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.
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 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.
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.
One wonders how the book made it to the Booker shortlist. An exotic setting and interesting characters (including Dimple, the eunuch) certainly, but it doesn’t add to anything at all.
John Green’s brother makes a remarkable debut with ‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’ – a YA, SF that is fast-paced, gripping and meaningful. Hundreds of statues appear in all the major cities all at once and are from another world. Our protagonist, with the unforgettable name of April May, becomes an overnight sensation as the first person to find them. Then begins the struggle between the people who think that the Carls – as they are called – mean well and ‘defenders’ who believe the statues have been planted by a civilization that intends to colonize earth. In the end, the Carls leave and April May, given up for dead, returns. The supporters Vs defenders bit was particularly well done and reflected the ongoing immigration debate. Except the inconclusive end that leaves the reader hanging, the book works well. The voice is fresh and full of wit and humor. Very today.
In ‘Search of Heer’, Manjul Bajaj re-tells the Heer-Ranjha story. Despite the story being a legend, she succeeds in telling it in a manner that is fresh and holds the interest of the reader. In my view, Bajaj scores on three fronts: first, she does a fantastic job with the world-building. She transports you to the rural Punjab of Mughal era and holds you there. Second, the characterization is superb. Each character is distinct and leaves an impression. The brave and volatile Heer, the vain and taciturn Ranjha, the conniving and evil Kaido. She does a particularly great job with some of the minor characters – Heer’s MIL, for instance, and Sehti. Third, the writing. Part-lyrical, part-insightful, the writing is consistent. When Ranjha goes looking for Heer at the start, the readers are drawn in the beauty of his journey. The insightful bit comes towards the end when Heer interacts with her mother and sister in law. Many a quotable quotes where you stop and admire the words. Another bit that worked for me was Bajaj’s commentary on religious extremism and double standards that are timeless. An enjoyable read indeed!