Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Assassin's Song by MG Vassanji and "Girls Gone Mild" by Wendy Shalit and...The Winner is!!!

Category: Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Pub Date: August 21, 2007

Price: $34.95

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Imagine coming into the world with your destiny already shaped for you, not by God, but by man. Imagine being told you cannot be a doctor, a teacher or a lawyer, but that you have to be a spiritual leader whether your heart wants to or not.
Imagine being so good at cricket that one of your country's best coaches wants to coach you for free, but you're not allowed because your destiny does not lie in sport but in saving souls. What kind of burden is that for a child to bear? And yet it happens all the time. In Nepal you have the kumaris (little girls selected to be incarnations of the goddess Durga); in Tibet, Dalai Lama's successor is a young boy and in certain Sufi- Ismaeli communities the spiritual guardianship is passed down from father to son.

Karsan Dargawalla, our protoganist, is heir to the 700 year old Pirbaag Shirne which is the resting place of a mysterious, medieval Sufi known as Nur Fazal. Nur Fazal apparently came to India in the 13th century while running away from the Mongolian warriors and was given shelter by the Hindu King of Gujarat at the time.

The story opens in 2002 with Karsan returning to his childhood home in Gujarat after the Hindu-Muslim riots where thousands of Muslims died. He has returned to write a history of his ancestors. In flashbacks we learn about his childhood and how he escapes and defies his destiny by moving to Harvard, where he renounces his legacy as spiritual heir of Pirbaag and lives the life of a regular person. Interspersed with his story are vignettes of the 13th century Sufi mystic, how he came to be in India and a lot about Sufism as well.

This is not hyperbole, MG Vassanji has created a masterpiece. The Dargawalla family is at the crossroads of several interconnected strands of history, mythology and contemporary politics, which allows for the author to take the reader through (albeit fleetingly) many significant moments of Indian history with a particularly poignant, moving description of the Gujarat riots which forms the nucleus of this novel.

As I read, Icould not help but wonder why MG Vassanji is not a bigger name in India and in the rest of the world. He is one of Canada's most celebrated writers ( two-time winner of the Giller Prize for fiction) and almost as well-known in this country as Rohinton Mistry and yet, very few people outside of Canada have heard his name.

According to the author, "The Assassin's Song" is not based on any real mystic, but inspired by the arrival of mystics known as pirs, in India around the 13th century. The pirs practice of worship was based on no single affiliation and both Hindus and Muslims would count themselves as followers. At Pirbaag which is where the story is based, mornings began with bhajans, temple bells and the call for prayer from an adjacent mosque. The followers cremated their dead (Hindu) and then raised graves over their ashes (Muslim). In this way they seem to have borrowed equally from both, the Hindu and Muslim traditions.

M G Vassanji has brought to life a world that very few of us know much about and so I count myself lucky to have been able to enter this world through his writing.

This is a thoughtful book , one that will make us ask ourselves questions like - do we control our destinies? What is more important, duty or passion? Must tradition and modernity always clash or can they exist side by side? Do we have to be religious, can we not just be spiritual?

Vassanji is a very enjoyable writer, not so much for the beauty of his prose but for the pearls of wisdom and simple truths that dot the pages of his books, "The Assassin's Song" is no exception.

M.G. Vassanji has won the Giller Prize twice, for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003) and The Book of Secrets (1994).

Will he be third time lucky? I think he will!


Category: Family & Relationships - Parenting; Psychology & Psychiatry - Adolescent Psychology

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Random House

Pub Date: June 26, 2007

$32.00 Visit the official Website!

This is not a review

Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Brittney Spears and Avril Lavigne are just four of many celebrities young girls look up to; Abercrombie and Finch, American Eagle and Hollister are three clothing companies that every young girl longs to fill her closet with, but to look at the music and lifestyles displayed by these singers or to look at the catalogs of any of these clothing brands, you get the distinct impression that with the offer of these sexy and seductive clothes they are pressuring our tweens and teens into growing up much faster than they should.

Wendy Shalit
, 23, author of "Girls Gone Mild", has succeeded in convincing me that if you're the mother of a young girl ( I have two) by the age of 6 she's going to want a "Babyz Nite Out" doll garbed in fishnet stockings and a hot-pink micro-mini and aim to ape her. By age 10, she'll be wanting to wear a thong and at 13, she will be greeting her friends with the affectionate (not to my ears),
"Hi, Slut!" and by 16 will be having "unwanted" sex. Unwanted because, according to studies Ms. Shalit has read, young girls are having sex not because they are enjoying doing it,but because it's considered good to be bad.

All is not hopeless however, Shalit also tells us that some young women are sounding out a rebel yell against popular culture, reclaiming their self-respect and self-worth and are returning to modesty. She also wants us to know that many of our young women are engaged in a sexual revolution and choosing to stay virgins until Prince Charming comes along.

While it is reassuring to hear that young women are thumbing their noses at those companies wanting to sell them sleazy clothing, do you believe that the return to modesty is indeed a movement or are things only going to get worse before they get better?
I happen to think that our society is too deeply immersed in the culture of hypersexuality...even magazines and clothing stores catering to our preteens cannot seem to help themselves. I looked at the latest issue of "Cosmo Girl" (for 12-17 year olds) and there is a detailed "kissing guide" in the issue. I'm no prude, OK, but do you really want your 13-year old to learn how to make her lips the ones he'll never forget!?!

And what do you think of the new reality show "Kid Nation" on CBS?

40 Kids have 40 days to build a brave new world without adults to help or hinder their efforts. Can they do it? These Kids, ages 8-15, will turn a ghost town into their new home. They will cook their own meals, clean their own outhouses, haul their own water and even run their own businesses including the old town saloon (root beer only). Through it all, they'll cope with regular childhood emotions and situations: homesickness, peer pressure and the urge to break every rule they've ever known.

Is childhood no longer in fashion? Why do we as a society feel compelled to push our kids in adulthood before they are ready?


And now, onto the winner of last week's book giveaway "The End of the Alphabet". My daughter picked Pour of Tor's name out of the hat. Congratulations, Pour of Tor, please send me your address and I'll make sure to have your book in the mail before the end of the week.

Thanks to everyone that played. There will be more book giveaways in the future, so please continue to watch this space!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Yacoubian Building عمارة يعقوبيان by Alaa Al Aswany and a book giveaway(CS Richardson's "The End of The Alphabet"!!!

# Paperback: 272 pages

# Publisher: Harper Collins (Jul 20 2006)

# Language: Elegantly translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies

#Genre: Fiction, Middle-Eastern, Cairo

First of, all thanks to Radha for recommending this book. I picked up my copy at London airport and read it in the 6 1/2 hours it took me to fly from London to Montreal. I should have been trying to catch up on my sleep really, but the book was hard to put down.

In "The Yacoubian Building" Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany turns a single Cairo apartment block into a vibrant portrait of Egypt. While it essentially tells the story of contemporary Egypt, it also touches upon its history and other forces that gave the country its present form. All this is told through a wonderful and diverse cast of characters spanning Egypt's social divides- from a French-speaking homosexual newspaper editor to a one-legged Coptic manservant; from a sensual geriatric to a young man who finds solace and self-respect in Islamic fanaticism and atleast ten other delightful characters.

When the novel's namesake was first built it attracted people from the upper echelons of Egyptian society like, the pashas, cotton millionaires and rich foreigners. Anyone who was someone had to have an apartment there because it was a status symbol , however, when
Abd el Nasser came to power in a coup in 1956, he threw the westerners out of the country and the rich and well-to-do Egyptians followed them leaving apartments in the Yacoubian Building vacant.

These vacant apartments were grabbed by Nasser's military officers and their families who were often of a more rural background and lower social caste than the previous residents.
Many of them arrived at the apartment with servants in tow and the storage rooms on the terrace were converted into lodgings for these servants, thus you now have a building which houses a slum community on its terraces and influential nouveau riche families in the apartments, thus embodying Egyptian society in microcosm. The change in the building demographics could also serve as a metaphor for the Egypt of old, the Egypt with its French cafes, distinguished and western- educated men and women no longer existed giving way to a new society where the desperate poor rub shoulders with the rich, the powerful and the corrupt.

(Talaat Harb Street, Cairo as it is today)

What makes the novel "The Yacoubian Building" special (apart from its wonderful characters and great writing) is that the building really did exist at the address given in the novel (Talaat Harb Street) even if it does not match its literary namesake in every detail. Infact, the author's father maintained an office there for a while and the author himself (a practicing dentist) once had a dental clinic there.

The novel was a bestseller in its native Egypt and in 2003, it was voted "Best Novel" by listeners to Egypt's Middle east Broadcasting service. I am not surprised because it is filled with delightful vignettes that are guaranteed to entertain, move, educate and appeal to the reader while opening a window to Middle Eastern culture and society. I should mention, however, that it's publication surprised a lot of people because it is very unusual for a book containing homosexual references to be cleared for publishing by the government of Egypt.

Be prepared to be annoyed at the way women are treated in this society and also be prepared to feel disturbed at how young men are recruited into the fundamentalist way of life. But despite some of the gloom, this wonderfully-written book will have you looking up more works from this author.

Read Moroccan writer Laila Lalami's take on the novel.

This must have been my lucky weekend because I was nominated for not one, but two blogger awards. Nymeth gave me the "Thoughtful Blogger Award" and Anali gave me the "Nice Matters Award". Thank you ladies, you really made my day! I know I am supposed to nominate 5 others, but it would be a really tough job to pick only five, so if you don't mind, may I pass on nominating someone else?
And last, but certainly not least, for anyone interested in Thai literature, look no further than Marcel Barang’s workshop which features a wonderful selection of Thai literature(short stories and novels) translated into English!!! I have been enjoying the stories so much, I hope you do too!

******WIN a copy of CS Richardson's 'The End of the Alphabet" . All you have to do is leave a comment letting me know you're interested in the book. I will conduct the draw in a week from now. Anyone, anywhere in the world is eligible to enter, good luck!*********

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Train to Pakistan By Khushwant Singh

Category: Fiction

Author: Khushwant Singh

Publisher: Roli Books

Price: Rs. 495

Year: First written, 1956,this publication, 2006

Tomorrow India celebrates 60 years of Independence from British colonial rule, Happy Independence Day,India!!! To commemorate the occasion I thought I would share with you a book that I always make time to read around this time of year. It is titled, "Train to Pakistan" and is written by veteran Indian journalist and author, Khushwant Singh. This book is one of my favorites because it describes simply, yet effectively, the price paid, in terms of lost lives, loss of property, displacement etc., the price India paid for its independence.

Having only just returned from vacation I haven't been able to write my own thoughts on Khushwant Singh's "Train To Pakistan", so I share with you what the New York Times had to say:

"Just days before the official birth of independent India and Pakistan in August 1947, Khushwant Singh, a lawyer then practicing in the High Court in Lahore, drove alone across what would soon become a bloody frontier and arrived here at his family’s summer cottage in the foothills of the Himalayas. From here, along nearly 200 miles of eerily vacant road, he would drive on to Delhi and, on its outskirts, encounter a jeep full of armed Sikhs, who would boast of having slain a village full of Muslims. In the face of such ghastly swagger, Mr. Singh, also a Sikh, would realize that he would never return home to Lahore, for what he had just heard was a chilling echo of what he had heard on the other side of the soon-to-be border, except that there Sikhs and Hindus were the victims. That solitary drive would also give shape to “Train to Pakistan,” Mr. Singh’s slim, seminal 1956 novel whose opening paragraphs contain one of its most unsettling lines: “The fact is, both sides killed.” An estimated one million people were killed during the partition, and more than 10 million fled their homes: Hindus and Sikhs pouring into India, Muslims heading in the other direction, to Pakistan. The novel tells the story of an uneventful border village that gets swept up in that violent storm. Now, in a new edition of the novel, in New Delhi has paired his story with 66 unflinching black-and-white photographs of the Partition era, some never before published, by the American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. This new incarnation of “Train to Pakistan,” has given the book what its author happily calls “a new lease on life.” It has also given Mr. Singh, who at 91 has borne witness to several rounds of carnage in his country, an occasion once again to warn against forgetfulness. “The wounds of partition have healed,” he likes to say as often as he can. “The poison is still in our system.”

To read further please go here

Over 10 million people were uprooted from their homeland and traveled on foot, bullock carts and trains to their promised new home.

The massive exchange of population that took place in the summer of 1947 was unprecedented. It left behind a trail of death and destruction. The Indian map was slashed to make way for a new country - Pakistan.

An aged and abandoned Muslim couple and their grand children sitting by the the roadside on this arduous journey. "The old man is dying of exhaustion. The caravan has gone on," wrote Bourke-White.

With the tragic legacy of an uncertain future, a young refugee sits on the walls of Purana Qila, transformed into a vast refugee camp in Delhi.

(All pictures are by Margaret Bourke-White and have been used in the Roli edition of "Train to Pakistan")

For more information on the Partition of India and India's subsequent independence do check out the Guardian's interactive feature on the Partition of India, 1947

Some more recommended reading and viewing:
(feel free to contribute your favorites)

Freedom at Midnight by Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins (thanks, Sanjay) (NF)

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin (F)

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (thanks, A Reader) (F)

Waiting for the Mahatma by RK Narayan (thanks, A Reader) (F)

The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan (NF)

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa (Thanks, Jennie) (F)

The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India
by Urvashi Butalia (NF)

Sunlight on a Broken Column
by Attia Hossain (F)

Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur (F)

Filming by Tabish Khair (F) (Thanks, Niranjana)

Can You Hear The Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami (F) (Thanks, Niranjana)


Deepa Mehta's "Earth"
(highly recommended)

Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi"

Hindi movie Pinjar

By, Ken Mc Mullen
78 min.
Based on Urdu writer's Saadat Hussan Manto's story about the partition of India and Pakistan. McMullen's film focuses on the historical footnote that inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners were transferred to Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistan asylums were sent to India. McMullen and co-writer Tariq Ali's adaptation is ambitious; the asylum becomes a reverse mirror for the seeming order of the political order, and the same actors, for emphasis play both the lunatics and the rulers.

More Reading on India:

"Inspite of the Gods" by Edward Luce (thanks, Madhu)

India After Gandhi by Ramachandran Guha (thanks, Madhu)

Also some words of thanks:

Please check out Jyoti's photo journal for her amazing pictures.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Pic courtesy: ealta.eu.org/

We're going on vacation for a few days. Take care all and see you around the middle of August. This has been a great summer so far especially because I managed to meet not one, but two blogger friends, both visiting from the US. Booklogged from "A Reader's Journal"
visited us in the first week of July and then Amna from "The Turquoise Lounge" visited with me today! Both are such wonderful, warm, beautiful and personable people, I really enjoyed meeting them and getting to know them better. Booklogged and Amna you are welcome back anytime, please do visit again soon!

It's been so warm here recently. What's it like your neck of the woods and what are you doing to stay cool? I'm reading "The Penguin Book of Summer Stories" compiled by Alberto Manguel. It was given to me by a friend and I am enjoying it immensely.

Well, see you all later...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Animal,Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

On Sale: 05/01/2007;

Format: Hardcover;

Pages: 384;


Publishers: Harper Collins
Nature/Environment; Food/Diet/Recipes;
Memoir/Non fiction narrative

Barbara Kingsolver is probably best known for her novel The Poisonwood Bible, a hardhitting tale about a Baptist missionary who takes his family to the Belgian Congo. The family carry with them seeds from home but they fail on the Congo's poor and dry soil. Fortunately the Kingsolver family does not share the same fate when they move as a family from Tuscon, Arizona to a farm in Appalachia, determined to live off their own grown produce for a year. The family become committed farmers and locavores and the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle chronicles that first step the Kingsolver family took to play their part in environmentally sustainable food production.

Initially I wasn't very keen to read the book(try selling a city girl the merits of a book that speaks of tales of life on the land - it's an almost impossible sell) but after reading reviews by Tara (Books and Cooks) ,Gentle Reader (Shelf Life) and The Literary Word I decided to give it a go and I am glad I did.

I thought it was going to be a dry read, but being an accomplished fiction writer, Ms. Kingsolver managed to turn her escapades in the kitchen (making cheese from mail-order cultures, harvesting asparagus and playing matchmaker between turkey hens and toms) into wonderful stories that would appeal to anybody's heart and at the same time, she keeps astounding you with harsh statistics,"Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars"pg 5 or each food item in a typical US meal has traveled 1500 miles (2400 kilometres) also pg 5 .

Apart from her engaging writing skills she also has the advantage of having written on something topical...seems to me that everyone wants to cut back on processed food and to eat more locally grown food and Kingsolver's book educates you on why it is imperative to make the switch.

The book has a homespun feel about it with essays about global food distribution, genetic modification, and fair trade, among other things written by her husband Steven Hopp, a biology professor, and 19-year-old daughter Camille writes personable, accomplished pieces on cooking and nutrition.

Finally, Kingsolver does not advocate that we should all give up our jobs in the cities and head for the fields, nor does she ask us to turn our front yards into food instead of lawn. She asks instead that we educate ourselves about what we are eating, support local organic growers, and think about the world we want to leave the next generation. She wants us to start our day not with the question 'What do I feel like eating today?", but "What do I have that is fresh, abundant and in season?". Just this little switch can make us think so differently about food and aid us in picking the right foods to eat.

I came away with the impression that Ms. Kingsolver was just a tad fanatical about eating locally but she can be forgiven because she turned out a truly remarkable book, however, I don't suspect locavores get invited out to dinner all that often! My other concern would be ethnic food eaters like myself. My diet primarily consists of East Indian food, I am not sure how I will ever switch over to being a locavore.

One final thought...today's newspapers cited a New Zealand study which finds that many vegans can't stomach the idea of having relations with anyone who eats meat....are locavores going to shun people who eat strawberries in January? :)