Thursday, July 26, 2007

Romance Novel: Now and Then

WARNING: This post is not for serious readers!

Some months back I was gifted 15 romance novels by a very old friend of mine. I had stopped reading those since college 20 years back. My reading habits bordered on more serious reading.

Anyway to cut a long story short, I started those with some misgivings. In no time I was hooked. I finished all 15 within a space of 5 days...averaging three a day. I agree after some time I did not know which was which but it does not really matter.

Now I keep a romance novel for those in between times when one can't read heavy stuff or when one does not want to think.

To summarise a romance novel:

They meet, they fight, and they kiss and make up and live together happily ever after. But that’s not what I want to say. I find some similarities though there have been vast differences in those novels I read in 80s and now.

Similarity is that the hero is as handsome as ever. Tall, dark and very handsome in a rugged sort of way. He always has a scar somewhere on his body. The heroine is very beautiful, with a great figure.

Now for the differences:

In the eighties, those were kind of mild. The hero was either a tycoon, banker, rancher, prince or something like that fully loaded with money or what have you. Hope you get my gist. He was almost above the age of 35. The heroine was a secretary, nurse, governess, and housekeeper or was so young as to be made a ward of the hero. She was never with money. (Exceptions are there!) She was around 17-23 years. The age difference was always around 8-20 years. The girl was always untouched except by the hero. He was the only man in her life. Even if they parted and met after a few years, she remained one man woman. That couldn't be said about the hero. You see, man of the world and all that.... (Well, that's another thing altogether). In those novels, they only held hands, kissed on the last page and/or if there was love making scene it was never worded. Implied is the operative word.

Speaking of now, the hero is a trouble shooter, television journalist, undercover agent, and commander, Professor, artist, whatever. No change in his age. He still is more than 35 years of age. Has to have money! What is a hero without money? The heroine is not the simpering idiot any more. Very much the woman of the world. As powerful as the hero. And with as much clout and finances, sometimes more. Now the heroines are older, 26-35 years. They know what they want. They are not shy to get into bed with the hero if they so desire. Marriage is never the agenda. Infact it starts with sex right in the beginning (page 1) and love follows much later, if you call that love. These so-called romance novels have become pornographic. How times have changed. Romance is no longer the same. We can't blame the new writers when sex stares at you from everywhere. Just look at the book covers!

Last few I read, the heroines were very very rich and the heroes were as poor as the churchmouse. One of the novels had the hero wholly illiterate, that made a refreshing change, heroine teaching him to read..

To tell the truth, I enjoy reading these after a fashion. Mushy or whatever! Reviewing those novels is not easy and neither is writing one. Oh yes, I tried writing one.

Update: Mills & Boon and Harlequin novels are in no way trashy

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Title: Different Seasons
Author: Stephen King
ISBN: 0670272663
Publishers: The Viking Press/1982
Pages: 527
Format: Hardbound

I was never a fan of Stephen King. I read two of his books (I do not remember which) long time back and did not get back to him. I picked this book from one of the roadside book sellers as it was dirt cheap and looked good. I am so very glad that I bought it.

A general view is that novelist Stephen King is a horror writer. However, with ‘Different Seasons’ he shows that he can craft stories dealing with hope, love and redemption. This compilation has four "seasons": Hope Springs Eternal, Summer of Corruption, Fall from Innocence, and A Winter's Yarn, all of which vividly portray the human spirit. Sometimes collections like this can be hard to judge as one story may appeal to one audience and other appeals to a different one. Different Seasons should appeal to just about everyone.

These four novellas leave us not only a better understanding of human nature, but also a give us a glimpse into the darkness at the heart of our being. Primarily, these stories shatter King's image as a horror writer and depict him as a great raconteur.

The stories themselves are excellent. ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ is the first novella. The characters in the story are well written and with a positive message that one is not used to seeing in Stephen King's writing. This story is superb and uplifting, minus any obvious horror, and thus showing a seldom seen facet of King. This story is a tender tale of hope, friendship and retribution.

Second is ‘Apt Pupil’ is more evocative of King's usual subject matter and tone, but still manages to provide an engrossing and interesting view into the nature of evil and the parasitic relationship that a man can develop with it. It is by far the most disturbing of the four stories, in which King provides a look at the evil spirit inside a former Nazi, and a young kid determined to bring this out of the old man. This story shows King's ability to create horror without the aid of a creature; the darkness within our own souls is enough.

‘The Body’ is possibly the most appealing of all the stories in the book, even if it is the roughest in terms of construction. With a reflective voice, King is able to relate this tale of the loss of innocence and the passage into adulthood. It shows King's talent at writing coming of age stories, and developing the mystique and innocence of childhood adventures

‘The Breathing Method’ comes out as an entertaining story around a symbolic examination of the writing process. Here King shows that sheer force of will can overcome any obstacle, even death. A splendid example of King's lyrical abilities can be seen in the following words where he describes a wild scream heard by the boys in woods at night:

"The scream climbed with a crazy ease through octave after octave, finally reaching a glassy, freezing edge. It hung there for a moment and then whirled back down again, disappearing into an impossible bass register that buzzed like a monstrous honeybee. This was followed by a burst of what sounded like mad laughter ...and then there was silence again."

Taken as a whole, this collection is one of the excellent efforts that King has ever put forth. While he still does tend to bloat a little in the middle two stories, all of them manage to create an atmosphere wholly their own and to take the mind of a reader away to another place, which, as King says in the afterword, is his first and highest goal. His storytelling is at its height here. It may not be horror, but that cannot be said to be a blemish, as King show cases his cross-genre talent to the hilt.

Not that it is going to make me run for his novels.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Marie Antoinette-The Journey by Antonia Fraser

Title: Marie Antoinette-The Journey
Author: Antonia Fraser
Pages: 544
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0385489498
Publisher: Anchor Books/2002

Genre: Non-fiction/Historical

What led me to pick up this book:

I was always interested to know about Marie Antoinette who is much vilified and about the French Revolution.

Summarizing the plot:

Marie was born into the large Hapsburg family and married off before puberty to Louis, Dauphin of France and later Louis XVI. Other key players in the story of Marie Antoinette include Maria Teresa, her domineering mother; Louis XVI, who was not cut out for the throne of France; her children, all but one of whom died in childhood; and Count Fersen, family friend and Marie Antoinette's lover for many years. Marie Antoinette was either greatly admired or intensely loathed. More significantly, however, this woman was clearly defamed. She had her faults like most but surely, anyone who has a bit of compassion could accept that she woman deserved the harsh treatment she received and the way she was put through abject humiliations.

What I liked most about the book:

Antonia Fraser's book is historically fascinating, well written and researched. It also is a very moving and unforgettable story. One will never think of Marie Antoinette again without feeling acutely the last sad and proud moments of her life. One can also intensely feel how tragically and wrongly, history has judged her. The tragedy of her life is a haunting one that does not go away.

What I liked least:

At some points, Fraser appears to be biased towards Marie Antoinette. She is not objective at all.

What I thought of the main character:

Antoinette appears, in spite of her faults, to have been largely a caring and kind-hearted (if not overly intelligent) woman. Nevertheless, she had the ill fortune of being by accident of birth of royal blood and, by the manoeuvrings of an overbearing mother, queen consort to the king of France at a time when the French court was, in spirit, a sumptuous fishbowl. As a result, Antoinette had the added misfortune of being at the mercy of liberalists who are intent on her destruction. With reference to Louis XVI, Fraser makes a comment equally applicable to Antoinette: She is hated, not for what she did, but for who she was.

Other particularly interesting characters:

Her domineering mother, Maria Teresa and family friend/lover for many years, Count Fersen.

Sharing a quote from the book:

"Lanterns illuminated the walls of the Temple when the royal party arrived, as though for a public festival, and a great crowd of people chanted 'Long live the nation!' That cry at least was a familiar one. More sinister was the gleeful Marseilles chant of the guards: `Madame goes up into her Tower, when will she come down again?"

Sharing a favorite scene from the book:

One of my favourite occurrences in this book was when the Queen was forced to live in the tower, before her death. Though this was a quite sinister event, Antonia Fraser did an excellent job of describing the arrival of the royal party, and their miserable life in the tower.

Feelings after finishing the book:

This is not a book for those who want light reading--yet its rewards are deep for those who have a love of history and want to understand the human condition, both for its good and bad attributes. The book is a masterpiece at showing how people are products of their times, and yet because of historical events move on to personal achievements.

I found the book to be gripping, eye opening, informative and insightful, making it a pleasure to read. Most importantly, I came away from the book with not only a greater knowledge and understanding of one of the most famous women in history, but a much deeper understanding of the French Revolution and

Sunday, July 22, 2007

One by Richard Bach

by Richard Bach
Publisher: Silver Arrow Books/1988
Pages: 284

What would happen if we come face-to-face with the person we were in the past? With the people we are, in parallel lifetimes, in alternate worlds. What would we tell them, and what would we ask? How would we change, if we knew what waits beyond space and time? Richard Bach, in a journey with his wife Leslie, travels to a realm where survival depends on discovering what the other aspects of themselves have learned on roads they never took; where imagination and fear are tools for saving worlds and/or destroying them; where dying is but one step to overcome death.

‘One’ explores some of the paradoxes of parallel universes and is all about choices - and the different turns that life can take depending on one key decision. Every choice you make in every moment of your life, whether to smile at a stranger in an elevator, your last-minute decision to eat a healthy meal, to read one book and not another, influences more than your next few seconds or minutes or hours. It can affect your whole future and the lives of others. To quote from the book: "A tiny change today brings us to a dramatically different tomorrow. There are striking rewards for those who pick the high hard roads, but those rewards are hidden by years. Every choice is made in the uncaring blind; no guarantees form the world around us."

As in ‘Illusions: The Tale of a Reluctant Messiah’ and ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, Richard Bach uses flight as a possibility to learn without the restriction of earth, or reality.
Flight is freedom, freedom from time and space. As the plane he and his wife are flying in, disappears from radar and reality, they have the option to see the endless possibilities of their lives: past, present, and future. They learn finally that they are a part of each other, and that everyone is ONE. It is a simplified complex idea. It is an admirable accolade to those moments of joyful love for the world, the universe, humanity, and for the sheer rapture of existence.

"One" is not as orderly as "Illusions." It introduces many ideas but does not follow through on some of those. Although it is definitely an enjoyable read, and contains some wonderful passages and wisdom, it is somewhat sermonizing. Bach occasionally phrases questionable ideas as absolute fact, which does not gel with the reader. One tends to be boring too at places. I had to plod through those passages.

As in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, this too speaks about choices we can make but in a wholly different manner. There ends the analogy.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl


Man’s Search for Meaning
By Viktor E Frankl

ISBN: 0807014289X

Publishers: Beacon Press

First Published: 1959

Pages: 134

There are two parts in this book, which I found deeply spiritual. In the first part of "Man's Search for Meaning" Viktor E Frankl describes how he survives various Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Searching deep within, he learns how to endure deprivation and life-threatening horror in the midst of the holocaust. He tells us in order to keep going; we need to hold onto core beliefs and values, and thoughts about ourselves in a better future.

The second part of the book speaks about the philosophy of life and the existential theory of psychology, logo therapy that Frankl derived from his experiences. Logotherapy’s basis is man's search for meaning in life and focuses on the future rather than the past. Logotherapy concentrates on responsibility to find meaning and live within the implied doctrine of that meaning. It avoids judgement. Each one of us is capable of immense good and absolute evil and it is ultimately on us to choose which path to follow. Meaning in life is achieved through love and suffering. "At any moment, man must decide for better or worse, what will be the monument of his existence."

Even under tremendous stress, man can uphold to vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind. External forces are not the only basis of a person's behaviour. Those men, who allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to collapse, fell under the camp's degenerating influence. Any prisoner, who lost faith in his future, was doomed.

Frankl's message is simple: Life can be terrible. However, we have the ultimate power to decide what we do with our situation. If we think, there is a point to our suffering and if we can envisage our life into the future, that means we are searching for meaning. More we search; nearer we are to finding meaning. Success and riches may come our way but none of those matters. The search has to be everything.

He discovers that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. He understands how a man can achieve fulfilment, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved. Frankl was lucky, and he was aware of it. As he himself said,” The best among us did not return. However, the lucky ones did.”

As with all concentration camp memoirs, this too contains one horror after another. Nevertheless, unlike almost all others, this book is marked with remarkable scenes. “At a very low point in the war, a block warden asks Frankl to talk to the inmates. Frankle reminds them that all they have lost can be accomplished again. He says something, which is both shocking and inspiring. “Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning. Even hopelessness offers a kind of dignity. If we act well in a crisis, we honour God; we show that, even as we are killed, we maintain our dignity.”

For the question, why read "Man's Search for Meaning" now, my answer is as we live in an age of weak excuses and false explanations, very few people step forward to take responsibility for anything. In this appalling time, this book reminds us, what we do and how we think about it, matters. It tells us, each single life is important. It cannot get much simpler than that.

I strongly recommend this book be read by everyone.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

The Moon Is Down
By John Steinbeck

First Published: 1942
ISBN: 0140187464

Publisher: Penguin/1995

Pages: 112

It is lesser known than some of Steinbeck's other works, but it can be compared with his best. The story moves with good pace, the portrayals are effective and the story rises to make powerfully its eternal point about human liberty. The book is an assertion of freedom and human spirit. This may be the most direct, concise and effective piece of mass propaganda ever written but even after more than six decades, this novel is just as relevant and just as compelling.

"The Moon is Down" opens with the Germans invading a small village (resembling Norway) by the sea to tap its coal resources for the war. The narrative is dramatic, conversational with minimal description. To begin with, the German soldier is depicted as almost human- soldiers getting homesick, trying to understand the orders they must follow, complaining about the weather, and wondering if their mail will arrive on time. When Berlin exerts more and more pressure to take out the coal, only the Germans resort to harsher methods to acquire coal and the townspeople toughen their resistance in defence of freedom...

For a short novel, it has well etched out characters. These include the German commander, Colonel Lanser, a learned man , quick to obey orders but having inner doubts about aims of war and several members of Colonel Lanser's Officer Corps, who are full of themselves and of military ambition, while others are lonely and feel need for the companionship of a woman. Then there is Corell, the local who collaborates with the Germans and helps in the invasion. Mayor Orden, his friend, Dr Winter, and a woman of indomitable spirit, Molly, whose husband has been shot by the invaders are very endearing to the reader despite their dilemma. Steinbeck reveals the complex relationship among invading troops, civil authorities and the civilian population.

It brings home starkly the point, how the conquerors, who often believe the conquered will welcome them with open arms, instead find themselves at the receiving end of hate and guerrilla warfare. One cannot but help thinking about the prevailing situation in Iraq.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being By Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
By Milan Kundera
First Published: 1984
ISBN: 0571135390
Publisher: Faber and Faber/1999
Pages: 305

This is my fourth book by Milan Kundera. The other three being 'Laughable Lovers', 'Identity' and 'Immortality'. I had read this book sometime back but got around writing a review only now. You can check out the review of Identity here.

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is mainly the story of a Prague physician, Tomas, who escapes with his wife Tereza, to Zurich after the Russian invasion in 1968. When his unfaithfulness compels her to leave him and return to Prague, he follows her, knowing there would be no other chance to escape Communism. Tomas loses his license to practice medicine because of an editorial he had published in an anti-Communist newspaper. He can only get a job of a window washer. Much to his amazement, he is happy for a while in a job where he does not have to think (‘it’s a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions’).

Written in 1984, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is both a product of its era and a timeless work of art. It makes us wonder whether life is difficult because it is heavy, or the transitory nature of it makes us too light to make a mark..

This is not a novel with a well-etched plot. In fact, it ponders over certain philosophies. When living under oppressive rulers-is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death? What is the nature of love? Have you ever read the philosophy of excrement or kitsch? History is the same, he says, as light as individual human life. There is no option of judgment of chances either in history or in life.

In the very first chapter, the author introduces the concept of opposites that exist in life, lightness and weight. Light individuals foster the idea that, since we live our lives only once, events are futile, and/or carry no major implication. They do not feel bitter about the weighty, as that too would be onerous and over-analytical. However, those who are weighted, find a sense of purpose in every action, life's transience does not matter. Nonetheless, even the weighty ones find their own being too pedantic, and need to get away.

These tensions serve as backdrop for Tomas's and Tereza's marriage. Paradoxically, this very conflict seems to bond them together, not with intimacy, but for needing both lightness and weight. Told from the point of view of four different characters (Tomas, his wife Tereza, his mistress and the mistress' other boyfriend), the story unfolds in a slow paced but very satisfying way. Their lives waver but each one of them tries to find happiness in their own way. Kundera wrestles with the ideas of misapprehension, indecision, and human weakness, through these characters

Though, the novel conveys the realities, which etches people’s lives, the reader at times is left in a suspended illogicality, unable to determine what is right, and what is wrong. However, a clever narration, told in an interesting manner dispels most of his misgivings.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Innocent Erendera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Title: Innocent Erendira
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

ISBN: 0140157522

Publishers: Penguin Books/1996

Pages: 183

Genre: Short Stories

One author I always end up picking is Marquez. I cannot resist him. Innocent Erendira is a collection of short stories spanning 25 years. Marquez explores, love, death, betrayal, power and duty in the short stories. One or two stories are not easy to interpret in one reading. There are eleven short stories and a novella---The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother.

The novella is a very poignant rendering about Erendira, who is only fourteen when we first meet her and is punished by her grand mother in a very diabolical manner when she accidentally burns her grand mother’s house. The way Erendira has to repay is heart rending. She runs away numerous times only to be brought back..

“The Sea of Last Time” has lots of imagery with unusual smell of the ocean. “Death Constant Beyond Love” is a strange love story where a senator falls in love with a nineteen year old when he had only six months to live.

In “The Third Resignation”, the last sentence ‘….he is so resigned to dying that he might as well die of resignation’ sums up the state of mind of a person who has been in coma for a long time.

One cannot read Marquez at just about any time. One has to have that mindset. As his writings are multi-layered, his characters are multi-faceted; sometimes there are open ends to his endings. Most of his stories are based on real life. His stories contain strange emotions, underlying mysteries and of course mastery over words and the world. Marquez appears to be obsessed with death and in those stories that is highlighted very well.

I would not recommend Marquez for the faint hearted or the die-hard romantic.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
By Yiyun Li
ISBN: 000719663-6
Publishers: Harper Perennial/2006
Pages: 203

I was kind of browsing and saw this book. The title attracted me even though I had not heard of Yiyun Li. Reading the back cover, I simply could not put it back. I bought it and finished all the ten short stories at one go.

A thousand years of good prayers portrays a discerning look at life in contemporary China and its recent past. Most of the stories take place in a rural and small town China labouring under economic change and the move to a more free-market economy. All the ten stories delves into the ruin of the Cultural Revolution on the modern Chinese. The writing is immaculate, vivid - yet at times deeply unsettling. The stories are filled with tales of family discord and relationships, of tragic relatives, divorced and suicidal parents, adopted children, gay sons, unfaithful spouses, jilted lovers, unborn babies, and loveless marriages.

'Extra' presents the dismal predicament of Granny Lin, an elderly widow without a pension, whose job as a maid at a boarding school outside Beijing leads to a strange friendship with one of her young charges. In the final scene, she is back on the street, jobless, her bag of clothing stolen, and holding nothing more than her life's small fortune in her lunch pail.

In ‘Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way’, a recluse, Mr. Pang, deplored by his work colleagues as being 'a dog son of the evil landlord class' ' still appears daily at a job where he is no longer paid, and spends his home life counting grains of rice on his chopsticks.

The fatherless boy of 'Immortality,' his face resembling Chairman Mao, so that he is chosen to be the dictator's imitator after Mao's death, falls from favour in due course. In the final scene, we are left with the image of a demented Mao look-alike who has castrated himself at his mother's tomb.

In the title story, Li, Mr. Shi comes to a Midwestern American town from China to visit his daughter. In a local park, he meets and makes friends with an elderly Iranian woman whom he calls Madam, even though neither speaks much English and they can hardly understand one another. "That we get to meet and talk to each other...must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here," he explains an old proverb to her in Chinese. “It takes three thousand years of prayers to place your head side by side with your loved ones on the pillow. For father and daughter? A thousand years, maybe.” One profound statement.

Most of Li's stories are usual narratives, but one, ‘Persimmons,’ is out of that mould. Told almost entirely through dialogue, a group of villagers slowly tell the tale of a young boy's drowning and his father's ineffective efforts to obtain justice that result in mass murder. The truth unfolds slowly, but the villagers' attitudes are resigned, as if no other outcome had ever been possible.

In ‘Love in the Marketplace’ a schoolteacher obsessed with the film Casablanca, is the victim of a broken promise. A stranger who arrives in the market place offers to slash his arm with a knife for money is the only person who understands her deep anguish and is ready to honour his word.

’The Prince of Nebraska’ is the story of an intricate love triangle. Sasha is pregnant and on her way to an abortion clinic in Chicago seeks Boshen's help. Both of them are involved with the inscrutable Yang, an out of favour Chinese Opera singer. An unusual arrangement is worked out between them for a love that does not fit neatly into the box of a conventional relationship.

For this book, Yiyun Li was presented with the first ever Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, now the world's richest short story prize. It has also won "The Guardian First Book Award."

Monday, July 9, 2007

Fury by Salman Rushdie

Title: Fury
Author: Salman Rushdie
ISBN: 0099443384
Publishers: Vintage/2002
Pages: 259

I received this book as a gift from my nephew as a birthday gift. I have read "The Satanic Verses" which is banned in India long time back and planning to read Midnight's Children next.

"Mysteries drive us all," Salman Rushdie writes in his new novel, Fury. "We only glimpse their veiled faces, but their power pushes us onward, toward darkness. “All of us--college professors, Wall Street investors, and cab drivers--live in a dark, Freudian world, and we are each of us,” Rushdie argues, “struggling desperately to deny our own furious animal selves.”

Malik Solanka, the fifty-five-year-old former Cambridge professor and implausibly successful doll maker at the centre of Fury, recognizes the dangers of slipping into the dark, destructive side of fury. As his wife and small son lay asleep in their London home, he had stood over her with a knife "for a terrible, dumb minute" feeling, as Rushdie puts it, "murder on the brain." The incident…which Solanka's wife stays ignorant--is alarming enough to drive Solanka out of the family, and he escapes to New York.

Fury opens with Solanka living alone in a Manhattan apartment, and he roams the streets, raging silently over the glitziness and falsehoods, present-day society offers up as a reason to work, a reason to deny the truth. Solanka has come to America to 'erase' his earlier self and the computer metaphor implied in the erasure image are central to Rushdie's anti-digital themes. The computer age is corrupted, and its code needs to be 'de-bugged,' just as Solanka's self-code must be. "If he could cleanse the whole machine," Rushdie tells us, "then maybe the bug, too, would end up in the trash."

After he drinks himself into a succession of fainting fits and gets up to read that a man similar to him has murdered yet another New York City woman, Solanka asks,” has Solanka's fury reached a new level of destructiveness? Solanka has to carry more than what his somewhat unexciting character can handle. He is too passive and it weakens the novel's sequence of events largely. At one point, Rushdie writes, "This about New York Solanka liked a lot--this sense of being crowded out by other people's stories, of walking like a phantom through a city that was in the middle of a story which didn't need him as a character."

Fury is not a fast-paced thriller. In fact, Fury is a bit slow. Too much of the action offered in the first half of the novel takes place in the past and the narrative in the present is too often a matter of Solanka's inert if angry observations about present-day society.

Rushdie's creative energies are largely focussed into pun-driven ranting. Admittedly, some of it is remarkable in its regularity and range. Rushdie books are not something one can ignore after starting them.

PS: Rushdie had dedicated this book to his then girlfriend, Padma Lakshmi, now his enstranged wife. The Muslim world is furious about him being knighted.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island
Author: Bill Bryson
ISBN: 0552996609
Publisher: Black Swan
Pages: 352

This is an account of a journey that Bryson makes round Great Britain some time in the early 90's after deciding that he will leave UK and go back to the United States. Before he leaves, he feels the need to see the country, which he has called home for the past two decades. He starts with a recollection of his first arrival in Dover good 20 years before and then repeats the Calais-Dover journey and continues the tour (mostly by public transport) that takes in - amongst others - London's Wapping; Dorset Coastal Path, Salisbury, Lincoln, Bradford, Port Sunlight, Inverness and Wick.

He begins his journey, entering by sea from France as he first arrived, on the south coast of England and aims to travel all around in just a few weeks. This time limit seems like so little once he actually begins. Everything is of interest to him and he cannot quite find the time to fit it all.

It is full of rich conversations, humorous sketches and amusing exchanges with the natives who often astonish him with their observations and attitudes. A good-natured work of art through the country's eccentricities as well as its charms, this is an affable companion for any trip to the isle.

This book is not just a catalogue of Bryson jokes, there are idiosyncratic description and some chapters are gems of light travel writing. He seems particularly better at describing cities and town than countrysides.

Overall, 'Notes from the Small Island' presents an informative, personal and mostly warm portrait of this island and its inhabitants.

Reading this, one should not expect beautiful prose or deep insights. However, it makes us laugh over and over again.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Defy the Eagle by Lynn Bartlett

Title: Defy the Eagle
Author: Lynn Bartlett
ISBN: 0373288077
Publisher: Worldwide Romance
First Published: July1986
Pages: 635

Rome/Celtic Historical Romance

Enemies by birth. Lovers by destiny. Jilana had come to Caddaric in a dream, with a whisper of ethereal beauty that vanished when he awoke. Even as the bold warrior battled to save his beloved land from the Roman invaders, he looked for the woman who haunted his every waking moment. Until the morning, he finally saw his violet-eyed angel -- and recognized that his torment had just begun. For Jilana was one of the hated enemies Caddaric had vowed to destroy.
This book is multi layered, with many different locations and situations, which the two main characters go through. One does identify with both of them, see things from both their sides and indeed understand why they are both so intractable.

This is the story of Jilana, a young Roman woman who lives an unremarkable life with her family in Venta Icenorum, until she meets a young Centurion -Caddaric, whilst riding in the woods near her home. The Centurion is in reality an Iceni warrior who is scouting for his Queen - Boadicea and Jilana is swept up in events well documented by history.

Jilana intervenes in the public flogging of the Iceni Ruler and brings herself to the attention of early Briton's Governor as well as the Iceni community. As the uprising begins, whilst Jilana's life is spared due to the mercy she showed Boadicea, she is enslaved and given to Caddaric as a reward for his part in taking the City. Her family murdered, Jilana tries to find a way to survive, adapt and resist her growing attraction to her hated "enemy" Caddaric.

This is a long novel but nowhere is it boring. Jilana is a strong and likeable girl who is present at all the historical milestones of this uprising right up the final defeat of the Iceni and one can feel all the emotions along with some surprising twists.

One reasons I loved this book is because of its setting - the Roman Empire. The romance in this book is awesome, poignant and very beautiful.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

• Book Title: The Bafut Beagles
• Author: Durrell, Gerald
• ISBN: 0140012664
• Publisher: Penguin Books
• Year Published: 1971

This book chronicles Gerald Durrell's animal collecting expedition to the British Cameroon, in the late 1940's. It has interesting characters, human and animal. The portrait of the chief of Bafut is a stunning character study, and the country and the people are described with fondness. Durrell writes dancing monkeys, a midnight frog hunt, the night he taught the chief to dance the Conga, his group of hunters and their assorted pack of hunting dogs (the beagles), and the joys and inconvenience of keeping a large collection of wild animals.

This book was first published in 1954 but the actual collecting trip must have been in the late 40s. The Africa presented here is an anthropological journal. Durrell is respectful of the Africans and their culture, but this does not prevent him from sitting down and getting repeatedly sloshed with the local king. Durrell never refers to the people of Bafut as savages but the 'Bafut beagles' of the title refers to both the mongrel dogs that help him to collect animals and the Bafut hunters. He recounts that the hunters are superstitious, but he never stereotypes them. He communicates with the people of Bafut in pidgin English.

Durrell's fondness for Africa, its people and the animals pervades this narrative. He presents himself in a classic combination of self-deprecating humor, oddity, earthiness, but finally practicality and competence.

A native ruler known as the Fon, whom the D.O. said Durrell must be sure to get on his side if he hoped to succeed, ruled this grassland kingdom. The best way to do that was to prove he could carry his liquor!

As always, his love of "all creatures great and small" shows through even during such catastrophe as when he is bitten by what he thinks was a harmless blind snake, but he tells his cook, "'e get eye," a thing no member of the supposed species ever possessed. The best scenes are those in where the Fon appears roguish, irrepressible, and an indiscriminate lover of drink in every kind and combination, but he still proves to be the best collaborator, an animal collector could hope for--and a lover of the outdoors as well. Clad only in a loincloth and armed with a spear, he takes Durrell to see the evening manifestation of a colony of galagos, tiny arboreal creatures locally known as shillings.

All Durrell's books are great fun, but this is one of the best. This is one book I keep reading over and over again.