Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Greer Hendricks Sarah Pekkanen - The Wife Between Us

Publisher: MacMillan
Authors: Greer Henricks Sarah Pekkanen
Title: The Wife Between Us

Right in the first chapter the new bride to be is frightened when she thinks she just saw someone in her wedding dress. The image instantly reminds you of Jane Eyre. This feeling gets stronger when you read on to find that a soon to be married young couple is being stalked by a jealous, paranoid ex-wife of the groom.

Charlotte Bronte wrote about the mad wife in the attic because it was such a great twist, one of the best ever.  How can a couple in love ever surmount a problem like this? With Rochester married to a mad woman from the Caribbean, how could Jane ever be with him. This angle has been used so often in literature after this.  This book, however, starts at this point.  In these times, divorces have made it possible for married people to get unmarried and marry others. Yet, how does one tackle a jealous ex-wife who does not seem to be able to move on?

The book moves at a steady pace and there are many revelations, strategically placed, that alter your perception of the characters.  Halfway through, you don't who the bad guy is. It could be any of the protagonists. The husband Richard, is handsome, successful and rich.  He is a dream boyfriend, caring and understanding. But he takes unilateral decisions in the relationship and looks a little controlling. Vanessa the ex-wife is haunted by her breakup.  She is an alcoholic and seems paranoid. But is she more sinned against than sinning? The new wife is sweet as sugar and malleable but are her intentions honorable? Is she in this just for the love of Richard?

There are a minimum of characters which keeps the story lean and focused; Sam (Vanessa's roommate and bestie), Aunt Charlotte (the only family Vanessa has), Vanessa, Richard and his new bride-to-be, Richard's sister Maureen. I was rather amused to note that Richard is the only major male character.  So long women have cribbed that the spotlight was taken by male characters and at times (Lord of the Rings being a particular case) female characters few and far between.

I loved the way the story moves, you are taken through many bends and at each bend you are surprised and drawn in. This is very skillful as the narrator is only one.  It can be easy to narrate different viewpoints through different voices but to narrate different viewpoints through only one voice is very tricky.  It has been handled to great effect.  My only grouse with the book is that the climax was not as clipped and quick as the rest of the book. It was rather long drawn.  I am sure many readers will love the climax nevertheless. It did not spoil the book for me though.  I still love it.

There was a long queue on the book in the library, I can see why.  It is a new release and has got rave reviews.  I was also swayed into reading this book by one such recommendation and am glad I did.

It has been likened to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Like these books, you don't know what is coming next. Which character is going to do a perception change next? However, despite these similarities, this book is not a copy of those previous best sellers.  It is very much its own book and well worth picking up.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Alexander McCall Smith - Love over Scotland

Publisher: Anchor Books
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Title: Love over Scotland

Alexander McCall Smith is among the top of my favorite writers. He is contemporary, successful and consistent. He is most famous for his series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  I was in love with his Isabel Dalhousie series and was feeling a bit bereft when it ended.

I read 44 Scotland Street, the first book in this series quite a while ago. The title is the address of an apartment block in what is known as Edinburgh's New Town. The first book was primarily about some tenants of the apartment block. Pat is an art student who works part time at Matthew's art gallery. Irene and Stuart are a young couple in the same apartment block. They have a gifted young son called Bertie. Another resident, Domenica, is a social scientist.

There are short chapters that carry the story forward slowly, focusing on one or two characters at a time. So far I have read only two books in the series and they seem to chart the happenings a year at a time.

On the surface, the book seems to be full of small incidents, not very remarkable at times.  I soon realized that our life is like that.  There are a series of small events, things we would not even bother to recount to our friends but collectively they make up our lives.  Just when we are getting used to the small incidents, something big happens. Angus' dog Cyril is stolen, Bertie gets left behind in Paris by his orchestra mates

I was reminded of Sketches by Boz and also Pickwick Papers the latter especially when things get very funny. There were many times that I found myself laughing out loud.  The characters have their quirks which are well exploited by the author.  I found the exchanges between Irene and her son, Bertie very funny. Irene is very determined about what her son should do and rides roughshod over his feelings.  Most times Bertie just wants to be left alone which is something Irene never listens to.

Matthew was my favorite character in the first book and I was happy to see him more successful in this book.  Angus Lordie, Big Lou, Domenica, Pat, Matthew, Bertie, Stuart, Irene are described with such warmth that we cannot help feeling attached to them. 

I am glad that there are 12 books in the series, I can have a whale of a time reading through them.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Suki Kim - The Interpreter

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux
Author: Suki Kim
Title: The Interpreter

Who are Interpreters? Those who convey the meaning of what is said in one language in another? Or those who interpret one way of life to another?

Suzy Park makes a living as an interpreter.  Her job is to translate the questions that the lawyer asks Korean people who are not conversant in English and also interpret their replies.  Interpreting comes naturally to her.  She spent her life doing it.  Her parents could speak only Korean and she and her older sister Grace habitually translated to and fro for them.

Until she left home, kicked out by her father when he found out that she was sleeping with a married man.  Some years after this, her father and mother were killed in their store, shot through the heart. Suzy goes into a tailspin.  She is heartbroken that she never got a chance to make up with her parents. What's more, her sister Grace has cut off all ties with her. 

She flounders through life until one day she chances upon a man who mentions her parents during his deposition. There is more to the murder of her parents than meets the eye. Only a person who knows the nuances of the way a Korean thinks can solve this tangled mess. In the process we get to see the messy underbelly of illegal immigrants, caught in a corner, working hard but never really making it. Some fall into depression and some turn to unsavory acts to survive.

While the first generation of immigrants is trying to make ends meet and survive in a country where everything is alien to them, the children have a task of their own.  Part of them wants to blend in to the American culture, part of them wants to stay true to their own culture. They are forever at odds with their own selves.

How fast you go though a novel depends on how interesting you find it. I was barely able to put down the book. (My kindle actually.) I am still a little panda-eyed from having stayed up to finish the book.
The book starts slow and you wonder why the protagonist, Suzy, is so full of angst.  Soon we are in thick of things. 

Even though the book is about murder and the mystery surrounding it, it cannot be called a thriller.
It can be called a noir psychological murder mystery which has to be solved, not so much by chasing after things, as by interpreting the events that have taken place in the past.

The interpreter, however, is the shadow. The key is to be invisible. She is the only one in the room who hears the truth, a keeper of secrets.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya - Parineeta

Publisher: Kadambari Prakashan
Author: Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya
Title: Parineeta
Translated into Hindi from Bengali by N. Chakravarti.

My eye was arrested by a book in Vietnamese language when I was browsing among the shelves of Jungman Neighbourhood Library in Houston. My mind had just started forming the thought, if they have books in Vietnamese.... when my eye fell on a shelf full of Hindi books. The pickings were slim, there were barely fifty books on that shelf. Quite understandable, they were trying to represent world literature and had to cater to so many languages. I had to take one, it had been a long long time since I read a book in Hindi. I picked Parineeta by Saratchandra. This was the only book by him here.

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya was a renowned Bengali author and this book has been translated into Hindi by N. Chakravarti. It is more like a novella really, a longish short story. It took me perhaps an hour or so to read it. I am pretty sure everyone knows the story well.  Lalita lives in Calcutta with her uncle who has been her guardian ever since her parents died.  Her uncle Gurcharan makes very little money and is a troubled man because he has to provide dowry for his daughters.  He has already mortgaged the house to his greedy neighbour Navinrai for a loan which he incurred when he was marrying off his second daughter. He is very fond of Lalita but is worried about her marriage.

Gurcharan has two neighbours that his family is very close to. Navinrai on one side and Manorama on the other. Navinrai's house is connected to Gurcharan's by way of a common roof. The children keep dropping into each others houses at all hours. Navinrai is a greedy man but his wife Bhubneshwari is a kind and an affectionate lady who is particularly fond of Lalita. Their younger son Shekhar is also very fond of Lalita.

Things get moving when Manorama's cousin Girin comes to stay with her.  Girin is attracted to Lalita and tries to spend time with her.  Shekhar is jealous and it changes the way he looks at Lalita.  On an impulse they exchange garlands with each other. Shekhar kisses Lalita to seal the deal. Things happen to keep the couple apart.  Their marriage is secret and sacred - to Lalita at least. Their families, however, fall out with each other.

Navin Rai is angered when Gurucharan pays off his loan and gets back the papers to his house.  Navin Rai was plotting to turn Gurucharan out of his house and build it over as a new unit for his second son, Shekhar.  Gurucharan, under the influence of Girin, turns to Brahmo Samaj.  Navin Rai is furious at Gurucharan for losing his religion and constructs a wall between their homes on the roof, stopping the easy access they had to each others house.

I will stop here with the plot.  Those who have seen the movie or read the book will know how things unfold for the couple. There are two Hindi movies based on the book that I have seen. One is Pradeep Sarkar's and the other is Bimal Roy's film made in 1953 starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari as Shekhar and Lalita. The Bimal Roy movie is far superior to the one made in 2005 by Pradeep Sarkar. For one, the actors in the Bimal Roy movie do not get larger than life. Second, the movie follows the book very closely.  Even the dialogue from the book is used to great effect in the film.

The Bimal Roy film departs from the book in a few major ways.  In the book Lalita is barely fifteen at the time of the exchange of garlands, in the movie her age is not discussed but she seems to be older.  In the book Girin marries the younger daughter of Gurucharan who is much younger than Lalita, but in the movie the girl is as old as Lalita. The ages of these girls were tweaked with to keep in mind the 'modern' times as the book was written in 1914.  The movie chickens out of the issue of Gurucharan changing his religion. In 1953 this idea was still very radical, and not something a viewer would accept easily.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It is a very slim book. Yet Saratchandra delineates each character with care. Interestingly, the good and the bad characters are married to each other. Navin Rai is greedy and divisive. He would happily toss Gurucharan out of his house and force him into penury just to add more to his wealth.  He is deeply entrenched in his regressive views and is untouched by any feelings of kindness.  His wife, Bhuvneshwari is the epitome of kindness and love.  She is forever trying to make things easier for others.  She wants Shekhar to look at the girl he is to marry before committing to her. She loves Lalita like her own daughter and worries about her.  When she learns about Gurucharan's conversion, she is not disgusted, she understands why he did that and wants to leave a door open for him.

Lalita is a submissive girl, docile and yielding.  She is firm about not giving up on Shekhar, even though he does not give her any positive signal post their 'marriage'. Her firmness of character and loyalty to Shekhar wins him back in the end.  Shekhar is the most interesting character and the one that develops the most.  At the start he is bossy about Lalita, then he gets very jealous when she is in proximity of Girin. After the impulsive exchange of garlands with Lalita, he kisses her on the lips. Later he feels it was a flash of physical attraction and also is too scared to follow up the wedding with acknowledging it. He is relieved when Lalita leaves with her family to go with Girin to Munger, he feels like he need not be responsible for her any more. After she goes, he starts missing her and finally realises he is in love with her.

I was shocked at Lalita's young age in the book. It was written more than a hundred years ago, I had to remind myself.  Saratchandra's views on the ills of society were quite radical.  Gurucharan's problem is that he has four daughters and has to marry them off with decent dowry each.  His back broke when he had to marry his second daughter.  He took a private loan from Navin Rai by mortgaging his house. Now he finds himself unable to pay back his loan. He feels ditched by his community when they are quick to lay down rules but not generous enough to help him. In fact, despite the fact that he is also a Brahmin like Navin Rai, the two do not even contemplate a wedding between their children because Gurucharan is too poor to afford the kind of a dowry Navin Rai expects.

Saratbabu also admitted that Shekhar kisses Lalita out of physical attraction, in itself quite a forward looking, I think. Something that Bimal Roy wasn't ready to depict on screen even in 1953.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kathryn Stockett - The Help

Title: The Help
Publisher: Penguin
Author: Kathryn Stockett

There are times when you feel like thanking the movie for leading you to the book.  One fine day I found myself watching the movie, The Help on television.  I was impressed, it was a very well made movie, very engrossing. Much later, a week or so ago to be exact, I came across the book.  My daughter had picked it up from the library and it was lying around.

Like the movie, the book just drew me in. The major players are a handful of women, Skeeter, Hilly, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Minny and Celia. Yet they recreate a mini world where the voices of thousands of white and black women resound. The period it is set in, 1963-64 is exciting and when things are on a very important cusp of change.  On the one hand there are conservatives who want things to remain as they are and then there are those who are impatient to move forward.

Skeeter is a fresh graduate with a college degree. She wants to live in New York and work for a magazine.  On an impulse, she applies for a job with a publishing firm. She finds an unexpected but a tough mentor when Elaine Steen replies to her application with some sage advice. Skeeter is asked to look for a job at the local paper and find something big to write about if she wants to be published.  Skeeter starts thinking about something exciting to write about and gets a job at the local paper writing housekeeping tips. The irony is, Skeeter has never done a day of housework and is not qualified for writing about housekeeping. So she starts taking help with the tips from Aibileen, who is the help of her childhood friend Elizabeth.

In the upper cream of society, the well born women, Hilly is the undisputed leader. She runs the league, she calls the shots on who is in and who is out. Like lemmings, the other women follow suit. Hilly does not use her position wisely, she is mean and a bully.  If you cross Hilly, you might as well leave Jackson.  Skeeter finds herself heading for a face off with Hilly. It could break her and turn her into a pariah in Jackson.

Skeeter finds the big idea she wants to write about, the plight of black maids in Jackson.  It would be in the form of a series of interviews. Skeeter enlists Aibileen for the job. If the word got out that they are writing about this, they could face death.

The hardest part of the job is to find at least five or six other maids who would be willing to help them. No one is willing to help them. Minny is Aibileen's loudmouth friend. She is forever getting into trouble because of her short temper. Minny is wholly against the idea of the book, but agrees to share her stories reluctantly. Minny has done something unthinkable with Hilly and is apprehensive.

Skeeter cannot blame the black women for not wanting to get involved with her book, but she knows it will not work unless she gets some more women willing to share their heartbreaking stories. Will she be able to complete her book at all? Will it be good enough for publication?  I knew what was about to happen, yet I was turning pages, eager to find out more.

This is Kathryn Stockett's debut novel and boy, what a novel. Such sparkling characters, fleshed so beautifully, Hilly, Skeeter, Elizabeth, Aibileen, Minny. Their deeds and misdeeds have us flipping pages.  I had seen the movie and knew what was coming, yet I was eagerly turning pages to find out more.  Frankly, the movie had such good actors that I had no trouble at all visualising the characters.

Most of all, I loved the way the era is brought to life in the book. The slower life, the heavy dependence on 'society' for entertainment. The way TV is beginning to dominate lives, the slow onslaught of new ideas, the events. Kennedy's death, Man in space, the advent of television remote, air conditioning, women wearing frocks with shorter hemlines, the hair. This charming world has dangerous undercurrents when a black man can easily be disposed of. But even that is gradually changing.

This is a novel about women and men are a little too absent from it. There is Leroy, the abusive husband of Minny. There is William, Hilly's husband. Skeeter's father gets a bit of footage. The one most in evidence is Stuart, Skeeter's boyfriend. Skeeter knows his faults, but is overcome by her need to have a man in her life.  It is a very real situation. Not that you really miss the men, you know.

Hilly is a little too much in control, I felt.  Surely there were many older women who were around who would not have put up with her bullying. However, we can take Hilly, Elizabeth and Skeeter as the three types; Hilly is bossy and very conservative, Elizabeth is helpless and too much of a follower, Skeeter is the forward thinker and an agent of change.

The movie is more or less faithful to the book.  It has shortened some parts, the labour, the time, the fear and secrecy in which Skeeter's book is written. It has added some very valuable parts about Skeeter's mother and the story behind the sacking of their Help, Constantine. The movie version of it was much better.  I felt the book did not bring out the tragedy of Constantine well enough.  After all, it is Skeeter's bond with Constantine that spurs her on to find out more about other black maids.

I will end with a lovely quote from the book.

Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky hot body.  Cooling a heat that's been burning me up my whole life. Truth, I say inside me head again, just for that feeling.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Han Suyin - The Enchantress

Publisher: Bantam Books
Author: Han Suyin
Title: The Enchantress

Han Suyin is now out of fashion, her books are forgotten and out of stock. I read her in the 70s as some books of hers were scattered around our house.  My mother was a fan of hers, soon I was too.  I have never passed up a chance to pick up her books and have been greatly enriched by them.

The story begins in 1752 near the city of Lausanne where Colin Duriez lives with his twin sister Bea, his older half-brother Valentin and his mother and father. His father is a former pastor who gave up his calling to marry his mother.  The love between them is great. His father makes automata, little machines that are able to walk and do things.  His mother makes linen and lace and also ministers to woman with troubles who come to her for healing.

From this pastoral paradise, Colin and Bea are forced to undertake a long journey to Malabar, Yangchou and finally to Ayuthia. They find themselves in love with the beauty of Thailand and dazzled by the riches of Ayuthia. This is the eponymous enchantress. Here their life is blessed and they find love.

The riches of Ayuthia also draw the enemies to her. Burma invades her frequently. The King of Siam, Ekkathat is senile and under the influence of evil courtiers. General Taksin, half Chinese and half Siamese puts up the only resistance. Bea has long been in love with Taksin, a feeling that is not reciprocated.

The beauty of the book lies in vivid descriptions of lives in Lausanne, Geneva, Malabar, Yangchou and Ayuthia in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It was a colourful time when the world was on the cusp of the age of science.

Han Suyin's beautiful language brings to life those times.  We cross the seas with Colin, feel the journey arduous with him, are captivated by the sheer color and magnificence of Asia along with him. It is not so much a story as an experience.  I was led to believe that The Enchantress of the title is Bea Duriez, by the picture of a beautiful girl on the cover. It was actually the City of Authiya that was the true enchantress

I visited Ayutthya just a couple of months ago in November 2017, and took pictures of the Chedis burned down by the Burmese. Many golden Buddhas were hidden downstream by the Buddhist priests, these floated down and were rescued by the people and installed in various new chedis. The magnificent gold statue in the Emerald  Palace in Bangkok was also rescued in the same fashion.  The King's Palace was razed to the ground and Ayutthya is dotted with such ruins.  I saw the beautiful canals, the lush greenery of the place, and could imagine just how enchanting the place must have been in its full glory.

The seductive and vibrant Far East comes alive in this book.  We learn of the brave, heroic and prescient Taksin who is able to halt the Burmese, wrest the land back from them and lay the foundation of the modern day Thailand.

The story of The Enchantress just not end with sack and recovery of Ayuthia, it continues in Lausanne and ends in a most unexpected fashion. I was blown away by the last part of the book.

The book is so rich in detail, so evocative that it is perfect for a movie version or even a TV series. How I wish someone would bring it life on screen.

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