Bijoy and the Big River

I think most of you know that I contribute (albeit erratically) to the Saffron Tree blog. It’s a privilege to be part of a group that loves children’s literature so much. And founder Praba and ex-contributor Meera have a new book! Yes, it’s called Bijoy and the Big River. I love the way Praba and Meera take children on a trip, exploring unusual parts of the country and educating them about wildlife. I can’t wait to get my own copy!

But for now, I have a guest reviewer on my blog. And it is, my dear friend Lavanya’s son, Pratik. After all, who better to review a children’s book, than a child himself?

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This book is about a young boy named Bijoy. He is a very adventurous and curious boy. He likes to swim and draw on wet mud. He once saw a rare animal called Xihu or Gangetic River Dolphin. His father or Deuta said he was very lucky.Deuta raises Eri or castor silkworms while Bijoy’s mom spins yarn from the cocoons.
One day, Deuta and Bijoy decide to explore the Brahmaputra. They canoe to Guwahati, before going on a steam boat. They see the wildlife near the Kaziranga National Park. They see a yarn house and the beautiful designs all around them.
They set off home only to come across some Xihus. Bijoy gets very excited and enjoys seeing the Xihus play. Soon, Bijoy and Deuta reach home.
Bijoy and The Big River is a very interesting book, filled with lots of facts on each page about the life in Assam. The accompanying photographs are very good! I give this book 4.5 stars.
Pratik enjoying Bijoy and the Big River
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The book has been reviewed by a few others too.

Book post time

Seeing Like a Feminist – Nivedita Menon

If you buy one book this year, make it this one. Keep it by your bedside. Read bite-sized portions. I began to read this close on the heels of Jyoti Singh Pandey’s death and I found myself often on the verge of tears, other times choking back outrage. Nivedita’s writing isn’t fancy or witty or flowery. I don’t think you worry about those issues once you dig your teeth into it. There are so many more important issues that just need to be brought to the forefront. So much that we just didn’t know. So much lost time to make up for. Let me give you examples. Reading her book is like putting on x-ray spectacles and seeing the bones that lie under your skin, the underlying rules that make up our patriarchy. The structure that keeps society functioning in a certain way. One of the simplest examples she gives of society’s enforced order, is of a village girl called Moni who was beaten, tonsured and stripped naked for dressing and ‘behaving like a boy’. Is it a big enough deal to merit such a reaction? On the other hand, what would be the reaction if a male employee in a multinational corporation came to work in a saree and bindi? From here she goes on to talk about how social order is so fragile that simply dressing in a different way causes breakdown. I wish I could go on and on, but I want you, every single one of you who reads this blog, to order this book. I wouldn’t even request you so earnestly if I myself had written it. But this book shakes up the way we look at ourselves as women, social order, constructs and so on. Gentlemen, I’d request you to read it too. There is a certain privilege you avail of, as men in a patriarchal society. Should you take advantage of it or should you step back and do the right and fair thing and give the women in your life the equality they deserve? Inter-caste marriages, same sex marriages, property rights, violence, there is nothing Nivedita doesn’t cover. I want to go back and read the book over and over again to make sure I retain every bit. To ensure that I too, see like a feminist.

Again, if you’re buying a book this year, make it this one. If you’re giving a gift, make it this one.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

If you’ve read my blog for more than a year you’re sure to know that my biggest bug bear is badly behaved kids. My hand itches to smack them and then their parents. It makes no sense for me to bring up my kids so strictly if others are going to let theirs run wild, misbehave with mine and generally create a shittier future for them. Which is why when I read the blurb on this book I knew I was picking it up. It’s easy to associate with this Greek family settled in Australia, because the family dynamic is so familiar to us Indians. Large families with everyone interfering. That one shocking incident that sends reverberations through the entire group and leaves everyone feeling awkward. In this case, a badly behaved child is slapped right at the start and the rest of the book follows through on the consequences. Frankly I’d imagine it would end there, but you honestly can’t slap someone else’s kids and get away with it (much though I’d love to!) so.

I do feel the book could have been shorter by about 1/3rd but that’s about the only peeve I have.

The Vague Woman’s Handbook – Devapriya Roy

I enjoyed the book. Devapriya’s writing is good, but I once again got the feeling that it was largely autobiographical. The college setting, the newly weds, maybe not much else. But I do wish she’d just dropped all similarities with her own life and done something different. Which is not really criticism of the book, again, more a problem with my own expectations- because she’s a great writer and I have very high expectations of people who I feel write well. I am sure it will be much enjoyed by many – a lovely story, gentle pace. I particularly enjoyed the attention to the friendship with an older lady. I have in the last few years befriended ladies who are older and I know what age brings to a friendship. And for that touch alone, I highly recommend the book. Well that and the fact that the protagonist is as directionally challenged as I am – spin me around in front of my gate and leave me, and I’d be hard pressed to identify my own home.

I kissed a frog – Rupa Gulab

I’ve never read anything else of Rupa Gulab’s and I don’t appreciate short stories. So when this book ended up in my possession I was rather ho hum about it. Actually I didn’t realise they were short stories until I began reading. And for once I was drawn in and finished the entire book in one sitting. In spite of the stories being very desi and very contemporary (you know I don’t really enjoy that). In fact, for those very reasons maybe. I also like that her writing is crisp and witty. A relationship that continues, and fluidly changes shape when one of the partners changes their sex. A mother and daughter go from being family to friends. A love story where love truly must be blind to accept the extra 40 kgs. The second section is on friendship among women, something I feel not enough is written about (refer to the book above this one). Almost every book I’ve read has been about women related to each other. Friendships among women are rare, even rarer, are books about those friendships. The last section however, totally fell apart for me. It is a section on popular fairy tales with a contemporary twist. I feel like the first two sections were meant for adult readers/young readers, but the last bit very definitely for teenagers.

Cold Feet – Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

With this book I feel Meenakshi has really come into her own. I read her blog and I know her slightly, and so with her last book there was a sense of – I know she can do better. And she has. Five women searching for love, dealing with it in their own way. It’s interesting how similar her book and Rupa Gulab’s are in certain ways. Maybe it’s because as journalists/writers we all move in somewhat the same social circle. I saw so many people I’d almost recognise, the situations were so easy to relate to and the characters, some gay, some straight, some not sure, were so .. people we know. Her writing is witty, contemporary and she isn’t doing that awful thing a lot of other authors are doing – trying too hard. It sounds patronising but if Meenakshi reads this, she’ll know it was meant in the nicest possible way. Her writing flows beautifully, conversations are not stilted, the progression is measured and the structure is great. Frankly I don’t think the blurb does the book justice and I wish it were marketed better. Every character is distinctive and perfectly formed and nobody comes across as a caricature – yet another issue I have with a lot of desi writing – apart from the fact that very few writers seem truly comfortable writing in English. So more power to her, I’d like to read more of her work and I’m hoping she goes from glory to glory.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Paul Torday

Read this one in one sitting and loved it. The story is told through various documents – personal letters, emails, official documents, government memos and so on. I last read something like this in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and am slowly falling in love with this literary device. Dr Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist who is happy in his little academic cocoon and the height of ambition for him is his paper on caddis fly larva earning recognition. His marriage of 20 years holds no surprises and his wife believes that perfume can’t replace the merits of regular application of soap and water. Enter Harriet Chetworde-Talbot who represents a Sheikh in Yemen, with a request that is quite insane – salmon fishing in the Yemen. A whole lot of bureaucratic drama follows and the project kicks off.

And through these devices we get to know that Harriet’s fiance has been posted in Iran, Alfred’s wife is on a secondment to Germany and the Prime Minister of Britain is keen to distance himself from this crazy project that might just be egg on his face. The vein of dry humour that runs through this fairly peaceful story kept me smiling. I love how ‘British’ and formal most of the personal communication is, too. I don’t know if I’d ever write something so formal, boring and straitlaced, to my boyfriend in the army! My favourite part (spoiler alert) – referring the bereaved to a call centre in India! All in all, an easy read, a social and political commentary that is gentle, yet reveals more than it hides. Must read. Impossible to tell that this is a first book – so well held together, so beautifully crafted.

We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Kevin is a boy who goes on a rampage and kills about 10 of his classmates and a teacher. Nothing you haven’t heard before. Except, how often do you get to know the child and the family behind it? Do you assume they’re all trailer trash? I had no thoughts on this whatsoever, before I picked up the book. We have enough going on in India without trying to distract ourselves with US school shootouts.

I seem to be picking up books that use only communication as their device. This one is no different. Kevin’s mother Eva writes to her husband Franklin and from the early days of their courtship to the hours she spends visiting her son in jail, every bit is documented. Lionel Shriver is a brilliant writer and I was unwell for a couple of days so I actually put the book aside because I didn’t want to gloss over or miss any of the finely crafted points she makes. A simple one right in the beginning when she talks about testing for Down’s Syndrome, being an older mother. And how she wonders why kids are not tested for malice and spite and indifference, in the womb. Made me stop and wonder too, whether we’d like to do that. Now that we’re already down that slippery path where we test for abnormalities and ruthlessly discard a child with chances of muscular atrophy, would we keep a child who tested positive for violence? Would you pick that child over a paraplegic? So much to think about, so much realisation of the power we wield as parents. I plan to read this book again, simply to soak in the beauty of her words, the stark honesty of her arguments. Love.

Bringing up Bebe – Pamela Druckerman

This book, I believe, was written for me. To justify my thought process. Deep down I’m French – you guys just didn’t know it. I didn’t either, but now I do. Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist who moves to France when she gets married to a Britisher. Of course a baby arrives soon and she goes stark raving mad trying to have a dinner out with the child in tow. Reminds me of my first dinner out with the Brat and OA in Madras, a place called Bay Leaf that served Bong food. The 45 day old Brat screamed till he was purple in the face and the OA and I stood out holding him on the road side in turn, while the other gobbled down their food. I’ve never forgotten that and I swore I was not going to let it put me off eating out. We learnt to manage the Brat and had some lovely meals thereafter, at the Park, the Brat in a rocker at the pool side Aqua, and Bella Ciao and Benjarong among others. Often he’d fall asleep and we’d put him under the table and rock him with a foot and he’d sleep through our dinner without anyone even knowing there was a baby under the table!

Getting house help there was a nightmare because inspite of speaking basic my-aunt-has-the-pen-of-the gardener’s-wife type Tamil, I couldn’t figure out the names for vegetables and how to say sieve, stir or strain. So I got in a maid for the cleaning and would cook our meals myself. And that meant that the Brat who teethed early, just learnt to eat spinach raita and aloo posto if that is what I’d made. No ragi, no sabudana, no unidentifiable mashed and pureed food for him. Might explain why he loved calamari at age 2 when most other kids didn’t know what it was. Anyhow, I always wondered why we’d go to parties and find a delicious spread for the adults and simple pasta for the kids. My kids would love to eat the stew/biryani/whatever fancy food the adults were eating. But they’d be sat down earlier and fed some passably bland white food and sent off to play while we adults played gourmet. I on the other hand, never serve separate food for kids at our parties because I expect them to eat the salad, the cous cous, the whatever they’re being offered. Their parents probably hate me, but hey, my house, my rules.

Anyhow, I felt like I was weirdo, but then the Internet brings you closer to weirdos like yourself and that’s how I met BEV many years ago. It’s amazing how soul sistah we are in our parenting styles. We go over for dinner and the kids come with us, but we don’t hear or see them. They all know to stay in the nursery, share their toys, settle their disputes without violence and not come out until it is dinner time. Her daughter and the Bean get along like a house on fire and the Brat falls between her sons in age and plays with both. It’s amazing to see them quietly sit down for dinner, open up their napkins and have French Onion soup, or Hyderabadi dahi vada or something absolutely new, without a murmur. We have a rule – try everything once. And if they don’t like the food, too bad, they go home hungry. One uneaten meal won’t kill them.

So BEV lent me this book telling me it was about written for us, and it was. No noise at the fine dining restaurant, sleep on time, no throwing tantrums in public – that’s our kids for you. And I don’t mean this as some form of bragging, because I know a lot of people judge us for how strict we are with our kids. It just means they’re very welcome everywhere they go, they get to experience a variety of foods and situations and they’re learning to open their minds to everything. I realise this is more of a review of our parenting than the book, so I’ll try and drag myself back there.

The book talks about how French parents don’t let their kids take over their lives. So you don’t have them scribbling on your white sofa, screaming and demanding pish-pash for dinner or banging their glass full of water at a restaurant. A little pause before you pick up a screaming child, learning to taste new food, encouraging autonomy, simple manners like Good evening and good bye (remember we had a loooong post on that one?) and so on. If you expect your child to behave, he or she will. It’s just that simple. If you shrug off their misbehaviour with a smile, saying oh, he’s just a kid, well, he’ll just push all your buttons. It also talks about picking some battles and making do with the others. I realised what mine are – Screen time and manners. Other than that, I don’t stress if they don’t eat, I don’t care if they fall asleep on the floor at a wedding and I don’t mind (heck, even encourage them) if they miss a day of school to do something fun.

Anyway, this is not the book for parents who let kids take over their lives and ride rough shod over them. This is a book for parents who believe in having a life, who believe in manners, in treating kids like small sized humans and not imbeciles. Oh what the hell, it’s a book for all parents. Ones like me and BEV will feel like they’re in good company. The rest will have something to bitch about while their kids tear a friend’s house apart!

Author Druckerman does a fab job of understanding French Culture, the nuances that go in, and seeing where she’d draw a line to suit her own cultural expectations.

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm (Parenting wisdom from around the world) – Mei-Ling Hopgood

Yet another expat mum in a strange country, trying to raise her kids to fit in. As luck would have it, I read this just after Bringing up Bebe. And it was a nice kick in the pants! There I was, all feeling proud of my parenting style when this book came in and told me, everyone has their own way.

Actually here too, Mei-Ling picks up what suits her from various cultures, while walking her own path. And I enjoyed the read. Funnily she too falls back on the French teaching their kids to eat healthy food (check). How the Eskimos practice attachment parenting and keep their kids warm (check), how the Chinese potty train early (check) and how Kenyans don’t use push chairs (check!). On all other counts, from Asians teaching their kids to excel and Japs let their kids fight, I was not on board, but hey, I don’t have to be!

For some reason this book held me less – perhaps because I disagreed with a lot of the practices and felt they were not suitable for us as a family and the times we live in. But it’s an eye opener to see how other cultures live, why they choose the practices they do and how we could adapt those to suit us. Definitely a good read.

The Whore’s Asylum – Katy Darby

If you know me, you know I love my period fiction. Set in 1887, Oxford, this one gives you a fabulous picture of London in those times. From the colleges to the gin-deaths and whores. Stephen Chapman is a medical student and shares rooms with Edward Fraser, a theologist. The story is told in Fraser’s words. Chapman is a kind hearted sort, who gets involved with unsavoury types. Put simply, he decides to research venereal diseases. He also falls in love with the wrong woman, Diana. She works with the ladies of the night and is a perfect fit for Chapman, if not socially acceptable. I cannot tell you more for fear of spoiling it for you but it is interesting to see how dedicated and interested physicians in those days had to go out of their way to research their science. And what criminal acts, hardship and social stigma it brought. From robbing graves for a cadaver to experiment on, to frequenting the seedier parts of town, these gentlemen did it all. The book drags its feet through dirty lanes and hostels and ailments and social commentary and medical research. All this seen through the lens of a man of God. A slow read but an interesting one.

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

I was warned by the friend who lent it to me that I wouldn’t enjoy it. That she didn’t even care if I never returned it. Not an auspicious start to a story no doubt, but then I do love my historical romances and period fiction. Set not so far back, in 1924, this one is about a glittering London full of poetry, mazes in the gardens, follies and romances. A film maker who wishes to shoot at the house and tell its sorry tale and calls upon Grace Bradley, an old maidservant and as everyone knows – the househelp knows everything. A young poet shot himself at a party held in this house and from thereon it declined. Grace was an eyewitness to the event and is taken from her nursing home to help reconstruct the sequence of events. Her evolution from maidservant to respectable old lady in a nursing home show the movement of time.

I found the book slow moving and denouement a slight letdown. But it is an interesting study in social structure, hierarchy and relationships. I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy this book, but I’d borrow it for a slow day.

Mummy’s Legs – Kate Bingham

I’m seriously thinking of avoiding all books authored by anyone called Kate. I picked this one up because the blurb fooled me. A young girl helps her mother get a hold on her life when she finds out her husband is cheating on her. It’s supposed to be told through the girl’s eyes and I’m probably really slow because after a point I lost track of who the girl was, who the mother was and what her problem was. I blame it on being under the influence of drugs (had the flu for a couple of days) and very very sleepy – oh, and the book being pointless. Whatever, don’t go there, don’t read it, booooring.

The Lake of Dreams – Kim Edwards

I read Edward’s Memory Keeper’s Daughter and quite enjoyed it, which prompted me to pick this one up. I found the blurb a little deceptive once I read the book, but we’ll get to that later. Lucy Jarrett lives in a little house in Japan with her lover Yoshi and is woken up by an earthquake. Far away from all this, her mother suffers an accident in America. So leaving behind the cherry blossom and her village on the rim of a volcanic mountain, Lucy heads back to her small town around a lake called the Lake of Dreams by the Iroquois or the Native Indian original inhabitants.

I enjoyed the whole small town feel to the book. Everyone knows everyone, a few new stores have popped up and are doing interesting new things, the old familiars are shutting down. An old flame is back, divorced, one numbers requisite gorgeous child in tow. It checks all the boxes and you wonder if she’ll go back to him. After all, he speaks the language of her growing years, unlike the Japanese lover who smells of foreign lands. What I really liked was how her mother had a life and a love of her own. While my parents are thankfully still alive and together, her mother reminded me of my parents. Young, fit, a life of their own and they scrub up good! My mum owns more fashionably elegant items of clothing than I do and my father books his exotic holidays faster than the OA can figure out where the ‘compose mail’ button on the iPad is. What I felt sort of distant from though, was the sibling relationship portrayed in it. They were so formal, so distant – I couldn’t relate to it at all, and it just annoyed me very much.

All this while Lucy has come upon an ancient piece of embroidery and a connected piece of stained glass – something draws her to them. She begins to dig around church records and newspaper clippings to discover who the lady in the stained glass window is. While this is really what the story is supposed to be about, I wasn’t in the least bit interested in it. I was far more absorbed by the interpersonal relationships, the ebbs and tides of them and the family politics that played out. Again, I felt a little let down by the end but on the whole it was an absorbing read for the sheer fluidity of her language. I wish I could write like that.

Love Stories – Annie Zaidi

Disclaimer for those who don’t already know, Annie is a dear friend and an old classmate. But, you know me well enough to know I’d be deadly honest anyway. I loved the cover to begin with. Two smoldering matches. Tells you how much thought went into the book. The other thing that strikes you, a simple device, is that there are no names given to the characters in the 14 short stories. They don’t matter. There’s a he and a she and these are stories that play out across the world. Could be anyone, could be anywhere, their names don’t matter. And of course Annie’s trademark, keen observations – because what is a writer if not a keen observer of life? The plain shirt, the railway station clock, the five o’clock shadow. Annie notices it all. The language is simple. Not for her any flowery excess. Each one focuses on a different type of love. The man you’ve never met, the one whose voice you’ve never heard, the one who was a friend. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that. Only this time do you see the details pointed out. I pulled an all nighouter with this one – so will you.

Astray – Emma Donoghue

She is now my favourite writer, bar none. I don’t know how she does it – changes her voice and her tone and her ideas. I’m in awe of writers who can break free of a mould and do that. Who cannot be identified by blindly reading a page out of a book or a genre. So this one is a series of short stories inspired by news articles that cover a period of four centuries. Runaways, gold diggers, slaves, wives, immigrants, the theme is people on the move. I admire the way she picked the articles she did (she is a keen historian) and fleshed out characters, gave them a face and told their story. Sex crimes, Barnum’s circus, the woman who played the part of a widow and robbed a man’s life’s earnings, a cross dresser, the list is endless and mind boggling. This is a book that must be read to be believed. If there’s an Emma Donoghue temple, I might just become a praying woman.

I’ve Got Your Number – Sophie Kinsella

I don’t do chick-lit and this was an aberration. I find it boring, uninspiring and my own life is far more fun on a regular day anyway. But I break this rule for Kinsella’s writing. Light, frothy and a joy to read, her ditsy heroines remind me of my own haphazard existence. The story is simple – Poppy loses her engagement ring and finds a phone that does not belong to her. The right thing to do would be to give it back of course, but then where would the story go? Rich, magnetic Sam Roxton, owner of the phone would like it back, but Poppy’s having none of it. The story goes on from there. You already know how it will end, but you go along for the fun ride. A one time, borrow-from-your-friend-for-a-flight read.

An Almost Perfect Moon -Jamie Holland

I picked this up because someone compared it to Nick Hornby. Unfair comparison to say the least. This book is about 3 young men, and told from their perspective. One is about to get married, another is shifting into the country with his partner and the third is still searching for the perfect woman. Frankly I’m sick to death of adults who won’t just pull up their socks and get on with it. Whiny adults with first world problems and an inability to take life on the chin. But then that’s just me being intolerant as usual.

I found the story plodding, the plots unimaginative, the situations cliched. The usual harried new mum, the man who is never satisfied with the women he lands and so on. I don’t know why I dragged myself through it. Life is too short to finish books you don’t like, is my new mantra. So, this is a warning – don’t read this book.

Kitnay Aadmi Thay?

Guess what! I was one of the lucky few, invited to lunch with Diptakirti of Calcutta Chromosome fame (or should that be the other way around?) for the launch of his book Kitnay Aadmi Thay along with the winners of the contest.

If you don’t know that his book about absolutely useless Bollywood trivia is out, then you’ve probably just got back from a space mission or been hibernating under a rock.  Lunch was a lovely sit down affair at Zura, a bistro bar in Gurgaon’s Leisure Valley area and we spent a pleasant afternoon ribbing the author and harassing him to make a speech. He didn’t. Oh well, at least the food was good 😉 There was also an impromptu quiz in the middle of it that was great fun.

At some point though, I’ve got to put aside my rather sibling-ish irreverence aside and admit that the book is fantastic even if I’d never say that to his face. I may not be as Bollywood as some, but I do love my Hindi cinema. So it’s very convenient to have someone else put in a lifetime of research and produce a handy book that you can flip through each time you just NEED to know which film had animated versions of the protagonists running around through the credits. Or the most expensive film that didn’t get made. The ultimate handbook for anyone who lays claim to loving Hindi cinema, I’m buying and handing them out to all my friends.

Dipta’s trademark wry humour ties it all up into a neat package and it’s now on my bedside table. I’ve been trying to space it out and read a chapter a night, like a well loved blog, instead of greedily gobbling it up. If you love Bollywood, you just HAVE to own a copy. Feel free to order off Flipkart, Indiaplaza, Bookadda and a dozen other joints if you don’t find it at a store next to you. And when he’s rich(er) and famous(er) I’ll sell the autographed copy I have and it can be the Brat’s college fund.

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Next up is Priya Narendra’s You Never Know When You’ll Get Lucky. Kajal is a curvy, zany, spirited copywriter who fortunately, never seems to have a dry spell in her love life. And yet, Mr Right has not turned up – yet. Hunky researcher, suave investment banker (yes, we all seem to have one of those 😉 ) and jholawala neighbour are just some of the love interest options she has. Definitely a frothy romance, it is also an interesting peek into the world of advertising. Witty, pacy and a fun, fast read, this is one of those books that makes you stop and rush to check out the meaning of bathetic and enbonpoint. Possessor of a wonderful turn of phrase, Priya is not a first time author. Her Two Chalet School Girls in India is a book I am itching to get my hands on and sooner or later am going to click that buy button on Amazon.

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And while we’re on the topic of pals writing books, you do know that our very own Yashodhara Lal of  Y on Earth Not has a book out too, don’t you? Even if you don’t know, it’s best not to admit to such ignorance in public. Just nod along and then head off here for the book launch event (Epicentre, July 19th, 6.30 pm). Just Married, Please Excuse, promises to be a laugh riot like her blog so I’m quite looking forward to it.

Now excuse me while I get back to my library corner.

PS: With this, I also go into the has-the-most-number-of-published-friends category.

Books galore

No, I’m not abandoning you. While I’m away on holiday, here’s a list of books you can pick up. Each one has touched me deeply.

The Village – Nikita Lalwani

Ray Bhullar is of Indian origin and lives in England. She works with the BBC and comes with a team to film an open prison in India. The people live together like a village. Prisoners are allowed to go out of the camp to work and the condition for living in this open prison is that you must bring your family to live with you and earn your living. The idea is to rehabilitate as well as give trust to beget trust. The host of the show is Nathan, an ex-con who will bring in nuance, since he has done time too.

It’s an interesting concept and I’m quite ashamed to admit that I was unaware of the existence of nearly 30 open jails in India. The story is interesting and I loved the choice of topic. So unusual. Viewing an Indian prison sometimes through firangi eyes and at other times through the NRIs eyes.

If I have any complaint, it is that I found the pace a little slow. Perhaps the idea was to build atmosphere, but it didn’t work. It took what could have been done in half the number of pages and dragged it on until I was begging for it to end. I know that is not high praise, but I don’t mean it that way. Definitely a story worth reading to show you how manipulative the human race is.

Awake – Elizabeth Graver

Anna Simon’s son Max has a strange and rare disease that doesn’t allow him out in the sun. The entire family, including her other son, Adam and her husband, need to restructure their lives to work with his condition and it’s not very easy. They live like creatures of the night; windows blacked out, a sign at the door that tells people not to push it open and suddenly let light in, sleeping in the day and waking at night, finding night time activities to do and so on. So night is day and day is night and they live a completely inverted life. Holidays and trips are out of course, until one day they hear of Camp Luna. A camp for children just like Max, set up by a father whose daughter has the same problem. Everything here is carried out at night; games, picnics, parties. For once, Max is normal and everyone else is out of place.  It is here under cover of darkness that things begin to unravel.

This book reminded me of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. One can’t help but feel very very sorry for the siblings of children with disabilities. They suffer a strange sort of neglect. So do spouses. Here is yet another obsessive mother, working hard to give her son what life didn’t. And in the bargain, alienating everyone else. But she comes to Camp Luna and it inspires her to go back to the artist and person she was. An interesting book with none of the moral dilemma that Picoult offers. Simply an observation and commentary on life. Very nice.

Silk – Alessandro Baricco

I fell in love with the name when I saw this book on the rack. So simple. Silk. Reminded me of the chocolate. It is set in 1861 (yes, yes, you know me and my love for the past) and a French merchant of silkworms, Herve Joncour travels across the world in search of their eggs. His travels bring him to Japan at a time when strangers were treated with distrust and suspicion. And there Joncour meets a woman – a woman he can never have. They don’t even speak or touch, but she feels the same way about him. I’m always intrigued by these stories. She gets a note across to him and he can’t read it until he gets back to his own country and gets someone to translate. And once he reads it, there is no turning back.

Does this happen? Is there a stranger who crossed your path, one you’ve never forgotten? Can you fall so deeply in love with someone you’ve never even spoken to? Is that love? He goes back for her and well, I’ll leave you to read the rest.

Nothing grips me like a love story. I believe they are only stories worth telling. The only thing you can change is the setting. And considering how common love stories are, finding an unusual setting is not easy. This was an interesting one. The 1800s, a Frenchman, a Japanese woman he has never spoken to. I am always fascinated by how good authors can pick a time and a place and a couple you’ve never met before. The same holds true for the next book in this list. A Canadian woman, a Cambodian man, Canada and Cambodia in the 70s, so much music…

The Disappeared – Kim Echlin

I must be growing old and senile, because I could swear I wrote a post on this book. I did a search on my blog and couldn’t find it so I’m just going to do it anyway. If I’ve raved about this book before, bear with me. Anne Greves meets Serey at a blues bar in the early 70s when she is 16. I read that early scene and wished I were her. Who wouldn’t want to meet a long haired musician with a penchant for math (or something else equally geeky), from an exotic country, in a smokey bar?! It’s almost as the hero was created for me. A grouse many readers have is that you don’t see why Anne loves Serey so. Eh? Why does anyone love anyone. We all have our intense loves and I am sure no one looking from the outside in can see why we’re so besotted, why we’re hungering, why we’re crying. I didn’t have that peeve. To me it was rather obvious. There was so much music, so much chemistry, so much.

They fall in love and they live happily … well, not ever after. The borders open up and he returns to Cambodia to hunt for his family. For those who have any desire to learn about the Cambodian genocide and for those who have never even heard of it, this is your chance. It makes you feel dirty to know that you are a part of the human race that is capable of inflicting such pain. Well, that and so much else that history is witness to.

The writing is simply brilliant. It’s poetry. I read it over and over again. Going back and forth between chapters like a maniac just to experience a particular emotion again. Wanting to know that love, be that love. And suddenly, fearing that love. He disappears into the ashes and the blood of the killing fields and she despairs of ever hearing from him. Years go by and then suddenly one day she catches a glimpse of someone who looks just like him, on the news. Full of hope she leaves Canada to plunge into the horror that is the Cambodia of during the Pol Pot time. Does she find him? Let me put you out of your misery and admit that she does. But that is not the end. Oh no, we’re a long way from the end.

People keep dying in this book. Her mother, their still born daughter, and yet you keep reading because you can’t stop yourself. Anne’s love is the kind we all promise our lovers but rarely fulfill. It goes beyond the grave. I can’t tell you more without giving away the story. Suffice to say, if you want to read about love, if you want to read poetry, if you want to know how far violence can go, if you want to know how depraved a human can be, if you want to know how deep an ache can feel, this is where you will find the answers. Like all books that have a soundtrack to them, this one too had me hooked with the first song. Read Kim Echlin’s interview on music here – I have a deep rooted belief that every good writer has a love for music. Whenever I’m asked about a favourite book, I go back to this one. It’s seared into my heart.

The Lady of The Rivers –  Phillipa Gregory

I’m a PG fan. I love her writing, her research, her choice of subjects. If you can keep in mind that she takes liberties with her characters, you’re set. Intrigued by Jacquetta of Luxembourg who makes brief but important appearances in the lives of other major players, Gregory chooses to write about her. Historically you are not learning anything new, but again, to me, this was a love story. The Duchess who lowered herself to marry the blue-eyed squire after she was widowed. It wasn’t easy to remind myself that this was partly fiction.

She takes you through the Lancaster court and introduces you to the main players of the House of York. And all the while, the love story plays on. There must be more to it because I cannot understand Jacquetta and her husband Richard’s loyalty to Queen Margaret, who is clearly manipulative and untrustworthy. An interesting book because once more it brings out magic, chemistry and so much else beyond our ken. A fey twist to history.

The world according to Garp – John Irving

I find myself ill-equipped to talk about this book, but I must find a way to share it with you. I should probably have read it 10 years ago because I seem to have denied myself 10 years of absolute brilliance. Garp is the illegitimate son of Jenny Fields. Who inadvertently becomes a feminist when she writes her autobiography. Garp marries his boxing coach’s daughter Helen Holm and has a strangely open marriage. He writes one bestseller novel and spends a lifetime trying to recreate that success.

There are many mini-stories that make up the book and as I said, I’m a little overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. There are the Ellen Jamesians, women who are protesting the rape of a little girl whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from identifying the rapists – they’ve all cut their tongues out to show their support. There is the transsexual who was a football player, there is Garp’s own literary success that flows in and out of his narrative. Structurally it is amazing to be able to pull something like this off, because at no point does Irving lose the plot. And its a triumph for the reader to be able to just keep up and admire his skill.

Darkly comic, you come across rape and mutilation in every second chapter and yet, it doesn’t get you down. It is a commentary on the early feminist movement and there is something about the book that mocks anything and anyone who takes themselves too seriously. If I had to draw a parallel, it would be to a Govinda movie where nothing is implausible – and yet it is a classic. Just when you think nothing worse can happen, it does, in the most gruesome way and you find yourself laughing in horror. Raising the absurd to more than an art form, this is a book that should be read every five years. I’m sure it will bring you an entirely different layer each time. I don’t know if I’ve made any sense. Suffice to say – read it. You won’t regret it.

The Sealed Letter – Emma Donoghue

Every time I pick up an Emma Donoghue, I can’t help but be blown away by how each book is so starkly different, such a different voice, such a different time, place, idea. I’m not religious, but these are the kind of writers I’d like to build temples to. This one is based on a real story that shocked Victorian London. Vice Admiral Codrington has just returned from Malta with his much younger wife, Helen and their two daughters. Barely into the book you realise she is having an affair with a younger, dashing Colonel Anderson. The story later reveals that this is not the first of her indiscretions. Encouraged by prudish friends, he files for a divorce. Caught up in this mess is Emily Faithfull aka Fido, an old friend, who eventually drifted away because she was unwittingly forced to bear witness to their frequent quarreling. But Helen is back in her life, demanding her friendship and demanding that she go beyond the call of friendship. From using her living room in the afternoon and letting Fido hear the squeak of the sofa springs going up and down, to eventually living with her when her husband throws her out, Helen uses her friend quite shamelessly. I’m not sure if the book is ungenerous to her or if it is just me, but I felt no compassion for Helen who is so busy conducting her affair that she misses a telegram calling her home to her sick child.

I’m not usually very judgmental about extra marital affairs, specially in books (didn’t I once do a post on that?), but the moment there is a neglected child involved I change sides like a baingan. It’s just unfair for kids to be trapped in a mess. Anyhow, getting back to the book, it’s a fascinating account of divorce in Victorian England, and of the early women’s movement, again. Accusations of rape, hints of lesbianism and a sealed letter that contains… well, only one way for you to find out. Divorce proceedings anyway bring out the worst in people and you’re forced to take a harsher stand than you had any intention of. This sordid affair too, ends up with dirty linen being washed in public and I can’t help but shudder at how easy it is to get into a relationship and how hard to end it.

Once again, Donoghue has a winner. And I’m looking for funding to set up that temple to her. What? If someone like Khushboo *choke* can have a temple, I don’t see why people who really deserve it shouldn’t! And the more I read books of this sort, the harder it becomes to restrain myself from pelting Chetan Bhagat’s house with rotten tomatoes.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

I believe the publishers owe me something on this one. I’ve recommended this book to everyone, all the time. It is 1946 and Guernsey is under German occupation. And then one day author Juliet Aston gets a letter from Dawsey Adams who has come into possession of a book that once belonged to her. Their love of reading kicks off a correspondence and soon she gets to know all about life in Guernsey. The authors have used letters as their storytelling device and there is something simple, satisfying and comforting about the story. I’ve yet to have one friend get back to me saying they were unhappy with it. It’s that breath of fresh air from a slower time, that all of us need. A lovely, lazy, feel good holiday read.

For your reading pleasure

I’ve been wanting to write a book post for a while now, but the pile on my bedside table tempts me to read more instead of wasting that time writing. I can’t be selfish any longer though, so I shall share my last couple of reads with you.

One Day – David Nicholls

This one reminded me of Love Story by Erich Segal(is there any other?). The witty dialogue being the least of the reasons. It’s far more contemporary and very Harry Met Sally too. Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their graduation and hook up. And then, because of a number of events, what should have been the perfect match, doesn’t happen. They stay in touch and there are moments when you want to slap one of them and tell them to get their act together. But it’s rather like real life in that sense. So many close shaves. So many moments where something beautiful could come of it, but one of them idiotically effs things up. I read it a second time over for the funny lines and promised myself I’d use them. But of course I’ve already forgotten them again.

The Mine – Arnab Ray

This one is not for the weak stomachs. I was hooked from the beginning and read through the night. I enjoy the Great Bong’s blog and his book lived up to it ( I liked the first book too, but not half as much as this). A mystery set in a secret mining facility in Rajasthan where the miners come up against very provocative carvings. A team of experts comes in to sort out the strange things that this discovery triggers and before you know it they start dying. One by one. Some of the scenes are disturbingly grotesque, but anything less wouldn’t shock. In parts I found the dialogue forced and stilted, but the rest of it held strong. A very thrilling read.

Hood – Emma Donoghue

I became a fan when I read Donoghue’s Room. So the moment I saw Hood, I picked it up without even reading the blurb. I’m glad I did. The story begins with a funeral. Penelope O’Grady’s lover, Cara is dead in a car crash. And the rest of the book reconstructs their love affair. I found the name rather tongue in cheek and well thought of. I have to admit that I have no trouble rattling off a post – it’s the title that I always struggle with and then carelessly fill up some rubbish, just to get it done with. So, getting back to the point – the name of the book itself speaks volumes about the author. I’ve heard it referred to as a ‘lesbian’ love story, but it’s not. It’s just a love story, that happens to be about two women. And it’s been treated as such. Over the next few weeks, as Pen deals with the past and her grief, a lot more comes to light. Donoghue’s writing is compelling but the plot isn’t particularly absorbing. You already know what the story is, but the past slowly opens up to you and lets you in to their little secrets, humiliations and love. I’d suggest you read this on vacation and not while you’re busy with everyday life and likely to put it down and forget it.

A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon

If you’ve read and enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, then you will love this. Fifty seven year old George is convinced he is dying of something. This is bad timing because his daughter is getting remarried. His son is gay and wants to bring his partner to the wedding, and that makes him uncomfortable. And his wife is busy having an affair with his colleague. Very bad timing indeed. Family melodrama that is wry, witty and warm. Haddon needs no recommendation from one as insignificant as me, but if you haven’t read him before, this is your chance to see how a really good writer pulls it together. It’s a slice out of any of our lives. We ache, we die, we live, we breathe and we wonder why the world didn’t stop and acknowledge us. This is the story of just yet another life.

Alice Walker – The Colour Purple

This is a Pulitzer Prize winner and told through one of the age old story telling techniques of writing letters. Celie is a young black girl raped by her father and finally married off to a man who already has children. Her sister Nettie, the only port in a storm, is lost to her. The book depressed me because it seemed like Celie just didn’t get a break. I read on, stolidly, chapter after chapter, waiting for her to be saved. And she was. But only after I’d felt my sense of hope trampled upon. The language in the letters Celie writes is authentic but that just made it slow reading for me as I struggled to make sense of her grammar. Petulantly I wished the same story could have been told in plain old English. Yes, I have my bad days. A story about a survivor. A story that could have been written about a woman anywhere in our country. Heart breaking.

Island Beneath the Sea – Isabel Allende

Now if I had to pick one novel out of this list as my favourite, it would be this one. Set in the 18th century, it takes you into the world of slaves and masters, brutality and terror, threat and discrimination. This book took me back to my childhood and my grandmother singing us to sleep with Way down upon the Swanee river. It reminded me once again, that the entire world owes a debt to the people of colour. Each line, each chapter, drives a nail into the heart. Slavery, illegitimate children, women being misused. It is one horror after the other. And yet Allende is the kind of writer that transports you to 1770 in the blink of an eye and into a world that is so real, her writing so visceral, that you feel the heat, the blinding sun under which they slave and the frisson of terror as they try to getaway. I often complain about the kind of writing Indian publishers seem to be encouraging, because this is the sort of book that I wish more people would aspire to write. There is so little we know of the past, of the atrocities, of the lives these people led. Not only is the period she chose compelling, but the way she writes of relationships – so complex, so hard to define, so layered. I’m tempted to buy 30 copies and walk around distributing to them to some of the recent desi authors I’ve read, telling them – THIS is how you write.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

I read this after The Colour Purple and Island Beneath the Sun. I was just in that space and I couldn’t stop. I’m wondering if it was a good idea because by the time I emerged from this, I was a wreck and burdened with an inexplicable guilt. Guilt for the privileged life I lead and for never knowing their suffering. Apparently sending me on a guilt trip is easier than slipping on a bar of soap. Aibileen is the coloured househelp. And Miss Skeeter is a young journalist who wants to make a difference. Set in the cotton plantations of America in the 1960s, Miss Skeeter and Aibileen, are both crossing lines of class and race, and exposing themselves to untold danger. From not allowing the help to use the same bathroom (something we Indians are very familiar with) to not allowing them to sit at the dining table (sound familiar?) there are many confusing things that little 2 year old white Mae Mobley doesn’t understand. Put that way, you begin to question our own Indian househelp systems. Told in different voices, sometimes Miss Skeeter, sometimes the help, this was yet another book I read through the night. Loved. Now readers, what do you think  – should I risk seeing the movie and ruining the book experience?

Two Fates – Judy Balan

I’m unhappy about putting this on my list here, because I don’t recommend this book at all. To me it exemplifies a lot of what is wrong with publishing today. I’d read a few of Judy Balan’s pieces in the Brunch (was it?) and I enjoyed her writing. So when I got the book I picked it up eagerly. I have to say my first disappointment was in realising it took off from Chetan Bhagat’s Two States. I almost shut it right there and then. A promising writer and then she goes and picks Chetan Bhagat’s rather stale topic. And I call it stale because he did nothing new with the book. My father is Tamilian and my mother part Bengali, part Garhwali and part lots of other stuff. And I am 33 years old. If inter-community marriages were taking place a century ago, I have no interest in reading about them today. Particularly if the writing is not particularly compelling – what is left to recommend it? If you’re not saying anything new, at least say it in an interesting way. Anyway, I began to read Two Fates and lost interest after the first two chapters, the language just didn’t hold up to scrutiny and neither did the plot. In fact, if you want I’ll give you my copy. I’m feeling rather sad because I really enjoyed her articles (and then her blog that I hunted down). I stand by my original hypothesis, which is, that not every blogger should be considered a writer. And not everyone who has a good idea for a post can hold that thought through an entire book, along with your interest.

The Eighth Guest and other Muzaffar Jung mysteries – Madhulika Liddle

I read Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo and was hooked. I almost cried when the book ended. Set in the Delhi of Shahjahan’s time, the book had every ingredient I needed. My favourite city, historical fiction and a murder mystery. It’s almost as though she made me put down a list and state what I’d love to read about and then incorporated each one into her story. Here’s an Indian writer who doesn’t write stilted conversations and whose English fits like a glove. Perhaps my problem with a lot of Indian writing in English on contemporary situations, is that the language is trying too hard to be hip and cool, too stylistic, trying so hard, that they fail. I’ve never been a short story fan but I hastily clicked buy on Flipkart because I was ready to have nobleman Muzaffar Jung back in any form. I didn’t regret a rupee of the Rs 350 I spent on it. The stories are short and snippy and the period ambience maintained. I love the descriptions of the elephant fights, the jewellery and the clothing – it all comes alive. But my favourite bits are the references to history in the author’s footnotes. Just right to educate someone like me who has no background in the subject and is eager to learn. I wonder if she deliberately keeps away from forming Jung’s character further. Perhaps the idea is to keep the focus on the mysteries and not him?

 How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran

“Put your hand in your pants. (a) Do you have a vagina and (b) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.” This line defined the book for me. It’s funny, it’s contemporary feminism and it’s real. She articulates thoughts that have always floated around at the back of one’s head. Niggling and nebulous, like that annoying bit of raw albumen on your fried egg. Caitlin’s book is the one I plan to keep at my bedside and open whenever I doubt myself. Two days ago, it was a hot summer morning, and we were going out someplace. The OA was in shorts and tee, as were the kids. I was just about to wear a short skirt and sleeveless top when I realised my arms were looking flabby, my underarms were not done and neither were my legs. Now I’m not really the sort who stays waxed and polished, but in my defence, I was PMSing, my back was aching, my bad knee was pulsating with pain and I was sweating barely 10 seconds post bath. I lost my temper and got back into bed. It felt like an unfair world where he could walk out with his hairy legs but I must suffer sleeves and full length pants for no fault of my own and definitely a smoother chest than his! Anyway, I digress. The point is, I remembered Moran’s book and the next day I went out in a sleeveless kurta without doing my underarms. I was in no mood to suffer heat, periods and hot wax being poured on my skin. And that, my dear friends, is that. She is that brave, confident, cool, clever, witty girl in college, who everyone wants to be but is too scared to be. And in her absence, we’ll use her book for support. It also answers a million existential questions like, why are women supposed to use botox and get brazilians? Why do people ask a woman when she is going to have a baby and not a man? And much more. This is not my book of the year. It’s the book that is going to sit on my bedside table for many years.

Not Without My Daughter – Betty Mahmoody

Marrying into a community that you know nothing of, and falling in love with a man whose family you have never met, is a leap of faith. The reason this book resonated with me is because the fact that this could have been my life. I married a man whose family I had never met, a very conservative community. Of course this is not 1984 and I am not stuck in Iran, in purdah, but I think you see where I am going with this. I can’t imagine the terror of marrying a nice, sophisticated, urbane, cultured, educated, warm man and then watching him head back to his country and family and turn into some sort of brutish, neanderthal. Betty Mahmoody goes visiting her husband’s family in Iran and once there, realises there is no going back. Her husband lost his job in America and didn’t tell her that he was moving back home permanently. He soon becomes violent with her and eventually she is held hostage, and her four year old daughter taken away from her. She doesn’t give up and eventually finds a way to escape. The only catch, those who are willing to help, are not willing to take a child along. Unwilling to leave her child, Betty starts her hunt from scratch, determined that she will not leave her child behind. In many ways this reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room. A mother’s determination to not let her child down. A few days ago I wished mothers on FB a happy mother’s day, saying there is nothing quite like it. A single friend asked me if that made all non-mothers, losers. I was shocked by the question. No, it doesn’t. But I don’t know of any other bond so strong, so ready to sacrifice, so determined, so courageous. Everytime I read a book like this, I realise how deep a mother’s love for a child can be. Thankfully, not all of us are tested this way.

Balancing Act – Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy

I’m ashamed of how late this review comes, considering how long ago I read and loved this book. Tara Mistri is a modern mother, a SAHM who was once an architect. I loved her for the realism with which her character was portrayed. The frustration of knowing that you’d be good if you went back to work, the husband who is always travelling, the two kids who are adorable yet tiring, as all kids are, and the alter ego that reminds her of what she is, deep inside. Soon she begins to work out the kinks in her life by baking bricks with words on them – womb- nursemaid- housewife, and leaving them in public spaces, for the world to find them. I love that bit of quirk. Her way of reaching out to communicate with the world and work out the battle within. All you mothers must read it. Non-mothers too, if not for anything else but the lyrical writing, unlike the stilted English we’re subjected to by many other Indian authors. Not for a moment do you feel that this is not the author’s first language. Each chapter is introduced by a quote and I loved her choice of lines.