Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms is a semi-autobiographical novel drawn from Ernest Hemingway's experiences in Italy during World War One.

Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American, is an ambulance driver with the Italian army, based in a little town called Gorizia. There he meets and falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a nurse at the local hospital. The two themes explored in the book are love and war; and with Henry and Catherine, one is inseparable from the other. Henry describes his war experiences with an aloof and almost brutal honesty. He spends his nights at the public house for the officers, drinks when he can and goes into the war with a sort of unemotional stolidity. He is in the war and yet he is far from it. Henry is a man who has realized that he is fighting someone else's war and yet he goes on because he simply must. His seeming indifference about the war is at direct odds with the strength of his emotions for Catherine. The two begin a tumultuous love affair where they cling to each other with increasing desperation as the book progresses. This is an intense love story set against the backdrop of a war that the common man simply did not seem to interested in fighting.

An excerpt from one of Henry's conversations with the priest on the disposition of the Italian Army: "They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.”

I came away from the book not having any concrete opinion on either Henry or Catherine. They are not very inspiring and do not seem to possess many redeeming qualities and yet, their story moves you because it is, if you look at it, a study of a society gripped in uncertainty. Perhaps, with Henry who is wounded unexpectedly in the trench mortar shelling, and Catherine who is mourning the death of a former lover, being faced with their own mortality is what propels them towards each other. They constantly have to will themselves to be happy and while their love might have been true it seems fragile, insecure and like a reaction to the war and ravage around them.

Consider what Catherine Barkley tells Henry, "You don’t have to pretend you love me. But I do love you." Catherine is haunted by the fear that if she does not mold herself to Henry's wishes, she would lose him. She doesn't want to consider herself as a separate entity; Henry seems to be the only tangible thing in her world. Right from the beginning, their relationship is fraught with an impending sense of doom and is felt in Henry's words towards the later stages of the book, "We knew the baby was very close now and it gave us both the feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together."

The story of Henry and Catherine is distinct in the fact that it is quite subversive and yet traditional. They perhaps epitomized the emotions of the multitude facing the "war to end all wars" at a time when the west was poised on the brink of great cultural change. Read Henry's and Catherine's story without any illusions and with the understanding that there were probably many Frederic Henrys and Catherine Barkleys whose stories we will never know.

My very first Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms had me in an iron grip from start to finish and less than half way through the book I was a Hemingway convert. The writing is magnificent, with the kind of uncompromising spareness that confronts you with the war and the conflicting emotions that go with it. Frederic Henry is said to have been modeled on Hemingway himself and Catherine Barkley on Agnes Von Kurowsky, the twenty six year old nurse that the eighteen year old Hemingway met during his convalescence in Milan. Agnes went on to become Hemingway's first love only to eventually break up with him citing the difference their ages as one of her reasons. Hemingway was never quite purged of his feelings for Agnes and her memory was to stay with him for the rest of his life. You can read her farewell letter to Hemingway here.

Hemingway on being wounded in WWI, "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you ... Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you."

This is a link to a website about Ernest Hemingway if anyone is interested. You can also check out information on Hemingway's house in Key West, where he is said to have finished A Farewell to Arms, here.

I have included pictures of Anges Von Kurowsky in her nurse's uniform in Milan, of Hemingway in his WWI uniform, of the both of them together and Hemingway at a later date, all sourced from various websites. If there are any copyright violations, please let me know, I will remove them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell moved from England with his eccentric, oh! so eccentric family to Corfu, an island in Greece. He spent almost all his time exploring the island and making nice with it. His experiences on Corfu eventually took the form of the autobiographical novel, My Family and Other Animals.

Here is a teaser:
"This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals."

Let me tell you right away that I absolutely adored this book; and if it hadn't been for Urbi Chatterjee of The Bootle Bum Trinket I wouldn't heard about this probably for a really long time.

Gerald Durrell with his family captures your imagination right out and what ensues is many hours of enjoyment getting acquainted with the Durrells and their singularly funny experiences in Greece. I loved the family (in fact I wish I could adopt them; please don't ask me for an explanation, it is just one of those things) and the dogs Roger, Widdle and Puke and Dodo; I loved The Magenpies (curious aren't you? Ain't telling. Now you have GOT to read the book); I loved Achilles the Tortoise and Quasimodo. I loved the gecko (shudder) and the mantid that fight a deadly turf battle on Gerry's bedroom wall. And then there is Spiro and Lugaretzia and Theo and Peter. The book brims over with lives; human and otherwise.

The family to the most part take Gerry's menagerie of animals in their stride but the moments in the book when they are troubled by a somewhat belligerent animal that Gerry has acquired are laugh-out-loud funny. And even though you are Team Gerry, you can't really blame the others for wanting to strangle his "pets" at times. Larry with all his pomp and bossiness gives you many reasons to grin; Leslie manages to find a soft corner in your heart with his guns and barrels and smoke; Margo, well, at her you just shake your head now and then because she is not good for much else except sun bathing. And Mrs. Durrell! That woman was a star! She steers her jigsaw puzzle of a family with admirable skill; she is unfazed by the scrapes they get into and gets into their lives and their little doings with an alacrity that is beautiful to behold.

Gerry's book is a testimony to his life and just a glimpse into what was actually a lifelong love and effort to nurture what he called "the little brown jobs" and "small uglies". All sorts of troubles tend to go up in smoke when you are in Corfu with Gerry and Company, so I strongly suggest that you get yourself a fix.

You can visit the The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust's website here. There is also a Dodo Club for kids. I can feel a visit to Jersey on the Channel Islands coming. Thank you Mr. Durrell, I was transformed into that grinning, at-peace-with-the-world-creature that only animal books/movies can induce in me.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Pre-nup - Beth Kendrick

The Pre-nup by Beth Kendrick was unexpectedly fun. I say unexpectedly because I seem to have somewhat outgrown candyfloss books although I do pick one up now and then when I need a light read. It is hard to stay interested in cardboard romances, barely there plots and more often than not, in heroines who do not seem to have a single sensible thoughts in their heads but The Pre-nup was a pleasant surpirse.

For the blue-bloods and the nouveau riche living in Mayfair Estates in Phoenix, Arizona, pre-nups are a matter of routine. After all, it makes sense to protect one's assets before one ties the knot in the event of a divorce. Because what is one to do with a rabid ex-husband or ex-wife who is out to fleece you? Right. Everyone does it and for Ellie, Jen and Mara the pre-nup doesn't hold much significance anyway because they are in love or in some definition of it and everything will work out fine and besides, pre-nups are just a "technicality". So what happens when life threatens to kick them in the shins? When their relationships seem to be disintegrating right before their eyes?

When Ellie married rich and handsome Michael she was sure the marriage would last forever and she had no qualms in signing the pre-nup Michael's family insist on. A few years on and Ellie is alone with her five year old daughter. She couldn't save her marriage but she will save her divorce. The pre-nup can go to hell.

When Jen married Eric, they both knew that she loved him as a best friend but wasn't in love with him. Eric thought that his love would be enough for both of them. Jen's entire life is her health drink company Noda, that she started from scratch and that Eric invested in. But now, Eric is a jaded man; he is desperately in love with his wife but tired of her nonchalance. When he floats the question of divorce, Jen is suddenly scared that she would lose everything including the husband that she loves more than she realized.

Mara's fiancé has forgiven her for the foolish one-night fling she had ages ago. So why does he include a cheating clause in the pre-nup that she insisted on drawing up in the first place? Mara is hurt but is there something more? Is she so afraid of commitment that she is subconsciously rebelling against the marriage? Mara has to pull herself together if she wants the man she loves, who is tired of her being cynical. It is either no pre-nup at all or a pre-nup with a cheating clause. Meanwhile the wedding plans are hanging on by a thread; what will she choose?

I finished this book in one sitting because it was funny and absorbing. Add in a perceptive Vegas stripper as an unlikely Fairy Godmother and you have the whole zoo. There are likeable and dislikeable characteristics in all three protagonists and I was very interested in finding out how things turned out (even though one always knows with these stories). According to me that is the mark of a good "chick lit.", even though you know that there would be a happy ending, the pace, the dialogues and the plots should keep you interested in wanting to know how that happy ending comes about. The Pre-nup is a funny light-hearted take on the cynical concept of pre-nuptial agreements. This book kept me turning the pages on a sleepless night and for that I will give it full marks.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small - James Herriot

I don't think there is anything better than James Herriot when one is sick and in need of some comfort. His books are simply made for late night reading under the yellow glow of a bedside lamp. I admit, I am romanticizing the book a little (I tend to do that a lot), but I can't help it. All Creatures Great and Small made me supremely happy.

It is the late 1930s: The Nuremberg rallies were spewing hatred, the Anschluss had come to Austria and the world was being driven inexorably towards war. But we, along with James Herriot are faraway from it all. Indeed, while reading this book, a part of me could not believe that anything other than the fictional village of Darrowby could have existed in those times.

James Herriot, M.R.C.V.S is fresh out of college when he comes to Darrowby to be interviewed for the position of assistant to Siegfried Farnon who owns the veterinary practice there. He gets taken on and is installed as the newest member of Skeldale House. All Creatures Great and Small, which follows the first two years of Herriot's life as a country vet is a wonderful account peppered with amusing anecdotes and touching experiences all with a wry sense of humour, an ability to laugh at himself and an indefatigable joie de vivre.

The best thing about about this book is that you don't have to be an animal lover to enjoy it. It draws you in until you are a part of the Dales yourself. I had a lovely time reading about the eccentric Siegfried, Tristan, Siegfried's incorrigible brother, the formidable Miss Harbottle, the various Yorkshire farmers in varying degrees of crustiness and all the cows and horses and sows and dogs that Herriot treats.

Some of my favourite stories are the ones about Tricki Woo, the dog, Angus Grier the brooding colleague, Tristan's scrapes, Herriot's courtship of a certain young lady, the various times when Herriot gets called out into the freezing night to look after a calving or a foaling. For me, someone who is extremely squeamish, it was fun to read about the young vet coming in regular contact with animal muck in poorly lit barns and sheds all over the country side. There are bad and frustrating days but there are extremely good ones too and Herriot manages to reinforce that belief with his magical talent of making the ordinary seem quite extraordinary.

No racy book, this but it is one of those quiet ones that are wholesome and full of fun and if you were to indulge yourself in them, you would come away with something rather valuable. As sick as I was while reading this, it was like chicken broth to me :)

In reality, James Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, practised in Thirsk in the Yorkshire dales. Darrowby is said to have been a composition of three towns and villages: Leyburn, Middleham and Richmond, according to this webpage. I have included a picture of the original Skeldale House in Thirsk. Skeldale House has been turned into an interactive museum. You can check it out here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

She has paracetamols! SO "Lost in Austen"

Lost in Austen is the story of a modern day London girl, Amanda Price who is besotted with Pride and Prejudice. Amanda feels she was born in the wrong period and longs for the old world courtesy of Regency England. Voila, she gets her wish one day when a hitherto undiscovered door in her bathroom opens directly into Longbourne and through which comes Lizzy Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet convinces Amanda to go through the door. Amanda goes through, the door closes shut and now she is left to make her way through this inexplicable, very real Pride and Prejudice that unfolds in front of her.

But Amanda must be wary: There is no telling whether the world in front of her will follow Jane Austen's pen and it up to her to try and make it.

Now, I don't really want to go into an in depth analysis of the series ( I am useless at it anyway) so I will just give you quick points on what I liked and what I did not like!


1. Jemima Rooper as Amanda Price: She was spot on as a bewildered leather jacket wearing London girl who is thrown headlong into Regency England. Amanda spent most of her time curled up with P&P but navigating that in real life is another matter.

2. I can't believe I am saying this, but, George Wickham: Yes. Scum himself. In this loose adaptation, Wickham is not all what we have known him to be and that is all I am going to say. Tom Riley did a great job!
3.Dialogues: They were fresh, brought out the laughs at the right places and held up the pace when there was a hint of lagging.

4.Ahem, well, Elliot Cowan in the wet shirt scene: I know that this scene is probably overrated but Elliot Cowan made a nice Mr.Darcy in it.
5. Pemberley: The exterior of Pemberley was shot at Harewood House, near Leeds, in West Yorkshire. While this is not my favourite Pemberley (mine is Chatsworth House from the 2005 adaptation), the house of course, is breathtaking. I would love to make a pilgrimage of sorts to all these places if I ever get the chance.

1. I might draw flak for saying this but Elliot Cowan as Mr.Darcy did not work for me. I found him too stiff necked and ill tempered. Mr.Darcy is a mite arrogant and prejudiced, true, but at least I don't think he jerked his head in a stiff bow the way Cowan does. And I found Cowan's Darcy MUCH more inconsistent than the real article. Also. I wonder if it did not hurt him to hold his jaw that way? He did it throughout.

2. Jane and Mr.Bingley: Why? Probably, the thing that disturbed me the most about Lost in Austen was Jane and Mr.Bingley's story. It was a bit of a mess.

3.The ending left me with a few questions and I felt that it could have been handled better.

4. They showed so little of Elizabeth Bennet!! That was such a disappointment.

5. Guy Henry as Mr.Collins gave me the willies.

I had a few good laughs this weekend while watching Lost in Austen. Let me tell you straightaway that this one is not for Jane Austen purists. I suspect that the many digressions, the many unprecedented twists and turns might make a purist howl with rage. On the other hand, if you are in the mood to watch an interesting spin off on what is one of the most delightful (for me, it jointly holds the number one spot with Little Women and will remain there) books, and if you want some good laughs with a runaway plot then I am sure you will have a fine time with Lost in Austen.

Note: Do check out Kal's lovely write up on Lost in Austen on her blog At Pemberley

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Bear called Paddington - Michael Bond

First of all, my many thanks to Priya Iyer. If she hadn't mentioned this book in one of her posts, I would have never gotten around to reading it. Although I hadn't read the book, Paddington Bear evokes lovely memories of a trip to Madras from Vellore (where I was living at the time). I was four, and it was a trip with my mom in a hot and stuffy Ambassador car to Pondy Bazaar. Memories of a broad and leafy avenue, bursting with shops of all manners and sizes. A gift of the Paddington Bear video cassette and memories of watching it till the tape got old and frayed.

It is funny how certain memories stay latent in the back of your head, ready to burst forth at a moment's notice and Priya's post on the list of books she wants did it for me! I am big on nostalgia and all of a sudden I HAD to read the book as soon as I could. So what a lovely surprise when I found a copy tucked in a corner shelf in Connexions Bookstore on Diwali eve! And it turned out the be THE perfect gift to myself :)

A Bear called Paddington: classic adventures of the bear from Darkest Peru - the story opens with The Browns spotting a chocolate browney, grubby looking bear sitting on a small trunk in a dark corner in Paddington station. He is wearing a funny dilapidated hat and has a tag around his neck that says, " PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR, THANK YOU."

Needless to say, the Browns adopt him and thus begins Paddington's delightful adventures. He is small, has dark ears, an uncanny stare and loves marmalade more than anything else. Paddington is resolute, his aunt Lucy had sent him all the way from Darkest Peru on a life boat with a jar of marmalade. Paddington is a magnet for scrapes. Trouble usually finds him. Not the other way around, at least, not intentionally.

The thing about Paddington Bear is that not for one moment do you feel, "I should have probably read this as a kid. I would have enjoyed it more." The writing is fresh and the humour is there all at the right places. I found myself laughing out loud at so many instances and genuinely looking forward to reading the other books in the series. Paddington reminds me a bit of myself. I used to get into a lot of trouble. The cricket ball would go and hit the window. And if I soiled my Monday's school uniform before school, nobody would believe that it was an accident; I was accused of wanting to skip school instead. To be told not to touch anything mostly meant that I had to touch it. The hand acted like a magnet. I regularly sneaked out of the house on weekend afternoons to try my brother's huge mountain bike (which was almost twice my size) only to come home with both knees bleeding. Doesn't everyone have (somewhat) similar stories of childhood like that?

I guess what this book does is (especially when you read it as an adult)that, it unleashes all of those memories. And you are a kid again in a minute: no job, no plastic cards, no yelling boss. Just the dread of school on Monday. I am pretty sure that at some point, I used Paddington Bear as a license to some of the things I did. I remember citing all kinds of examples, from Noddy to Paddington to George from Famous Five to the GI JOES.

When was the last time you read something that was pure FUN? When there are no subtexts and undertones, complex plots or cardboard romance? Even if you had read A Bear called Paddington as a kid, I suggest you take this weekend to kickback and gorge yourself on stories about this little brown bear.
Note: I have included pictures of Paddington's statue in Paddington Station in London, a picture of Michael Bond holding a stuffed toy replica of Paddington and a picture of my own grubby brown bear. His name is George and I have had him ever since I can remember. He is really old now and a little wobbly, but I will never part with him. That would absolutely break my heart. Have you any old toys like that, that you especially love?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

The last time I enjoyed a book this big this much, I was in school and reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the very first time.

The Pillars of the Earth set in 12th century England, at a time when the country was caught in the throes of a civil war is the story of the building of a magnificent Cathedral in a little place called Kingsbridge. Tom Builder, a mason, has dreamed forever of building a cathedral. To build a place of worship of his own design. I suppose, in spite of the
many subplots, this is really Tom's story. And how he finally gets his dream. Kingsbridge becomes the epicenter for this story. There is Philip, the idealistic young prior, there is mysterious Ellen, Tom's second wife, there is Ellen's son Jack in love with the lovely Aliena, daughter of the deposed Earl of Shiring, Barthelomew. There is the slimy Bishop Waleran of Kingsbridge and the power hungry Hamleighs. Topping all this off, there is the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud, contesting for the throne of a country that is left without a clear successor after the death of the heir of old king Henry I, out at sea on a vessel called The White Ship.

The building of this cathedral touches each one of these lives and they all have their own designs for it, good or otherwise. There really is nothing more to say about the plot. This is above all else, a human story. Its plot, the triumph or pillage of human emotions. If I were to root for any one character from the book it would have to be Jack, Ellen's son. There was a quality about Jack that drew me in right from the start. With his carrot top hair and piercing blue eyes, Jack captures your heart more than any other. He is straight up and no nonsense but not quite so out of control as his mother Ellen and his love for Aliena was so beautiful to behold, especially for a romantic like me.

The strength of this book lies in the fact that there is no one hero, no one protagonist. It is the life of a village and of a county. While Prior Philip is not my favourite I could not help liking him. Philip worships God beautifully and shows us how. The growth of Kingsbridge, the prosperity of its people and this cathedral to serve as a means of further economy and prosperity for Kingsbridge is his way of serving God and you cheer Philip as he overcomes set back after set back.

Through this book, Ken Follett has thrown into stark relief the distinctions between a Man of God who seeks to serve Him and His people and a Man of God who is ruthless, ambitious and sees his piety as a means to power. Bishop Waleran of Kingsbridge along with the Hamleighs tries his best to sabotage every effort of Philip. The cathedral should not be built and Kingsbridge should be destroyed. I detested William Hamleigh from the bottom of my heart. At the same time, I pitied him as I would a disgusting creature that has lost the fight rather badly. William Hamleigh would spend his whole life bewitched by Aliena, the girl he was once to have married.

So what happens? Does Tom Builder finally get his dream? That is of course for the reader to find out. In this epic on 12th century England, there is one man who has in someway, something to do with the fate of England, and that is Prior Philip. He shares his dream with Tom. His triumph is Tom's; his defeat is also Tom's. Read The Pillars of the Earth and live every word of it. In this blog, I cannot do enough justice to this mammoth 1076 page book but I have tried my best. This is not a review; it is an earnest effort to try and convince anyone who happens to read this post to give this book a shot and be as awed as I was.

I am reminded of the lovely Christopher Morley quote you can find in my blog and that I will quote here: "Lord! when you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book." This is one such book.

Note: I have included images sourced from Ken Follett's website. The sketches are present in the book and as you can see, they depict various stages of the building of the cathedral. I have included a picture of Ken Follett too. I was somewhat surprised. I didn't expect him to be so genial looking. Does that ever happen to you? Do you read a book, form an image of the author and then find out that in reality he/she is entirely different?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Diwali Bounty!!

My Diwali gifts for myself :)

The lovely looking "The Book of Tomorrow"

by Cecelia Ahern:
Tamara Goodwin has always lived in the here and now, never giving a second thought to tomorrow. Until a travelling library arrives in her tiny village, bringing with it a mysterious, large leather-bound book locked with a gold clasp and padlock. What she discovers within the pages takes her breath away and shakes her world to its core....

Any Festival/Holiday staple: Nora Roberts. This time it is a lovely looking book called "The Right Path":
Midnight on an unspoilt Greek island. Returning from a peaceful moonlit swim, Morgan James has a shocking and frightening encounter. A dark, dangerous stranger threatens her with a knife, ordering her to keep quiet about his presence on the cliff-top. The next day, Morgan meets the same man, but this time he's visiting her hosts. Are they people she's staying with mixed up with a drug-smuggling ring? Answering this question turns into a matter of life and death when Morgan finds a body on the beach - and her sunny Greek paradise becomes a place of stark terror.

The much longed for "A Bear called Paddington" Michael Bond. Many thanks to
Priya Iyer for reminding me to read this one :)
"A bear? On Paddington station?" Mrs.Brown looked at her husband in amazement. "Don't be silly, Henry. There can't be!" Paddington Bear had travelled all the way from darkest Peru when the Brown family first met him on Paddington station. Since then their lives have never been quite the same....for ordinary lives become quite extraordinary when a bear called Paddington is involved.

"The Compendium of nosh" by Jack McLean. Promises to be really interesting if like me, you love to cook:

From baked Alaska to blueberry grunt, capsicums to cardoons, fadge to fufu, it gives wickedly funny, informative insights into foods, flavours, produce, etiquette and observances. Jack McLean approaches the secrets of the kitchen in a hilariously irreverent and refreshingly down-to-earth style, and his extraordinary confection is a must-have for foodies.

And for good measure: I don't have patience with beauty and fashion magazines and except for the times when All Sports runs a football special, this is my favourite magazine and the November issue promises to be lovely!

So that's it. That's my Diwali bounty! Happy Diwali everyone, hope you have a lot of fun with family, food and fireworks. Stay safe :)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

It took The Secret Garden and TWO Narnia books to get me out of the...ahem...melancholy that I was plunged into after reading Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk.

I read (on a no-work-at-all day in the office) and read and reveled in the garden and in the robin and Mistress Mary Quite Contrary and Dickon and Colin and Martha and Ben Weatherstaff. There, I have given you almost the entire list of characters. The thing is, this is only the second time that I was reading The Secret Garden and it instantly transported me back to my eight year old self experiencing the first delicious high that this book gives. And, well, I am a fan.

Sallow skinned, ill tempered little Mary Lennox is sent from India to Misselthwaite Manor (her uncle's house) in Yorkshire, England, when her parents die of cholera. Mary is a dreadfully spoilt child who has grown up entirely in the care of her ayah and other servants. She does not know anything of a mother's love and in turn becomes cold, selfish and ill mannered. She arrives in Yorkshire and is put under the chief care of the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock and the housemaid Martha. Lonely, contrary little Mary initially feels lost in such a big house but the huge gardens and the Yorkshire moors soon draw her out. She slowly gains health and makes friends with the crusty gardener Ben and the in-house robin. But Misselthwaite Manor contains more than just servants and endless gardens. Why does Mr.Craven never live at home? Why is the house so shut up and gloomy? And what is that walled garden with the secret door that no one is supposed to go into?

In spite of herself Mary changes for the better and out of pure luck, one day the robin shows Mary where the key to the garden has been buried and where the secret door is. Mary is enchanted and hugs this secret all to herself except for Dickon (Martha's brother) who is a wonderful boy with an up-turned nose and round blue eyes. Dickon is friends with every animal and every plant and every bird and every tree and soon, Mary and Dickon start on a secret mission to revive this lovely Secret Garden that none should enter and none seem to talk about. But Misselthwaite Manor contains one secret yet: Whom does Mary hear crying at night?

The Secret Garden is pure magic. It is one of the most life affirming books that I have ever read; if I enjoyed it at eight, I know that I will enjoy it at eighty. It is delightful to read how fresh air, wholesome food and innocent frolic turns around the life of two miserable little children. The message that the book gives out is: it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor; just let love and magic grow. However impractical this thought might be in today's cynical world, it feels amazing to indulge oneself and just think of it really being true. And well, why not?

If I had a secret garden, I would retain many of the elements from the one in the book; mine would be walled and covered fully with ivy. It would have a little green door where one would have to bend to enter. It would be like a mad cottage garden with all manners of flowers in a riot of colour. I would have trailing vines and let squirrels and birds make friends with me and my garden. I would have trailing roses, a big shady mango or an apple tree (do they even grow in the same climate??) with a comfortable wicker chair below it. Oh, and I would have lots and lots of honeysuckle. If I had this garden, I would quit my job and just read there the whole day; because in my garden, time would stand still.

What about you? How would you like your Secret Garden to be?

Note: I have attached a picture of the author. I searched for a suitable picture of a secret garden in Google images but could not find any that really caught my fancy. Hence the verbal sketch. Feel free to give me your ideas :-) And do read this book if you already haven't. I went about with such a dopey grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Istanbul - Orhan Pamuk

I can't make up my mind about this book. Do I like it? Do I not like it? Do I think it is the genuine article or do I think it has affectations that let it down?

I guess what I think of this book is sort of like an amalgamation of answers to all the questions above. To me this particular cover (my copy has the same) evokes a lovely image; not just of the book but Istanbul itself. The monument, the car and the raven in the foreground: all covered by a soft mantle of snow. And you remember this cover throughout; whether he is describing the city or the beautiful Bosphorus in its many moods; glinting, shimmering, dark or moody. Istanbul and Istanbullus are besotted with this body of water.

This book is a personal journey of a man and the city with which he firmly believes his destiny is tied up. Pamuk's Istanbul is complex, varied and has a dignity that speaks to the reader. His Istanbul is not just a city of yesterday or today or of the future, it is a black and white kaleidoscope of all three. The book opens with a chapter about the boy Orhan, his family, his boyhood and what Istanbul meant to him at that impressionable age. As the book progresses, Pamuk grows with it and tries to give the reader a sense of the city as seen through his eyes. He paints before you, a city that is still living in the bygone Ottoman era and the place of importance it enjoyed while trying to come to terms with the new Republic and become westernized. In this vast world where does Istanbul really stand? How do its citizens view it? Do they live in the past too? Do they take comfort in what Pamuk describes as its acceptance of defeat and are comfortable to live in memory of the great empire it once was?

Pamuk's Istanbul is eloquent and almost poetic at times. Drawing deeply from literature and history he attempts to show you the city exactly as he sees it. Magnificent as it is at times, the pace lags in many chapters and I found accounts of Pamuk's puberty and several other similar instances unnecessary.

According to Pamuk, his city's main characteristic is its hüzün (melancholy) and that is the book's biggest weak point; Pamuk tries to connect entirely too much in his own life and in others' to the city's melancholy and vice-versa. Every chapter contains some mention of hüzün and it irritated me so much that I cannot bear to read this word in any other book for a long while. He seems to take a sort of comfort in the poverty and despair and faint sense of ruin that surrounds the city's poor neighbourhoods. It makes the reader wonder just how troubled his childhood was; how much the city influenced it and more importantly: how much does he think the city influenced it.

Maybe I am being unduly harsh because my own expectations of the book were not fulfilled. There are some lovely chapters; his retelling of his first love brought tears my to eyes and many others gave me a glimpse of the wonderful writer that Pamuk is.

So taking all this into consideration, could the book have been better? Yes. Unequivocally.

This melancholy thing though, I have no idea what to make of it. I have felt it; in Chennai I have felt it. But is it the primary characteristic and driving force of Istanbul? Perhaps one has to go to Istanbul and see for oneself.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain

I want to be a steamboat pilot. Or rather, I want to be a steamboat pilot every time I even look at the cover of this book. I want to stand inside the pilot room and grasp a wheel and be Lord (Lady??) of the river. I want to steer this grand, smelling of polished wood, gilt edged, all flags flying boat through the entire course of the river. And this river: I want to know it like Samuel Clemens a.k.a Mark Twain did.

That's what any good book, no, any spectacular book does to me: I immediately want to get into its pages and live it. And Life on the Mississippi was so spot on for me that after sixty chapters I was still sad that it had to end.

This is a loving memoir of the brilliant and jaw dropping relationship Mark Twain shared with the Mississippi river. Since it is non fiction, there isn't really anything to say in terms of a plot or a climax or characters.

All sixty chapters are reminiscent not just of his life on the river but of the river itself. With chapters that give you a small history lesson on the discovery of the Mississippi, its geopolitical importance, its influence on the people living along the thousands of miles of land through which it flows; life on a steamboat on the Mississippi, being a pilot and the enormous pressure, pleasure and responsibility that the job entails; the various experiences that go with it and to put it simply, the love affair one person has had with this river and his need to share it with the rest of the world - Mr.Twain just blows you away. And to think that this work preceded Huck Finn!

Among all the little nuggets of adventure, satire and insight there exists one precious extract from the then-in-progress Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain tells you of this little store that he has been writing and that he thinks it should be done in a few years time; not knowing the place of importance this book would enjoy even after more than a century of his writing it.

Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is long and delightfully so. With his trademark sarcasm and his disgust for anything ostentatious or pretentious, he gives you an honest account of exactly what the title says: his life on the Mississippi.

I can't recommend this book highly enough for anyone who loves the kind of refreshing writing Mark Twain provides. He leaves you pining for what he calls the "lost art of steamboat piloting" and almost hating (however foolishly) the advent of the railways.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Town Called Dehra - Ruskin Bond

What attracted me straight away was the lovely cover. So I was already sold by the time I turned it around to read what was written in the back: " There was a wild flower, a weed, that grew all over Dehra and still does. We called it Blue Mint. It grows in ditches, in neglected gardens, anywhere there's a bit of open land....I have known it since I was a boy, and as long as it's there I shall know that a part of me still lives in Dehra."

This charming book delivers exactly what it promises: an indulgent account of the Dehradun that Ruskin Bond knew and grew up in. This is a small collection of short stories and essays that are mainly divided into his childhood memories and those of his youth. Through them you learn about the life of the boy Ruskin; the aftermath of his father's death and the mostly lonely life of a boy who was at odds with his mother and stepfather. For Ruskin, his true friends live in the big Banyan tree: the squirrels and the birds and the white rat and the lady squirrel and their white squirrel babies! You learn to smile at the image of the boy Ruskin lounging up on the tree with an apple and a book in his hand on hazy afternoons, keeping an eye on the road below. He writes with fond memories of his various friends: Somi, Dipi, Dal and Bansi the tonga driver.

Reading this book it was possible even for me, a person who's never been to Dehra to picture the beautiful, sleepy town that it was towards the end of the British Raj. Ruskin Bond has so wonderfully described a town and a people that did not quite know what to make of themselves when the rest of the country was caught in the throes of the independence. Dehra in the late 1940s was full of English expats who were caught between worlds: they had nothing to go back to in England and they couldn't remain in India. As you read you get the sense that in this magical, Ruskin Bondy place, time has frozen and you can see the lichi trees and blue mint, lush woods and deep pools with clear pebbled beds.

There are stories that made me laugh and some so heartbreakingly longing that they made me quite weepy. There were funny ones; poignant ones that give you glimpses into the life of a man, who, even know lives within striking distance of his beloved Dehra. Some stories that I think deserve special mention are: "Dehradun - Winter of '45", "The Old Gramaphone", "The Photograph", "As time goes by", "Meena", "In search of a winter garden" and "The Dilaram Bazaar".

This is a book to be savoured slowly; in bed at night with the monsoon raging outside or on a long bus ride to while away time. The writing might lack finesse at times but it is more than compensated in the beauty of the pictures he paints and the emotions he evokes.

As I was reading, I asked myself about the Dehradun of today. What is Dehra like? Has it become like that other heartbreak story from down south - Ooty? I long to go to Dehra but I am scared because you see, I want to go to Ruskin Bond's Dehra. That place with the empty roads and lichi trees; when the pace of life was not so frenetic and when people were more forgiving.

I am in love with this book. With all its faults, yes, I am so in love with this book.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger

I loved Franny and Zooey. I LOVED Franny and Zooey. There were many moments in the book when I wasn't really sure what Franny or for that matter, what Zooey were getting at but they left me feeling pretty good about everything. I feel like speaking in Italics too. And Zooey, you have got a lifelong fan here.

Franny and Zooey are the two youngest members of the Glass family. The plot is not much really, it is basically a sort of meandering, reflective (discourse?) thing on the self. Whether that self is Franny or Zooey or Mrs. Glass. The plot opens with Franny meeting her boyfriend Lane for a weekend. What gets off to a seemingly perfect start complete with Lane's studied nonchalance and stymied eagerness and Franny's sheared Racoon overcoat, quickly degenerates. There is something wrong with Franny. She keeps picking on Lane; the fact that Lane is a pompous ass aside. Franny finally dead faints away at the restaurant.

Enter Zooey. Franny has come home and she seems to be having a nervous breakdown. Is she so disillusioned with the world? She is after some kind of religious fulfillment but what exactly does she want? She incessantly chants the Lord's prayer under her breath but does she understand the whole point behind it? The Glass family is worried about Franny; and Zooey with a little help from Mrs. Glass sets out to try and talk her out of what he believes is a self-imposed funk. Throughout the story, various other members of the family pop in and out. Especially the eldest two: Seymour (killed himself long ago) and Buddy (a somewhat reclusive writer/professor living in the country). Seymour peppers their thoughts and conversations almost constantly and the disquiet and the perplexity the family feel about his death is palpable.

So that is basically all there is to this really small (novella?) story. Now for the writing. This is my first Salinger and it has been a lovely introduction and getting-to-know. Salinger writes with an almost uncomfortable clarity of thought and cuts right down to the bone of things. Neither Franny nor Zooey are particularly likeable nor unlikeable. They are, if you think about it, just an ordinary guy and girl. It is Salinger's depth of writing, his getting under their skins and the stunning imagery he provides that makes one (and themselves) look much closer than is normally comfortable.

The message quite simply seems to be: disillusioned or not, do not feed your ego. Keep playing because that is all you can really do. Do it for the Fat Lady.

And me? I love that. Zooey gave me a sense of quiet towards the end just like he gave Franny.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Hundred Foot Journey - Richard C. Morais

This weekend I armchair-traveled to Bombay, London, flitted through most of Europe and finally landed in France courtesy of The Hundred Foot Journey. It could have been great too but somewhere between reading about the Mutton Korma at the family restaurant on Napean Sea Road and sewage smelling hair and finally, pretentious French food at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, Hassan Haji' story left me floundering.

The narration is by Hassan and the story opens with a recounting of how Hassan's grandfather came to Mumbai as a young man and became a dabba-wallah. He makes something of himself enough to build a tiny eatery in an abandoned plot of land on Napean Sea Road. The Haji family expands slowly into dad, mom and finally Hassan and his numerous siblings. They lead satisfied and full lives revolving around the food they prepare and their restaurant but tragedy strikes and the family forsakes Bombay and its terrible memories for London. From then on, Hassan and his family roam all over Europe before settling down, somewhat arbitrarily in Lumière, France. The Hajis buy a mansion and plan to open an Indian restaurant but they have formidable opposition from a renowned chef who owns a hotel just across the road from them. Madame Mallory views the gifted Hassan as her competitor and is out to do all she can to oust the Hajis from her town.

This story is basically the life journey of Hassan Haji and how he finds his destiny. In the course of his life the one constant is food. He and his family over come the odds and he finally establishes himself as one of the leading chefs in Paris with his restaurant Le Chien Mechant.

Sounds good doesn't it? Unfortunately the plot is not executed well enough. Many parts of the story are just plain unbelievable: for instance, the way the family goes traipsing all over Europe with a seemingly never ending flow of cash. Hassan Haji's attempt at insight and philosophy is a bit ridiculous and what are obviously meant to be deep soul stirring moments, fall flat.

The author has tried very hard to bring in all flavours Indian and that is precisely what doesn't work. They are not Indian. Describing in minute detail about pink sarees and gold lame sandals; hair smelling of sewage and the poor of Mumbai's slums does not mean it is authentic. In this case, the author has fallen into the pit all authors must try to avoid: don't present India, or any place for that matter in such cliched forms. It does not your story, hold. Some of the descriptive passages left me bewildered (like the above mentioned sewage smelling hair. Hassan and his family are about to board the flight to London and the lines that tell you that are something along the lines of, "There we were with our sewage smelling hair...." You see what I mean? It seems silly and nonsensical because nowhere in the book are Hassan and his siblings portrayed as so poor they don't have money for shampoo and soap) and I couldn't make out till the very last, what precisely was the point of this story.

Don't get me wrong: The Hundred Foot Journey is by no means a wholly unreadable book. I finished it quite comfortably all things considered. I loved Hassan's father Abbas's character as well as Ammi and Uncle Mayur and Madame Mallory. Just like how some descriptions are unacceptable, some others, especially about the food and the scenery were quite stunning. All the more is the pity because perhaps with a little more work this could have been a wonderful book.

The Hundred Foot Journey is in short, somewhat of a badly written fairytale. It's got all the elements but they inexplicably go missing every now and then.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Godiva - Nerys Jones

Note: Hey all, I am back after a long while, this time for good.Mom has been sick, I have been sick and I have had a hectic few months of it but now I am resolved to continue blogging here regularly. Wish me luck!

I love all Godiva chocolates. Especially their chocolate covered pretzels. And the figure of the lady atop her horse that is their logo has always intrigued me. Who was Godiva? Did she really ride naked and bareback on a horse in Coventry in Anglo-Saxon England? If that is the case, what is the reason? Wikipedia gives you the answers, as I am sure, do numerous other websites or books if one was to search for them. But from what little I have read, I decidedly prefer Nerys Jones's Godiva.

England, AD 1045. Edward the Confessor, the childless, half-Norman, Virgin King is holding England by the sinew of her neck. He is the puppet master. The Normans are closing in and the three powerful Anglo-Saxon Earls of England: Siward of Northumbria, Godwin of Wessex and Lovric of Mercia have to do all they can to prevent their country from falling into the hands of the Normans; even if it means going to war against the king.

Into this hotbed is thrown Lady Godiva, the beautiful wife of the Earl of Mercia. King Edward has targeted the Lordship of Merica for reasons known only to him and Lovric and Godiva are fast falling from the favour of the court. Godiva's sons are captured under various false charges and leaving behind an earldom that is falling into famine and cattle plague, Lovric and Godiva must fly to Winchester to try and placate the king. In 1045 AD England, there are powerful manipulators abroad, the influence of the church is immense and the King continues to play games with his earls, his people and the future of his country. What does the king want with Godiva? Why have her family and her people been singled out? The machinations of the court go on forever and Godiva finds herself on shaky ground as her hitherto solid marriage is undermined, her children are in danger, her lands and her people in misery. The king is playing games and if she has to survive, if she has to win, so must she.

Nerys Jones's Godiva makes a wonderful read. Her style of writing is lucid and one cannot help but be fascinated at the threads of history that were woven a thousand years ago. I loved Nerys Jones's interpretation of the legendary horse ride and to me at least it seems more plausible than the explanation that Wikipedia has to offer. Godiva might not be a particularly great mother to her daughter Millie, she might be blind and heedless, she may not realize the true worth of her husband most of the time, but she is a fighter. She has pluck and courage and never gives up on her people as she tries to beat the king at his own game and for her, I can read this book again and again. Fans of historical novels will love this one.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

Well, I have finished it. This book that has been making headlines for quite some time now and this book that I have been resolutely keeping away from. I usually tend to hesitate reading books that have a lot of hype (I sort of feel bad for the writers when the books fall short as they sometimes do) surrounding them but this one was a gift from my cousin. He made it pretty clear: read it or else...

Mikael Blomkvist is an unlikely protagonist: he is a financial journalist and part owner of the Millenium magazine convicted for libel; he is a middle-aged divorcee who has a very fleeting relationship with his daughter and he is into a totally weird romantic entanglement with Erika Berger, his married colleague. Mikael Blomkvist does not elicit strong reactions of like or hate from the reader, the reader mostly feels neutral about him. He isn't a Rabbit Angstrom. On the other hand Lisbeth Salander, the second protagonist is all fire and ice. She is twenty four years old, distrustful, socially inept and declared incompetent by the local authorites and she is an expert hacker and security consultant.

Mikael Blomkvist is convicted for libel against a corrupt industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. His credibility as a journalist has plummeted and the magazine he co-owns with Erika Berger and Christer Malm has taken a huge hit. In the midst of this crisis he receives a call from Dirch Frode, lawyer of Henrik Vanger, former CEO of Vanger Corporation. Vanger offers Blomkvist a freelance job: to find out what happened to his grand niece Harriet Vanger who vanished forty years ago without a trace. Blomkvist leaves Stockholm and moves to the island of Hedeby for a year where he later joins forces with Lisbeth Salander. As the months progress, Blomkvist and Salander begin to unravel the mystery of Harriet Vanger's disappearance. There is a web of deceit, violence and perversity among the Vanger clan and nobody can be trusted. There is someone out there who will go to any lengths to stop Blomkvist and Salander from unravelling the mystery of what happened on Hedeby Island in the 1960s. Can they find out what happened to Harriet Vanger?

I loved reading the exploits of Blomkvist and Salander; the two are as different as chalk and cheese but together they make a terrific team. I am not a big fan of crime fiction but this one kept me up for the better part of last night. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes for a riveting read but that is not all it offers the reader. The reader is taken into a world where things like family, security and normalcy are hard to come by. Each person in the book has a story; one more horrible than the other and makes you realize there exist in our soceity some very real ills that just cannot be ignored. In my opinion Lisbeth Salander was the hero, she was such fun to read about! You might not like her but you have got to admire her guts.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a complex psychological thriller ( I am not sure if this is everyone's cup of tea; some parts are decidedly technical) written in rich prose and I am sorry that Stieg Larsson is not around to witness its success. Thank you for the book Mr. Larsson.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

Yesterday evening on the bus I fulfilled a long ago wish. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of those books that I just missed out on reading while growing up. Amidst all the Enid Blytons and the Arabian Nights and Puffin's Children's Classics, this one remained a book "that I should definitely read at least this year." Probably for the first time in a while I wasn't grumpy or irritated when I stepped off the bus after a two hour journey through an absolutely smog filled city. No. I was in chocolate land. And I am guilty of buying a bar of twix on my way home. Or two.

There is nothing new that I can say about Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that hasn't already been said. Everyone knows that he is a master story spinner and that this book is his best loved, probably ahead even of Matilda or the Fantastic Mr.Fox. I do not claim to review his book here nor am I going to analyze the storyline. I am simply going to gape slack-jawed and open mouthed at the fact that something he wrote years and years ago for children has that power to keep an adult (or semi-adult as the case may be :-]) agog till the last line. I have never believed in grown-ups phoo-phooing children's stories on the grounds that they have outgrown them long ago. Because no matter how many Sidney Sheldons or Dan Browns you might read, how big a fan of literary fiction or the classics you might be, what's the point if you are not able to appreciate a little Velveteen Rabbit or Scheherazade or Charlie Bucket every now and then?

I loved everything; I loved Grandpa Joe and Grandma Joe ( I found Grandpa and Grandma Geroge a little wimpy); I adored the huge bedstead that all the four grandparents shared; poor tired Mrs.Bucket who tries to slip her share of the meal to Charlie and poor tired Mr.Bucket with his "Cripes!" And then there is Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas and the chocolate river and the snozzberries and the rainbow drops and the wriggle toffees and a million other chocolates (all that I want to list but won't in fear of irritating my readers further). And most of all there is Charlie; Charlie wins you over completely even before the story begins. I blame it on Mr.Dhal. How can you not love Charlie with an introduction like this one?

There are five children in this book:
Augustus Gloop - A greedy boy
Veruca Salt - A girl who is spoiled by her parents
Violet Beauregarde - A girl who chews gum all day long
Michael Teavee - A boy who does nothing but watch television
Charlie Bucket - The Hero

See what I mean? You stand no chance. It's a simple world, Mr.Wonka's. In his world, the good get rewarded, the bad get punished, the Oompa-Loompas sing songs about it and everything turns out alright in the end. "They all just come out of the wash in the end; they always do." I used to love Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree stories and Hogsmeade and the Weasley Twins' goodies from Harry Potter but this book took the chocolate/sweet fantasy to a whole new level. Mr.Dahl has influenced and taught generations of children how to dream and to imagine and that is no simple thing. A word for Quentin Blake: his illustrations brought the book alive and I enjoyed the story twice as much because of them. I am going to save the epithets beecause Mr.Dahl has received them all. Instead, I am just going to say that yesterday he gave me a gift that I don't come by too often. He made me feel five years old again.

Remembrance of things Paris - (Edited by) Ruth Reichl

Remembrance of things Paris is a collection of essays from the past sixty years from Gourmet magazine. Let me just come right out and say that this is going to be one of those books on my bedside table; I will beam at it every night and every now and then, when it is raining and I need something besides my faded flannel quilt, I will open its pages and take a fanciful flight right into the Parisian rooftops. That's the sort of foolish reaction any such cosy patchwork quilt of a book that is part food shrine, part travel memoir should elicit and in recent times, this collection has been among the very best.

The book opens with an adorable piece from Irene Corbally Kuhn; the year was 1921 and the month was May. In her own words: "The world had passed through the long darkness of the 'war to end all wars' and was more than ready for the frenzied gaiety and brief brilliance of the roaring twenties." And at the end of the essay: "Paris is also today - and tomorrow. Despite the encroachments of the startlingly new as in the Centre Pompidou or the ring of towering skyscrapers that seem to be closing in on all that has made Paris a place of unique beauty, it remains after two thousand years, more immutable than any other capital city in the world. Perhaps this is because so many of us left our youth there. And gladly."

There are essays that describe so eloquently of Paris coming to life after the second world war and about a shopper who bit into a baguette and cried out in pleasure because it was made of pure white flour and not the "coarse dark one" Parisians were forced to stomach during the occupation. There are vivid essays of the old flower market, Marche aux Fluers and Les Halles; having never been to that iconic market place, nevertheless, I ached along with the rest of them when I read about it being torn down. There are several pieces by turns charming, by turns satirical, by turns so lovely that you are almost dizzy and by turns down right contrary like Chicken Demi-Deuil by George Bijur, Paris One Step at a Time by Joseph Wechsberg, A Night at Les Halles by Alaire Johnston, An Insincere Cassoulet by Michael Lewis and my favourite in the entire book, She did not look like an actress to me by Hilaire du Berrier to name just a few.

There are several delightful write-ups on Paris's famed restaurant and bistro scene and there is one touching piece called The Three Musketeers by Patrick Kuh. Being as it is about Paris and more importantly, from Gourmet Magazine, the focus is on food but there several other eclectic pieces that are so absolutely Paris. The recipes given in this book are a treasure trove and I can't wait to try out some of the chocolate recipes but like Michael Lewis, I am something of a hypocritical non-vegetarian and found the descriptions of Sheep's Trotters and Calf's Bladder and tripe and giblets a little um, yucky.

This is the sort a book that will delight readers who love to read up on faraway places (even one that may be as overrated as Paris) and the million and one things that make up their soul. Readers who love a generous shot of the quaint and the whimsical in their reading will adore this book. This is the sort of a book that makes for a great holiday gift; one that sits by your kitchen counter as you try out one of the dozens of delicious recipes in it; the sort of a book that can grace any coffee table with aplomb. Read it on a train or plane or keep it by your night lamp like me. Beneath its covers Paris is spread out in splendid panoramic view; it pulls you in, drenches you and leaves you longing for the Paris of years gone by.

In the one week that I took to finish this book, it didn't take me too long to realize that I was being throughly seduced one page at a time by Paris. Read it and enjoy. I did. It was such fun to unravel so much about a city I know and love.

If you think you might be interested do read a similar article on my other blog There'sh a Moshkeeto in my Foog :)

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Einstein Girl - Philip Sington

Note: Hey all, I am back after a long absence. My mother has not been keeping well and she has just recovered. It feels great to write here again. I will visit all your blogs soon! :)

There is a line at the top of the book: "At the heart of truth lies madness.." and reading this book, you realize that it is so true. It is a web of deceit, intrigue, passion and utter loss of hope and as you delve into the book, it unravels before you and leaves you by turns aghast and spellbound at the turn of events.

The book opens in Berlin, May 1933: a woman named Alma haunts the local police station everyday in search of her missing fiance, Martin Kirch. And so Sington begins to tell us Martin Kirch's story and we are taken back to October 1932 when Martin's world changes irretrievably.

Psychiatrist Martin Kirch is a man who lives in the shadows of his past. He cannot get over the horrors of the great war where he had been an army doctor and contracts syphilis as a result. With Martin, engaged to be married into high society Berlin, one gets the sense that his life has been made but Sington lets you slip into the man's mind and you realize that they are still waters and that they run very deep. Martin Kirch is a man tormented with tertiary stage syphillis and the unenviable task of having to hide it from the public in fear of stigma. One thing remains for him to do: he must break his engagement. At this point, into Martin's life comes the case of a girl simply dubbed as The Einstein Girl. She is found half naked and near death in the woods outside the city and when she recovers from her coma, she can remember nothing. The only clue to her identity is a pamphlet found near her, advertising a lecture by Albert Einstein on Quantum Theory. Martin is struck by this girl and takes on the case and soon consumed with a reckless passion for the girl, he embarks on a quest for her identity that takes him Zurich, Serbia and a psychiatric hospital in Zurich to visit Einstein's son Eduard. Who is this girl and how is she connected with Albert Einstein? What will happen to Martin Kirch?

The Einstein Girl offers staggering foray into the mind and life of one of the greatest geniuses this world has seen. Sington has woven in the rise of the Nazi regime and the immediate effect it had on the medical world with amazing subtlety. In the hectic political climate of 1930s Berlin, power was everything and the Nazi's covert T-4 operation ( a euthanasia program odered in an effort to rid the German race of any "bad blood". Millions of special needs and psychiatric patients were put to death.) was already underway. You read the novel with a sense of foreboding and urgency because you, the reader, has some sense of the abyss into which Germany and the rest of Europe was about to be plunged. In the end, Sington leaves you with your heart breaking a little for Kirch, for the girl, for Alma, for Eduard and even for Einsten and you wonder at what might have been. Philip Sington's Einstein Girl may not be a book I might read a second time but I am glad I read it the first time around. The Einstein Girl's greatest strength might be the way it is written: fiction based on skeletal fact at its most chilling.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun - Frances Mayes

La bella Italia. I will never tire of reading about Italy. And reading this book, I need not close my eyes and concentrate hard enough for me to visualize anything. Italy is everywhere, on a vast canvas. On the stark white desk top at work, the cubicle walls, at home out on the porch, I have been seeing the Tuscan rooftops, the sun-mellowed walls and pretty faded blue and green shutters; olive groves and vineyards, a limonaia here, a bright bowl of clementines there; all parade in front of my eyes, they do not mock, they allure.

Under the Tuscan Sun is the journey of author Frances Mayes and her husband Ed in buying and restoring an old stone stone house, Bramasole (yearning for the sun), in the heart of Cortona, Tuscany. Bramasole, with a facade the colour of faded apricots and pretty green shutters enchants its way into your heart. Ms.Mayes comes to Bramasole at a crossroads in her life. In her own words, any arbitary turning along the way and she would be elsewhere; she would be different. Under the Tuscan Sun is not just the quintessential travelogue; unravel all the wonderous sights, people and food described till you can actually see all of it in front of you in glorious technicolour, and you will find a vein of seriousness, a rediscovering of the self, slowly, lovingly. This is what Bramasole nay, Italy itself becomes to her. Italy and Mayes come together not with flamboyance and pomp, but with a soft tread, a gradual understanding that deepens into an intense bond. The more she unravels the cultural layers of Italy, the deeper the bond becomes. This, I suppose is all that I am going to tell you about this book. The rest you will have to find out for yourself. Rest assured that it contains a magnificent account of life in rural Italy - the people, the place, Bramasole, the olive groves, the roses and the wildflowers, the vineyards and the food, always the food. These are the shades with which Mayes has painted her canvas but to me, what makes Under the Tuscan Sun such a winner is that it offers much more.

Read the book and revel in the delight that is Mayes's Italy. I can think of few better ways to spend my time. This is a particularly lovely section of the prologue that I just can't help copying:
"My reader, I hope, is like a friend who comes to visit, learns to mound flour on the thick marble counter and work in the egg, a friend who wakes to the four calls of the cuckoo in the linden and walks down the terrace paths singing to the grapes; who picks jars of plums, drives with me to hill towns of round towers and spilling geraniums, who wants to see olives the first day they are olives. A guest on holiday is intent on pleasure. Feel the breeze rushing around those hot marble statues? Like old peasants, we could sit by the fireplace, grilling slabs of bread and oil, pour a young chianti. Under the fig where two cats curl, we're cool. I've counted: the dove coos sixty times per minute. The Etruscan wall above the house dates from the eighth century B.C. We can talk. We have time."

I know that there are gazillions of travel books on Italy, books done, dusted and shelved but every once in a while you come across such gems as Living in a Foreign Language and Under the Tuscan Sun. What sets these books apart is their souls, which, I like to think is a direct extension of the writers'. In the case of Under the Tuscan sun, the soul is deep and reflective with flashes of humour here and there, but most of all, with an immense love for the land and the simple life. The kind of soul that rejoices in simple pleasures such as fireflies dancing in the night or chestnuts roasted by the fire. How can you not love that?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In Xanadu - William Dalrymple

I didn't know much about Kubla Khan, except that he built this beautiful palace in Xanadu (from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem). I didn't care much either ways. Now I do. I care as much about the ruins of that "pleasure dome" in Xanadu as I do about the fact that Dalrymple could take that small vial of oil all the way there.

In a journey that takes him across holy land, hostile territory, prohibited high-security zones, William Dalrymple makes a fantastic, unbelievable journey to the remains of Kubla Khan's palace in Xanadu. He has a mission: to deposit in Xanadu, a vial of the oil he carries from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerasulem, thus fulfilling some semblance of the mission Marco Polo undertook in the eleventh century to spread Christianity in the court of Kubla Khan.

A book that tells of a heavy journey to be undertaken as this, a book that is a recording of the author's love for history, a book that has copious recordings of architectural details, multitude historical references that support the journey in reality from London, but for all intents and purposes from the Holy City to Xanadu: you don't expect it to be a light read. Amazingly, In Xanadu by William Dalrymple is ironic, light, witty and extremely funny on occasions.

This is Dalrymple's first book at the age of twenty-two and what a flowing debut! It begins somewhat ironically, with the Irish Franciscan complaining about the nuisance of maintaining the holy lamps that are supposed to burn eternally:
"I thought these lamps were miraculous. They are supposed to be eternal flames."
"That's what they say, but, you try changing the oil without getting them out. Damn it! This wick's finished. Pass me up the string."

"And who is this Italian you were looking for?"
"That's the one. He told you this oil was miraculous?"
"I suppose he did, indirectly."
"Well you can tell him from me it's quite ordinary."

And so he takes you, on this bewildering, magnificent, sometimes dangerous, sometimes downright scary, intense journey across Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally, China. The route is hazardous: many nights are spent in coal trucks and filthy caravanserais. Dalrymple and his travel partners will spend much time getting disgruntled, trying to dodge officials, the maximum comfort they will face is a small seat on the floor with their rucksacks in the third-class compartment on a train to Peking. They will also meet people warm and friendly, people who help them along various stages of the journey, people who share what little they might have wholeheartedly with these strangers. They will drive across the Karakoram Highway in a truck full of chattering Afghans. They will brave the desert of Taklamakan in the back of a coal truck with a lone Uigur for company. They will meet dubious businessmen and vendors who try to fleece them. They will meet young Muslim men who are caught in the throes of confusion an in two minds about which world they really belong to. And they will have the time of their lives. It is true. They have a very smug "after" photo taken in the courtyard of Trinity College, Cambridge, to prove it.

In Xanadu is one of those rare historical travelogues that fulfill you without getting heavy. Just when you begin to think that the numerous historical recordings are getting monotonous, Dalrymple turns around and gives you a wry account of something very common place. And there, I think, lies the strength on this book. It doesn't bore. It educates but more than anything, it entertains. The balance is hard to find but William Dalrymple perfected it in his very first book. I loved the fact that Dalrymple doesn't fawn over the legendary Polo. His account of Polo is sometimes awed, sometimes exasperated but most of all, indulgent.

If you read In Xanadu, you would have done the unthinkable of being among the very first people to attempt a re-trace of Marco Polo's route to Xanadu, all from your armchair. It is a journey that you will not forget and at the very end, when you look upon the remains of Xanadu, you too will see the pleasure dome, the gardens, the splendor and the glory. You too will feel something profound when that soft earth at last absorbs the oil in that vial that became the ultimate reason for this journey. And you too will recite Coleridge's unforgettable Kubla Khan. And if you don't know it, you will definitely google it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Emma - Jane Austen

"If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." So says Mr.Knightley to Emma. If anyone were to ask me, I would say that this one line more than equals Mr. Darcy's impassioned proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. Yet, Emma is different from Pride and Prejudice in that, the protagonist comes in for a lot more censure than Lizzy Bennet ever did. Nor is Mr.Knightley's love so full of struggle like Mr.Darcy's. He too loves with a constancy, but with a touch of the benefactor, the concern of a father, the wisdom of a brother. Here, though, I must stop: this after all is not a comparison between these two superior creations of Ms.Austen, and I am rambling.

In the very first chapter, the diametrically opposite characters of Emma Woodhouse and her father Mr.Woodhouse are thrown into sharp relief. After many years with the family, first as Emma's governess and then as her companion, the family's beloved Miss Taylor marries! Emma, although regretting the loss of a companion that she has grown to love, rejoices in the fact that (according to herself) she has brought about the match between Miss Taylor and Mr.Weston. Her father on the other hand, a man who hates to leave his own fireside for anything, hates change of any sort and lives in the state of most pitiable agitation over the health of simply everyone he knows cannot find any comfort in Miss Taylor marrying and going away. Into this glum cheerless of an evening in the first chapter, Mr.Knightley infuses much good sense, warmth and cheer by taking a cheerful view of things. I have always felt that Ms.Austen has done a brilliant job in introducing all three characters at the outset. These three have much to do with each other, and once you have become acquainted with them, it is fun to sit back and enjoy their interactions as the story progresses. Emma, young, rich, beautiful, clever and slightly spoilt loves a project and her favourites are usually of the matchmaking variety. With this in mind, she takes under her wing a certain Harriet Smith, a girl that boards at Mrs.Goddard's. Harriet although beautiful, is a timid shy girl of seventeen, the daughter of "nobody", her parentage is unknown and she has neither money nor prospects. Emma's aim is to get her married favourably and establish her forever in good society. What follows is a series of sometimes comic, sometimes distressing errors involving a certain Mr.Martin (a respectable, though "poor" farmer and therefore deemed not "good enough" for Harriet) a Mr.Elton (who ends up proposing to Emma instead), a certain Frank Churchill (whom does he really like? Emma? Harriet? Or is there a third girl?) and incredibly Mr.Knightley himself! What really happens? Whom does Harriet finally end up with? And what about Emma, in her folly about rank and aristocracy does she get to know her own heart before it is too late?

This book is for and about only Emma Woodhouse. Many faults she may have, yet, you can't help loving her. Emma has none of the tempestuousness of Pride and Prejudice. It is gentler, it lets us examine the events in Emma's life at a leisurely pace and in its very portrayal of the protagonist as one for whom rank and birth are important, exposes the folly of such thoughts. Mr.Knightley provides the perfect foil for Emma Woodhouse and this is where the book scores.

Visit Highbury and Hartfield, get drawn into all the joys, sorrows, petty fights, the good people and the bad. Jane Austen is at her sparkling best and she absolutely does not disappoint.