Saturday, November 04, 2017

Book Review - A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

I read Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth when I was fourteen, and it was like being hit on the chest with something heavy (maybe the book itself - it was one of the longest and heaviest I had read till then). I loved it absolutely - the descriptions of the cathedral being built in Kingsbridge, the beautiful women and their drama-filled lives, the rich imagery and narrative. Years later, visiting an actual medieval cathedral for the first time, many of the terms the audio guide used were familiar, because I had already "lived" through the building of a cathedral.

A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Strictly speaking, it's not a sequel - it's set many centuries after the first one, and the only thing that connects the books is the setting of Kingsbridge. I'm not sure how World Without End (the second in the series) is, but A Column of Fire isn't set only in Kingsbridge. A lot of the action takes place in other places - Paris and London being the main ones.

One of the main threads in the book is the love story of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald. The two are a young Kingsbridge couple in love, but Margery's family is against their union. A rich Catholic merchant family, they want her to marry into nobility and raise their social status.

The Ned-Margery love story plays out against the backdrop of almost fifty years of Protestant-Catholic conflict in France and Britain in the sixteenth century. The ebb and flow of these two opposing views on Christianity makes for fascinating reading - how something as simple as a change in monarch can change the religious tendencies of an entire country. There were killings aplenty on both sides in the name of religion.

Ken Follett takes actual historical events and adds to them some great characters to show us how these events impacted ordinary lives - Ned Willard of the Secret Service (a tolerant Protestant), Margery Fitgerald (a Catholic), a French villain by the name of Pierre de Aumand (a Catholic who instigates Protestant killings to further his own ends), a Protestant book-seller named Sylvie Palot.

Personally, I didn't know much of the history of this period before this book. But that didn't prevent ACoF from being an engrossing read. It's a great introduction to famous personalities like Queen Elizabeth the first (she of the white face and red hair), Queen Mary Tudor of the Scots (imprisoned for decades by Elizabeth) and Duke Scarface of France. And you also get a ring-side view on historical events such as Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, Queen Mary's wedding to the French king, the failure of the attempted Spanish invasion of Britain, and the St Bartholomew's Day masscare in Paris in 1572.

If I have one quibble, it is that it feels like Follett is breezing through history at too fast a pace. Fifty years is a long time to cover even for a history book. But there were certain threads in the book that could have been excluded (Ned's brother's, for example).

Also did it meet the expectations I had from reading Pillars of the Earth almost two decades ago? No, it didn't. But I'm not sure I can blame Follett for that. Maybe I was more wide-eyed and open to such immersive reads then? Growing up can sometimes be a pain. 
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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Forest Dark - Nicole Krauss (Book Review)

What happens when the foundations of your life no longer make sense to you? When you realize that the things you always enjoyed, the goals you always worked towards, the very beliefs you built your life on, no longer make sense? It's as if you've suddenly woken up on an unmoored boat in the middle of a strange sea, no land in sight, unfamiliar stars above.

This is what has happened to Jules Epstein, wealthy Jew, patron of arts, a man who fought his way up the ladder of life and has always ensured that he had the best of everything. At the age of 68, after losing both his parents in quick succession, he retires from his law firm, divorces his wife, and gives away most of his possessions. All in quest of a "lightening", as if giving away all his life's accumulations will help him discover himself again.

This is also what has happened to Nicole (no last name), famous author, unloved wife, mother to two needy children. She is unable to sleep, unable to write, unable to walk out of a long-dead marriage. One day, she comes into her own house and suddenly has the feeling that there is another Nicole inside the house, walking around, tidying up, talking to the children. As if years of living for somebody else has split her into two, the other half doing all the duties and chores that she has trained herself to do. Nicole dreams of the Tel Aviv Hilton, a blocky monstrosity, where she spent many childhood vacations. She feels the need to go back there, as if going back will help her get back to her normal self.

In Tel Aviv, Nicole falls into what seems like an absurd but exciting conspiracy tale. She meets somebody who claims that he can prove that Kafka did not die in Prague at the age of 40 - that he traveled to Tel Aviv and lived a long and quiet life there as a gardener. The man wants her to write the story of the "actual" ending of Kafka's life. Epstein also meets a succession of people who try to get him to contribute his wealth towards their objectives.

What do Epstein and Nicole have in common? Both are Jews, both are lost, both travel to Tel Aviv to find themselves again. But the stories somehow never synchronize. They feel like individual novellas, blended together just for showmanship. Despite some insightful passages and delicious writing, the book feels disjointed and leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled at the end.

A strong thread of Jewish history and culture runs throughout book.  Perhaps I would have liked the book better had I had a better understanding of the origin stories of the Jews, and the beliefs that hold them together. As it was, I kept trying to figure out if a particular detail was relevant to the story, whether it had a hidden meaning quite beyond my comprehension.

The ending leaves the reader at a bit of a loose end. What really happened to Epstein and why? (The book starts with his disappearance in Tel Aviv.) Did Nicole's Kafka enthusiast even exist or was he just a figment of her imagination? Where do the Epstein and Nicole stories overlap except that they both stayed in the Tel Aviv Hilton? The reader is left to figure out all this herself.
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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Book Review: The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara

(Yes, I chose to read this book despite that cover.*)

The whole yakshi trope is very common in mallu horror. What is a yakshi, you ask? 

Well, a yakshi is a sort of mallu ghost. 

No, seriously.

In mallu horror movies, a yakshi is usually shown as a beautiful woman clad in a white sari who has had an unnatural death. She comes back to take revenge on the man (it's always a man) who killed her. After she avenges herself, she figures she might as well have some more fun, and stays on to kill random other men who cross her path.

She usually lurks near roads and lures lonely travellers with her beauty. The travellers enter what they think is her house, only to realize that it's the top of a pala tree. Once they are in the yakshi's pala tree, they are hers to devour.

Seriously, it's quite a stereotype in mallu horror movies.

I was reminded of yakshis and mallu horror movies because a yakshi is the main demon in The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara.

Chottanikkara is a village that is, for some reason, terrorized by demons. The demons live in a patch of land near the village, and whenever they get bored of the food in their own land, they come to the village to drink the blood of the villagers' animals or children. Fortunately, Chottanikkara has a powerful demon hunter, Devi, who has sworn to protect the villagers from the demons.

Questions I had with this setting - why is it that only this village is infested with demons? If other villages also face the same trouble, what do they do when a demon descends upon them?

But if you can accept this basic premise, then the book is a rollicking read with a crisp plot and a writing style that's quite visual. A couple of scenes in particular were absolutely heart-in-the-mouth for me. Unfortunately, I could foresee the "twist" at the end at about the half-way point, but still.

The author uses the yakshi trope (white sari, pala maram, etc) but brings in a twist by getting us to empathize with the yakshi a bit. Since I'm so familiar with yakshis, I was surprised to see that Devi hadn't even heard of a yakshi before one actually attacked her village.

Reading the book, I was trying to remember other "horror" fiction in Indian writing recently, and couldn't think of a single one. Has this genre been unexplored so far in the recent book explosion in India?

*I do have to wonder though - what on earth were the publishers thinking? Was it a ploy to get people's attention? A "so bad it's good" kind of thing? Because you can't exactly forget the terrible cover once you've laid eyes on it.
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Friday, July 14, 2017

A Life of Adventure and Delight

Four stories into this collection of short stories, I was wondering why Akhil Sharma had decided to call it 'A Life of Adventure and Delight'*. Because none of the protagonists of the first four stories seem to find their lives either adventurous or delightful. On the contrary, they are all stuck in situations they don't want to be in. 

The first story ("Cosmopolitan") is a gentle one, it floats along like a boat in a slow-moving river. Gopal, intensely lonely after his wife leaves him, starts a relationship with his neighbour, Mrs Shaw. He doesn't know much about her apart from that she's a divorcee and a guidance counselor. His motives for the relationship seem clear, but what are hers? Why is she interested in this obviously pathetic man? 

From questioning HER motives, the reader moves on to questioning anybody's motives for entering into a relationship. What loneliness or need drives anybody into being emotionally dependent on somebody else? 

By the end of the story, all doubts are laid to rest. Or maybe that's my positive spin on the ending.

This is who we are, he thought--dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on inside. We are made who we are by the dust and corrosion and dents and unflagging hearts. Why should we need anything else to fall in love?

The second story ("Surrounded by Sleep"), on the other hand, is a breathless one. It starts by knocking the reader's breath out:
One August afternoon, when Ajay was ten years old, his elder brother, Birju, dove into a pool and struck his head on the cement bottom. For three minutes, he lay there unconscious. Two boys continued to swim, kicking and splashing, until finally Birju was spotted below them. Water had entered through his nose and moth. It had filled his stomach. His lungs had collapsed. By the time he was pulled out, he could no longer think, talk, chew, or roll over in his sleep.
And throughout the story both you and Ajay are haunted by those three minutes. What if they had found Birju a little earlier? What if he just woke up from his coma and returned to normal? What if Ajay could pray harder and tell God to make Birju normal again? What if what if what if? 

It's a heart-breaking story, but less for Birju's mishap and more for its effect on Ajay. His mother starts emotionally distancing herself from him, he feels that somehow what happened to Ajay was his fault, he thinks his mother sometimes wishes it was Ajay who lay for three minutes at the bottom of the pool, and not Birju. 

The fourth story ("If You Sing Like That For Me") was the highlight of the collection for me. It starts with a woman waking up after an afternoon nap, seven months after her wedding day, suddenly in love with her husband. 

Her marriage is like any other arranged marriage. She met her husband once before she got married, and she only got to know him afterwards. The first couple of days, she dreams of going back to her parents.
I would think of myself with his smallness forever, bearing his children, going where he went, having to open always to his touch, and whatever I was looking at would begin to waver, and I would want to run. Run down the curving dark stairs, fast, fast, through the colony's narrow streets, with my sandals loud and alone ... and finally I would climb the wooden steps to my parents' flat and the door would be open and no one would have noticed that I had gone with some small man.
The evening of the day she realizes she is in love with her husband, her husband comes home carrying a plastic bag of mangoes. It is just another day as far as he is concerned. But for Anita and for the reader, the evening builds up like a time bomb. Will she tell him of her love, will she won't? How will she tell him? How can she ensure the love stays? 

The other stories, all shorter than these, didn't make much of an impression on me. In fact, I had to go back and refer the book to remember what they were about. 

But the three main stories more than make this collection worth it. All the stories are in the spare distilled prose that Akhil Sharma is famous for. Five out of the eight stories are set in the US, but most of the characters are thoroughly Indian.

(Though sometimes they do strike a jarring note with American usage. Here's an example from Anita's story, set in India - "I made rotis and lentils on a kerosene stove." #Okay)

*It turned out that the collection is named after one of the later short stories.
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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Ruskin Bond - Looking for the Rainbow

Reading Ruskin Bond for the first time as an adult turned out to be all about nostalgia. The book reminded me of all those Bond stories in English textbooks back in school (was there at least one every year, or does it just feel like that?)

In "Looking for the Rainbow", Bond indulges in an exercise in nostalgia himself, revisiting a golden year he spent with his father. The year was 1942, and the young Ruskin's parents had just split up. His mother takes him out of the "fun-less convent" where he had been "serving a two-year sentence" and sends him to Delhi to spend some time with his father.

His father, it turns out, isn't like normal fathers at all. He has a stamp collection, for one. And he is perfectly okay to let Ruskin spend time on his own at home.

Ruskin Bond brings to life a simpler time, pre-Independence India, a time when it was okay for a young boy to take a year off from school and stay at home with his father, playing with the local boys and watching movies and reading books and arranging the stamp collection.

But a year later, it's time for Bond to go back to school; his father is getting transferred and can't take him with him. Thankfully, the new school turns out to be much more fun than the old one, with eccentric teachers and nice kids he soon makes friends with.

More than the text, the illustrations are what make this book such a collectible. I don't know who Mihir Joglekar is, but I love what he has done for this book.

Bond lets the readers know at the beginning that he lost his father when he was a child. This knowledge makes "Looking for the Rainbow" a bittersweet book, the usual childhood carefreeness shadowed as it is by the thought of what is to come.

Overall, a short beautifully packaged book that would make a perfect gift for a young kid. 
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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Baaz by Anuja Chauhan - Book Review

I think I was always going to like this book. After all, I loved Anuja Chauhan's first book (The Zoya Factor) - it is one of the few books I've read twice. Her books are well-written stories for people wanting an escapist romance, a page-turner for a few hours. Baaz follows almost the same formula, though its setting and ending make it a leeettil bit different.

Baaz is the story of Ishaan 'Baaz' Fauzdaar, a boy from a small village in Haryana, who joins the Air Force and becomes a famous pilot during the 1971 war. It's also the story of Tehmina 'Tinka' Daddyseth - a photographer and a pacifist. The two meet and fall pretty much instantly in love - but how does their love story work out against the backdrop of a war?

For me, the Ishaan-Tehmina story was less important than the background against which it all plays out. We get a sneak peek into the lives of Air Force personnel and the planes they fly. Since the story is set against the 1971 war, we see a lot of the action live (though from the aerial perspective, of course :D). The book's cover says it's Anuja Chauhan's 'homage' to India's armed forces, and that definitely shows.

Despite a rather somber setting, Anuja Chauhan's wit and voice sparkle throughout the book. (The fact that the book is written in present tense is a bit jarring though.) Her writing is so vivid that you feel like she's drawing a picture with words right in front of you - I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the aerial battles.

How do I compare The Zoya Factor with this one? TZF, I felt was funnier, and had the most outrageously awesome plot (a woman who can ensure a cricket team's victory just by having breakfast with them? I mean, wow.). But it could have been about a third shorter than it was.

Baaz, on the other hand, is less funny, but more tightly written. The action pretty much never falters. Those who don't like the lovey dovey stuff can wait for the fighting. (Though I do know somebody who stopped reading the book because she didn't like all the descriptions of planes and fighting.)

Overall, a bitter-sweet read, but lovely nonetheless.
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