Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Peony in Love by Lisa See

Category: Fiction/Historical fiction

Format: Hardcover, 304 pages

Publisher: Random House

Published Date: 26/06/2007

Author's website

I'm sure we've all had literary crushes at some point in our lives or wished we could emulate literary heroes or heroines whose lives we thought were oh so romantic. My crush for the longest time was Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights
(If you've had literary crushes, please do share, I'd hate to think I was the only one! :). I thought Heathcliff's dark, brooding demeanor was soulful and I have often wished I could have been his Catherine, likewise, 15-year old Peony Chen, Lisa See's young protagonist in the brand new novel, "Peony in Love" longs to emulate Li-niang the heroine of Peony's favorite Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion".

More on Li-niang and the opera "The Peony Pavilion":

The Peony Pavilion, which was first performed 1598 and is still performed today, told the story of a 16-year-old woman,
Li-niang, who wrestled control of her own destiny ( women were so sheltered, they were not allowed step outside the walls of their homes and every decision was made for them by the men of the household) by starving herself and finding love after death. The Peony Pavilion, motivated a lot of lovesick young women in those days to starve themselves to death in order to control their destiny, so much so, the opera was was censored and was officially banned in 1868. Even recently, the Lincoln Center production was temporarily delayed when the Chinese government realized that previously censored parts of the opera were being included in the production.

But coming back to our young protagonist Peony...

On Peony's 16th birthday, her father organizes a viewing of her favorite opera on their property, (much to the dismay of Peony's mother who didn't think the Opera was a good influence on young girls.) During the performance, which takes three evenings to complete, Peony meets and falls in love with a mysterious young man also invited to the performance, however, the thought of never being able to marry him (she was already betrothed to someone of her parents' choosing) causes her to pine so much that she starves herself, all the while making critical notes on the opera in her book. Soon she finds herself close to the death, so in a strange bizarre way, her life seems to be imitating that of
Li-niang, her favorite heroine.

"Peony in Love" is based on a true story of three lovesick maidens(of which Peony is one)...all loved to write, all three were completely obsessed with the opera "The Peony Pavilion" and all were married to the same man (one right after the other). Their notes on the opera were published into a book ( Three Wives' Collaborative Commentary on The Peony Pavillion), the first book by women anywhere in the world.

What I liked about the book:

Set in 17th century Manchu China, Lisa See adeptly lays out sumptuously detailed descriptions of the social customs of the people from that time, including a horrific, but compelling two-page description on foot binding, however, for me, the highlight of the book was the intricate death rituals and the Chinese take on the afterlife. Having been brought up with a Hindu/Roman Catholic view of the afterlife, this made such fascinating reading for me and it was sobering to think how if even one ritual is not done correctly, the soul may be prevented from arriving at its destination leaving it to wander the earth as a hungry ghost, which is what happened to our lovely but otherworldly, narrator, Peony.

A quibble

One little, and I mean little, quibble I have with the book is that it moves very slowly, also, I have to confess the teenage angst displayed by our heroines got a little too much for me at times, but you can blame that on the fact that I already see a lot of teenage angst at home!

"Snowflower" or "Peony"?

Finally, the question you have all been dying to ask...how does it compare with her previous novel "Snowflower and The Secret Fan"? I much preferred "Snowflower" as you can tell my glowing review here however, I see Peony doing well and it will probably be the summer darling of book clubs all over North America.

For another review of "Peony in Love" , please visit Wendy's (Caribou's Mom) blog.

Also visit Biblio File (Jennie) for a beautifully written review here

The Peony pictures below have been inspired by Nat, Nancy and Les who take such gorgeous pictures on their blogs, their pictures encournage me to wield my camera a little more.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

My Temporary Son: An Orphan's Journey by Timeri N. Murari

Published by: Penguin Books India

Published when: September 2005 ,248pp

Genre: Non Fiction/Memoir

Author's Website

*My Temporary Son by Timeri N. Murari

Little did Indian (Madras-based) writer Timeri N. Murari know just how much his life was about to change when his social worker wife, Maureen, brought to their home for a few days, a little lad from the orphanage she volunteered at while he (the little orphan) recuperated from surgery.

Bheema, as the baby orphan was named, was born with a condition called "vesicle extrophy" which is where the bladder is positioned outside the body, also, the baby had no discernible sex organs. The village couple he was born to were uneducated,superstitious and poor and when they couldn't detect if their baby was male or female they feared his malformation might bring bad luck upon their house, so without ever holding her son, the mother gave it up to the local orphanage where Bhima spent most of his days in an iron-barred cot, seldom touched or spoken to and occasionally banging his head against the bars of his crib (cage) when the pain of his affliction got too much to bear.

Luckily for Bheema, when Maureen went to visit the orphanage with a group of American expat ladies, she was drawn to his big,bright eyes which were filled with pain and made it her mission to get him surgical help and then to put him up for adoption abroad.

After the first big surgery she (Maureen) realized the orphanage couldn't possibly give him all the attention and medical supervision he was in need of, so she brought him to her home, where quite unintentionally and unexpectedly he became this childless elderly couple's "temporary son".

Murari has written a beautiful and poignant memoir of the time Bhima spent with them. He (Murari) was going on 60 when Bhima arrived at their home and had never been comfortable with children, but Bhima drilled a hole into this author's heart and let his sunshiny self in, much to the surprise of everybody, especially Murari who definitely didn't expect to be wrapped around a little child's finger .

Murari infuses each of the 248 pages with his love for Bhima and his pride in everything Bhima did. Each milestone is spoken of lovingly and from the heart. And, at the end, when the time comes for Bhima to go to his official adoptive parents, the heartbreak Murari experiences is so real and heartfelt it will jump off the page touching you too.

As he tells us Bhima's story the writer meanders wonderfully into a little family history, philosophy, scientific musings, self-introspection, the social history and culture of Madras, the adoption process in India, all of which makes for very interesting reading.
Infact, the book closes with atleast 20 pages of official information on the adoption process in India.

Bhima, as with many Indian kids, was adopted by a European family which made me think a little about international adoption and why it is favored in the west - North America and Europe. Why do people like Madonna and Angelina Jolie prefer to adopt kids from Africa and Asia instead of opting to adopt domestically? And what is the effect on these kids as they grow up with white parents..do they wonder about and miss their birth culture? It had me wondering too, what happens when an adoption goes wrong, as in, when the adoption agency doesn't reveal to you certain significant details (concerning health maybe) about the child. What recourse does the adoptive parent have? As you can see, this book made me think about adoption and the wonderful people that do it to give an orphan a better home.

I would recommend this book.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

# Hardcover: 288 pages

# Publisher: John Murray UK (8 Mar 2007)

# Genre : Historical Fiction

# Author's Website

#BBC Timeline: Bangladesh

Dear Husband,
I lost our children today.

This evocative opening line is from a book by a young author of Bangladeshi descent, Tahmima Anam, and it is set in Bangladesh against the backdrop of Bangladesh's fight for Independence from Pakistan in 1971, a war in which Nixon, the then President of America supported Pakistan and where India supported the breakaway Bangladesh.

To fully appreciate the novel, here's a little historical background:
When the British left India in 1947, they divided India into two states, India and Pakistan. Unfortunately for Pakistan, 1,500 miles separated West Pakistan from its Eastern Provinces"on either side of India like a pair of horns" and the eastern provinces became known as Bangladesh in 1971 after it secured its Independence from Pakistan in a bloody battle.

When I first heard about this book on BBC's Radio 4 I did a little jig around the room because, it is not often a Bangladeshi writer is propelled to international fame...the last author to have appeared on the bestseller's list was Monica Ali for "Brick Lane", but whereas "Brick Lane" was essentially an immigrant story, "A Golden Age" explores how the fight for independence affected the lives of normal people living in Bangladesh or East Pakistan as it was called then, their trials, their tribulations and most of all, the sacrifices they had to make in order for their country to be free from Pakistan.

The story centers around one family, the Haques, with smaller stories of the other people who happened to interact with them. Rehana Haque is a plucky, single mother bringing up two teenage children, 19 year old Sohail and 18 year-old Maya. When war breaks out, Sohail and Maya like many young, idealist students of that time, join the Guerilla independence movement and become freedom fighters. Rehana, knowing that she has to make her own contribution, offers her guest house to the Movement. This move on Rehana's part is the ultimate sacrifice because she originally hails from Karachi in West Pakistan. The book follows the lives of these three main characters closely, giving the reader a fictionalized account of what people living through the war might have gone through.

The author who is too young to have her own memories of the war has based her story on what her grandparents and parents told her, creating a wonderful and fairly authentic tale of her nation's birth. The other reason I did a little jig around the room when I heard about this book is because of its subject matter....I was a young girl in Bombay when Bangladesh requested India's help in their fight for independence and I remember so clearly, Pakistan retaliating by dropping bombs on India. Every night, volunteers would walk past our apartment block shouting "lights out, lights out" and my father would stick "black out" paper onto all the windows of the house and shut them tight. Curious little kids that we were, we would run onto the balcony to observe the "fireworks"...little did we know they were bombs in the distance. If any of you have any recollections of the 1971 war Indo-Pak war, do please share.

I consider "A Golden Age" a hugely important book, because, as far as I know, this is the first time the events of 1971 have been set forth in a novel in English and published by an International publishing house. "A Golden Age" has echoes of Shawna Singh Baldwin's "What the Body Remembers" and Chimananda Adichie's "Half of A Yellow Sun", Tahmima Anam is a truly talented writer
. Although Anam traces the Bangladesh war, its losses, tragedies, displacement, sacrifices, sorrows etc. she does so in a way that doesn't overwhelm the reader and for that I am grateful, also, this book, while it may be about the war is also a book about a mother's love for her family and the extent she is willing to go to to keep her family intact.

Though the events of 1971 Bangladesh are half a world and 40 years away, they still have much to teach us and we have so much to learn. Tahmima Anam has written a book every Bangladeshi or indeed every person interested in in this tragic event can be proud of.

If you can, do take a listen to Joan Baez's song about this war. It is called, "Song For Bangladesh" and can be found on YOU TUBE. It made my hair stand on end. Also, George Harrison's "Concert For Bangladesh" is a must-visit!

First Memory:

Radha has tagged me for an earliest memory recall. I have so many memories it is hard to pinpoint what might have been the first one.

It may have been:

a. my grandparents coming to visit us every evening with cookies for us children...

b. or the half-naked beggar-lady that came to our apartment block everyday around lunchtime crying out for something to eat...

c. Oh wait, it could have been me dancing and clapping to my father's cherished LP of the Beatles song, "Oh blah di-oh blah da!"

I am afraid I am totally unable to tell you which one is my earliest memory. Here's hoping Sanjay, Beenzzz, Olivia and anyone else that might like to play fare better than I did!

And finally, here's a fun thing I picked up from Myutopia's blog:

Click here to try it for yourself, it's the Flickr Word Game


Saturday, June 09, 2007

In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World by Christopher J Moore

# Hardcover: 128 pages

# Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 17, 2005)

#Genre: Language Arts and Etymology

#Listen to the author on NPR

I think it would be fair to surmise that we have all loved someone romantically and then lost them. If we are honest with ourselves, even today we think back to that certain someone and although we don't feel the same way about them anymore, we are still able to conjure up that melancholic, bittersweet feeling when we think of them and the love that was shared. Now wouldn't it be great if we knew of one brilliant, succinct word to describe and capture that feeling we get when we think about the person we once loved and then lost? In English it's a hopeless task, what word can we possibly use that would effective describe that particular love? But the Russians have a word it and it's called razbliuto.

Then, how many times has it happened that some makes a witty remark in your presence and you're unable to come up with an equally witty rejoinder, but the minute you leave the room and you're walking down the stairs, you think of a smart retort, but too late! Again, is there any word in English that can quite describe this phenomenon? I think not, but the French have a word for it, it's called "espirit de l'escalier" an idiom which literally means a witty remark that occurs to you too late!

Razbliuto and Espirit de l'escalier are just two of many, many words that Christopher J. Moore (linguist) has collected from languages around the world for which there is no equivalent in the English language. He also sets out to translate expressions, words and phrases from different parts of the world that sometimes leave us feeling lost and confused.

Along with words like "schmuck" "Schadenfreude", "doppelganger" "sang-froid" etc, some of my other favorites were:

Taarradhin: Arabic has no word for "compromise" in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement. But a much happier concept, taarradhin, exists which implies a happy solution for everyone as in "I win, you win". It's a way of solving a problem without anyone losing face.

A kind of intense nostalgia that only Portuguese people are supposed to understand. In his 1912 book on Portugal, A.F.G. Bell writes: “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning toward the past or toward the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

This book is a lot of fun and well put together. The words are arranged country-wise and divided into sections with a nice introduction to each section offering entertaining explanations and stories behind the words and the people that speak them. Buy a copy or borrow it from your library and you'll never be "lost in translation" again.

Also,I invite you to list your favorite foreign words/phrases and their meanings, I would really love to hear them. I found one in a short story in the New Yorker today, k√¶reste sorg—sweetheart sorrow—is danish to describe the sadness one feels at the thought of a love affair nearing its end. The story, also titled "Sweetheart Sorrow", is a great short story on language and identity and is by David Hoon Kim who makes his debut in the New Yorker.

(pic: Courtesy The New Yorker)

Finally, Chimananda Adichie, author of the tremendous book on the Nigerian Biafran War "Half of the Yellow Sun" has won the Orange Prize 2007 for literature. If you haven't already read her novel, I urge you to do so, you won't be disappointed! She gave a very nice interview to the Guardian UK lamenting the fact that the west doesn't "get" Africa. "..."What I find problematic is the suggestion that when, say, Madonna adopts an African child, she is saving Africa. It's not that simple. You have to do more than go there and adopt a child or show us pictures of children with flies in their eyes. That simplifies Africa. If you followed the media you'd think that everybody in Africa was starving to death, and that's not the case; so it's important to engage with the other Africa."

I think she's right and one of the ways we can engage with the "other" Africa is by reading novels written by Africans who live that life. Often (and I am very guilty of that) we will read about Africa through a foreigner's eyes... let the Africans tell their own stories is what Ms. Adichie is saying and I concur.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission To Promote Peace...One School At A Time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

#Hardcover # 352 pages # 02 Mar 2006 # Viking Adult # Memoir/Travelogue #AuthorsSite:www.threecupsoftea.com/

What does it take to give up one's comfortable life, embark on a journey to a troubled, distant land few people are familiar with and to try and bring peace to that land by building schools? It takes a vision, courage, determination and passion all of which Greg Mortenson has in large supply.

Greg Mortenson wasn't always an activist, he was a mountaineer and in 1993 when a trek to the K2 summit didn't go as planned he found himself in
Balistan, a rather unknown and impoverished province of Pakistan whose inhabitants, the Baltis, are descendants of the Tibetans. So moved was he by their kindness and hospitality to him that he made them a promise to build their kids a school. The promise was an impulsive one. Mortenson didn't have the funds to build a school but he dashed off e-mails and letters to everyone he could think of petitioning them for funds and soon he was on his way to building not just one, but fifty-five schools in some of the most dangerous terrain in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson's journey and how his school-building mission was accomplished is told along with co-author David Oliver Relin, in the fascinating book "Three Cups of Tea". Not only is this story a story of inspiration and hope, but also, it is a journey into a land not too many people visit because it is fraught with danger (smuggling, lawlessness etc.) I loved reading aobut Mortenson's encounters with the Baltis and the Wazirs, particularly the Wazirs because they are unique in that although their lands are in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are not loyal to either country, but loyal only to their clans. I also loved how Relin intertwines Mortenson’s story with the rise of the Taliban, 9/11 as experienced by Mortenson in Pakistan, and the American offensive in Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson comes across as a very sincere, likeable guy in the book. He tries hard to win the approval and trust of the Islamic leaders, elders, commanders and tribal chiefs and succeeds even though the road to winning their acceptance is a difficult one considering their culture was so different from the one he is used to.

All in all I would say that even if the prose is not of the highest standard, this is a good compelling story.

A big "Thank you" to Sylvia from HollyDollyBooks for giving me this book!

The Blogroll Game:

Dewey from 'The Hidden Side of Leaf" has a great game for bloggers. I am joining in because it's a truly great way to discover new blogs and make more friends. Click the button to find out more. It runs only until Father's Day (17 June), so be quick!

Church Book Sale and Book Meme Pg 161

Was passing by a Church yesterday and noticed a booksale in the parking lot. Stopped for what I thought would be a second or two, but ended up spending a whole hour there. Here's my stash of books and I am pleased as punch with the lot! For a closer look at the titles, feel free to click on the picture. I spent $8 on the lot!
I've been tagged (honorarily) by Tanabata of In Spring It is the Dawn. Thank you, Nat!

Here are the rules:

Grab the book that is nearest to you (no cheating), turn to page 161,
post the text of the fifth full sentence on the page, post the rules and tag three people.

I am reading "Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees" by Caroline Moorehead so it's the book I had closest at hand.

"Where refugees come from and the conditions that turned them into exiles is often something people do not want to know"

I found the sentence so sad ...is that really true, do we not want to know a refugee's past? But isn't his/her past his passport?

In turn I tag three other bibliophiles:

Happy Reader at Book Closet

A Reader From India

Niranjana from Brown Paper