Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Week At The Airport by Alain de Botton

Category: Travel - Essays & Travelogues; Philosophy; Social Science - Popular Culture
Format: Trade Paperback, 112 pages
Publisher: Emblem Editions
Pub Date: September 21, 2010
Price: $18.99

As I write this I am at London Heathrow's  Terminal 5 on a transit stop between Toronto and Bangalore.  I have 6 hours before my flight to Bangalore and under normal circumstances such a long wait would have sent me over the edge but today I am actually looking forward to it as I get to explore Terminal 5 with none other than Alain de Botton.



Taken from British Airways Lounge at LHR's Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

In the summer of 2009, at the invitation of the airport’s owner, BAA, which wanted to showcase its new terminal, Alain de Botton spent a week at Term 5. He was told he could write about anything in the four-football-field-long terminal. Infact, he was even given “explicit permission to be rude about the airport’s activities.’’ The result is a slim volume titled simply, "A Week At The Airport: A Heathrow Diary"

So, book in hand I set out to discover Term 5 along with de Botton. The book begins with a brief introduction, called Approach, which describes de Botton’s decision to accept BAA’s offer to be the “writer-in-residence,’’ and the remainder of the book is divided into three larger sections: Departures, Airside, and Arrivals. Since I can't access "Departures" and "Arrivals" I am going to have to stick with "Airside".

But fortunately De Botton's book touches very little on the physical geography of the airport and instead  devotes a lot of ink to passengers at the airport.  Being in an airport, he writes, is an opportunity to observe people, "to forget onself in a sea of  otherness and to let the imagination loose on the limitless supply of fragmentary stories provided by the eye and ear"

Meeting passengers posed no problem  for de Botton as most travellers thought he was an airline employee and therefore a potentially useful source of information on where to find the customs desk or the ATM machine. However, those that took the trouble to read his name badge came to regard the desk as a confessional. Each new day brought a density of stores and soon his little notebook was entirely full with anecdotes of loss, desire, expectattion, "snapshots of travellers' souls on their way to the skies."

Passengers "Airside" at Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

One particularly poignant story was of a man embarking on what he (the passenger) wryly referred to as a "holiday of a lifetime" to Bali with his wife who was just months away from succumbing to incurable brain cancer. She was only 49 years old.  Another traveller that de Botton encountered revealed that he had two families, one in the UK and the other in Los Angeles and that neither knew about the existence of the other!  De Botton muses that the reason he managed to get such personal and moving stories out of passengers is because when we (essentially land creatures) are about to defy gravity and take to the sky it makes us particularly anxious, thoughtful and prepared to share stories about ourselves we may, under normal circumstances, not discuss with a stranger.

De Botton rues that most passengers rush through an airport, their only intent and focus being to complete formalities and to catch their flight. He thinks it's a pity that more travellers do not stop to enjoy the architecture of the airport building and more importantly, the potential and possibilities that being in an airport can evoke.  For instance, take the departurescreens with their long lists of destinations.  These screens imply a feeling of infinite possibilities and longing.  Where should we travel to?  Casablanca in Morocco?  Phnom Penh in Cambodia? Anchorage in Alaska? The ticket desk is only a few short steps away and they suggest an ease with which we might buy a ticket for a destination "where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses and where no one knew our identities". There is such potential for dreaming and for our imaginations to take flight (pardon the pun) when we're at an airport but most of us are so frazzled from all the airport formalities that we barely have time to relax and ruminate, or so the author concludes.

Departure Screens LHR Term 5 (photo credit Getty Images)
I loved de Botton's musings on Airline Security. The training of security personnel is so arduous - they are trained to look at every human being as though he or she might want to blow up an aircraft!   They have been trained to overcome all prejudices as to what an enemy might look like: the enemy could be a six-year old with a cute smocked frock and with a juice box in her hand or an eighty-year old grandma with a bunch of Christmas stockings for her grandkids. The levels of alertness that security guards need to maintain is so grueling that they were granted more frequent tea-breaks than any of the other airport employees.


Security at London Heathrow's Term 5 (credit Lotus Reads)

And then no book about an airport could be complete without mentioning the shops and goodness knows, Heathrow's Terminal 5 has an abundance of them...infact, many people initially complained that Term 5 was more like a mall than an airport.  De Botton muses that those people that objected to too many shops had probably considered that in the event of a catastrophe, they wouldn't have liked to have spent their last few moments on earth indulging in a vice like consumerism! :)

Shopping at Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

Duty Free at Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

The book is dotted with many philosophical musings and makes for a truly enjoyable read.  Let me leave you with one last thought of a passenger named David who was taking his family to Greece on a vacation.  David had confided in de Botton that his wife was upset at him for putting work over his family.  But in David's mind, he worked hard so that he could give his family vacations abroad and other good things.  De Botton then observes the very true Jewish saying "Wherever you go, there you are"...in order words,  David will be bringing himself with him on this vacation, would he be able to leave his irritation with his wife behind and enjoy the holiday?  Unlikely.  One's surroundings might change but unless we change the way we think and feel nothing truly changes. This is an important truth of travel.


Christmas Tree in Term 5 Departure Lounge (photo credit Lotus Reads)



Saturday, November 27, 2010

Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. Edited by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor


Paperback, 224 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Harper Perennial


"It's not the word made flesh we want in writing, in fiction, and in poetry, but the flesh made word."

- William Gass, On Being Blue

What a great quote to use as an introduction to a book featuring atleast 100 images of tattoos inspired by works of literature.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 36 percent of people in the United States between the ages eighteen and twenty-five, and 40 percent between the ages of twenty-six and forty, have at least one tattoo.  From what I see around me, they (tattoos) appear to be mainstream now and are as acceptable/common as pierced ears, in other words, tattoos have lost their "badass" image!

When people pick tattoos they generally try to pick something that is meaningful to them or something that celebrates a milestone in their lives. So is it then logical to suppose that a lover of literature would pick a word, quote or phrase from a favourite work of literature?  I think so and so did Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor, for they set about trying to compile a catalog of bookish tattoos which then came to be known as "Literary Tattoos" from Bookworms Worldwide."   Bookworms Worldwide refers to the group of people who submitted tattoos - photos, testimonies and the stories behind their particular tattoos -  to the book.

In these pages you'll find favourite lines from novels, illustrations, portraits and passages of verse; you'll also find the inspirations behind the tattoos: favourite childhood books, commemorations of  triumphant (or tragic) moments in lives; affirmation of friendship; drunken whims; a phrase or an image that were just too cool not to keep forever and so on.

Here are some of my favourites:


Tess Adamski : Toronto, Ontario

Kerouac at his typewriter with the closing lines of "On The Road"


Stanza from "Auguries of Innocence" by William Blake



I guess all that remains is for me to ask:  if you planned to get a literary tattoo, what would yours say?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan







Publisher: HarperCollins
Imprint: William Morrow
Pub Date: 01/25/2011

URLs:
Author Website : click here
Publisher's Website : click here
Category:
NONFICTION - ADULT: Biography/Autobiography

Of all the countries in the sub-continent Nepal is probably one that  impinges least on world consciousness. You would have thought that being the proud keeper of the Everest , it would be better known, but statistics show that a large  majority of people wrongly perceive the Everest as belonging to India ,or even China!  Very little Nepalese literature has made it into English, nor is there a good selection of travel or memoir writing set in the country, so when I chanced upon "Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal" by Conor Grennan, I knew I had to read it.


Twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan left his secure home and job in the USA in Nov of 2004 intending to travel the world.  He decided to make Nepal his first stop and chose to volunteer at an orphanage during his stay, which, by his own admission was engineered  to impress people.  When he arrived in Nepal the mountain kingdom was in the middle of a civil war with the Maoists vowing they would not drop their arms until the King abdicated his throne and a People's Republic of Nepal was established.

The Orphanage was called  "The Little Princes Children's Home" and had come together under the watchful and caring eye of a young French woman called Sandy.  Sandy was a keen hiker  and once, trekking up in a mountain village in Nepal, she learned that the Maoists were kidnapping children who lived in remote and isolated mountainous villages and putting them to work in the rebel army.  Parents terrified that they might lose their kids to the rebel army, fell prey to a man called "Golakk" who promised these parents that for a fee he would take their children to Kathmandu (the capital city of Nepal) where he would feed, house and send them to school.  The gullible parents sold everything they had so that their children could leave with Golakk to what they naively presumed was a "better life".  Instead, Gollack pocketed the money and dumped these kids on the streets to fend for themselves.  Sometimes he sold them to rich Nepalis to work as domestic servants and sometimes these kids were trafficked across the border into Nepal as sex slaves.  Sandy was so distraught upon hearing this, she immediately set out to establish a shelter for these abandoned kids which she named "Little Princes" after Antoine de Exupery's novel titled "Le Petit Prince".

An armed Maoist soldier

When Conor arrived at "Little Princes" the eighteen kids were so delighted to see him they completely swarmed him.  They used him as a human jungle jim, hanging from his neck, his shoulders and wrists. Any trepidation that Conor felt about not having any experience with children completely dissipated in that moment and over the next few days he actually enjoyed waking up to them, helping them to get ready for school and looked forward to playing soccer and carom with them in the evenings.

The children often shared stories of their remote and mountainous village home, Humla, with Conor and he in turn told them much about the outside world - about submarines, the solar system and how man had walked on the moon.  Sometimes his stories could get him into a little trouble like the time the boys wanted to know what sort of food Americans ate.  "Pork, chicken, beef" replied Conor to which the shocked response was "Americans eat God?"  Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country where the cow is worshiped and never, ever eaten!

Soon it was time for Conor to leave Nepal and set out on his world trip. Every one of those kids asked Conor if he was going to return to the "Little Princes" home and although he was advised against answering in the affirmative he gave them his word that he would be back.

And he DID return!  Not only did he return to the orphanage but he vowed to set up another orphanage where other trafficked kids could have a chance at a normal life, he also vowed to travel to Humla to find the kids' parents so that they could be reunited with each other.  With his few savings and some small donations from friends and family he set up a home which they called "Daulagiri" (after the seventh-tallest mountain in Nepal) and he set off with a translator and two porters (carrying rice and supplies) for Humla to look for the parents.  It is this mission to Humla that predominates the second half of this fine book.

 HUMLA (Nepal's Back of Beyond)

Humla, the region  the Little Princes came from, is an impoverished village on the border of Tibet. You could say it is a remote region in the remotest part of Nepal.

In his own words:

"Humla is the most remote part of the country, and one of the poorest, which is saying something in Nepal. There are no roads, and the guerrillas (Maoists) had blown up all the bridges. You had to cross the river on rope pulleys, with people on either side pulling you. Trekking in this region meant "climbing straight up and straight down" jagged peaks and pinning yourself against cliff walls when a herd of sheep or water buffalo came barreling around a bend" 

As Conor entered the hard-to-reach villages he gave village elders the names of families they were looking for and as the families were brought out to meet him, he presented them with photos of their children. Grennan's beautiful narration of the parents' reaction to finding out their kids were alive is so beautifully rendered, it will make you cry, I know I did!  The first parents to arrive brought a bag of walnuts and honey to give to the stranger who had news of their son.  Knowing that they were dirt poor and that a gift of walnuts would have set them back quite a bit, brought a lump to Conor's throat and it made him even more determined to facilitate more such reunions.
 Conor interviewing a family with the aid of a translator. Later he would read back all his notes to the children at "Little Princes" so they each knew exactly what their parents had said.

So Conor Grenan ended up being an "accidental altruist" as one article fondly calls him and I would say he is an accidental writer too and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  He hadn't set out to write a book on Nepal, heck, he only intended volunteering for a few months in order to justify his hedonistic trip around the world, and yet, here he was three years later setting up orphanages and rescuing children from the clutches of child traffickers.  

I see this book as being an inspiration to many who might have thought of volunteering in impoverished countries but didn't feel like they had anything to offer - as Conor himself says, 
"Volunteering, whether it is in an impoverished third world nation or in your hometown, requires only that you show up. Don’t worry how little of your time or resources you may have to offer—just offer it, and see what happens."

I loved the narration...it is like a breath of fresh air.  Conor's writing style is informing but oh so companionable.  Each of those kids had a story that read like a tear jerker, but there's also plenty humour and a dash of silliness, for that's what happens when you work with kids! For the lover of culture, there is a lot of Nepal in there...you read about its scenic beauty, its lovely and warm people, its festivals, food and so on, but he also talks about the issues that hold the country back - the poverty, corruption, the caste system, the trafficking, but  to his credit at no time does the narrative degenerate into a "woe is Nepal", instead, he seeks gently to draw from the reader a sympathy for the poor and destitute villagers caught between the rebel army and the government.
Today Conor Grenan lives in the US with his wife and young son but he continues to oversee the Nepal Next Generation organization which he founded.  If you desire to know more about the foundation or want to assist Conor Grenan in his work, do visit their site.


This book will be released by Harper Collins in January 2011. According to the author a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards buying food, provisions, educational supplies for the orphanage and for finding more families of trafficked children in Nepal.
 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'My Favourite Female' contest

 Like to read? Enjoy books with strong, interesting female characters? Women's Web 'My Favourite Female' is just the contest for you!

ffccontestad.jpgWelcome to the Women's Web's 'My Favourite Female' contest, where all you need to do is write about a fictional female character that really appeals to you. (For purposes of this contest, we're defining 'fictional' as a character from a novel).

What? Pick any female character from a novel, that made you sit up, that made you go wow, that made you laugh or cry, that got you angry, that got you thinking, that made you fall in love - in short, a character that made you feel, 'I wish I had written that!' 

How? Tell us what you liked about this character in a blog post. If you don't blog - drop a note in the comments here, or mail us at contests@womensweb.in This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Remember, the character herself doesn't need to be likeable, so long as you can talk about why the character appealed to you - actions, qualities or anything else.

Rules
- Stick to 500 words or below
- Choose a fictional character - in other words, someone from a novel, who did not exist in the real world (sorry, historical novel characters based on actual people won't qualify!) 
- Your entry must be dated between 12th Oct and 22nd Oct, 2010 (or reach us between those dates)
- If you're submitting a blog post, include a link to this page - we'll track your entry that way. (http://womensweb.in/top-level-documents/favourite-females.html)

THE PRIZES
The best written entry a.k.a 1st prize wins a Rs. 500 Flipkart voucher (or a $10 Amazon voucher if you happen to live outside India). The next two best written entries (2nd and 3rd prizes) get Rs. 250 worth Flipkart vouchers each (or a $5 Amazon voucher if you live outside India).
All 3 winning entries will also be published on the Women's Web blog.

And the Judges?
We have two people from the world of words, who've very kindly agreed to act as judges for the My Favourite Female contest. They are: Devaki Khanna, Freelance Writer and Editor, who is fascinated with literature and history and Nivethitha Kumar, who, along with two friends, runs The Banyan Trees, a literary magazine featuring a variety of creative content. Nivethitha is passionate about writing and blogs at Nivispace. (A preliminary evaluation of entries may be done by Women's Web, if we have a whole of entries - which, we hope we do!)

Go on then - remember, entries close on 22nd Oct 2010, so get your entry in before tha

Sunday, October 10, 2010

OUTLAW: INDIA'S BANDIT QUEEN AND ME by Roy Moxham

Format:Hardback
Publisher: Rider
Published: 3/6/2010

India has seen any number of truly remarkable women over the years - Rani of Jhansi, Indira Gandhi, Kiran Ahluwalia - just to name a few, but none have been so fiercely loved or hated as Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen.

Phoolan was born into the lower mallah (boatman) caste, in the small village in Uttar Pradesh, India.   When Phoolan was ten years old, her cousin, Mayadin, became the head of the family.  Mayadin arranged to have her married to a man 20  years her senior and who was already married.  Phoolan, as the younger wife, was relegated to household labour. It all became too much for the 11-year old when her husband sexually molested her even though she had not yet  reached puberty  and she ran back to her village.  Sadly, because she left her husband, she was forever treated as a social outcast and even her family was forced to reject her.

A few years down the road Phoolan became embroiled in a conflict with some richer relatives over family land.  The relatives arranged for her to be kidnapped by dacoits  that lived in the local ravines around the village. The gang was led by one Babu Singh who raped Phoolan, but he in turn was shot by his deputy, Vikram Mallah who then became Phoolan's lover.  Together, Vikram and Phoolan participated in the gang's activities, which consisted of looting high-caste (Thakur) villages and kidnapping  landowners for ransom. 

Sadly, the Vikram, Phoolan partnership was not to last.  Vikram was shot dead by a Thakur member of the gang (who wanted Phoolan for himself) .  They (the Thakurs) locked Phoolan away in a place called "Behmai"  where she was gang-raped mercilessly.  After three weeks, she managed to escape and gathered together a gang of Mallahs (men from her own caste) that she led with Man Singh, a member of Vikram's former gang.

In 1981, seventeen months after her escape from Behmai where she was raped, Phoolan and Man Singh returned to the village, to take her revenge. The Thakurs in the village were preparing for a wedding.  When Phoolan's gang failed to find all the kidnappers/molesters even after an exhaustive search, they lined up twnety-two Thakur men in the village and shot them.  Sadly, most of the men shot and killed were not involved in her kidnapping or rape. Later, Phoolan Devi claimed that she herself didn't kill anybody in Behmai – all the killings were carried out by her gang members.   

After the killings the police launched a huge manhunt using helicopters and thousands of men, but Phoolan Devi' evaded capture by hiding out in the ravines. Finally Prime Minister Indira Gandhi  authorised the Madhya Pradesh government to negotiate a surrender deal.  In February of 1983, with most of her gang dead and her health failing, Phoolan surrendered.

Phoolan Devi at her surrender with her lover, Man Singh

The agreed terms were that her family be given a plot of land; that she not be hanged; her gang must have prison quarters that were separated from the rest and that all charges must be dropped once they had served eight years in prison. Sadly, the Indian government reneged on all deals. Instead of eight years, Phoolan served eleven years and would have languished in prison longer had a mass movement by the coalition of socialists and "Untouchables" in Uttar Pradesh in 1994  not forced her release. 

It is while Phoolan was serving prison time that Roy Moxham, first contacted the Lady Bandit.

In his own words:

“In June 1992, I did a very strange thing. I wrote to a bandit in an Indian jail,”

After reading an article in the British newspapers about Phoolan Devi and her troubled past, Roy Moxham ( a book and paper conservator living in the UK) was moved to write to her. Initially he just wanted to lend her a listening ear, but as he got to know Phoolan better he was also compelled to send her a little money, dole out advice, and given that Phoolan spoke no English, write to influential people on her behalf...you could say he was to Phoolan, both, a kindly friend and an agent.  As the years went by he and Phoolan got even closer and she referred to him as her brother.

Phoolan Devi with Roy Moxham, Holi 1994

Whenever Moxham made his annual visit to India he would stay at her house in Delhi. Sharing such close space with Poonam and her family allowed Moxham to see and share a side of Phoolan that most of us had never seen.  He tells us how she was loathe to hire househelp and loved to cook and clean the floors herself.  Also, she was passionately fond of kids and spent any number of hours looking after her sisters' children, but that same family also tried to use her - wanting a share of her new-found wealth and prosperity.  He also shows us what life was like for her when she joined politics, how she almost embraced Buddhism and how, as she got wealthier, she simply gave stuff away to people.  She barely tolerated the security that was given to her and as the years went by she used fewer and fewer bodyguards.  Moxham is sure that had she had more security she would not have lost her life prematurely.

When Moxham was asked why he wrote this memoir, "Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me",  he claimed it was to set to the record straight on Phoolan.  According to him, people's impressions of Phoolan have been  shaped mainly by Shekhar Kapur's movie "The Bandit Queen" (based on the book by Mala Sen).  Now while the movie is sympathetic to Phoolan, there are scenes in the movie that she vehemently protested.  One was the depiction of the brutal rape scene and the other was how Kapur had the actress that plays Phoolan,  paraded naked around the village well. Phoolan thought  it was cruel and insensitive to depict her that way. She made Moxham write to Channel 4 several times to stop the movie from being released in the UK, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Moxham, the true friend that he is, supported her dislike of the movie and could never bring himself to watch it, until he set out to write the memoir, that is.

Another reason Moxham wanted to write this book is because it's the only account of the former MP's life after her release from jail in 1994. The book is based on extensive correspondence between the two, even though Devi did not know English. The correspondence led to an unlikely friendship that lasted till the time Phoolan Devi was assassinated in 2001.

What can I say about Moxham's writing?  Well, it's basic to say the very least, but this is an entertaining read and you can tell, right from the get-go that his interest in Phoolan's welfare is kindly and honest.  When he's not visiting her in India he is travelling the country, usually little towns and villages in the North and his descriptions of these little towns made for welcome reading.   More importantly, reading about Phoolan's life drives us to ask:  would she have become a bandit had she not been an uneducated woman, in a backward village with so few choices?  I think the answer is NO!!!  She was spirited, charismatic, but poor and uneducated.  To make matters worse she was born into the wrong caste and in the wrong gender.  All these factors conspired to make her who she became.  Her story is truly one worth reading.

 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
ISBN: 978-0-385-66322-9 (0-385-66322-6)

Pub Date: August 17, 2010
Price: $32.95


The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb takes its fictional name from an actual group of idealistic communist writers and artists in Hanoi. In the early 1950s, this group wrote and spoke out against the excesses of Ho Chi Minh's policies, in particular, the Land Reform Act in which hundreds of thousands of people (peasants mostly) accused of being landlords were executed or tortured and starved in prison.

Because they were vocal in their denouncement of this "land reform," and also because they refused to act as a mouth-speaker for government propaganda, the artists and writers of the Beauty of Humanity Movement suffered a fate similar to the unfortunate peasantry. Sent to so-called re-education camps, they were tortured, indoctrinated, killed or maimed.  Punishments meted out  were cruel and usually specific to the occupation of the prisoner. Artists lost their hands, poets their tongues.

 The pivotal character in this novel is Old Man Hung, who formerly owned a restaurant famous for its pho and frequented by some of the country’s leading poets and visual artists (this while the French were in power). After angering the newly-formed Communist regime (the French were defeated in the early '50's), who withheld a restaurant license from him he was forced to operate outside of the law, selling pho illegally from a cart he pushed around the city.  He'd have to find a new spot almost every other day and yet the crowds would throng his stall, bringing their own bowls for a taste of his magnificent Pho. Among his customers were Binh and Tu, the son and grandson of his best friend, Dao, a poet and member of the artist group the Beauty of Humanity Movement who was killed by the Communists on his way to a re-education camp.



Pho  may just be a humble soup made from beef broth, but it is the blood that flows in the veins of the streets of Vietnam.  Infact, Old Man Hung  says that the history of Vietnam can be found in a bowl of  Pho bac (the pho that Hanoi is famous for).  The rice noodles it contains is symbolic of the thousand years of Chinese occupations and the beef is symbolic of the French occupation that came later (the taste for beef was introduced by the French who turned  the people's cows away from ploughs and into 'bifteck" and pot-au-feu.) The clever Vietnamese took the best the occupiers had to offer and made something uniquely Vietnamese from it.

One day a Vietnamese-American curator, Maggie, visits Old Man Hung at one of his mobile stands.  Maggie was five years old when she was rescued by the Americans at Saigon airport (after the fall of Saigon) . She wants to  learn more about her artist father, who also disappeared during the war. She asks Hung if he can help her (after all when Hung had his Pho shop in the '50's it was the meeting place for a lot of radical artists and writers) .  Hung's memories are the perfect vehicle to take the reader through Vietnam's past - from the intellectual age of the 1930's when Hung was sent to the city to work in his uncle's pho shop (he was an unwanted child...the ninth child...so unwanted his parents didn't even give him a name, calling him simply, Nine),  through to French colonization, Japanese occupation and, of course, the Vietnam War.

While Hung provides a look back into Vietnam’s past, a 22-year-old tour guide named Tu offers readers a glimpse into the country’s current era of economic freedom and its entrepreneurial youth, so many of which were born after the war, so it's not a direct memory in their lifetimes. Tu' specializes in offering guilt-ridden American veterans "war tours" through his city, but he soon starts to realize their version of his country's history is deeply flawed.  There is an encounter with Tu' and an American Vet at a Buddhist temple which is especially poignant. 

Camilla Gibb's novels fall in the sub-genre of literary fiction that I like to call Anthropological fiction (her previous novel was "Sweetness in the Belly" which was set in Ethiopia.).  These are novels set in different countries  and whose readers relish learning about foreign cultures (their history, diet, traditions, rituals and so on) in a fictional setting.   Reading novels like these makes one realize how different and yet how similar we all are.  No matter where the characters come from or are based, there are certain human traits that are universally recognizable and this is why these books resonate with us so much.

Gibb's writing is very clear, clean and precise. In this novel she explores both,present-day Vietnam and the forces that shaped it. Many novels on Vietnam focus mostly on the war and the aftermath but in doing so one neglects the vibrant, bustling Vietnam of today. I think Gibb's novel gives the reader a very balanced and overall view of the country and I appreciate that.

What was interesting to me was Maggie's reception in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese are very hostile to foreign-returned Vietnamese "Viet-Kieu", and she was greeted suspiciously wherever she went.  Her morals and intentions were questioned and I am sure her loyalty was too. I have never found this in India...I come and go as I please and yet my countrymen will always treat me like one of them.  However, I have a Korean friend who tells me such a thing is very common in Korea too.

To sum up, the book plunges the reader into the borderlands between opposing forces: youth and age, exclusion and privilege, war and peace. Hanoi's 1000th anniversary is to be celebrated from October 1 to 10, this book would be a perfect celebration of it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tishani Doshi's "The Pleasure Seekers"

September 2010
$15.00
320 pp
Bloomsbury USA
From the Publishers:

Meet the Patel-Joneses—Babo, Sian, Mayuri, and Bean—in their little house with orange and black gates next door to the Punjab Women's Association in Madras. Babo grew up here, but he and Sian, his cream-skinned Welsh love, met in London. Babo's parents disapproved. And then they disapproved unless the couple moved back to Madras. So here they are. And as the twentieth century creaks and croaks its way along, Babo, Sian, and the children navigate their way through the uncharted territory of a "hybrid" family: the hustle and bustle of Babo's relatives; the faraway phone-line crackle of Sian's; the eternal wisdom and soft bosom of Great-Grandmother Ba; the perils of first love, lost innocence, and old age; and the big question: What do you do with the space your loved ones leave behind?

I have been waiting to read  Tishani Doshi's "The Pleasure Seekers" ever since it first came out and now that I've read it, I would love to be able to wax poetic about  it,  I'd love to be able to tell you to rush out and pick up a copy, but sadly, the book did not live up to the publishers' message, nor did it live up to Salman Rushdie's gushing blurb on the front cover.   I wouldn't call it a bad book, no, far from it, it's just a pleasant read...nothing to get excited over and definitely nothing to write home about.

You may ask me why I was so excited to read this book...well, it's a book set in Chennai (one of the places I have lived in) and focuses on a large Gujarati family.  Those of you who know me well know that even though I am a Punjabi by birth, culturally I am a Gujarati because I grew up amongst them.  Also, Babo, one of the sons in this large family marries a Welsh girl (Sian) who comes to live with him and his family in Chennai and I was very curious to see how this interfaith, interracial marriage plays out in the book (incidentally, Doshi has a Gujarati father and a Welsh mother and has called her book "a love letter to my parents")

This is a novel about family and about home, or more precisely it asks the question, where is home? It is also about identity, love across the seas,displacement, family bonds and so on.  I guess these are all themes that have been used often in Indian immigrant stories and it could be one of the many reasons the story didn't quite worm its way into my heart.

The prose is flawless, but a little too "cutsie" for me in parts.  Intercourse is referred to as "shabang shibing" and sex is described as as a boy putting his “Whatsit” into a girl’s “Ms Sunshine”!  Fortunately for the reader however, Doshi is a poet, so every now and again we are treated to bursts of poetry in the writing, but despite those sunshiney bursts of poetry I found the narrative structure too ordinary and the characters, pleasant, but  cozy caricatures at best.  Also, in the first half, you are given a tour of almost everyone in Prem Kumar's family (he's the patriarch), and then in the second half, Doshi seems to dismiss most of them as she settles down to only Babo's story along with his Welsh wife,his younger daughter Bean and Ba - Babo's  esoteric grandmother who “smells” people approaching her house “from over the hills” - . Ofcourse, that doesn't take away from the novel being a good read, just that some characters seemed to show promise and then they were dismissed.

And then, there's this unpardonable sin of using oh too many cliches - especially the caricatures of Indians abroad and a reliance on stock cultural jokes and scenarios.  But aside from these quibbles I've listed "The Pleasure Seekers" is a pleasant enough read - not memorable by any means - but a nice diversion.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier

On Sale: 05/05/2010 Publisher: Harper Collins

Today I place in your cupped hands Katherine Govier's sumptuous novel, "The Ghost Brush", set in 19th century Japan or Edo as it was called then. Edo was under the rule of the Shogun, or more specifically the Tokugawa Shogunate. Society in the Tokugawa period, unlike the shogunates before it, was based on a strict class hierarchy. The daimyo, or lords, were at the top, followed by the samurai (warriors), with the farmers, artisans, and traders ranking below. Outside the four classes were the eta and hinin.  Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes.

Although prostitutes and entertainers were considered "Outsiders", an art emerged during this period that focused on the lives, fashions and aesthetics of courtesans and entertainers.  So, ironically, although prostitutes and their craft was looked down upon, people were interested in what they wore, how they spent their leisure time, their mannerisms etc. hence all the leading artists of the day could be found in Yoshiwara (the Pleasure District) painting away like their lives depended on what the courtesans did and indeed such was the case.

One of those artists was Hokusai ( best known for his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which includes the internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s.  Ofcourse, these works came later and when the book opens Hokusai is a simple painter and a frequent visitor to the red light district where he takes his 10-year old daughter Oei for company and also to help him mix the paints he needs.

Growing up in adult company Oei grows to be a precocious (but not unlikeable little girl).  She soon strikes up a friendship with one of the courtesans (Shino).  Shino is a Lady that has been sent to the brothel as a punishment for insulting her husband.  It is through Oei's evenings with Shino that the reader is treated to what brothel life was like in Edo and the traditions, rituals and ceremonies that were a part of a courtesan's life.  Reading Katherine Govier's colourful and rich descriptions of life in Yoshiwara took me back to movies by the old Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, especially his movies "Osaka Elegy", "Sisters of the Gion" and "The Life of Oharu".

Anyway, so under her father's tutelage, Oei started to work on drawings of women. She illustrated manuals for female behavior-- etiquette, housekeeping, fashion, even childbirth. But even though she did all of that, she herself was a rebel and refused to conform to "appropriate" female behavior.  Although she was plain with a rather prominent jaw (not considered beautiful at all), she managed to have a lot of lovers as many men were attracted to her strong spirit. She drank and was addicted to her tobacco pipe, but no matter her flaws, she always remained Hokusai's dutiful daughter, helping her father with his commissions but never taking credit for any of them.  This is where the title originates from, Oei was Hokusai's "Ghost Brush".

Oei married one of Hokusai's students, and even though her husband doted on her, he just wasn't bright or intelligent enough for Oei.  One day she happened to laugh at one of his paintings and he "showed her the broom" which meant, he asked her to leave his home.  Oei wanted her freedom back but the only way she could get a divorce was to seek refuge at Tokeiji Temple aka the "Run-in Temple". It was said that when you saw a woman running in the area, you knew she was on her way to Tokeiji, likely being chased by her husband. When Oei returned home from the temple, a newly-divorced woman, she took over her father's studio because an attack of palsy rendered him unable to communicate via speech.

The only foreigners in Edo at that time were the Dutch.  Xenophobic as ever, Japan took a lot of pains to keep foreigners away.  Only a few Dutchmen (from the Dutch-East India Company) were allowed to trade and they were confined to Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor - a de facto prison for the dozen or so men permitted to live and work there. (It is rumoured that the Dutch were the only foreigners chosen to work in Japan because they were the only ones that agreed to stamp on their Holy Book).   Coincidentally, the hero of David Mitchell's new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" features one such Dutchman from Dejima. The book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010, it will be interesting to see if it wins.

With Hokusai's speech affected by palsy it was left to Oei to meet with his patrons.  So when a Dutchman showed interest in buying some of Hokusai's art, Oei went to meet him and Govier cleverly uses their conversations as a narrative tool to share with the reader how the east and the west perceived each other at that time.

As the story moves on the reader will find herself or himself rooting for Katsushika Oei to come in to her own...with talent like hers it is unfortunate to have her hiding in her father's shadow and yet that time in Japan demanded that women be completely servile to the men.  Perhaps the most puzzling thing is that there was no coercion, women seemed to be willing partners in their own invisibility.

When a novelist will pluck a hero out of obscurity and tell the world about him or her, I feel as readers we owe them a debt of gratitude, so, Katherine Govier, here's a very big thank you to you! Your novel on the immensely talented Katsushika Oei is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

If historical fiction, art or 19th century Japan is your thing, please pick up a copy of "The Ghost Brush"... it is a captivating and beautifully-rendered saga of Japan, also, it is so rich with period effect that it makes a great candidate for a screen drama. While it may be historical fiction, let us also not forget that at the heart of it all is the story of incomparable love between a father and daughter.

Go here for a companion website to the novel, historical background, source material, and images from the work of Japanese printmaker Hokusai and his daughter Oei.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

On Sale: 10/08/2010; Format: Trade paperback;  Publishers:  Harper Collins;  Fiction (South-Asian)


Mumbai with its chaos, complexities, concrete blocks housing hundreds of people, cosmopolitan population and where the  richest of the rich and poorest of the poor live side by side, continues to be a very popular city to write about.  Infact, in the last decade or so, there's been a spate of books about the city, "Maximum City" by Suketu Mehta,  "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts, "Sacred Games" and "Love and Longing in Bombay" by Vikram Chandra...the more recent one to join the list is Anjali Joseph's "Saraswati Park".

Just the title was enough to draw me to this book.  Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and the Arts in Hindu mythology and she has always been my favourite deity.  In the book, "Saraswati Park" is the name of a housing complex in a suburb somewhere deep in the heart of Bombay.  The story revolves around  empty-nesters, Mohan and Laxmi Karekar, whose lives are pretty humdrum and unremarkable.  Mohan is a letter writer ( one of those quaint jobs which is almost non-existant today) and from his seat under some tarpaulin near the main Post Office he sits and writes letters for those who are illiterate - anything from heartfelt letters to the completion of bureaucratic forms, while Laxmi is a homemaker. 

When we first meet Mohan and Laxmi their days are mundane with set routines and nothing much happens to alter it.  Both seem frustrated by this mundane existance.  An avid reader, Mohan wishes he could do more than just write letters....his secret desire is to write stories worthy of publication and Laxmi, frustrated by how his dreams make him distant from her turns to the television for company. 

I love how Joseph details Laxmi's frustration with their emotional detachment in this nicely-written excerpt:

"Four of Mohan's shirts, collected this morning from the ironing boys, lay on the bed. She looked at them in exasperation. It was still there, the mild ring of dirt inside his collars, like a smudged pencil line. It wasn't his fault; nothing could be done. She had scrubbed at some of them to remove the mark, but it had been the collar, not the stain, that had begun to despair and fray. It was in these things, which didn't talk or, strictly speaking, have lives, that her days played out: her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct that any other interaction these days."

One day the couple receive a call from Mohan's sister lamenting the fact that her son Ashish failed his college exams (due to poor attendance) and would have to retake them (unknown to the family, the poor attendance was due to Ashish's dalliance with a fellow classmate called Sundar).  Since they (Ashish's parents) were being transferred to a city to the north of India, would it be possible for Ashish to stay with Mohan and Laxmi for the year?  Mohan and Laxmi readily agree and soon the focus of the story moves to 19-year old Ashish - his life, his friends, his fears, his relationships, his secrets.   Despite there being "secrets" in this novel it has a very calm tone with a quietness and melancholy that emanates like faint perfume from every page, making it linger on with the reader long after the last page has been read and the book closed.

For those of you who grew up in Bombay (mid '80's)  this novel will be especially precious because of the author's wonderful observations and descriptions of this wonderful city I call home.  The strength of this novel is its everyday observations of a couple approaching their twilight years; of a youngster just starting to find his feet in this world and discovering his sexuality and last, but not least, of a city that is home to atleast 14 million people and who expands (like a rubberband) to accommodate thousands more everyday.

It is also a book about family love and obligations; growing old together, about love and loss and goodbyes.  All these may seem like heavy topics but they are handled deftly and delicately by Ms. Joseph and there is none of that masala or twists and turns that we have come to associate with other Bombay novels - just an initmate journey into the lives of everyday people who happen to live rather quietly in this bustling metropolis.   As much as I liked the other Bombay novels mentioned above, none of those plots seemed real to me.  My Bombay was like the Bombay one finds in Saraswati Park...of trees and birds; ordinary  people, school, college, the market, weddings, neighbours, old books, corner shops and so on.  This novel is a celebration of everyday life and seeing some beauty in it.

I'd like to close with a beautifully written passage found on page 253.  This is when Ashish is getting ready to leave for California for his future studies.  This passage resonated so much with me because, I, too, had to bid Bombay farewell around the same age Ashish did and it hurt so much:

"...he felt melancholic;  finally he understood what life was like, the meetings and partings it entailed.  It was a thought that only made him more attached to his life and the people in it.

From his window seat he looked with hungry eyes at the dirty worlds next to the tracks:  the brigtly painted shacks, the grubby faced children, the ugly concrete tower blocks, the smells...

It was his city, his world; it might be imperfect but it was home.  Yet he knew that only his imminent departure nurtured this sudden passion for Bombay which sometimes was a neutral environment in which he existed, and at other moments felt like a trap he'd never escape."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

The month of May coincidentally saw the publication of  two books, both of which tell the story of  the much-loved American writer, Pearl Buck's life.  Anchee Min's "Pearl of China" is the lighter one of the two and an excellent novelisation of Buck's early- to- mid years in China, but those wanting a more indepth version of Buck's life would likely be satisfied with Hilary Spurling's biography "Burying the Bones".

The story of how Anchee Min came to write this fictional account of Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck’s persecutions during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, is very touching.  When Anchee Min was still a school girl in Shanghai, China, she was asked to denounce Pearl Buck.  Anchee Min had no idea how to go about denouncing someone she had never met or whose books she had never read (her request to read Buck's "The Good Earth" before writing the denouncement had been turned down).  Fast forward to 25 years: at one of Anchee Min's readings in a bookshop in the US a lady pressed a copy of "The Good Earth" into Anchee Min's hands and stated that Pearl Buck had made her love the Chinese.  In her hotel room that night, Anchee Min finally got a chance to read "The Good Earth" and was so moved and felt so guilty for denouncing Buck all those many years ago she decided to write this biography as a means to atone for that sin.

I have always enjoyed anything written by Anchee Min.  This lady has such a flair for historical fiction, she makes it fun, informative and so,so real, you never forget a thing.  Also, she is a meticulous researcher, so although her work is labeled fiction, chances are that a lot of the details are true.  For instance, in the case of Pearl Buck's life, Anchee Min, apart from pouring over public records and Buck's personal correspondence, she also visited Pearl Buck's family home in Chin-Kiang, China and interviewed families that had contact with Pearl's family.

The character, Willow, also the narrator of this story, is an amalgamation of the friends that Pearl had in China.  Through Willow we learn that Pearl's father Absolam was a missionary to China and that his whole life was spent trying to convert Chinese people to the Christian faith.  His long-suffering wife Carie was terribly homesick for America but because Absolam refused to leave China she stayed on too and her work with the Chinese people made them so indebted to her that many of them converted to Christianity just to show Carie their gratitude.

Ever since she was very young Pearl wanted to be Chinese and not American, so much so, she had her Chinese nanny make her a crocheted, black cap which she would wear all of the time to keep her blonde hair covered.  She spoke Chinese like a native and even preferred to eat Chinese food over anything western.  Pearl and Willow became friends after Willow's father, a beggar, decided to join Absolam's church for the free food. Later, he was genuinely converted and became a Christian.

Pearl and Willow remained good friends despite Pearl's various long trips to the US and Willow's unhappy marriage to a man who was several years her senior.  When Pearl came back for a longer stay (married and with a mentally-disabled child, Carol) their friendship became even stronger although it was not without its trials.  You see, for a while both Pearl and Willow were in love with the same man: Hsu Chih-mo who was considered to be China's Shelly. When it was obvious that Hsu Chih-mo loved Pearl, Willow decided to let go of him.   Part of Pearl's attraction to Hsu Chih-mo was the fact that he was a Chinese man who was unafraid to speak his mind...his passion for poetry and life really appealed to her, but also, her American husband Lossing Buck didn't seem at all interested in their marriage and soon deserted her for a young Chinese woman called Lotus.

Willow in turn married Hsu Chih-mo's friend and admirer who worked in  the Communist party. Those were very trying times for Willow as Mao and especially, Madame Mao seemed to have made it their mission to dishonour Pearl Buck and turn her into an enemy of the Chinese people.  Knowing Willow was Buck's friend they asked her to denounce Buck as a cultural imperialist, something Willow refused to do and  was imprisoned, tortured, starved and set to cleaning sewers (something that is very believable if you've read historical accounts of lives during Mao's rule of China)

 "Pearl of China" provides a quick glimpse into Chinese history in the 20th century.  We are taken through 80-plus years of China's history from the Boxer Rebellion to the Japanese invasion;  the war between the Nationalists and Communists and the establishment of the Mao era and on to the Cultural Revolution and China's opening to the West and surprisingly none of it feels rushed...I guess that is a testament to the great skill of Anchee Min as a fictional writer of history.  Her descriptions of places, people and time are always so engaging, you hardly notice the passing of the years!

Pearl Buck's life has been the subject of  many books but most of her biographers have been Westerners. Anchee Min hopes her book will allow readers to see how Pearl Buck is viewed in China by the Chinese people.   You come away from this book realizing the extraordinary hold China had on one of the most influential women of the 20th century, and how much she empathized with the Chinese people (especially the peasants).  She was the first author to write about the Chinese peasants and anyone who has read "The Good Earth" knows she did so movingly, empathetically and powerfully.  Not only is "The Good Earth" a very moving read, but one could say it was a very powerful force in helping Americans move beyond the bigotry, contempt and ignorance with which they had long viewed the Chinese.

Had Pearl Buck not been forced to leave China for the US during the Boxer Rebellion I feel certain she would have lived in China for the rest of her life. She always, always wanted to return to China and forty years later she came close to returning (as part of Nixon's entourage on a State visit to China in 1972) but Madame Mao saw to it that Pearl was refused a visa. Pearl died the next year at home in Pennsylvania. I wouldn't be at all surprised if she died from a broken heart.

If "Pearl of China" whets your appetite for more of Pearl Buck (and I have no doubt it will), I would highly recommend reading Hilary Spurling's " Burying the Bones"....I heard an audio version of the book and was very satisfied.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Read by Grayce Wey
Category: Fiction
Published by: Penguin Audio
Format: Audiobook
On Sale: April 29, 2010

Synopsis provided by Publisher:

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, Girl in Translation is an inspiring debut about a young immigrant in America, a smart girl who, living a double life between school and sweatshop, understands that her family’s future is in her hands.

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life—the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition—Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself, back and forth, between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly’s story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and a world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

My thoughts:

It's been so long since I've read either an immigrant or a coming-of-age story and this sweet little book by Jean Kwok more than made up for the long wait.   Our little heroine, Kimberly or Ah Kim as her mother calls her, has to endure a lot: a roach and mouse-infested home without any heating in Brooklyn; dire poverty; the embarrassment of being a "FOB" and not knowing a word of English; having to work in a factory/sweat shop after school and having the responsibility of guiding her Chinese mother through an English-speaking world.  What makes this even more complicated is she has to tread the tightrope between the two cultures and balance the Chinese desire for filial devotion and obedience with the American spirit for independence with the proficiency of a professional tightrope walker, and all this at the tender age of eleven!  But she possesses such spirit, such earnestness, you fall for her immediately.
Some reviewers have complained that the writing is too plain, but really, I think the "plainness" suited the story.  After all, this is an immigrant 11-year old girl, a non-speaker of the English language, surely one can't expect her to employ literary acrobatics?  The simple speak provides an air of authenticity to the story....what also provides authenticity is the fact that the author herself had a similar childhood.  In an interview with The Buzz, this is what the author had to say in answer to the question, "To what extent is the book autobiographical?"

It was certainly inspired by my own life, and by the worlds I had seen. My family moved from Hong Kong to New York when I was 5 years old and we, like Kimberly Chang and her mother, needed to start all over again. We began working in a sweatshop in Chinatown, which was filled with small children like myself. And we did live in an apartment without central heating, where we needed to keep the oven door open in order to have a bit of warmth through the bitter New York winters. Like Kimberly, I had a talent for school. I was also tested by a number of exclusive private schools and won scholarships to them, yet I was also accepted by a public high school for gifted children, which is where I went. After that, on a similar path to Kimberly’s, I was accepted to Harvard.

This story opened my eyes!  I didn't know for instance that so many people from Hongkong moved away   when the take over by China was imminent.  Infact, we (my family and I) were in Hongkong during the transition (1997) and we did notice a huge influx of peasants from the mainland but we didn't hear of anyone (except for the British, some expats and Chinese with British passport-holders) leaving the colony.  Also, I didn't know New York had sweatshops that employed children especially as recently as 1997!!!  That came as a huge shock to me. Something we don't talk about a lot, but which a lot of immigrants experience, is the exploitation by a family member.  In the novel, Kimberly's aunt, Paula, gets Kimberly and her mother to work for peanuts at her garment factory to pay off the money she (Paula) spent on bringing them to the United States.  I know of people here in Canada who are sponsored by relatives and then the very same relatives make them work in the home as cooks or nannies for little or no pay. Makes me realize that freedom is relative, you can be as much of a slave here in North America as in the country you are running away from.

What I did know and what the author reiterates in her story is that in the early '90's, racism due ignorance was alive and thriving. Kimberly, was picked on constantly for looking and sounding different. I am so glad that a "zero tolerance" dictate on bullying and racism has been put into place now.  About time!

Kimberlee was an extremely bright student.  One might be tempted to think of that as an Asian stereotype, but from what I see around me, Asian students are bright because they have such a wonderful work and study ethic.  Many of my daughters' friends, the Asian ones, keep long days at school and even their extra curriculars involve some form of academics or music.

This is a beautiful coming-of-age story, one that will definitely touch your heart and has been compared to "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn".   In the print version of the book Kwok cleverly employs phonetic spellings to illustrate Kimberly's growing understanding of English and wide-eyed view of American teen culture, the audio version (which is what I used) is performed by Grayce Wey, who is wonderful at giving a Chinese-American intonation to the character's voices thus bringing them alive for the listener!   The book is written in the first person narrative from the point of view of Kimberly though at times I couldn't help wishing that I had her mother's perspective too.  Kimberly's mother, who was a gifted violinist back in Hongkong was forced to lower her station in life once her much-loved husband passed away.  It would have been wonderful to read about her life in the US and her crashed American dream from her perspective as well.

Finally, besides being a wonderful coming-of-age story this is also a beautiful love story, one that doesn't quite end with stars in the eyes, but which will burrow its way into your heart and stay there a long,long time.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Lovers by Vendela Vida

 
Formats:  HardcoverPublishers: Harper Collins Canada


I am always excited to hear Vendela Vida has a new book out.  Her stories are usually set in exciting locales and her characters are strong women determined to navigate life on their own after a tragedy befalls them. In  "And Now You Can Go", partly set in the Phillipines, a young woman talks a suicidal gunman out of killing them both;  in Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name,  set in Lapland, the crime is rape; and in "The Lovers" it is an accident that drives our 53-year old protagonist (Yvonne) to return to Datcha, a coastal village in Istanbul.  Spot the common link?  Rage and violence and then a trip to a foreign land in search of oneself. Apparently, this is deliberate and Vida is very conscious of creating a trilogy of sorts with these three titles.  Now, back to the story:

After Yvonne loses Peter, her husband and love of her life, to a "hit and run", she decides (after a period of mourning) to return to Datcha, a coastal village in Istanbul, which is where they had their honeymoon twenty-eight years ago.  She was scheduled to stay there for a week until the cruise ship that her son and his wife were sailing on, picked her up from Datcha. Her reasons for returning to Datcha are clear: she wants to know if the grief she feels at Peter's death can be obliterated by the good memories of their honeymoon...
Like with most places, time hadn't been real kind to Datcha and everything she saw, the beach, the houses, the roads, just seemed shabbier and less vibrant..."the beach was filthy. Small plastic bags, gelatinous in the sun, had been deposited by the tide on the strand."  
and
“Half the restaurants had been shut down. The remaining ones displayed sick-looking fish on beds of crushed gray ice. With soiled rags, waiters shooed away mangy cats trolling for food. A sprinkling of tourists speaking German sat outside the cafes, their skin sunburned to a peculiar shade of orange.”

Still, she stays on in a nice house that she rented from Turkish businessman Ali Celik and soon became friends with his wife Ozlem.  Ozlem and Ali were in the process of getting a divorce and Yvonne soon became Ozlem's sounding board for all the wretchedness that was going on in her marriage.  But it was a symbiotic relationship because in Ozlem Yvonne found someone who could show her the ropes and a non-judgmental curiosity about her life with Peter.

Along with Ozlem and Ali, other people that pass through Yvonne's life as she holidays in Turkey is a 10-year old boy who reminds her of her son Matt when he was small.  Ahmet's grandmother is the owner of of one of the resorts in Knidos but because she is too busy for the boy, Ahmet spends all day on the beach collecting shells from the Aegean Sea....the lonely figure he cuts on the beach is what endears him to Yvonne and soon she is befriending him much to the dislike of some of the locals, until tragedy strikes and she is forced to face their hatred head on.

There is undeniably a very melancholic air to the book with a few menacing details, but one that is nonetheless uplifting.  I will admit to taking a while to get into the book - I found the protagonist a little too gloomy with a penchant for navel gazing and/or looking backward - but once I was over that hump, I was able rediscover the Vendela Vida magic. Because it's more of a novella and has very interesting descriptions of Turkey, I will even recommend this as a great summer read!

What you take away from Vendela Vida's "The Lovers" will depend on what stage of life you're at.  A young person reading this is likely to have a very different view of the book than a middle-aged woman. Regardless of the age, however, I feel quite certain that every reader will enjoy the book and the way it explores memories.  The title might be a little misleading though, because although there are many "lovers" in the book, including an owl pining for its mate, you realize that Yvonne herself seems lost and unanchored and probably, saddest of all, she concludes that her marriage it not what she thought it was.

I am very grateful to Harper Collins, Canada for making a copy of this book available for me to read.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

Picador, March 2010

"Hotel Iris" by Yoko Ogawa is one of those novels you want to read with one eye closed.  In other words, the subject matter can be bizarre and grotesque and at the same time, you cannot stop reading because the story, the plot and the mood is so compelling, it draws you in almost against your will.

Our protagonist is 17-year old Mari who works in her mom's rundown hotel, "Hotel Iris" at a seaside resort in Japan.  (Well, atleast I think it's Japan but because the details of where the place is is so sparse it could be any seaside town, anywhere).

The novel opens on the cusp of Japan's hottest summer and also the busiest time of the year for Hotel Iris.  One evening as Mari tends to the front desk a commotion breaks out in Room 202 and soon she sees a "lady of the night" bounding down the steps in fear and anger and yelling out to the occupant in the room who it seems was intent on having rough sex with her.  Mari catches a quick glimpse of  the middle-aged customer as he leaves the room and throws two bills on the reception desk on his way out. 

Some days later Mari sees him again and to her great surprise she realizes he is not the commanding figure she thought he was when she saw him in the hotel that night, instead she sees he is a middleaged- to- old man (almost 50-years older than her), about her height and frail-looking.  She has this urge to follow him for not only is she curious about him, but on page 11 she tells us her thoughts upon hearing the customer shouting back at the prostitute in the hotel "I was confused and afraid, and yet somewhere deep inside I was praying that voice would someday give me an order, too."

You know how they say, be careful what you wish for?  Well, Mari's sinister wish came true.  She meets the gentlemen (we are never told his name) in town again and finds out  he is a translator of Russian pamphlets, medical documents and administrative papers and in his spare time he is translating a Russian novel whose heroine is named Marie.  The translator lives in an old isolated house on an island which is only accessible by boat and it there in his house that these sado-masochistic trysts between him and Marie take place. Note the restraint in Ogawa's writing with the prose being refined yet penetrating:

"He had undressed me with great skill, his movements no less elegant for all their violence. Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became — like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl."

The narrator describes himself as a widower; a rumor in town says he murdered his late wife. Mari does consider the thought that the narrator might be a murderer but the thought seems to excite her as much as scare her.

Although the reader might wish to feel sorry for Mari, it is a little difficult to do so given that she really seems to enjoy these torture sessions. One is not entirely sure why though. Could it be that it adds some excitement to her otherwise dull life? Or is it because in some twisted way these interactions with the narrator make her feel loved  (something her mother seems incapable of doing?), or, does Mari feel this is what is due her because of her damaged sense of self?  Really not sure what her trigger is.  Perhaps it is none of the above and that she enjoys the pain purely for its physical sensation, after all, isn't pain supposed to release certain neurotransmitters, including natural painkillers like endogenous morphine?

Adding colour to this mouldy seaside resort story are a motley crew: Mari's mother (again nameless) whom I have already mentioned ( a thoroughly dislikable woman who works Mari like a slave without a single day off); a kleptomaniac maid; a blind guest and the translator's nephew who is tongueless and a student of architecture who Mari finds rather interesting.

This book was written in 1996 but was only recently translated from the Japanese into English by Stephen Snyder. Ogawa has won accolades in Japan for the two novels she wrote previous to this one, "The Housekeeper and The Professor" and "The Diving Pool". Ogawa's writing style is sparse and minimalistic, but she is so good at setting moods, providing a sense of place and manipulating a readers' senses with her spare words, that I almost want to say she is the writer equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. Also, for all the torture, lust and obsessive behaviour that takes place between the pages of this book, the narrative tone comes across as being rather detached, even clinical, but because it is in sharp contrast to the behaviors it actually makes the read that much more interesting.  This is a bleak novel but exquisitely imagined.  I cannot wait to read Ogawa's previous two books.