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.