Library day

Sigh. Okay, so clearly I am no good at this title business. Moving on. PS: But I’m good at picking books. Would you rather it were the other way around?

The only bush I trust is my own – Periel Aschenbrand

She had me at the title. I giggled, sniggered and knew I had to buy it. I loved it of course. Periel Aschenbrand describes herself as half Israeli, half New York Jew – I’d like to add, and wholly irreverent. In this book Periel, a sometimes waitress, sometimes teacher, sometimes writer and designer, attacks every institution, from patriarchy, to religion, to sweatshop labour – and she does it with style.

If the title of the book wasn’t enough, sample this – ‘… the thing about giving a gift is, among other things, an act of aggression. And it’s an act of aggression because the nature of a gift is that you are forced to accept it and then you owe something.’

Or this one – If you even want to pretend to take yourself seriously as an intellectual, you can’t believe in nonsense like God and heaven.

Or – The Pope knows that God doesn’t exist. That’s the secret of his f**king power.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice to say, it’s a book for anyone with half a brain, an unwillingness to just accept things because they were told so, and considers themselves a feminist. I’ve read it twice already and it must be age because I keep forgetting the funny lines.

I urge, beg, beseech you – buy this book.

The German Boy – Patricia Wastvedt

I can’t seem to get enough of the Holocaust stories. This one though, is a little after. Elisabeth and Karen are sisters. They are friends with Rachel and both are more than a little enamoured of her artist brother, Michael Ross. Michael however, has eyes only for Elisabeth. But that was in the past. It is now 1947 and Karen’s son is a half German orphan who fought for Hitler. He’s now just a homeless 16 year old who is left in the care of Elisabeth. He enters into their lives seamlessly and then suddenly… it all falls apart.

Karen marries a rich German and goes off to live a fancy life. Elisabeth marries a jowly old man who worships her. Rachel hungers for a child. It took me a while to pick up the threads of the lives of the various characters and figure out how they were connected. Wastvedt’s writing is sheer poetry in some places and for that I’ll forgive her the ease with which she let characters and lives drift apart. I know that is how real life works, that things don’t tie up in neat little bundles. But she left so many pockets of pain, so many conversations unfinished that I took it rather personally. 

I hope someday to grow up to be a writer like her. How does one write prose that sounds like poetry without sounding artificial? It’s magical.

Sorting out Sid – Yashodhara Lal

Disclaimer – Yash is a friend and I’m trying to be as objective as possible.

As I mentioned to Yashodhara, I’d never have picked up a book that seemed like it was about a man.. because well, it wouldn’t have been to my interest. But I did, and I’m so glad I did! Yashodhara’s first book crossed the gender barrier and this one does so with even more aplomb.

Sid is 36 and rather unsorted out. Like many of us. And at times he is absolutely infuriating – just like all of us, I guess. His marriage is an unhappy one even if the reader realises it before he does. His best friend is yet another strong woman and he seems to be propped up by strong women on every front. He is due for a promotion and the vixenish HR lady has her eye on him. He sells toilet cleaners, making for lots of susu -potty jokes.

Yashodhara’s writing is simple and unaffected. And what at first seems like a rather simple tale comes away in layers. His relationships with his wife, his best friends, his parents, his boss – are all in a mess. I started off with very little sympathy for him. But he won me over by the time the book came to an end.

She brings up a lot of very modern day issues through the book-  careers, Peter Pan men who don’t want to grow up, insist on bean bags being part of a more elegant home, don’t want to have kids, mostly cannot think beyond themselves. The love interest Neha is a divorced mother, and I smiled each time I watched those scenes play out.

The OA and I have a lot of friends who don’t have kids and balancing our social life is a nightmare. They love our kids but rarely ever realise how hard it is for us to use an entire weekend for ourselves. The kids have their own social lives and at this stage are dependent on us to ferry them about. And by the time we’re done with two birthday parties in a row and shoe shopping for school and weekend homework, we’re often in no state to party through the night. All we want is to change into our pajamas, get into bed with soup and stare mindlessly at the TV!

Anyhow, I digress (as usual) and getting back to the book, I love how Sid’s self centred nature asserts itself best in scenes where the baby makes her scene. Like a lot of Uncles and Aunts, he’s good for a fun time but no more.

A light read, it gives you something to think about without slapping you in the face with moral science lessons.

A Captain’s Duty – Stephen Talty

An account of the kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips by Somali pirates in 2009, from the MV Maersk Alabama. I have a lot of friends in the merchant navy and the thought of them being kidnapped does keep me up nights. There’s a part of my brain that can’t accept something as barbaric and primitive as piracy in this day and age. I know costs will go up, but why aren’t shipping companies investing in security on board these ships? Why isn’t the crew trained to use weapons etc? So many questions, and an overarching feeling of disbelief and outrage on behalf of those who risk their lives in this way.

Anyhow, the story told by Capt Phillips tracks his journey from the day he gets on board to the day he is released.

Obviously since its a memoir I don’t hold it to the standards that I hold other books to, but all he does through the entire book is extol his virtues. How great a captain he is, how great a husband, how great a son, it goes on. Seriously – did the editors sleep through this one? There are a few letters to and from his wife, and yet again 

I struggled through the book in spite of taking a dislike to him and not caring whether he gets out of it dead or alive and in spite of the stilted writing, because I wanted to know more about the experience. It was with a sense of relief that I shut the book.

Later on I read up on it and on talking to people I realised that it is common knowledge in shipping circles that he really is arrogant and presumptuous and was largely responsible for getting himself and his crew into a dangerous situation.

I know this isn’t really much of a recommendation for a book, but there you go.

A Long Walk Home – Judith Tebutt 

Yet another kidnapping by Somali pirates – and no, I had no intention of getting a PhD on the subject. Somehow I end up picking up/ receiving as gifts, books on a particular topic, all at the same time.

Judith and her husband David met in Africa many years ago and head off once again to the continent they love. After a week on safari in Masai Mara, their next destination is a picturesque beach resort, Kiwayu, that is only 40 kilometres from Somalia.

Call me chicken, but I wouldn’t plan a holiday anywhere within a 1000 kilometres of Somalia. There’s plenty else to see on this beautiful planet of ours. Reports say, however, that tourism is still flourishing there. Strange.

The alarm bells keep going off in Judith’s head, she says, but I’m not sure how much of that actually happened and how much she imagines/writes about in retrospect.

The island is beautiful but deserted and she expresses her discomfort to her husband, yet again. The cottages have roll up blinds at the doors and windows, nothing that can be locked for security. She wakes up to a shout that night, to see her husband locked in a struggle with a stranger. Two others drag her away at gun point to a boat waiting on the beach.

She ends up in the heart of Somalia, in a little shack. While we’ve all heard of Somali kidnappings (yes, I know how those two words just flow together) I doubt we’ve ever real stopped to imagine the condition of the hostages. The kidnappers are impoverished to begin with, which is why they resort to such lawlessness, so the conditions are far from comfortable.

Judith creates a schedule to maintain her sanity and health, walking up and down in her tiny little room, writing in a little smuggled notebook and trying to remember countries and capitals.  I was amazed by how a lady at Judith’s age kept her wits about her and kept the faith. I read this around the same time I read Captain Phillips’ account and couldn’t help but compare the two. She is so much more humble, real and easy to empathise with. You’re rooting for her right through.

I picked up the book because I was horrified and wanted to read a first hand account of a kidnapping by Somalian pirates. After all they’re constantly in the news for it. From pacing her room every hour, to learning to speak the language of her captors, to playing games on bits of card, Judith shows immense fortitude and presence of mind.

What didn’t work for me, was the style of writing.  Now Judith is not a writer, she is a mental health social worker, so clearly I was expecting too much, but a person can wish, can’t they? To be fair the writing is clean and she makes an effort. I just wish it had been edited to be tighter if not given to a ghost writer.

That said, the book could have been edited down to half its size. The language is simple and the tale is tediously drawn out at times, the degree of detail unnecessary other than to just underline how exhausting, traumatic and violating an experience it was.Again, I feel the editors should have exercised a little more discretion and ruthlessly chopped out chunks. Particularly since the writing is bland and uninspired – she isn’t a writer, after all; she’s a health worker.

The most interesting portions seem to have been left out for valid reasons – the negotiation between her son and the pirates. Did he pay to have her released? Did the government intervene? What happened? You’re left with a lot of questions and only one side of the story. Even so, something I’d recommend that everyone read, simply for the strength of her character through those 192 days of captivity.

Papertowns  – John Green

I don’t usually enjoy YA fiction but John Green has got under my skin. The first thing that hits you when you begin a John Green, is how damn intelligently he writes. And trust me, that is a rarity, these days. He philosophises, he talks to teens in a way they get and he holds my attention too. His books are thoughtful, insightful, witty, unputdownable perfection. And he keeps raising the bar. I forgot to review the last one I read, but I shall make up for that in my next post.

Quentin is a geeky teenager who lives next door to, and loves Margo. Has done so all his life. She’s the cool girl in school, everyone wants to hang out with her, and he’s more than a little surprised when she hops into his room that night asking him to go on a round of vengeance with her, no questions asked. The next day, she’s gone. Her parents have no clue where to begin looking for her and only then does he realise that she’s going to kill herself if no one is able to follow her clues, play her little game, and find her.

It’s a story as old as time. The geek boy loves the cool chick and has to earn that love. But  Green rewrites the hell out of it. For a 35 year old auntyji to stay up half the night reading it, reeled in by the sheer magic of his words.

Please buy and read. And gift to your nieces and nephews and neighbours kids. They won’t need to pick up the classics to see what good writing is.

Tampa – Alissa Nutting

Celeste Price is an schoolteacher who likes to sleep with 14 year old boys. Not 13, not 15. Just 14. There.  It’s best to get that out of the way.  Her profession gives her easy access to young boys and since its rare for women to suspected of child molestation, she gets away with murder, so to speak. She’s married, she’s gorgeous, she’s well loved by her students – she is so not the image of a child molester. A reminder to all of us parents that our sons are as unsafe as our daughters.

Celeste takes her time picking her victims, priming them, using them. The only problem this time, is that her victim’s father wants a piece of her too. I found her character thoroughly dislikable, very selfish and dishonest in every way.

I also realised how double our standards are in such matters. An older woman with a younger boy somehow seems less of a violation to many. But one just needs to read this book to see how easily they can be preyed upon. This book has a lot of sex and is not for the squeamish.

The Naughty Girls’ Book club – Sophie Hart

Estelle is a single mum trying to make a living out of a cafe that isn’t doing too well. She decides to drum up some business by starting a book club. A small group of women gets together and they decide on a theme for the next couple of books – naughty books from different periods. They also end up having one male on the book club who is distinctly uncomfortable with the way things are looking.

Now I’ve tried book clubs and realised they’re just not my thing. It’s usually less about the book and more general chatter. Which is what happens with them too. The basic theme is female bonding, sisterhood. Not really the most earth shaking book on the topic, it is a light read, touching upon each of their personal problems and how the friendship forged in the book club helps them overcome it.

The Black Country – Alex Grecian

And we’re back to my favourite kind of writing – period! It’s 1890 and three people are missing in a small coal mining village, Blackhampton. Two policemen are sent from London  to investigate the crime. The villagers though, close in and want to solve their own problems without outside interference. Very khap panchayat like.

A little girl who falls out of a tree and comes upon an eyeball. The houses that shudder and sink suddenly because of the coal mines running under them. The relentless snowfall. All makes for a rather grim state of affairs.

I’ve always admired Christie and Poirot and Holmes for solving their mysteries without the help of technology, but this one takes the cake. Stranded in the middle of a hostile village and hostile weather, with little to eat and no rest, the detectives persevere. The writing was good, the tension was palpable and the storyline taut. I enjoyed this one, thoroughly.

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30 thoughts on “Library day

  1. I’m glad you have a few Africa-related books listed out here. All my reading of late has been Africa-based and I can’t seem to get enough. So I now have a few more to pick up! Try Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus in particular) – you won’t be disappointed by the beautiful and powerful prose.

  2. Oh all of them sound interesting. I have already bought about 20 for myself from the Kolkata Book Fair. Still…I am tempted to buy some from this list. “The only bush I trust is my own” sounds the most interesting 🙂

  3. You weave magic with words. I’d love to read some of the books based only on your review. I’m about to finish reading a boring drug-cartel-based drama (yawn) and have The Notebook lined up. Some of the titles from your list are up after that.

  4. MM, if you haven’t read these, i thoroughly recommend them:
    1. Elements of Eloquence: How to turn the perfect English phrase, by Mark Forsyth (he’s very witty and hugely enjoyable to read!)
    2. Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer – a touching, very well written book about a teenager’s descent into mental illness. Sad but ultimately hopeful (an important criterion for me).

  5. Any recomendations for a 10 year old girl? Besides Harry Potter and Narnia…
    I want her to introduce to the real life.. nothing very serious.. but still that life is lived many a ways. So far she has read two books by Lois Lowry ( The Giver and Number the Stars)

  6. I had sworn not to look at any more book reviews from you – my little green note book has book recommendations scrawled all over and I noticed just the other day that a lot of them are from your posts 🙂 and I am lagging behind with my reading. And now I have some more to add from this list. Thank you
    Also, will you do a bacchon ka books reco list please? I know there is Saffron Tree (I’ve directed many friends there), but with so many nieces and nephews to get books for, it helps to know what two of my favorite ones liked reading 🙂

    • Well the Brat is only poring over encyclopaedias. He can quote chapter and verse on them. The Bean is still climbing trees and reading only when her life depends on it. will do a better and more comprehensive post for kids, soon.

  7. I read your book reviews with a lot of fear, I see the name of the book and quickly try to see if you liked it or not. After ‘The disappeared’ waala episode you see! If a book is good I want to discover it all in the book. That bush book is not available in India it seems Maddy.

  8. Recently i picked up a book called “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. Set in the 1950s and 60s in Jackson Missisippi just before the civil rights movement, it’s about the black maids bringing up the white kids. The racism, the divison of counties, supermarkets into coloured and white parts, the emotions that the maids go thru working for the elite white ladies. And then there is one white lady Skeeter who is different and wants to change things…found it quite interesting.
    I have picked up many a books from your book posts and have enjoyed them throughly. Thought you may like this.

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