Home: Toni Morrison

“Home” starts with a promise, following an uncharted path, but ends in a disappointment. Frank Money, haunted by war memories, returns to a racist country and saves his sister. The book is beautifully written but lacks solid content. Thirty pages to the end, it seems Morrison is tired and just wants to end the book, if you please. The surprise she saves for the end is not really one as somewhere along the way, she hints at it.

Read, if you want to appreciate the craft of storytelling.

The Overstory: Richard Powers

‘The Overstory” starts as a book with stories about people and trees – the connection between people and trees. The first section aptly titled ‘Roots’ is sublime. The stories are complete in themselves. But then in ‘Trunk’, the characters meet, and the story becomes more activist than literary and then in ‘Crown’, the literature gets tossed out and it becomes a passionate cause for environment. While the book scores big on making a case for preserving forests (I was dazzled by so many interesting, amazing facts about trees and forests), it falls short on storytelling. The progress of the characters is unidimensional, the pace slows down and the reading becomes a bit of drag.

Read.

Ants Among Elephants: Sujatha Gidla

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Sujatha Gidla talks about her experience of growing up as an untouchable in India.  Despite having lived there for most of my life, the extent and intensity of segregation and discrimination against the ‘lower’ castes is like a punch in the gut.  I am not naïve that I didn’t know about it but perhaps never paid much thought to it.  The impact of the story is a little diluted because Gidla doesn’t follow a single thread – untouchability, communism or a family saga.  In the end, it comes out a little like a chronology of events.  While the writing maintains interest, the lack of cohesiveness is an issue.  Nonetheless, clearly a story that needs to be told.  Again and again.

Read.

Black Flags: Joby Warrick

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‘Black Flags’ recounts the story of the rise of ISIS, from the chance entry of Abu Musab Zarqawi into a remote part of Iraq, to the American invasion, and how the two unrelated events came together to become a combustible combination that exploded into ISIS 1.0. It took another ten years, Arab spring revolution, and destabilization of Syria to establish ISIS 2.0 under Baghdadi’s leadership that, at one time, controlled two thirds of Iraq and had enormous resources at its disposal including oil wells and banks. Warrick tells the story in a really engaging way that it seems you are reading a page-turner thriller than a historical account. Two problems. One, the book focuses too much on Zarqawi and too little on Baghdadi; ISIS 2.0 was the real deal after all. Two, it is a little too partial to the Jordanian monarchy and establishment.

A must read.

After Paradise: Robley Wilson

 

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‘After Paradise’ is an inappropriately named tale of a small town in Maine where a carnival event triggers an interaction between two teenagers and an exotic dancer. Not sure what the author was going for, but nothing much happens really. David and Kate break up and then David is killed in a car accident that had nothing to do with the carnival. There are a number of stereotypical characters: the angry priest, his suffering wife, the exotic dancer with a troubled past, her savior and so on. Most of the time when a book doesn’t work, it’s the writing that lets it down. In case of ‘After Paradise’, the writing is fine. Not special, but fine, but it’s the meaninglessness of the plot that lets it down.

Don’t bother.

The Drunk Bird Chronicles: Malay Chatterjee

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A giant white raven who is hundreds of years old, speaks multiple languages and has a taste for brandy, a London brothel-keeper who is an inventor of sorts and designs the Calcutta tramway, a young architect in CPWD who is visited by the then PM Indira Gandhi in hospital, a royal uncle-niece duo in love with the same man who they do not mind sharing . These are amongst many more colorful and unique characters that breathe on the pages of Malay Chatterjee’s ‘The Drunk Bird Chronicles’. The book traces the lives of five generations of Gareth-Braganza family from London to Calcutta to Khasi hills to Goa to Delhi. You have to salute the author’s ambition, his imagination and the breadth of the canvas he paints in vivid colors and minute details. The book stands out on many counts: literally hundreds of characters that are all unique, the pacing – characters come and go – but the pace of story-telling doesn’t slacken anywhere, and the interweaving of fiction and reality. Karl Marx, Jackson Pollock, M.F.Hussain, and many others make cameo appearances that enliven the proceedings. Chatterjee does a great job in holding the story together, capturing the essence of the cities the story plays out in, and in capturing readers’ imagination. A masterful piece of writing indeed.

Read.

Becoming: Michelle Obama

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Becoming is the heart-warming and inspirational account of Michelle Obama’s life.  Starting from a small apartment in a Chicago street to Princeton and Harvard to White House.  It is not a dry, ambitious journey; the warmth of her family life in her early years, the friendships she formed growing up, and her dating Barack give Michelle a character that matches with her public persona – of a warm, compassionate person who cares about a lot of issues deeply.  The identity with the race comes out too strong, but she acknowledges her upbringing and experiences being very different from Barack’s.  The weakest part of the book is the White House bit – ironically what I was looking forward to the most.  Her fawning over her husband’s accomplishments despite odds somehow overshadows her own story.

Read.

Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens

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Once in a while comes along a novel that makes you question if you have your head fixed right or is everyone else in the world crazy. A Reese Witherspoon book club selection, NYT best seller for a number of weeks, over 21000 reviews on Amazon, Where the Crawdads Sing comes with strong credentials.  However, it is poorly written piece of fiction.  The premise itself is a little hard to digest but even if you overcome that, the predictability of the story line, stereotypical characters, repetitive writing and convenient coincidences make it a hard to read book.  Delia Owens may be a good biologist, but a good writer she is not.  Even the unique beauty of the marshlands is not captured well.  It is the oaks, Spanish moss, the gulls – including the big red, estuaries over and over again without any captivating description that you get tired of the setting and just want the story to end somehow.  Sometimes I wonder the value the editors add to the books.  Wouldn’t the editor have noticed that Kya is almost always dressed in a white top and cut-off jeans, every few pages reads out a poem by Amanda Hamilton, and the food has to be listed each time we are near a diner.  It makes for tiresome reading indeed.

Don’t even think about it.

Sing Unburied Sing: Jesmyn Ward

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Sing Unburied Sing is an engrossing story about race relations in modern times and also generations past.  How so much has changed and yet so little has.  Thirteen-year old Jojo grown in a household where he is the primary caregiver to his little sister besides his grandparents because his black mother and white father are too busy getting high, dodging law and making love.  The glimpses into the past of his grandfather and the prejudices he faced two generations ago is the backdrop which keeps the reader grounded.  The fact that the POVs of JoJo and his mother are starkly different make the book even more engaging.  The magic-realism bit in the book didn’t work for me.  It was okay that Leonie saw her dead brother every time she was high, but then it gets much with Richie, other ghosts that the kids can see, and Mom’s death scene where everyone sees everyone.

Read.

Gun Island: Amitav Ghosh

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It has been a season of legends falling from grace.  Salman Rushdie disappointed with Golden House and now it is Amitav Ghosh’s turn with Gun Island.  Ghosh is clearly passionate about some of the current issues including immigrant crisis and climate change and decides to weave a story around these two themes.  However, he forgets one critical element of story telling: story.  It is hard to imagine it’s the same Amitav Ghosh who spun such vivid worlds in The Sea of Poppies and The River of Smoke.  Current events is perhaps not his thing and he is better off playing on history and events past.  It is heartbreaking to read the mumbo-jumbo Gun Island offers.

Don’t bother.