The Marriages of Opposites – Alice Hoffman

the-marriage-of-opposites-9781451693591_hr.jpghoffmanbiophoto.jpg

A fictionalized account of the life of Rachel Pizzarro, the mother of Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro, considered one of the fathers of impressionism. To begin with, her story is not that interesting. The life on the exotic island of St. Thomas can hold your attention for only so long. But what really sinks the book is the exceptionally bad writing. It seems like the first draft of a middling book that got published in a hurry. It’s so bad that on multiple occasions, I turned back to check if it had a legitimate publisher (each time I was surprised  it did). With a sketchy story and limited landscape, Hoffman rambles on for 385 excruciating pages. Tells us about a green bitterness in her protagonist’s heart ten times, dreaming of rain fifteen times, pelicans following her twenty times, and the night when turtles come nesting thirty times. Yes, it is that repetitive. Paragraphs start with one thought and then move on a tangent to something else, and then to something else altogether – puzzling the reader. My favorite part, clearly, was the end, when I sighed with relief that I can move on to another book.

Recommendation: Never

Book Review: The Elements of Style – William Strunk

The Elements of StyleWilliam Strunk Jr.

The Elements of Style – William Strunk

The Elements of Style is THE book on writing. Considered the final word and quoted in all the writing books. The amazing thing is that it remains (largely) relevant today even though written almost a hundred years ago (1918). Of course, there are certain antiquities (common spelling errors, how to break a word if it split into two pages, etc.) which amuse you. But it is creditable for a book to survive so long and remain relevant. The only thing that didn’t work for me was the focus on grammar terms – use past participle in this situation. I am too old to remember my past participles. The name is a bit of an anomaly – it’s more about writing the right English (though there are sections on omitting certain words, vague language, etc.). But a good read for a quick (Only 50 something pages) ready reckoner on writing.

Recommendation: Recommended for aspiring writers

Extract of Chapter 1 of The Jasmine Bloom

He left for home at seven and promptly got stuck in traffic at Pragati Maidan. The driver behind him, despite realizing it was a jam, honked away merrily. A street vendor holding a bunch of red heart shaped balloons tapped on his window, made a half hearted attempt to sell him one, and then walked away to a better prospect. Right when the rest of the drive home seemed to be smooth, he got stuck again near Lajpat Nagar. He saw the plethora of sign boards on the left. Geeta Coaching centre – BBA, MBA, BCA, MCA, BE, B.Arch, B.Tech, BScIT, MBBS. Sachdeva School, Indian School, Shiva Coaching Centre, Saraswati School. With many more degrees. He didn’t even know what half of those degrees stood for. It was like they jostled with each other to shout the loudest. So Delhi, he smiles to himself, competitive, every one fighting for space. A city of ten million. Ten million souls breathing together. Ten million dreams dreamt every night.

At Chirag Delhi crossing, he saw Imran, a load of magazines and books balanced on his tiny body, thread his way to him.

 

Sameer rolled his windows down and shivered in the cold January air. The traffic fumes burned his eyes. “Kaisa hai?”

 

“Very fine,” Imran responded in English.

 

Sameer smiled. So Imran was trying his English on him. “How’s school? You go every day?”

 

Imran nodded vigorously. Looking through his pile of magazines, he added, “Sir, no new Business Today or Women’s Era.

 

Wearing an oversized coat and a muffler that covered his head, Imran didn’t seem bothered by the cold, the pungent air or the cacophony of traffic around him. Under the flyover – with posters of Sanjeev Kapur selling Tata salt with a slightly constipated smile – a bunch of ragged children sat around a make shift fire, warming their thinly covered bodies.

 

“Sir, books? Chetan Bhagat, Arvind Adiga, Fifty Shades, Narcopolis. Good books, sir. Booker awards.”

 

“You know I don’t read those big books. I don’t have the time – or the patience.”

 

Imran flashed his white teeth in his most charming smile, “I know.”

 

Sakeena, Imran’s mother, peered from behind Imran, joining them. She sold incense sticks on this crossing. “Sahib, one request.”

 

“What now?”

 

“His shoes are all torn.” She took one of Imran’s shoes off to show him. “The other kids make fun of him at school.”

 

It was tattered, a gaping one inch hole at the top. He took out his wallet and handed over a five hundred rupee note to her as the traffic light turned green. “But this goes strictly for his shoes –and I want to see those shoes tomorrow.”

 

He winked at Imran. “What color?”

 

“White,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, flashing his white teeth again.

 

“White.” Sameer pointed to Sakeena, as drove away. Driving the home stretch, he felt more cheerful than he had all day. An encounter with eight year old Imran always did the trick.

He reached home after eight. Damn the traffic. There was a talk of moving the corporate office to Gurgaon. Life would be a bigger hell when that happened.

 

Pari, his nine year old, sprawled on the living room sofa watching a Hanna Montana rerun.

 

“Hi, daddy”

 

“TV as usual. Homework?”

 

“All done, daddy.”

 

“Where’s mom?”

 

“Don’t know.” She shrugged. She hugged him without taking her eyes off TV. He held her a little longer; she smelled of talcum powder but then let her go back to Hanna Montana.

 

Kavita was in the kitchen, an oil stain on her faded cotton top, helping out Ammaji, their long time help.

 

“Late?”

 

“Traffic”

 

He had noticed that of late, their conversations were increasingly in mono syllables.

 

“Dinner?”

 

“Later”

 

“Water?”

 

“No”

 

 

At the dinner table, he didn’t see Tania, his older daughter. Kavita said she had eaten already.

 

“Whatever happened to the rule of dinner at the table together?”

 

“You have to give her some space, she’s growing up.”

 

Tania had turned sixteen last month. Sweet sixteen. Very little sweet about her these days though. Loads of attitude. And acne.

 

“You lecture me on not spending quality time with the kids – and now you’re defending her. Ask her to come – spend some time with the family.”

 

No reaction. Kavita fussed over Pari’s plate, “you have to eat cauliflower.”

 

“Fine, I will fetch her myself.” He pulled back his chair and got up.

 

He knocked on Tania’s door. ‘Keep out. Danger Zone,’ the sign on the door with skull and two crossed bones said. Of late, it did seem like a danger zone. What times – he had to knock on the kids’ doors now.

 

“Yes?” She shouted from inside.

 

Justin Bieber glared at him from the bedside wall. Tania sat on the pink floral bedspread, her eyes on the laptop, cell phone on her ear. God knows who she talked to with the door closed. Her candy cane pyjama bottoms ended on her shins. She seemed to have grown half a foot taller overnight. The old toys, Winnie – the pooh and Ted – the teddy included, huddled in a corner, discarded in favor of her new toys – laptop, phone and Justin.

 

She looked quizzically at him.

 

“Dinner. We’re all waiting for you.”

 

“I’ve eaten already, Dad.” The phone was still on her ear.

 

Look at her. She treated him like he had disturbed her in the midst of her final discussions on world peace.

 

“We always have dinner together, as a family,” he persisted.

 

She seemed annoyed but sensed it wasn’t going to be the thirty seconds conversation she had hoped for. Whispering into the phone, she put it away. “We don’t always have it together. You eat alone in front of the TV when there is a cricket match on. We can’t have a rule you enforce only when it suits you.”

 

Tension at the dinner table. Pari, who always had plenty to say, knew better than to start any conversation. Kavita quiet. Sameer fuming.

 

It hadn’t always been like this. Dinner used to be a fun occasion. The girls recounted stories of the day, vying for his attention. They raised hands for permission to go first – when Tania talked, Pari had to wait for her turn. Kavita joined in the fun too – raising her hand to get a word in. They had been happy. What had gone wrong?

Book Review: Before Dawn – Sapardi Djoko Damano

Before DawnSapardi Djoko Darmono  Before Dawn – Sapardi Djoko Damano

I read a book of poetry after a long time. The challenge in any poetry translation is if the poetry can survive what can be a brutal translation. It is to the credit of the poet and the translator that some of Damano’s  poetry (written originally in Bahasa Indonesia) still manages to shine through. Two things stand out for me (i) the vivid imagery of capturing  everyday scenes of life and (ii) the profound reflection on old age and death. Two samples to illustrate my point: “I ordered waving grasses and wild flowers – I don’t know what you ordered. I ordered river stones on a bed of swirling rapids…” or “He doesn’t like talking about his glasses, which he sometimes forgets where he’s placed, about his silver hair, about his empty house, no longer occupied by wife or children, about the bad weather that causes him to sneeze…” There are many nuggets of the kind in the book.  If nothing else, the book did whet my appetite for both –  poetry and Indonesian literature. Perhaps poetry is not meant to be read like a  novel – page after page till it’s over. It should be read in small doses, – one or two poems before going to bed.

Recommendation: Read the original if you can. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Book Review: The Yellow Emperor’s Cure – Kunal Basu

The Yellow Emperor's CureKunal Basu The Yellow Emperor’s Cure – Kunal Basu

A playboy Portuguese doctor finds his father suffers from Syphilis and want to cure him. It is the nineteenth century and Syphilis doesn’t have a cure in the west. He goes all the way to China to find a cure. The book is essentially about his journey within China. There is the layer of Boxer revolution in China that adds complexity to the plot and makes it a bit more interesting. The book didn’t work for me. Basu seemed overeager to describe the Portuguese and Chinese cultures to the reader – the pestas in Portugal, the early morning rice in China and the like and lost the plot somewhere in the middle. Two other major flaws (i) the characters are not consistent, they seem to want one thing today and another tomorrow. They are also difficult to believe – at least some of their actions are. People vanish without reason and (ii) there is no subtlety in writing. Basu doesn’t give the readers any credit for intelligence – and as a result says too many obvious things – making the reading a drag. So it is not the story but the telling that doesn’t work

Recommendation: Don’t bother.

Why You?

Today

I asked myself,

Why you?

 

Is it the curly curls, the beautiful eyes, the smooth throat, the nibbly earlobes…

 

Is it the silky voice, the infectious laughter, the ready with, the inimitable sense of humor…

 

Is it the vulnerability, the innocence, the charm, the evoking of a paternal instinct…

 

Is it the innate goodness, the moral strength, the consideration, the desire to do what is right..

 

And then I thought

Isn’t it enough

That I know

It’s you

 

How many of us –

How many many

Spend lifetimes looking for that elusive

Her and him

And never reach there

Isn’t it enough

That I know

It’s you

So why bother

Why you!

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

The Casual VacancyJ.K. Rowling   The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

So Rowling goes adult. And how. Gone is the magic of Hogwarts and Harry Potter. We are back in the real world. In the small town of Pagford where everyone knows everyone. But people are vicious to each other. Particularly parents to kids and as it turns out kids to parents. It seems Rowling retains a certain sympathy with her ex-primary audience – the kids. It’s a bit of a pattern of parents being mean to their kids. Despite a slow start, the story picks up pace quite quickly and then becomes a real gripper. Rowling has sold 450 million copies for a reason. Her characters are multidimensional and their behaviors, motivations and actions are compelling. In an earlier post, I made a comment about Eleanor Catton’s capability in creating characters with intricacies and layers. Rowling does that too. Gavin, Kyrstal, Mary Fairbrother and Miles are a few examples. The much talked about bad language? I didn’t find the book unusually profane – it had it’s share of ‘f’ words and sex but not more.

Recommendation: Read.

Book Review: The Immortals of Meluha – Amish Tripathi

The Immortals of MeluhaAmish_Tripathi_555  The Immortals of Meluha – Amish Tripathi

The first book of the trilogy that has sold a mind-boggling 2.7 million copies making its writer a big star. So is this really so good? Hard to answer if it deserves to sell 2.7 million copies but it certainly is an extraordinarily interesting book. Shiva lives in a small tribe near Mansarover lake and is brought into India to help the righteous Suryavanshis against the villainous Chandravanshis – only to discover – after a lot of bloodshed and mayhem – that its not all black and white. The world building is great, Shiva, very human – with both good and bad in him. The writing is weak, the attempts at humor onerous. But overall, the book works. You remember the vivid imagery and relate to the story at many levels – the story, the legend, and the spiritual. My biggest disappointment – after building up a lot of suspense  Amish Tripathi doesn’t give us all the answers and wants us to read the 2nd part of the trilogy. Not fair I say. Have read trilogies before (Amitav Ghosh is the most recent example) but each book is complete in itself.

Recommendation: Read but be prepared for a bit of disappointment in the end.

 

Book Review: The Round House – Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseLouise Erdrich The Round House – Louise Erdrich

Not often you read stories set on Indian reservations. The Round House is a saga of rape, exploitation and bravery – not an unfamiliar territory for native Indians on the reservations.  A disgruntled white man connected to a powerful politician carries out a killing to hide the evidence of his own misdeeds and then compounds the crime by raping an eyewitness – and both the victims are Indian women.  The story, told by the second victim’s son, is essentially an unraveling of the mystery of what actually transpired.  The plot by itself isn’t exceptional but is told well.  The setting is unique – the modern day life on Indian reservations is captured really well.  However, what stands out is the voice of the narrator.  A genuine teenaged voice, reminiscent of Salinger.  The POV is strong, stark and deeply endearing.

Recommendation: Read

Book Review: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesEleanor Catton   The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Booker Award winner for 2013 – which made Catton the youngest ever writer to win a Booker. So what’s The Luminaries all about? What makes it special? At the heart of it, the novel is a mystery. However a mystery woven with such magic and spun into an entangled web so beautifully that the eight hundred plus pages just turn themselves. It is 1866 in New Zealand. Hokitika is the latest gold rush town. After a few strange happenings in the town,  twelve men gather to discuss. Each of them has a part of the puzzle. And then the story takes off, the incidents get more and more bizarre and the mystery deeper and murkier. Catton does a great job in engaging the reader, challenging her to speculate, guess, get perplexed but continue reading. The pace is good and the interest consistent. When all is revealed at the end, in a few quick chapters on actual sequence of event, and it turns out to be a fairly simple story – you realize the masterfulness of the writer in managing to engage you for so long. So what does Catton excel in – what got her the Booker. I don’t think it’s capturing the 19th century New Zealand (though she does a decent job doing that) or that the story is extraordinary. For me, it is the way she spins the yarn and  the characterizations. She digs deep into each character (and the hook has a dozen and a half of them). Each of the characters is presented in such subtle detail that he or she comes to life  – distinguished and polished. Sample this: “For Gascoigne was extraordinarily moody. The wave of compassion that had compelled him to lie on Anna’s behalf dissipated almost as soon as the whore was freed: it darkened to despair that his help might, after all, have been a vain one – misplaced, wrong, and worst of all, self serving. Selfishness was Gascoigne’s deepest fear. He loathed all signs of it in himself, quite as a competitive man loathes all traces of weakness that might keep him from his selfish goal. This was a feature of his personality of which he was extraordinarily proud, however, and about which he loved to moralize. Whenever the irrationality of all this became too evident to ignore, he would fall into a very selfish bout of irritation.” See the fine etching of the character there.  And he is not even the primary character.  The end is a little disappointing, a couple of sequences appear too convenient and not all is explained. Don’t know if the book deserved a Booker or not but it’s a compelling read. Enjoy the journey.

Recommendation: Must read.