Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Immortals of Meluha

Sounded like a very interesting concept so the book club picked this as the last book to read. And the book did live to sme of its promise in terms of the various concepts the author has come up with, or even the basic premise that Shiva was a tribal who then became a God...

However, we all felt that the execution was weak, particularly the writing itself which sometimes was pedestrian and sometimes trying too hard. The descriptions were rich and evocative though, and one could almost imagine it being made into a movie...

The next book up for discussion is The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Nine Lives/ Songs of Blood and Sword

The Nine Lives discussion is getting documented after hazaar time, so please do forgive my somewhat hazy recollections. As I remember, some of us loved the book - Rachna, Rohit and Munna in particular. We found some of the stories absolutely fascinating, and it was interesting given that we live in such materialistic times to observe the lives of those who seem to live completely spiritual ones. Munna felt that it was a wonderful glimpse of the kind of people that we otherwise would never meet.

However, Bhavna and I, admittedly having read only a couple of the lives, found the book depressing on the whole. Possibly the choice of the first story, the Jain nun, was what lead us to that conclusion. It seemed like the Jain nun hadn't really imbibed the philosophy she stood for, since that is all about detachment from everyday emotions/ other people and yet the nun was so attached to her recently dead traveling companion that she was in deep mourning. If the whole point of her having given up a 'normal' life to follow Jainism was for her to learn these spiritual lessons and after years of leading that life she was still prey to the same emotions...well, let's just say that if finances had permitted, I would have been making a beeline to the nearest mall after reading her story!

Songs of Blood and Sword:

We began by saying that a better editor and in fact a better writer would have made even more of this book than it already is. Certainly, the way the book began was a lame opening to a cracker of a book that kept one hooked throughout. Honestly, if we were not from the subcontinent, we would have suspected Mario Puzo of having ghost-written the book.

Fatima Bhutto makes it very clear that she is antagonistic to her aunt Benazir from page one, and by the end of the book, she certainly had all of us convinced as to why that was, and we also started viewing Benazir through her eyes. While fatima Bhutto's adoring, subjective view of her father blurs out some of the rougher edges of his personality or doings, it still seems like he at least had some definite principles, whatever the means he may have adopted to fight for them.

The Bhuttos are a very interesting family - rich, landed, some ways reminiscent of the Gandhi-Nehru family or the Kennedys. Despite their education at liberal institutions like Oxford and Harvard, feudalism seems to run in their veins and colour their worldview, their every action. From Zulfikar down to the latest generation, eventually their lives become about the power struggle, and it is both repellant and fascinating to read about how the hunger for power changes relationships and characters.

Eventually, we became even more fascinated by the thought that despite having a class of politicians that is no better than those in Pakistan, somehow India has managed to remain saner, and is not a failure as a state. Despite Indira Gandhi's best efforts during the Emergency, our institutions have remained, and thus preserved us as a democratic country, and a free one. We debated the various reasons why that was so - Hindu philosophy, the diversity, Nehru setting the tone, the army that never wants to take over the state...Obviously it wasn't a definitive discussion, but after reading the book, we all collectively said, "There, but for the grace of God..."

We also thought Fatima was one ballsy woman to continue living in Karachi after what happened to her father, and especially after writing this book!

The book is highly recommended for anyone from India/ Pakistan...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Silent Raga - a mystery/ suspense novel

This is a book that has more questions than answers, and thus remained a mystery/ suspense to most of us.

Why was the book named Silent Raga? What was the connection between the musical notes announcing each chapter and the goings-on of the chapter? Why did Janaki run away to Asgar whom she had just met once? Why did Asgar agree to marry her having met her just once, when nowhere is it indicated that she is either a divine beauty or a divine veena player, leaving his paralysed first wife? Why did said paralysed first wife make so nice to second wife, i.e. Janaki, including playing chief advice-giver/ baby sitter? What was the relevance of Janaki's veena/ music center to the story? What was the relevance of the interview Janaki gave to the 'bob-cut' haired journalist? Why did Janaki buy the childhood home in which she never had a single positive experience? What was the relevance of Miss Nalini's friend's suicide to Kamala's suicide? Why did Mallika never evolve/ grow a spine? Why did Mallika always take Chitti with her to the hospital if she hated her so much? What was the relevance of the riots the day Mallika went to visit her father? What was the point of the American boss driving Mallika home that day? What was the point of the party at Mallika's colleague's home? Why did Mallika not express anything to her sister whom she'd been carrying a grudge against for so many years? What was the relevance of them driving past Sriperumbudur the day of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, given that the assassination is barely a footnote? Why did the father go mad ( maybe because he was in this book?)

Why did we have to know in such excruciating detail what the chai walla was wearing? Why ten pages about jattis and 'rivulets of womanhood'? Why don't we see any explanations for what most of the characters did? Why don't we see any resolution in the end of anything? Why is the ending such a damp squib? Why didn't the book have an editor who cut out the pretentious over-writing? How did the guy manage to peddle this book to a publisher (maybe the Indian exotic/ intricate culture thing?)

Overall the book club gave this book a rating of 2.5-4 on 10 (those who managed to read it). We liked the details of agraharam life, but felt it would have been better reserved for a scholarly treatise on life amidst Tam-brahms. Then, of course, Savvy who is a Tam-Brahm arrived and said she read the first two pages and they didn't strike her as authentic so she postponed reading the rest of it. Regarding the lack of resolution - someone suggested it may be there's a sequel in store. Well, guess which book club will not be queuing up to buy that one!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book resolution

After I told myself I wouldn't make any resolutions this year, here I am again. Que sera sera and all that. My book resolutions...well, A and I made one towards the last quarter of last year that we'd be a little more stingy about buying books. In fact we went on a book diet, and only bought books for book club reading in the last 3 months, as a disciplinary and cost cutting measure. let's face it, it was also because our library is already overflowing with books and we don't know where to store them.

Anyway, my new resolution is to blog about every single book I read, even if it's just a couple of sentences. So here goes...

In December I read...

The Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson

Raiders from the North:
Empire of the Moghuls by Alex Rutherford (juhu book club)

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (delhi book club)

The Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant (delhi book club)

Cary Grant, A biography, by Marc Eliot

Ava Gardner, Love is nothing, by Lee Server

2 States - the story of my marriage, by Chetan Bhagat

That's a pretty short list, by my usual standards so I'm going to cop out by saying that the Millennium trilogy was a pretty thick set of three, not to mention my crazy schedule in December. I also started reading
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende but haven't finished yet.

When I began the Millennium trilogy, I have to admit that I wasn't all that impressed with the Girl with the dragon tattoo. I read murder mysteries on a regular basis so apart from the somewhat dysfunctional or at the least unconventional lives that the characters lead, the 'surprise' ending didn't really surprise me. But I was intrigued by Liz Salander. The Girl who played with fire, on the other hand, just reeled me in from the very first word. I just gulped it down, so engrossed was I in Liz Salander's past and in wondering what would happen to Michael Blomkvist and her. The third book continued the magnificent obsession and I spent sleepless nights submerged in their world of icy Swedish fields and hospitals, police conspiracies and internal politics. I thought as a series it was superbly written and the characters became more and more...well, I can't say likeable because sometimes you can't identify with their emotions or what they are doing, but people that you cared about and wanted to succeed and emerge with victory at the end. It sounds more than a little shallow to say you're sorry the author died and there can't be any more books in the series, but I am that shallow and greedy.

What's interesting is that in typical murder mysteries, say by Mary Higgins Clark and the like, the heroine is always someone who subscribes to middle or upper class values - she usually hetero, for one thing, she's attractive, dresses well thought not necessarily expensively, has a regular job and then unwittingly gets drawn into a world of chaos and evil, and in love with or falling in love with someone and finding resolution to that in the book. In Liz, we have a character who lives by her own rules, dresses punkily most of the time, is bisexual and casual about sex, falls in and out of love with Blomkvist, seems to not care about what happens to herself, doesn't trust the system and yet emerges as a character for whom you have such sympathy. Not just because of what happened to her, but because of her feisty take-no-prisoners attitude, for pure spunk, for her independence, for her cheek...even when she goes outside the law you feel like cheering her on.

I had been meaning to read Raiders of the North, having bought it in October, but had been lazy about it till it came up as the required reading for the Juhu Book Club. I've always wished someone would take up the cause of Indian history and bring periods of it to life like Jean Plaidy has done for British and French history, so I was quite excited about this one. Overall, I was disappointed by the quality of writing. It was extremely functional and pedestrian, and just didn't live upto the richness of subject matter. I got a better idea of what his life was like, his ambitions and all that but I didn't end up identifying with him and feeling with him through his triumphs and defeats. I wonder if the Genghis Khan book by Conn Iggulden is better - I have been eyeing that for a while.

The Palace of Illusions I already blogged about and I'm going to save The Silent Raga for after the book club meeting this month. So on to the biographies. I learnt a lot I didn't know about Cary Grant who would be on my list of 5 if he weren't dead. I've always loved his screen persona and it was fascinating to go behind that and learn more about him. Interestingly, he was one of the first stars to go idnependent of the studio system in Hollywood, apart from United Artists, and that's why he never won a single Academy award, except for Lifetime achievement which he won when Gregory Peck headed the panel and insisted on it. All the powerful producers of the day apparently resented him for striking out on his own so he could get a better deal for himself. He had quite a turbulent life, from a mother who was committed to a sanatorium by his father so he could get married to someone else, to being bisexual, having a strong of marriages and constantly needing to fall in love with the heroine of the latest film he was starring in. It's sad to think that someone who was that famous and that attractive constantly needed reassurance as to his own worth.

Ava Gardner's story was also an interesting one. I've never watched too many films of hers and so didn't really know too much about her. It came as a surprise to me to learn that she was once married to Frank Sinatra. She was another classic Hollywood story - a girl from a really poor family who was discovered and then became a superstar in Hollywood but also a victim of both the studio system which in those days gave all the power to the producers - moguls like Louis B Mayer - and of the Hollywood lifestyle. Too many men, too much hurt, too many nasty surprises, too many questions about self worth...eventually, the siren who was a phenomenon world over lived and died alone in London, apart from a loyal maid and her pet dog. It was sad reading about her but also interesting to read about Hollywood's heydays, which is one of my areas of curiosity.

2 States was a book I bought and read while Bojjandi was in hospital, and I have to tell you that even under those horrendous circumstances, there were passages which made me laugh. The north-south divide is something I've lived with all my life, being a South Indian brahmin born and brought up in Delhi. First of all, hardly anyone can place me as a Southie, since I don't sport the stereotypical dark complexion, singsong Hindi accent and oiled hair. My husband is a Northie, so I have had to fend off irritating comments from his uncle about 'idli-vada-sambar khaati ho' to his family friends wondering when I was going to start eating meat. Some of my rellies on the other hand were worried about the 4 marriages funda, since A is Muslim, and one of them said I'd have to wash the sacrificial goat every Id. Well, we've never owned a goat, and I think with three kids A has his hands and bank account full, so that's that.

Some of the scenes were classic ones out of my own experience, though my parents don't live the stereotypical Southie life. I remember way back when a new South Indian family had moved into the government colony where we lived and mom sent me over to say hello and ask if they needde anything. I stepped in and it was like I'd gone through a time/ geography machine. The room - same size as our drawing room - was bare, save for 4-5 of those folding-type steel chairs, made expressly for the purpose of causing maximum discomfort to the sitter. The light fixtures were naked of shades, and 20 watt bulbs, at max, were dangling from the wires. There was also a straw chaape or mat rolled up in one corner. Pictures of Gods and Goddesses lined the walls. It looked like a room transplanted straight out of Basavanagudi or Mylapore, and the only things missing were the red oxide flooring and the pastel pink, blue or green walls. It didn't take long for me to run out silently screaming to myself and vowing never to return. I thought this bok was a fun look at the stereotypes that operate and the ones that are true too. I'd recommend the book to anyone from a mixed-up marriage.

This month, I've been reading lots of Asterix and Blake-Mortimer comics. I have also been reading some Danielle Steel books and rediscovering them. I just finished one called Bittersweet, in which a woman gets married to her sweetheart, gives up her career when they have kids and move to the suburbs and about 14 years down the line, finds herself missing a piece of her own identity. What shocks her is that her husband never once realises that she has made a sacrifice in giving up her career and never gives her points for it, and then the book moves on to a slightly more predictable love story. But I found the central theme very resonant.

I'm planning to read a book called When it's raining in Brazil, buy Starbucks, hoping to rev up my investing skills. I also have on my list Jeffrey Sachs The End of Poverty. And I still gotta finish Isabel Allende's book. But one thing that cropped up on my reading list last night after watching an episode of The Cosby Show, was the plays of Shakespeare. A weird thing happened to me a few years ago. I was flipping through my copy of The Complete works of Shakespeare, and all of a sudden, the prose was as clear to me as if it had been written in contemporary language by a contemporary author. I figure while the going is good, let me enjoy this serendipitous gift!