Short Book Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

SBR: The English Patient is another one of those award-winning books that didn’t work for me. The film of poetic, dreamy writing never allows you to penetrate into the characters. And since there was an Indian character in it, I could identify the non-authenticity of the skills and feelings ascribed to him. So I doubt that the author fared better with other characters. None of them have a distinct voice of their own. The reaction of the characters to the infamous world-war-concluding event, which brings about the climax of the book too, is so ex post facto. There was no way those characters could have realized so quickly what exactly had happened and what its aftermaths were.

To read or not to read: Not unless you are a lover of poetic writing for the heck of it, or you are on a mission to read all award-winning books.

Short Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthSBR: Man Booker Prize notwithstanding The Narrow Road to the Deep North is incredibly pointless in the first 200 pages. And it’s not like these pointless pages make more sense after the book does get interesting. Most of those pages should simply not have been there. They are devoted to stretching out a love story in a way that neither arouses sympathy, nor repulsion. It’s just pages after pages of boredom and heavy-handed writing trying to elevate mundane to mystic and failing. When the book comes to its actual subject, the treatment of prisoners of wars in the Japanese camps during WWII, it is quite riveting. You can have a vicarious experience of the horrors, the contradictions, and the futility of life and war through this book.
To read or not to read: It’s too long and if you are not a fast reader, it may not be the best use of your time. These subjects have been covered in other better-written books. But if you are fine spending with a lackluster attempt at romance to get to the point, this is a Man Booker Prize-winning book; so treat yourself to the intellectual indulgence.

Short Book Review: Farthest Field: An Indian Story of Second World War by Raghu Karnad

Farthest FieldSBRFarthest Field talks about Indians in second world war, an aspect of the history that is usually ignored within as well as outside India. Because in India, Indians fighting the war for the British doesn’t fit the national narrative. And outside India, the exploitation of natives in the European war is an uncomfortable subject. But Indians comprised the largest volunteer army in the second world war and the people involved need to be talked about.
My only gripe is an odd mixture of genres in the book. The author set out to write a personal history, for which he didn’t have enough material. He could have written a non-fiction about the role of Indians in the war (which is what the book eventually reads like, but less comprehensive because the author is following his character and not history). A historical fiction on the subject would also have been great.
Of course, it is the author’s prerogative what he chooses to write. But I would love to see a historical fiction on this background. Amitav Ghosh’ The Glass Palace includes this period and this aspect of Indian history, but only on the Eastern front of the war. This book covers Eastern as well as Western fronts.
To read or not to read: Yes because it deals with a most interesting aspect of Indian history.

Short Book Review: Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin

Last Train To IstanbulSBR: Last Train to Istanbul has an interesting premise and story. It is a second world war story that is not from America, but from Turkey, a country that maintained a precarious neutrality through most of the war, dealing with the political and military pressure from the allies as well as the axis powers, and in the process creating scope for the events that the story is primarily about – their diplomats saving Turkish as well as many non-Turkish  Jews from the clutches of German-occupied Europe.
It is a story of politics, calamitous changes, war, and love. That sounds like a thrilling back cover text, but unfortunately, the book is not well-written. Part of it could be the fault of the translation, but part of it is definitely original. The dialogs are stilted, language cliched and the story jumps back and forth, rather than flow. Characters could have been more vibrant that ‘he loves her’, ‘she is rebellious’, ‘he is stubborn’, ‘he is a gentleman’. You don’t feel the time, the people and the situations. You have to take things on face value with the over exposition by the author.
To read or not to read: Read only if you have read too many American world-war II stories and need  change. Else, I hope to find something else from this region that is better written.