Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rishad Saam Mehta - Hot tea across India

@Tranquebar Publishing

This is not the first time I have fallen for an attractive cover and an enticing name,  Tea is to Indians what magic potion is to Asterix.  I know some people who can imbibe as many as fourteen cups a day.

This book is not just about tea, though it pops up quite frequently in it.  It is a travelogue. I will amend that.  It is an adventure-travelogue. Rishad Saam Mehta traveled at any given opportunity, whether hitching a ride on a truck, or on a train, rickety bus, airplane, motorcycle or myriad cars.

This book is a collection of his essays on a travel to some part of the country, titled by the most remarkable point of his journey.  He has been nearly robbed, looked down the gun of a policeman manning checkpoints, caught pooping in a wrong place, subjected to arson and had his bones rattled in a rickety bus. 

No matter where Rishad is, or what he is doing, his narration is so interesting, so full of warmth that we are loath to put the book down.  He is always aware of the beauty of the place he is visiting, the history behind it and remarks on it.
"Chandra Tal is as close to heaven as you can get while yet in a mortal form." 
Don't expect pretty purple prose though.  This is only on occasions when he is struck by the beauty of his surrounding. That is when he gets all lyrical.

While traveling to Manali he was tempted to take this 'LUXAREY BUS'.  Imagining plush seats and a comfortable ride, he is rudely awakened by a wreck on four wheels and wooden seats. He says:
Most of the other passengers were simple hill folk for whom the bus really was a luxury- because for them anything that moved on its own accord without the help of a four legged creature was a luxury.
Then there were people he met:
The first thing that struck me about him was his hair: hormones had made a serious navigational error because while his pate was shining and bald, his shoulders were a barber's playground.
He is very witty without sounding smart-alecy.  How he manages that, I don't know.  He has, I presume, an innate and an enviable talent for writing.  His anecdotes are so well told, that most times I was laughing out loud.

I polished off his book in a couple of long sittings.  I was blessed with very little work in the office and read this book on phone all day.

He touches upon his visits to Leh, Ladakh, Drass, Srinagar, Delhi-Chandigarh highway, Kerala, Jaisalmer, Rann of Kutch.  He has done river rafting and also participated in Raid-de-Himalaya. He knows how to let us know the difficulties of his situation without depressing us.

I got a recommendation for this book by @raghavmodi of 

Like in my last blog post, I will go into a didactic mode and exhort all to read this book.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

James Patterson Emily Raymond - The Little Black Dress

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@Book Shots

Book Shots is an initiative by James Patterson, the acclaimed author of thrillers, to present a series of novellas under 150 pages and under 5$ as a sort of a quick read.  The idea is to use the presenter 'James Patterson' as a brand name to sell many books; so I presume.

I am not much of a thriller reader but the name was seductive and I fell for the quickie, cheapie book.  I was expecting it to be a thriller of some sort, thanks to reputation of its Godfather.  I was wrong.

Jane Avery is a divorcee who has tried to drown her heartbreak over her cheating ex-husband by watching Netflix and shunning all social life.  Her sister and her friends are trying to nudge her back out there, but Jane isn't interested.

UNTIL she gets a sexy little black dress and turns into this whole different person.  Suddenly she is into casual sex and straight-arms any attempts at second dates or any other form of male contact other than sex.  I can understand her motivation, she has just suffered a terrible break-up and does not trust herself in any other relationship.

ALAS, the story does not go there.  Her psychological motivations are all bypassed, despite the presence of a Psychoanalyst that Jane visits every week. There are absolutely no thriller elements in the book either.  Apart from one little hiccup, nothing noteworthy really happens to her.  We are treated to rather boring descriptions of sex.  With gorgeous men. That's it.

To be fair, the writing is good, which means the language does not make you cringe.

Usually I do not try to 'recommend' or 'warn off' people from a book.  Here, I am tempted to issue a warning.  Do not bother reading this.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Anne Tyler - Vinegar Girl

@The Hogarth Press
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+Vintage Digital Agency

The Hogarth Press got in touch with eight acclaimed writers to put a modern spin on Shakespeare Plays of their choosing.  I chose to read Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girls, published under project Hogarth Shakespeare, as I love Anne Tyler immensely.

Anne Tyler brings The Taming of the Shrew to life in Baltimore. Except Kate Batista cannot really be called a shrew now.  She is merely a blunt person who lacks social skills.  She has been caring for her father and younger sister, Bunny for years now.  Her social life is, of course, non-existent.  She has a sort of a crush on a fellow teacher, but does nothing about it.  She seems content to spend the rest of her life gardening, working at a day-care and being the housekeeper.

Her father, Louis Batista is a brilliant scientist.  At home is just a lost father who likes to lean a bit too much on his elder daughter, and be a bit too indulgent with his younger one.   His assistant at work is about to be deported and he wants Kate to marry him.  This is such a preposterous idea that Kate is outraged.  Pyotr, the man in question, is an orphan from Russia.  He seems to take a fancy to Kate, he actually enjoys her bluntness and likes her long hair.  Kate turns into a prickly cactus on seeing him.

Here we get to see the comic touch of Anne Tyler.  The exchanges between Kate, her father, Pyotr and Bunny are hilarious.  Tyler has a deft touch with her characters, and she seems to have some special skills with displaced people.  Her portrayal of the Iranian American Maryam in 'Digging to America' was simply brilliant. Here also, she is deeply sympathetic (without seeming so) with Pyotr, with his peculiar accent and choice of words.  

Vinegar Girl is primarily about Kate Batista and her jaundiced view of life in general.  It is also about a displaced person (Pyotr) who is trying claim some space in this world for himself. He has left his country where he had no one and is trying to adapt to a new country where no one seems to be willing to accommodate him.

This is a link to other projects of Hogarth Shakespeare that are published or due out soon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

N. E. Brown - Galveston 1900: Indignities, Book Five The Arrangement

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@N.E. Brown Publications

This book is the fifth in the Galveston 1900 Indignities series.  The journey started with Catherine Eastman landing in Galveston in 1898 as a young fifteen year old girl with her mother.  They came to the USA from England in hopes of having a better life.

Catherine has had a very hard life.  She was married by 16 to a very nice man, but was abducted by a sadistic serial killer David Brooks which led to the dissolution of her marriage.  Later she married a kind man who had an accident which again led to the dissolution of her marriage.  Thus, at a very young age she had three children from different men  She also adopted a girl that was her daughter's half sister.

She studied hard, despite all the setbacks in her life, and became a doctor.  When the last book closed, she was married happily to Trent Mathews and living in Rosenberg, Texas.  She plans to return to Galveston eventually.

Right now, she is very happy.  She is expecting a child with Trent.  What she does not know is that she is harboring a criminal in her house who will turn her world upside down.  She has to stay strong for the sake of her children, but how long will life continue to deal her with a raw hand?

Just like the other books in the Galveston series, this too is a smooth read.  It is a page turner, no doubt about that.  The story is told in simple words and without too many emotional hiccups.

The book is set in 1906. It was fun to read about the time when telephones were connected by operators.  These ladies were a reliable channel of gossip and also very often, important information.  People still traveled by horseback and buggies.  Automobiles were just beginning to make an appearance.  For most people, trains were the best way to travel.

In the first book, The Arrival, we got a look at how primitive the policing system was.  In this book we see how an improved technology was making an improvement in the policing work.

The entire series are perfect for a light read.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Elena Ferrante - The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels #4)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

'It was the Solaras.' A litte child has been spirited away from the neighbourhood and among other fantastical explanations, we hear the familiar line, 'It was the Solaras'.  After I am done reading the book, I think so too.

Now that all the books have been read I am feeling empty. The books have a very appropriate ending. Even if I do not get the closure that I really wished for, I realize this is better. A character like Lila was not made for an ordinary life.

Right to the end, Lila and Lenu continue their see-saw relationship, now thick with each other, now fallen out. It is not in their character to truly weld with each other. They could be close one minute, yet another minute blow up like the Vesuvius that is forever in the backdrop.

Nino Sarratore is another big character in the books. Yet I have written nothing about him in the past three reviews. To write about Nino is to give away the story. Here, I don't want to give away any of the story. I want the reader to have the same pleasure that I did, discovering every bit of the books on their own.

Nino is intelligent and handsome.  He has also outgrown the neighbourhood because his parents moved away.  He came up in life, despite poverty, due to his education, like Elena.  His destiny is to be linked to the two friends.  They look up to him as a symbol of all that is good in their neighbourhood.  He is their 'God' unlike the Solaras who are the 'Devil'. 

Elena continues to write books, Lila, following Enzo's ambitions, makes a foray into the world of computers. Despite their personal successes, they continue to suffer at the hands of Solara brothers who make life difficult for them.

By the time the reign of Solaras ends, Lila and Lenu are too damaged to be whole again. 
The friends face devastating losses in their lives and a laborious process of trying to mend themselves begins.  But will they succeed at it?

The strident feminist and political activism of the last novel is missing here.  Because times change, I realise.  Women have earned the right to more personal freedom now.  They are able to achieve a lot more, have more command over their destiny.  The men in their lives yield to their insistence on living their lives the way they want.

Lila and Lenu were always strong women but by the time the books end, they are completely in command of themselves.

The political situation in Italy also seems to settle down, becomes less volatile.  The current regime cannot commit crimes, it faces action for corruption.

In the first book, Elena mentions how the girls devoured 'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott and were tremendously inspired by it.  I was pleased to read this.  Even at the end of the book, Elena (who is recounting the whole story as a tribute to her friend who has vanished), recounts again how the book had set the friends on a path of aspiration that led them here.

I was pleased to read this.  I personally love 'Little Women'.  It has been reviled a lot in recent years for being too preachy.  It is preachy. But it is also a warm and a lovely story of four young girls who want to live their lives to the fullest.  

In a way these books also resemble 'Little Women', but only in the scope.  As in the 'Little Women' quartet, the four Neapolitan Novels also chart the lives of two young women. If you reduce the story from four to two sisters you can find a shadow of a similarity. Like Jo and Amy, Lila and Lenu also love the same man for a long time.

Apart from a very slight similarity in themes, not only with 'Little Women', but also 'Anna Karenina', there is absolutely no similarity in the treatment of the story. Ferrante is too visceral, too original in her depiction of women and their lives to be compared to any other novelist. Never does she pander to her readers, never does she attempt to sugar-coat her story.

I am sure these books are never really going to go out of my head.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Elena Ferrante - Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels #3)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

This book is the third in the Neapolitan Novels series.  We follow Lila and Lenu further as they grow into their 20s.  Lila struggles to bring up her love child Renuccio along with Enzo, who is allowed to be with her as a friend, not a lover.

Elena(Lenu) is trying to cope with the sudden success of her first book. She has money now, prestige and fame. She seems to have arrived. She even has a well-born, intelligent fiance.   On a sudden call from Lila, who is very sick, the friends reunite.  Lenu takes care of Lila, pulls strings to get her life back on rails and makes her well again.

Elena has to leave to marry her professor fiance.  Is married life going to bring her stability and greater glory? Or is the story of women the same in all strata of society? Are they looked upon as subsidiaries of men everywhere?

I have read the three Neapolitan Novels back to back.  What struck me most was the change in the tone of the books.  The first book, when Lila and Lenu are children had a 'To Kill a Mockingbird' kind of a feel to it.  The lives of adults are examined through the eyes of children.  We felt the insecurities and uncertainties of children facing terrifying poverty and anger all around them.

The second book had the insouciance of teenage lives, learning about love and life.  The girls map the changes in their bodies, the times of their mensuration, as a kind of benchmark to see who is prettier and better.  The young boys around them are growing up too and settling into professions.  Along with their assurance comes their wish to bag the best of the girls in their neighborhood.

In the third book the voices of the characters grow.  Lila and Lenu are not concerned merely with boys and spending money.  They are embroiled in life, playing with ideas, going places, getting hurt. They discover that to get ahead in life, they need backing of influential people.

The current political situation is affecting the lives of Naples. On one side the Communists are trying to rouse up the workers and creating problems, on the other side the Fascists are ready to kill the people who are trying to cause disruptions. 

Both the communists and fascists have their roots in the little suburb where Lila and Lenu grew up.  They see their childhood friends on opposing side of political spectrum, ready to kill and maim each other.  

The common people, in the meantime, are tired to their bone, exploited by their employers and loan sharks, are equally fed up with both.  An uneasy truce emerges after the people align themselves with the most powerful. It is a means of survival for them.  However, there are some guerilla like elements who are killing important people.  The people being killed are notorious for exploiting the worker class.

The familiar characters of the past two books cease being people and turn allegorical in our eyes.  Is Michele Solara just a local moneylender or is the embodiment of the 'Evil Corporate'?  He seems to be behind all evil ventures that suck the blood of the people and gets more and more powerful.  Pasquale Paluso is a vociferous communist.  Is he behind all the guerilla attacks on the rich and influential? He is the spirit of the people, the 'vigilante' who looks out for the oppressed.

Elena also gets involved with the feminist movement and begins to question the established authority of men.  The socio-political turbulence of the 70s is very prevalent in the book.

Lila and Lenu have grown in stature.  They are trying their best to live fulfilling lives in the way they know best.  They are making mistakes, but are ready to own them too.

All the three books have had a fantastic cliff-hangers for endings that have send me racing for the next in the series.

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