily journal all her life. I learnt much more after her death, when I perus[...]

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb


Title: Sweetness in the BellyAuthor: Camilla GibbPaperback: 368 PagesPublisher: PenguinAccolade: Trillium Award winner'Sweetness in the belly' is such a fascinating novel that portrays the life and turmoil of an English-born nurse Lilly who was raised in a Sufi Shrine in Morocco. Her travels take her from Morocco to Harar to London. In an engaging story, the chapters transports the readers back and forth between her life in Ethiopia and London. Lilly's circumstances of upbringing are rather odd. Born to an English-Irish nomadic couple, Lilly accompanies them in their travels. When her parents get killed mysteriously in an alley way, Lilly comes under the loving care of 'Great Abdal', a Sufi philosopher and Bruce Mohammed, an Islamic convert and her guardian. Her life flourishes and blossoms and Lilly relishes learning about the mystical ways of Islam. She memorizes and recites verses from 'Quran' and adapts herself to the Sufi ways in no matter of time. When a new regime in 1960's threatens the existence of shrines in Morocco, Lilly takes on a pilgrimage to Harar to seek blessings and protection for this is the city that houses the original shrine of the first Islamic muezzin Saint Bilal Al Habash. Her Islamic veil and Quran knowledge fails to mask her white skin and British accent. Labeled a 'farenji', a despised foreigner, Lilly's struggle in gaining a foothold among the Harari's. She is forced to live with Nouria, an Oromo, in a ram shackled house amongst dead cockroaches, goat feces, flies and putrid smell of urine. After much struggle, Lilly gains the affection of Nouria, by helping her with her daily chores. She does laundry, cooking vats of stew and injera, making 'berber' - a fiery cocktail made of chillies and most of all teaching Quran to children. She also witnesses some horrific events like female circumcision. She falls in love with Aziz, a doctor, who himself is an outcast with his black skin and Sudanese upbringing. His radical practices and attitude drew her towards him. Yet, their love is short-lived and the 'sweetness in the belly' is only a fleeting experience. When the Dergue regime rises to power after ousting the Emperor Haile Selassie, she is forced to flee once again to London. The story also focuses on her post-ethiopian life in London, where she longs for a reunion with Aziz, even after 7 years of exile. She befriends Amina, another Ethiopian woman, who flees from Africa when Yusuf, her husband, was taken hostage from a camp in Kenya. Amina's story is heart-wrenching and quite extraordinary as well. As both these women begin their quest in seeking their love and regain their lost lives, they also come face to face with their sufferings, misfortunes and a troubled past. The novel takes the readers as far away as what happens to Aziz and Yusuf thus bringing the story to a perfect closure.This book was such an engaging read for me. It was not just a story of two struggling women with a troubled past, it was more of a story of Ethiopia itself. African poverty and famine was nothing surprising to me. However, to read about the abysmal living conditions of the poor was such a heart-wrenching experience. Since I was as much a 'farenji' as Lilly, her tragic experiences horrified me. The hardest part was reading about the tribal practices of female circumcision performed on young girls as young as 5 or 6 years old. My heart ached, eyes welled and tears came streaming down my eyes. I was enraged with anger, mad with their superstitious beliefs and customs. Some of the tribal practices were barbaric, especially the infibulation. However, it was astonishing to see how they attribute everything to religion or god. It made me wonder, just like Lilly, if Quran r[...]

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid


Title: Moth SmokeAuthor: Mohsin HamidPaperback: 246 PagesPublisher: PicadorAccolade: Betty Trask Award winner, PEN/Hemingway Finalist, NewYork Times Notable Book of the YearMohsin Hamid, was highly acclaimed and nominated for several literary prizes for his book 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. 'Moth Smoke' is his debut novel. 1998, Lahore. Pakistan had just announced its arrival in the nuclear world in retaliation to the nuclear tests conducted by Indian counterparts. Wild street jubilation broke out in the streets of Lahore, as it became not just a war between two nations, but a war among religions as well. Jobless markets, sluggish economy, political wrath and poverty grabbed and throttled the nation by its neck. In a place where uncertainty and poverty reigns, destruction and calamity took a center stage.Set in these tough economic times, this novel, a dark and gloomy tale, so eloquently captures the tragic downfall of an ill-fated middle-class young man Darushikoh (Daru). In the opening scene, the protagonist Daru sat crouched in a prison cell having accused of murdering a little boy. Before the readers were given an opportunity to witness the proceedings, the novel back traced in time to the period where Daru began his life as a successful banker smoking occasional joints and partying with rich folks. He earned sufficient enough to afford an air-conditioner and a servant who ran errands and prepared his daily meals. Albeit his associations with the rich, he felt resentful about the chasm between the rich and poor, the corrupted political system and the economic divide that prevailed in the country.For Daru, destruction first approached him from the workfront. He lost his banker job when he incurred the wrath of one of his valued clients. He struggled to get back into the workforce, but he lacked the right political 'connections'. All the basic privileges he was once entitled to like electricity, telephone, A/C were cut off. His addiction to hash reeled him in and plunged him into a world of complete darkness. Hope came in the form of a woman, Mumtaaz, his childhood friend Ozi's wife. Their common interests led from one thing to another ultimately leading to an extramarital affair. Unfortunately, their love led to a dispute and Mumtaaz was gone. Daru had no one but to turn to Sharad, a drug dealer who had grand plans of venturing into robbing boutiques all around Lahore. As drugs, money and sex sucked him deeper and deeper into the chasm, his doomsday was not far way. He became more of a moth that burnt into ashes when it flickered around the dazzling flames of a candlelight. The book also presented view points of three other characters - Ozi, the flamboyant childhood friend of Daru, Ozi's wife Mumtaaz and Sharad, a dope dealer cum rickshaw driver. Ozi, Mumtaaz and Sharad played a critical role in the life and fall of Daru and their soliloquies come juxtaposed between Daru's own narration. Albeit providing a holistic view of the situation, their viewpoints made me less sympathetic and more cynical. Each character had their own flaws, unfulfilled dreams and sorrows, yet they all tried to justify their imperfections by condemning the society or political system. Mumtaaz, who claimed to have made false choices in her past, by marrying Ozi and thereby having a child she never wanted, justified her affair with Daru as a sort of respite from her stifing situation. Ozi, a money-launderer, had nothing to complain but his unloving wife. Daru, who constantly whined about the economic divide, thrashed his unpaid servant and lived off of selling hash and heroin to young school children for exorbitant amounts. To top that, he had an extramarital affair w[...]

The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel


Title: The Beijing of PossibilitiesAuthor: Jonathan TelPaperback: 185 PagesPublisher: Other Press"Beijing is the center of the universe. Ask anybody who lives there. The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sence, kidding". Over the last few decades, China has witnessed a tremendous amount of growth and industrial progress, in spite of its superfluous population. Today, China is the economic hub of the world and it's strong presence in the global arena is undeniable. Every day, millions of workers migrate to the city to work in the factories under meager working conditions to manufacture and export goods worldwide. To the despairing rural folks, a life in the city offers a ray of hope, sustenance and limitless opportunities. Indeed, Beijing is a land of dreams. A city bustling with migrant workers, foreigners, pick-pockets, street musicians, pedestrians, businessmen, beggars and whores, who all move in a frantic pace, with a heightened sense of purpose. The factories run 24/7 with its employees working in shifts. The city never sleeps. The busy roads, congested with traffic, makes the air dense with pollution and purpose. To better comprehend the city and the chaos behind it, a story needs to be told. Jonathan Tel strives to do that with not just one, but a dozen of short stories. His stories do not attempt to focus on the cultural revolution or globalization, but rather mundane, yet surprisingly little known, facades of everyday life. Even though most of the short stories in this collection are imbued with a subtle humor, they never fail to bring forth the harsh realities. The book opens with a captivating story, the 'Year of Gorilla'. A man clad in a gorilla suit makes rounds around the city in his bicycle delivering messages for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, promotions etc. He announces his arrival with a pumping of his chest, then singing songs, before going on about his work delivering one 'Gorillagram' after the other. One day, he witnesses a street robbery and comes to the aid of a middle-aged woman who is about to lose her purse to a bunch of mobs. He is oblivious of the fact that his heroic acts are caught on a cellular phone camera and slowly making its way to the blogosphere. Rumor spreads like a wild fire. Discussion boards springs up all over town and the issue is completely blown out of proportion.“It is a shame that sticks-in-the-mud are opposing a market economy with Chinese characteristics. The last thing we need is to have a Gorilla barge in every time we shake hands on a deal!” Which led to further criticism, as well as some support of the Gorilla for “preserving Maoist values.” An editorial in the July issue of theBeijing Financial Review referred somewhat obscurely to “Gorillas and their ilk who shoot sparrows with a pearl” in the context of defending the opening up of the mining industry to foreign investment.Soon, he is arrested, ridiculed and tortured by the police officials questioning his true intentions behind the rescue. Detective Wang scrolled down the Gorilla's file - pages of barely relevant stuff trawled up by a search engine. "So, Gorilla, is it true that you're opposed to the development of capitalist enterprise in China? ... The Gorilla was in the midst of a mob. some wit kept offering him a banana, another taunted him, "Where's your demon-exposing mirror, Monkey King?" He is released, owing to a lack of evidence. Needless to say, Hero Gorilla is never to be seen again. This story, a surprisingly witty composition, is an engaging read and propels the book forward to a glorious start. Though the story i[...]

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe


Title: Things Fall ApartAuthor: Chinua AchebePaperback: 209 PagesPublisher: AnchorFrom the Back Cover:"Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a "strong man" of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo's fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo's world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries..."Part One - The story centered around 'Okonkwo', a strong man, who overthrew the greatest wrestler of all times. Okonkwo inherited neither wealth nor title from his father, for his father was quite improvident and wasted his life drinking palm-wine and gathering huge debt. Okonkwo was ashamed of his father, but with his prowess in inter-tribal wars, three wives and two barns of yams, the clan revered him no matter what. His fame even made him a guardian for a young boy named 'Ikemefuna', who came in exchange for a crime committed by another tribal group. Unfortunately, Okonkwo was forced to flee into exile when he inadvertently shot a boy at one of the funeral ritual ceremonies. He left the village with his family to live with his mother's family for the next seven years. Part Two - Okonkwo mourned and sulked as he spent the next seven years in exile. He had grown to be a respectable man in his clan and gone on to claim even two titles. But, things began to change upon his return. Christian missionaries were slowly gaining foothold in his region educating and converting people of his clan to their religion. Churches, schools and trading stores were built by taking over the land of Ibo people. Government and new laws had replaced tribal gods and tradition. Their rituals and beliefs were insulted and people were threatened to take up the new religion or incur wrath from higher officials. 'Okonkwo' suffered a great deal of pain and desperately wished for freedom for his clan. He gathered leaders in his group and led them into a war against the government. No freedom in the history of mankind had ever been achieved without bloodshed. Pain, suffering and death always paved way for a change. For the Ibo clan that is so laden with superstitious beliefs and age-old tradition, change has to come at a greater price. With a lot of suffering too. The story offers a rich insight into their culture and a greater part of the story revolves around that. The author strives a great deal to educate the readers about their festivals, ritual practices and tradition. I learnt a great deal of information from the first half of the book about this small ethnic group. It was such an enriching experience to learn about their folk tales, songs and delicacies. The readers were introduced to the Ibo clan as law-abiding people with great faith in gods and justice. Any crisis or injustice was called out and a group of leaders discussed (or rather 'whispered') matters to restore peace. Yam, considered the 'King' of corns, was a man's crop and men went to great lengths to sow and reap yams for not only it helped him feed his family throughout the year, but it also earned him a status in his clan. Men claimed titles and proved their valor in wrestling matches. Men, women and children exuberant in joy over Yam festivals and wedding rituals. Men were polite and always broached a delicate subject with the custom of presenting a bowl of Kola Nuts, palm wine and white chalk. Bride prices were negotiated with broom sticks. Men built separate huts (obi) for each of his wives and they all prepared se[...]

Common Wealth Writer's Prize Shortlists


The Commonwealth Foundation today announced the regional shortlists for the 2009 commonwealth writer's prize. The regional winners that emerge from each of the shortlists will be announced on March 11, 2009. I am really thrilled to see some of my favorites like Uwem Akpan's "Say You're One of Them, Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" and Mohammed Hanif's "The Case of Exploding Mangoes" on the list. Aravind Adiga is also nominated for "Between the Assassinations" for Best Book Prize. I hope he wins at least one. Preeta Samarasan's first book "Evening of the Whole Day" made it to the shortlist as well. I've been wanting to read it for a long time, I guess I should move it to the top of my TBR stack now. African Regional Shortlist:Best First Book Jassy Mackenzie (South Africa) Random Violence Umuzi Uwem Akpan (Nigeria) Say You're One of Them Abacus Megan Voysey-Braig (South Africa) Till We Can Keep An Animal Jacana Media Chris Mamewick (South Africa) Shepherds and Butchers Umuzi Sue Rabie (South Africa) Boston Snowplough Human & Rousseau Jane Bennett (South Africa ) Porcupine Kwela Books South East Asia and Pacific Regional ShortlistBest BookAravind Adiga (Australia) Between The Assassinations Picador IndiaHelen Garner (Australia) The Spare Room The Text Publishing Company Joan London (Australia) The Good Parents Random House Australia (Vintage Imprint) Paula Morris (New Zealand) Forbidden Cities Penguin New Zealand Christos Tsiolkas (Australia) The Slap Allen and Unwin Tim Winton, (Australia) Breath Picador Best First Book Aravind Adiga (Australia), The White Tiger Atlantic BooksNam Le (Australia) The Boat Hamish Hamilton Mo Zhi Hong (New Zealand) The Year of The Shanghai Shark Penguin New Zealand Bridget van der Zijpp (New Zealand) Misconduct Victoria University Press Preeta Samarasan (Malaysian) Evening is the Whole Day Fourth Estate Ashley Sievwright (Australia) The Shallow End Clouds of Magellan Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie are among the six contenders for the Best Book in the Europe and South Asia Regional Category. Best Book Award Chris Cleave (United Kingdom) The Other Hand Sceptre Shashi Deshpande (India) The Country of Deceit Penguin Philip Hensher (United Kingdom) The Northern Clemency Fourth Estate Jhumpa Lahiri (United Kingdom) Unaccustomed Earth Bloomsbury Publishing David Lodge (United Kingdom) Deaf Sentence Harvill Secker Salman Rushdie (United Kingdom) The Enchantress of Florence Random House [...]

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami


Title: Kafka on the ShoreAuthor: Haruki MurakamiPaperback: 480 PagesPublisher: VintageTranslated from Japanese by Philip GabrielWinner of World Fantasy Award & Franz Kafka Prize 2006Reading Murakami is more like an out-of-the-world experience for me. Its like my brain going into overdrive mode forming active neural connections after being exposed to all sorts of wacky stuff. I guess it might be a good idea to read his novels from time to time for a good brain workout. An intriguing plot doused with mystery and weirdness, quirky characters, bizarre events, jaw-dropping moments, perplexing endings could pretty much sum up what you could possibly expect in Murakami books. Initially, I used to feel utterly bewildered at why certain things are left the way it is. I needed a proper closure - or a happily ever after kind of ending - when I read novels. To be honest, I used to feel a little frustrated with his stories. But, an invisible magical bond pulled me towards his books again and again. The more I read it, the more I began to appreciate his books. It made me realize that Murakami was different; his books defied categorization; they were unique; unlike any other. I began to enjoy his style of writing. In fact, the very things that put me off in the beginning is what I am looking forward to in his books nowadays.Kafka Tamura, a 15 year old boy, flees home in search of his long lost mother and sister. Apart from the essentials for his runaway trip, the only memory he took with him was a photo he found in his father's study. More than he wanted to find his mother and sibling, perhaps, he wanted to escape the dark prophesy predicted by his father. He seeks refuge in a quiet, private library in Takamatsu. He befriends Oshima, the assistant librarian and Miss Saeki, the owner. He spends day after day reading books and working out at the local gym. Another parallel story that runs is that of Mr. Nakata. Having lost his ability to read and write due to a tragic event that happened during his childhood, Nakata now in his early sixties lives off of a pension from the government for the mentally disabled people. He brings in some extra cash as a cat-catcher, thanks to his uncanny ability to converse with cats. During one of his pursuits looking for a missing cat, he meets Johnny Walker, another bizarre character. And what happens between Johnny Walker and Nakata changes his fate forever. He finds himself on the run but not before he makes more weird things happen. With the aid of Hoshino, a truck driver, he leaves town with no idea of where he is heading. Nakata and Kafka's fate are linked to each other and when their paths converge towards the end, as it is bound to happen, more and more unbelievable events begin to unfold. I couldn't believe what I was reading; And I was propelled by a strong desire to know where the story was heading. I couldn't comprehend where the reality ended and where the fantasy began. Sometimes I couldn't make a head or tail out of it. But, it was hard for me to put down. I don't know if it could get any weirder than this. Fish and Leeches fall from the sky; You meet someone who can talk to cats; Living spirits and ghosts make the most bizarre appearances and do wacky things; his quirky characters walk in and out of dreams like its no big deal; Yet, there is something equally bizarre about this book that drew me towards it. I was totally captivated by the strange plot and I found myself racing through the book. I couldn't wait to finish the novel, but when I did I wanted to read it again. It was totally mesmerizing, u[...]

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan


Title: Say You're One of Them Author: Uwem AkpanGenre: Short StoriesHardcover: 368 pagesPublisher: Little Brown & CompanyLife in Africa is not easy. Especially for children. The basic necessities of life like food, clean water, medicine and shelter is hard to come by if you live in Africa. Infant mortality rate is higher than ever. Even if they do survive, malnutrition, hunger, malaria and AIDS threaten their lives. About one fourth of African children don't live to see the age of 6. If they do, they don't go to school, because their parents can't afford the school fees. They live in shanty houses, pick street fights and do drugs. Child labor, trafficking, prostitution are extremely common. They live under perilous conditions fighting off hunger, illness and abuse. Life is merely a question of survival to them. We all know that. At least, that's what I thought. But, no newspaper clippings or video footage in the media prepared me for what I was about to encounter this in book.Set in war-torn Africa, this book is a collection of five extraordinary stories (two of them the size of a novella) narrated by the African children. In "An Ex-mas Feast", 8 year old Jigana lives in a ramshackle hut with his parents and two siblings outside Nairobi. His mother sends out her younger ones begging for money and the eldest daughter of the household, Meisha (12 years old) turns to prostitution to make ends meet. Jigana's mother could only offer shoe glue (a substance you sniff to kill hunger) for meal after meal as they await Meisha to bring home their Christmas feast. But, What Jigana wants is not a Christmas feast after all. He dreams about going to school. Will she be able to afford his school fees? If she could, what would she have to lose after having lost everything? Child trafficking in Africa is extremely common. Boys and Girls of very young age are trafficked to wealthier countries like Gabon primarily for labor. The children undergo a perilous voyage in the sea often traveling in unseaworthy vessels. They are smuggled across the borders with and without the knowledge of border patrol. Sometimes, they are even thrown in the sea for a brief period of time to cheat the guards. Often, the children don't realize what awaits them during and after their journey. Once they reach their destination, they are forced to work under brutal conditions without any wages or food. "Fattening for Gabon", the second story, focusing primarily on child trafficking tells the story of a boy who is prepped up for one such treacherous journey. Kotchikpa, a 10 year old boy and his little sister were entrusted in the hands of their uncle Fofo Kpee, after his parents were sickened by AIDS. Lured by the prospect of good wages, he decides to sell them into slavery. And, how they fatten up for their trip to Gabon is what this story is all about. When their uncle reneged on the deal, they get hunted down. And, Kotchikpa had to take matters in his own hands for his survival. "What Language is That?" is the shortest story of all. It revolves around the religious clash in Ethiopia. Two girls were told not to speak to each other because of their different religions. Houses were burnt by angry mobs and Christians and Muslims killed each other. But, the two girls had to find a way to communicate with each other. After all, they are best friends forever. "Luxurious Hearses" is another story about the Christian-Muslim conflict, but its even more harrowing than the previous one. Jubril, a teenage Muslim boy, flees from north of Nigeria to the south in one [...]

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri


Title: The Age of ShivaAuthor: Manil SuriGenre: FictionEdition: HardcoverPages: 4511955, India. The political unrest caused by the India-Pakistan partition had barely abated. The country was still recuperating from the loss of hundreds and thousands of Hindus and Muslims who got killed by angry mobs. The lawlessness that prevailed in the country during the Hindu-Muslim riots was seemingly under control, despite the efforts of Hindu and Muslim extremists who were carrying out clandestine operations to implant the seeds of hatred and revenge in people's minds. Thousands of people were still struggling to find abode, after having lost everything.The story begins around this period when Meera, the protagonist, in her late teens fled Rawalpindi (now part of Pakistan) with her parents and two sisters Roopa and Sharmila. Meera's father had successfully managed to establish a printing business which eventually helped them settle down in Delhi. During her school years, Meera was constantly vying for her parents attention, as they doted on Roopa and swooned and squealed in delight over everything she did. When Roopa fell in love with Dev, a singer from her college, Meera felt it was time to avenge her for all the unfairness she was subjected to. Luck favored her by causing a rift between the lovers and Meera seized the opportunity to marry to Dev, much to her father's disapproval. While Dev was still heartbroken and sulking about his breakup, Meera struggled to move on with her life. Her mother-in-law's oppressive ways and brother-in-law's covert glances only worsened the situation she found herself in. With her father's help, Meera pulled herself out of this mess, by relocating to Bombay where Dev could pursue his career in music. But, her freedom came at a terrible price. It took more than 5 years for her to finally have her wish fulfilled, to quench her thirst for love. The birth of her son, Ashvin filled the void in her life. She loved him like no mother would love hers. She pampered and protected him from everyone, including Dev. But, where would that blindfolded love lead her? And, what was the price she had to pay then?The story almost spans over 3 decades and captures all major historic events like the India-Pakistan war, Emergency declared during Indira's period, China war and so on. The writing was so elaborate, painstakingly detailed and exquisitely beautiful. The author shows his adeptness at writing all the way through, but the most astonishing part is the way he has written from the perspective of a female protagonist. Its not easy pulling off something like that and he needs to be applauded for his efforts.However, the book has many negative characters such as an overbearing father, a haughty sister Roopa, irresponsible husband, drunkard father-in-law, pervert brother-in-law and to top it all a selfish, unforgiving and vulnerable protagonist. I could hardly empathize with any of them and probably that's why I didn't enjoy this book much. Also, the portrayal of a mother's love for her child seems a bit exaggerated, sometimes even unbelievable. To add to that, I wonder how much the snippets from the Hindu mythology would appeal to the western readers either. Compared to his previous novel, this book was a bit of disappointment to me but not quite enough to refrain myself from his future books altogether..My Rating: 3/5[...]

Almost Single by Advaita Kala


(image) Title: Almost Single
Author: Advaita Kala
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
Edition: Paperback

I do read chick-lit novels. Every once in a blue moon. Perhaps its due to the fact that I get my own share watching Bollywood movies. When it comes to books, I mostly stick to literature, fiction and non-fiction types. However, an occasional chick-lit can do wonders for me. An alluring front cover and an impressive blurb on the back is all I need. And this book just perfectly fitted the bill.

Aisha Bhatia. 29. single. female. India. Upper middle class. Desperately seeking a groom. Well, you get the picture. But, how could it go wrong with a promising start like that? The protagonist just rambles on and on about her philandering boss, sucking job, gay friends, cocktail parties, single women friends and her adventures in pursuit of love and marriage. As far as the story goes, there is nothing more to it. You can probably fit it in a post-it note.

I don't know how it all ended. I never really bothered to finish it. It is noteworthy to mention that the first half of the book had a few hilarious anecdotes I enjoyed. But, the author fails to keep up with her pace in the latter part and it is all downhill after that. However, I won't dismiss the novel as a sloppy piece of work altogether. I just feel that the book appeals to a niche audience and I don't belong there.

My Rating: 2/5

Q & A by Vikas Swarup; Slumdog Millionaire


Title: Q & AAuthor: Vikas SwarupGenre: FictionPages: 361Edition: PaperbackMovie: Slumdog MillionaireMy bookshelf is teeming with books of literature, fiction, and non-fiction all neatly stacked waiting to be read. Quite often, I pick one up run my fingers down the spine, weigh the book in one hand, flip through the pages, catch a phrase or two in the process wondering if it should be my next book. Some books get picked up again and again. Some books just gather dust over time. Q & A falls in the second category. I believe I have had it on my shelf for over a year lying untouched. I never thought about it much until one day I ran into a friend who bragged about a movie called "Slumdog millionaire" and how its based on the book "Q & A". It sure did ring a bell. I dashed back home, headed straight to my bookshelf and dusted off my copy of Q & A. With a little over 350 pages, what I once thought would be a boring book turned out to be just the opposite.Ram Mohammad Thomas, an eighteen-year-old boy hailing from a slum in Mumbai wins a whopping one billion rupees in a quiz show "Who Wants to Win a Billion?". Before he could bask in the glory of winning the most coveted prize, he was accused of cheating and arrested. He pleads his innocence, to no avail. A lawyer comes to his rescue and what he recounts with her forms the compelling story of Q & A. The book has 12 chapters one for each question from the show. In every chapter, Ram narrates an event from his past and ends with a question from the show. By the time you finish a chapter, you would realize that the question is a no-brainer for Ram. In quiz shows like this, the questions increase in complexity as you plow your way through. And since each chapter spins a tale around the question, the events don't follow a chronological pattern..or any pattern at all. This makes it a much more difficult read. I was trying to puzzle several pieces together the whole time, as Ram (the protagonist) goes back and forth in time. The author does seem to realize this predicament, yet the challenge remains. He touches several topics like Ram's upbringing in a christian home, his experiences from doing odd jobs, his love with a prostitute and such. Some stories are well written. A few rather seem to be forced. But, it was a great effort overall. What I found to be profoundly moving was the day-to-day life of people in Dharavi (a renowned slum in Mumbai). I have seen slums whenever I used to travel by train or bus. But, never up close. Now I begin to understand what life would be like for those people who live on the brink of extreme penury.. what it would be like to line up in queues for everything from water to public spend endless nights without an pilfer food from trash toil everyday for pennies.. to live under appalling conditions. Thanks to Vikas for reminding me how grateful I should feel for the happy and privileged life I lead everyday.My Rating: 4/5Now, a little bit about the movie "Slumdog Millionaire". Directed by Danny Boyle, the movie has earned 4 Golden Globe nominations already including the best motion picture - drama. The trailer looks very appealing and hopefully I would watch it someday. links to the movie website.[...]

The Death of Vishnu


Title: The Death of Vishnu Author: Manil SuriGenre: FictionPages: 295Edition: PaperbackAccolade: 2002 Pen/Faulkner Nominee Manil Suri's latest novel 'The Age of Shiva' is due out in February, 2008. As I await to lay my hands on his new book, I decided to read first his much acclaimed debut novel 'The Death of Vishnu'. In this charmingly funny novel, Suri invites you to meet some very interesting characters living in a 3-storied apartment building in Bombay.Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak are neighbors. Not the friendly, harmonious type, but the war-mongering kind. They squabble over frivolous matters and a sense of hatred for each other runs in their blood. To top it all, they had to share a kitchen on the first floor. Mrs. Jalal, a devoted muslim lives upstairs with her husband and son Salim. Mr.Jalal is propelled by the quest of enlightenment and his eccentric behavior drives his wife crazy. Kavita (Mrs. Asrani's daughter) and Salim (Mrs. Jalal's son) love each other and they meet clandestinely on the terrace often. Vinod, a reclusive man, lives on the second floor. He depends on his hard-earned money as a banker, a flat he now lives and the food brought over by his servant everyday for his sustenance. All cooped up in his flat, he whiles away his time, lying in bed grieving over his wife's death. The story begins with Vishnu, an odd-job man who lives on the landing, lying motionless on the verge of death. The stale chappatis brought over by Mrs. Pathak and the watered-down tea from Mrs. Asrani's house stay untouched, as Vishnu daydreams about his childhood days and a love affair with Padmini, a prostitute. His health is deteriorating but, life goes on around him and the apartment dwellers seem oblivious to his physical condition. One night Jalal, driven by his quest for wisdom, decides to sleep next to Vishnu on the landing. He has a strange dream where Vishnu, the drunkard, is 'Lord Vishnu', the god and he himself the prophet. Next day, Ganga, the servant, finds Jalal asleep on the landing with a dupatta wrapped around his head. Also, Kavita and Salim had eloped the previous night. Despite the hullabaloo about the missing lovers and the mysterious dupatta wrapped on Jalal's head that night, Jalal continues to rant about his strange vision and why everyone should worship Vishnu, the drunkard. But, Where would all this lead him?No major story plots or anything here. But, Suri makes it up to you with his engaging characters, vivid narration and an interesting prose that might tickle your funny bone at times. I found myself racing through the pages and thought it was a good read overall. Author's Note: Manil Suri got his inspiration for the central character of this novel from a man named Vishnu who lived on the steps of the apartment building in which he grew up. Apparently, he died on the same landing he occupied for many years. My Rating: 3.8/5[...]

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time


Title: The curious incident of the dog in the night-timeAuthor: Mark HaddonPages: 226Genre: FictionEdition: PaperbackAccolade: 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year, Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First BookChristopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy, is autistic. He is a keen observer, adept at solving math problems and knows every prime number up to 7057. He attends a school for children with special needs and his pet-rat 'Toby' keeps him company after school. He doesn't like being touched, dislikes meeting strangers (because of the 'stranger-danger' thing taught at school) and won't tell lies (except a 'White Lie'). He abhors anything that is Yellow / Brown, but loves 'Red' color. He won't eat two foods if they touch each other on the plate. His favorite dish 'Aloo Saag', which is yellow, is OK though, as long as its camouflaged with red-dye powder. Witnessing four yellow cars in a row makes it a 'Black Day' (Neither does he eat anything nor does he talk to anyone on a Black Day) and five red cars in a row makes in a 'Super Good Day'. Walking down streets or places crowded with people makes him jittery and he comforts himself by grouching and groaning or doing some mental calculus. He hardly ever ventures out and likes to shuts himself in his house and play on his computer. One day Christopher walks into his neighbor Mrs.Shears house to find her dog 'Wellington' killed by a garden fork. Troubled by the event, he begins to investigate the murder. Christopher wants to solve the case just like the way he solves his math puzzles. But, his father Ed won't let him get any further. He confiscates the diary he was using to jot down his observations with the murder-mystery case and hides it somewhere. When Christopher searches around the house for his missing diary, he not only uncovers what he meant to find; but also something that he was unprepared for... Written from the perspective of an autistic child, this touching novel offers a great insight into the world of autism - a place where normal human behavior and emotions have little meaning. Human brain is very complicated as such. And, that of an autistic child is even difficult to comprehend. But, Mark Haddon writes with such beauty and poignancy that I begin to wonder if anyone else could have said it better. With so many wonderful hand-drawn illustrations, this could be one of the rare novels you will ever find. I wonder how I missed such a gem of a novel. Probably, I must have been living in a cave or something ...My Rating: 4.8/5[...]