Mother and Daughter Writers and the Chola Empire @ BYOB Party in November 2017 (Part 3)

What’s wrong with Indian books written in English? There was a lot of discussion about how some writers do not pay enough respect to the language and how many publishers do not take enough effort to create good standards.

Anita Desai, however, is a writer who does not fall into this bracket at all. Sunny spoke about a classic by her called The Village by the Sea. The narrative is set in a village called Thul, some time in the 1980s and tells the tale of one family in particular. Desai visited this village long enough for her to be known as a regular. “This story doesn’t have a strong beginning, middle and end,” he said. “It just happens.”

Kasturi spoke about a book by Anita Desai’s daughter, Kiran Desai who won the Booker Prize. She was rereading The Inheritance of Loss and after a good six years, her perspective of the book has changed. The story is set in Kalimpong at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. A retired judge returns here and must face the demons he thought he had left behind. Desai deals with geography, history and characterization in a stylized way. It is slow-paced compared to the crime thrillers that were discussed at the party but it was delightful, a distinct Indian voice.

Anshuman is a history buff and was pleasantly surprised by Devi Yeshodharan’s Empire that tells the little-known story of the Chola Empire, a South Indian kingdom that held sway over South East Asia at one time. The story is told through the eyes of a Greek protagonist, a young woman. Other prominent works of historical fiction in India include the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. There were some mentions of books by Ashwin Sanghvi and Amish Tripathi as well.

Short Book Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus by Sarah DunantSBR: The prolog, along with the first sentence of the first chapter, seems to give away the story of this historical novel. But The Birth of Venus becomes interesting towards the middle before turning disappointing again in the last few pages. However, the recreation of the madness and ecstasy of Renaissance Florence, a city bubbling with art and masterful human creations, is admirable; and that kept me reading through the book.
To read or not to read: Yes, for the historical setting, even though the fiction falters.

Risky Summits and Maps of Africa @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 2)

dead-mountainIt was Sumit’s first time to any book-related group and he made his entry with a non-fiction New York bestseller called Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar. The story is set in 1959. Nine experienced hikers mysteriously die in the Ural mountains in Russia. Their story has been documented. So there are diary entries, photographs, government case files, and interviews. “Those nine people turned into nine distinct persons. I connected with the hikers and felt for them. I didn’t want them to die in the end,”  Sumit said. The mystery  of their death remains unsolved.

“Literature humanizes people beyond your circle of experience,” Jaya said. “This makes a good case for historical fiction as it gives history a different persepctive.”

In the context of stories being more poignant than statistics, Anurag spoke about A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. The story begins in 1976 before the Jamaican general election. Bob Marley and his family were wounded by assassins. James traces the lives of the murderers and tells the story of Jamaica simultaneously. He uses a large canvas and multiple points of view to paint a richer tale of the past.

the-poisonwood-bibleApurba is a fan of historical fiction too and spoke about her favorite books including Gone with the Wind and the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. She was reluctant to start The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver but she is glad she read it as it is the kind of book that stays with the reader a long time after it is read.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story where the wife and four daughters of the Price family are the narrators, each chapter being alternately told by on of the five narrators. Nathan Price is a fierce, evangelical Baptist. When he moves with his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959, they are uprooted, shocked and transformed. Apurba speaks of an instance when the stubborn Price wishes to continue with baptisms but is faced by logistical problems like crocodiles in the river.

Conversation veered to the function of historical fiction in throwing light on ways of life and times entirely foreign to readers. For Apurba, Kingsolver provided a very different view of Africa as compared to the ideas of Africa narrated by writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

History could be made richer by historical fiction. Do you agree or disagree? More books discussed in part 3.


Short Book Review: The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg

The Girl From KrakowSBR: The Girl from Krakow is yet another second world war book, but sets itself apart because of its Eastern European setting. There is history in the book and there is philosophy, apart from the fiction. History appears to be good. Philosophy is something I identify with, but the craft of fiction writing falters. Hence you have the same philosophy being spouted by too many unrelated characters as if the author can’t stop himself from pushing it down your throat. So despite identifying with it, after a while I could not stand it. The fiction is too fanciful at times, too many convenient coincidences happen. The language is also awkward in places, perhaps because the author is not a native English speaker.
To read or not to read: Yes – for the history and philosophy, not for the fiction.

Short Book Review: Gods, Kings & Slaves – The Siege of Madurai by R Venkatesh

Gods, Kings & SlavesSBR: Gods, Kings & Slaves is one of those books that had great potential, but it fell far short of it because the very first draft was published where severe rewriting and editing was needed. The characters are inconsistent, narrative jumpy, language awkward and even wrong due to the incorrect usage of words and phrases apart from bad sentence construction.
The book is set in the time of the rise of Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s famous general, who attacked the Pandyan empire’s heart in Madurai. It follows the lives of Malik Kafur and Vira Pandyan until they collide. But apart from the interesting historical context, the book falls flat.
To read or not to read: No. Unless you are keen on reading up just anything about the period in the history that this book covers.

Short Book Review: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn GirlSBR: The Other Boleyn Girl is another of those best-selling books that should not be read. It is historically inaccurate, the characters who are known to be vibrant, complex and multi-dimensional have been reduced to the single dimension of black and white and the author’s attempt to show Mary Boleyn as an innocent woman victimized by her family and Anne Boleyn as a vicious, revengeful shrew are pathetic. Deviating from historical facts is fine in a work of historical fiction, but those deviations should serve the story. That doesn’t happen here. The idea of seeing Tudor history from Mary Boleyn’s point of view is an interesting premise too. But the story ends up reading like a shallow historical romance. The characters of Mary and Anne Boleyn from the book could easily be adapted for a contemporary Hindi soap opera, where the ambitious woman can only be a vamp and the simpering doormat gets the heroine’s crown. That should tell you how flat the characters and the book are. The writing craft has nothing to redeem the pointless story.
To read or not to read: No. Please don’t.

Short Book Review: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

The Glass PalaceSBR: The Glass Palace is a work of historical fiction spanning generations over a period of more than a hundred years. The book’s history is good, but the fiction is not. Often I felt like asking the author to relax and let his characters breathe. They can live their own lives and don’t have the obligation to jump from one historical event to the next so that they can tell us everything you have learned from your research. There can be no denying that Ghosh’s history research is solid. The insights into the curious relationship India and Burma had during colonial times were enlightening to me, and the subsequent disconnect between the countries disheartening. The characters of the book, however, are stiff and the story often sounds forced.
To read or not to read: Read for the history, not for the story.

Short Book Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

MyNameIsRedSBR: What do you say about a book which is very well written and incredibly boring to read? No. Not in the way some people find classics. My Name is Red really is well-written for a modern audience. The translator must have done a hell of a job for it not to feel awkward anywhere. It even has a fairly good mystery plot. But the beautiful chapters, written from a thousand different points of view, repeat the same things over and over again and by the time the story moves, you don’t care about the mystery anymore. Besides whatever you have to learn about the Persian vs. Turkish vs. European painting styles of the sixteenth century, you learn in the first few chapters and could do without learning over and over again. There is a daastaangoi  kind of experience with fantastical, mythical stories making their appearances, but that too gets too repetitive after a time.
To read or not to read: If you are someone who can experience the joy of reading something beautiful for the heck of it, please go ahead. But if repetition tires or bores you, you will be pulling your hair out within the first hour of reading. I wish I could categorically say, don’t read it. Unfortunately, I can’t.

Short Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

TheNameOfTheRoseSBR: Unlike my previous reads Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a piece of historical fiction (specifically mystery) which does bring modern sensibilities into a story set in the 14th century. Especially is philosophical debates. But that has a charm of its own. A story like this can provoke you to examine your own unassailable beliefs and make to think if they really are that unassailable.
If you are looking purely for a mystery novel, you might be bored by the philosophy intervening. But I liked it because it felt like a good supplemental reading to the scholastic philosophy chapters I encountered in The History of Western Philosophy. The problem in this book was the frequent use of (untranslated) Latin phrases and sentences. This meant that I could not curl up in the bed to read the book. I often needed to consult this good man’s work and Google Translate.
To read or not to read: Read if you can enjoy the dossier on the religion of middle ages, monasticism and scholastic philosophy and are willing to work on your (ahem!) Latin.
  1. I realized while reading this book that the expression “It is Greek to me” might be from the time when people spoke Latin. We can, perhaps, shift to using”It is Latin to me”.
  2. I didn’t start reading the book after the news of the author’s death. He died while I was reading the book. An eerie feeling!

Short Book Review: Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

WolfHallBringUpTheBodiesSBR: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are the first two books of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, the third book has not yet been published. The best thing about these books is that the author doesn’t let our modern sensibilities come in the way of telling a story of 16th century Tudor England. Not just with her use of present tense throughout the books (which, it seems, irks come people, but I found it all right), but also with the thoughts she puts into the characters’ heads, the way she makes them behave and talk and the way the narration goes. Excessive use of pronouns also irks some people, and I admit that it is confusing at times, but I find the distinctive writing style charming. Both the books are Booker Prize winners.
 To read or not to read: Yes, read 🙂
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