Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Around the World in 7 books: Contemporary Classic Fiction

As a book lover and a book blogger, I get many requests for reading suggestions. I have an "armchair travels" project where I am trying to read a book from every single country in the world. It is, of course, an ambitious life long project. Many have been inspired by it but request a "lite" version of the project. So I decided to put together this list of 7 books which will take you on a whirl wind tour around the world - with just one stop in each continent. Well, not exactly whirl wind - since this is a list of 7 contemporary classics (published in the mid to late 1900s). 7 fictional books that would leave a lasting impression in your mind. 7 books that will transport you effortlessly to the place it is set in. 7 books that I have really enjoyed.




1. Africa - From Africa, I decided to go with a nigerian classic - Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). Readers will follow the life of the unforgettable Okonkwo - an Igbo leader in Nigeria.The book is divided into three parts - the first describing his personal background and the latter two dealing with the british colonialism and the arrival of christian missionaries in Nigeria and how "things fall apart" with these changes.

2. Asia - One of the most memorable books I have ever read is Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1991). The book is almost a saga - a detailed family history of sorts detailing the lives of three generations of women - a grandmother, a mother and finally the daughter. It is set in China. It is biographical in the descriptions of the lives of Chang's mother and grandmother; and autobiographical in Chang's narration of her own life.

3. Europe - After much deliberation, I picked Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Against the backdrop of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s, the book tells the complicated tangled romantic relations between a womanizing surgeon, his wife whom he dearly loves, his mistress and the man who faithfully loves her (the mistress). Kundera's writing effortlessly sweeps you in to the book and merges the political background with the storyline so seamlessly that it becomes difficult to differentiate the two.

4. North America - I might be prejudiced since I live in Atlanta, Georgia, but my first pick for a contemporary classic set in North America is Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936). The unforgettable romance between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler needs no introduction. The book is set against the backdrop of the american civil war and its aftermath in the south. It is a pulitzer prize winning novel.

5. South America - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). This colombian masterpiece is an epic. a saga of seven generations of one family - the Buendias. The patriarch of the family Jose Buendia establishes the fictional town of Macondo and the book follows his life and the lives of the six following generations. Marquez sprinkles magical realism generously throughout the book and amidst ghosts and misfortunes plaguing the family, he tells us the story of Colombia.

6. Oceania - Colleen McCullough's Thorn Birds (1977) is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the vast wilderness that is Australia. When she is really young, Meggie Cleary moves to Australia with her parents and older brothers to live with her aunt. The book follows Meggie's life from childhood all the way to old age in Australia - the happenings on the ranch, the complicated relationships, some life long friendships and love. This is another epic saga spanning three generations.

7. Antarctica - Alfred Lansing's Endurance : Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (1959). In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton leads a group of people on an ambitious expedition - an attempt to cross the antarctic continent. The ship they were on, Endurance, crashed in the violent waters and stranded the entire crew on ice. This is the story of how Shackleton sends most of the crew safely to Elephant Island, continues with a smaller subset to Saint George Island and eventually rescues the ones in Elephant Island. Endurance is one of the most gripping novels I've read!


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: Anna and the Swallow Man

Author: Gavriel Savit
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 Stars



Every book lover knows and understands the irrational feeling of falling in love with a book at first sight. Sometimes it is a promising title, sometimes it is a gorgeous cover, sometimes it is an interesting blurb at the back promising an unforgettable story, sometimes it is a combination of these. Very rarely do you come across a book where it is all 3. Anna and the Swallow Man was one of those rare ones. A book that made me ignore every other book on my TBR pile. A book that I just HAD to read the minute I received a review copy in the mail. And of course, the Young Adult tag only added to the allure. I am a huge fan of young adult novels! I happy to say that the book lived up to its promise.

Anna is a 7 year old girl living with her linguistics professor father in 1939 Krakow, Poland. When he is summoned to a meeting suddenly one morning, he leaves Anna in the care of a friend and heads to the university unaware that he's being rounded up with other Jewish intellectuals by the Nazis. The "friend", when he realizes what's happened, takes Anna back to her building to save himself. When Anna slowly comes to terms with her father's disappearance, she runs in to a strange man - multilingual like her dad but very mysterious. The swallow man takes her 'under his wing' and together they begin a journey in the quest of a "beautiful rare bird". The swallow man masks the gruesomeness of Nazi occupation and the German, Russian attacks on Poland in a metaphorical story in the beginning but eventually as the years pass, he's unable to hide Anna from the reality. Beneath the cool, calculated, mysterious nature of the swallow man, there is an undeniable soft spot for the little girl he rescued from the streets of Poland. So much that he's ready to tag along a jewish musician that Anna found and became attached to. 

Savit's writing is like poetry. There is a hint of a magical realism element to his story that is appealing. The innocence of Anna, the mystery surrounding the swallow man and the tragedy of the war are all very nicely depicted in the book. 

Towards the end, the tightness in the story line slips a bit. Anna and her friends seem travel aimlessly and the quest for the metaphorical bird seems to be forgotten. It's hard to see Anna beyond the 7 year old that she is in the beginning of the book. 

But in spite of the minor slips, this is a fantastic read. A great debut novel by the very talented Gavriel Savit. I can't wait to read more of his writing. I definitely recommend Anna and the Swallow Man!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Book: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Author: Jackie Copleton
Genre: Cultural Fiction
My Rating: 4 stars



About the Book:

When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?

My Views:

I love cultural fiction especially those set in Japan. But this book was different from everything else I've read until now because the story revolved around the after effects of the bombing of Nagasaki on one particular family. Kenzo and Amaterasu live a calm peaceful life in Nagasaki with their daughter Yuko until a chance discovery of a drawing sends their life spinning in a direction none of them expected. I really enjoyed reading this book because it was almost like peeling an onion.. peeling each layer just revealed another layer under it - another slight twist in the tale, another direction turned. It was a definite page turner. Copeland's characters are very well defined and the story line has the perfect pace and has no plot holes. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel. With the majority of the novel set against the backdrop of the world war and japan's role in it, a passionate yet forbidden romance, a complicated relationship between a protective mother and her daughter and secrets that could tear relationships apart - this novel appeals to so many of my reading interests. You are pulled in to the solitary life of Amaterasu and slowly discover that there's much much more to her than just the grief that she's been living with.

I very highly recommend this book to anyone interested in cultural fiction, historical fiction and high drama romance novels.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo



Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
Author: Marie Kondo
Genre: Self Help
My Rating: 4 Stars


I have never been a fan of self help books. In spite of having friends that rave about books that helped them live life better, I have always stayed away from that genre. Until yesterday, that is. I've been in a major reading slump lately and I'm completely overwhelmed with a need to declutter my home completly so I decided to nurture my nesting instincts and attack my reading slump with a single solution - a book on decluttering and tidying up.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing consultant and an author. Her book - The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has topped the NY Times (self help books) best sellers list since its publication in October 2014. She has a huge fan following in the US and it hard to see any blogs on decluttering, cleaning or minimalism without at least one reference to the guru - Kondo.

And that intrigued and baffled me - just like the blog articles on cleaning and tidying up do. How hard is it to clean up your own place? Well, so I decided to read Kondo's book and see what the much hyped system of cleaning is all about - the KonMari method.

It was a really quick read and it was just what it proclaimed to be - a manual on decluttering and organizing. It was fascinating to learn about Japanese culture and their attitude towards possessions in this book. That was the positive thing for me. Kondo anthropomorphized every object - from socks to forks to clothes at the bottom of a folded pile. She thanked items for serving their purpose before discarding them and she recommends touching and feeling every single object to see if it sparks a joy in you before you make your decision to keep it or throw it.

Kondo starts at the very beginning and talks you through the process of analyzing your stuff. She gives you a strategy and tells you why some other "popular" decluttering methods are not sustainable in the long run.

The KonMari method is simple, straightforward and easy to follow. She walks you through the steps of completely decluttering your home starting with clothes, followed by books and papers and 'komono' (miscellaneous items). At the very end, she deals with the most difficult of them all - the sentimental items. The book is definitely inspiring and makes you reevaluate your possessions in a new light. Personally, I would have liked it if she had elaborated more on the Komono section.

I have read so many testimonials where people swear by this book and can't stop gushing over how their life changed overnight after reading this book and following the KonMari principles. For more of that, you can see the 700+ 5 star reviews for this book on Amazon.

It's a quick interesting read and it might work for you! Give it a shot.





Wednesday, January 7, 2015

No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Book Series - No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Number of books (as of January 2015) - 15
Author - Alexander McCall Smith
My Rating - 4 Stars


When I first heard of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I was a little wary. The series was immensely popular and everyone who read it couldn't stop raving about it. I was looking for books set in Botswana for my Armchair Traveling Project and I needed a book that would be authentically Botswana and books written by a professor from Edinburgh didn't seem to be "authentic" enough. I couldn't have been more wrong. I am going to have to go along with all those other raving reviews and say that I am absolutely in love with this series!

The premise of the books is very simple. Armed with nothing but an inheritance from her dad, a book on private detection by Clovis Andersen, a keen sense of observation and a love for Botswana and it's people, Mma Precious Ramotswe decides to start her own detective agency - the first detective agency to be run by a woman in Botswana.


Through the lives of Mma Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Makutsi, and through the various cases they solve/resolve, we come to experience Botswana. The rich cultures and traditions of the country as well as the routines and habits of its people are beautifully weaved into the story line and transport us effortlessly to this beautiful country in southern Africa. I was amazed to see the author tackle complex themes like feminism, modernization, traditional belief systems etc effortlessly through various "cases" along the books.

The books are short, quick reads but I have to warn you, you definitely cannot stop with just one. There are 15 books in the series to date and after having read them all one after another, I can totally vouch for every single one of them.

If you are looking for a light, quick read that immerses you in the culture of Botswana, this series is definitely for you!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 3.5 Stars





About the book:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick Dunne isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but hearing from Amy through flashbacks in her diary reveal the perky perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister Margo at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was left in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?


My views:
After hearing so much about the book (and the movie), I finally decided to pick it up. I am always vary of reading a book when there's so much hype surrounding it because I tend to expect too much from it and sometimes, there just isn't enough in the book to justify the hype.



Gone Girl was different. It started off kinda slow. Amy suddenly disappears on her fifth anniversary to Nick and while we read current happenings through his narration, in alternate chapters their back story is presented to us in Amy's voice.. through the pages of her diary. All evidences seem to be pointing towards Nick until suddenly part two starts and there are sudden twists in every tale. The book gets really interesting at this point and un-put-down-able until we reach the fag end.. Towards the end, I started losing interest in the book. The characters became very unlikeable - both of them. I kept waiting to see how it ended and I was disappointed because I didn't like the ending at all! 

But in spite of the ending (which I've heard many liked), I would recommend this book to anyone who hasn't yet read it or watched the movie..


Monday, March 24, 2014

Missed Connections

Book: Missed Connections
Illustrator: Sophie Blackall



I am a total sucker for all things (even vaguely) romantic. When I first heard of the craigslist Missed Connections project, I thought it was the coolest idea ever! Every listing is a possible love story waiting to happen. Every line is written with hope and a dash of optimism.

 Like in this post that was posted in the NY craigslist missed connections section today:
you: red/black plaid shirt, amazing blue eyes
me: green jacket, navy baseball hat, beard, yoga mat
you smiled, we mouthed "hi"....should have stayed on the train and talked to you....guess this is the next best action....hope you find it

Will the lady with the “amazing blue eyes” please ping the bearded man with the yoga mat? :)

But here’s something that makes this cool little romantic project uber cool. Sophie Blackall, a children’s book illustrator (of the Ivy and Bean books fame), found inspiration in these listings and started a little project in 2009 illustrating posts that caught her eye. 



In her blog, she writes –
Messages in bottles, smoke signals, letters written in the sand; the modern equivalents are the funny, sad, beautiful, hopeful, hopeless, poetic posts on Missed Connections websites. Every day hundreds of strangers reach out to other strangers on the strength of a glance, a smile or a blue hat. Their messages have the lifespan of a butterfly. I'm trying to pin a few of them down.



And with watercolors, amazing talent, her quirky imagination she gives life to some of the missed connections. Her whimsical paintings have a Maira Kalman feel to them. They are beautiful. And her blog went viral. And soon, the insanely popular missed connections illustrations became a charminglittle book. I have looked at the pictures on her blog but nothing matches the experience of holding the book in hand and thumbing through the pages or opening a page at random to gaze at a story – sometimes witty, sometimes slightly creepy, and sometimes heart-warming – but always delightful. 


Buy this book on Amazon.com

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: And the Mountains Echoed



Author: Khaled Hosseini
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 Stars



Synopsis (from the author website):

An unforgettable novel about finding a lost piece of yourself in someone else.
Khaled Hosseini, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations. In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most. Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.

My views:

After having immensely enjoyed Khaled Hosseini’s first two books – The Kite Runner and The Thousand Splendid Suns, I was a little cautious before starting his third and most recent book – And the Mountains Echoed. I didn’t want to expect too much and then be disappointed. But I needn’t have worried. 

And the Mountain Echoed” was a fabulous read. It had some of the characteristics of the first two books – set in war ravaged Afghanistan, a fast paced story line, grounded characters, heartfelt emotions, etc and once I had picked it up, I couldn’t stop until I finished the whole thing! But in addition to these wonderful characteristics, I felt that this book displayed a more mature writing. It wasn’t as melodramatic as the previous two books (which sometimes tended to give them an almost Bollywood-ish feel) and that was a definite bonus.

The most popular aspect of Hosseini’s first two books was the emotional connection between the central characters. In the kite runner, it was a father-son relationship that tugged at your heart. In A thousand splendidsuns, it was a mother daughter relationship that left you in tears. This book deals with sibling love. That’s the central theme of the book. In addition to the relationship between the central characters, there are evidences of various kinds of sibling (or sibling-like) love throughout the book – the caustic nature of the one shared by Parwana and Masooma, the simmering undercurrents between Idris and Timur, the positive influences of Markos and Thalia on each other, etc etc..

The writing style was interesting. The story weaved in and out of a central plot but the voice was not a constant one. Every chapter was told from the perspective of a different person. Time lines changed from the past to the present depending on the character of the chapter. It took me a while to understand get in to this style of writing and I liked it! At the beginning of every chapter, you wonder whose perspective it is and as the chapter progresses, you find out the person and then you are left to figure out how he/she will link to the central plot of the book. 

The only drawbacks (according to me) were the number of alternate storylines and the slightly overwhelming number of characters. It felt like he had way too much to say in one book. Every side story had an interesting story line, but I felt that these story lines were sometimes distractions from the central plot of the book. And some of the story lines were loose ended. Some of the strong developed characters dropped off the radar to never be seen again and that was a disappointment. And for a book as fast paced as this one, there were way too many characters introduced throughout the book. It was hard to keep track of the characters when you were moving along as such a rapid pace. 

But these were minor drawbacks and overall, this was a great read. Hosseini is a great story teller and his books are all perfect for reading while curled up on the couch with a warm beverage.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: The Dot and the Line

Title: The Dot and the line: A romance in lower mathematics
Written and Illustrated by: Norton Juster
Genre: Illustrated book, children's book, romance
Age Range: Children of all ages.



One upon time, in a lovely little world called the Lineland, there was a sensible and shy little straight line. and he fell in love. Not with another sensible shy little straight line, but for a beautiful, round dot! He loved everything about the dot. In his eyes, she was just perfect!


There was only one small hitch. She wasn't interested in him. She was already in love - with the wild and unkempt squiggle.


This book is the story of how our sensible straight line discovers a new side to himself and woos the frivolous dot. Such a charming book with the cutest illustrations and a very inspiring love story. My favorite part: the mathematics puns scattered carelessly throughout the book!

This book was also made in to an academy award winning short film.. and it is the most endearing film I have seen. 


 Buy this book from Amazon.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Stag's Leap

Book: Stag’s Leap
Author: Sharon Olds
Genre: Poetry
Awards: Pulitzer Prize, T S Eliot Prize
My Rating: 5 Stars
From the Publisher: In this wise and intimate new book, Sharon Olds tells the story of a divorce, embracing strands of love, sex, sorrow, memory, and new freedom.



I started reading Poetry this year as part of a challenge with my book club buddies. I have never explored this genre before and it’s safe to say I was not excited. When I looked around for poetry suggestions, one of the names I encountered multiple times was Sharon Olds. And thanks to the availability in my local library, I decided to start my Sharon Olds journey with Stag’s Leap.

 A difficult choice, as I had been rightly warned by those that have loved and enjoyed her works. Stag’s Leap is a collection of confessional poems documenting her feelings for a year after her 30 year marriage ended. And as the seasons changed, so did her emotions. We see her go through the various stages that follow the end of a relationship – from bewilderment, anger, self-blame, pain to actually accepting the end, occasional indulgences in fond remembrances, and gradually getting over someone who was almost a part of her. 

Maybe I thought I might have been over him more
by now. Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from the core
of our life together
--Stag’s Leap. Sharon Olds.

Throughout the book, the raw emotion and searing pain is palpable. The poems and the haunting words stuck with me long after I had put the book down. I found myself (almost masochistically) going back and re-reading the sections again and again. When someone leaves you after knowing you intimately, their parting comes across almost as an accusation, a finger point of sorts. You are left to deal with the guilt and the shame of knowing that your best wasn’t good enough. And Sharon Olds describes every thought, every emotion, every feeling so accurately that it almost feels impersonal. It feels like an perspicacious outsider’s views. 

I am so ashamed to be known to be left
By the one who supposedly knew me best.
-- Known to be Left, Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

What touched me most about her book was that it wasn’t vicious. She didn’t lash out at her husband for leaving her for another woman. This wasn’t her way of “getting back at him”. This was almost therapeutic. And it was inspiring that she wasn’t filled with anger and hatred. 

When anyone escapes, my heart
Leaps up. Even when it’s I who am
Escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver.
--Stag’s Leap, Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

For me, this book isn’t just a description of the heartbreak following a failed marriage. It is the description of a journey from anger and disappointment to understanding and forgiveness. Love doesn’t abruptly end when a loved one leaves us and I don’t think anyone can describe it better than Sharon Olds.

And the most powerful line of the entire book is the very last one – 

I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.
-- What Left?, Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds.

Buy this book from Amazon.com

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: A Breast Cancer Alphabet



Title: A Breast Cancer Alphabet
Author: Madhulika Sikka
Genre: Memoir
My Rating: 4.5 Stars
Quick review: A personal guide to navigating the world of breast cancer for patients, caregivers and anyone that might want to know more about the effects of the deadly disease.

Here's the book trailer:


My views on this book:



“Cancer” is not an alien topic for me. I face this word every single day. But unlike many other women, I get to leave the word and thoughts of it when I wrap up my day job dealing with cancer research and head back home. At least for now. I am one of the very few whose personal lives has not yet been touched by this deadly disease.

If you are as big an NPR fan as I am and if it is part of your daily routine (on radio as well as on twitter), then Madhulika Sikka is a familiar name. She’s the executive editor of NPR News. What was news to me was the fact that she was also a breast cancer survivor. I was curious when I picked up a copy of her book – A breast cancer alphabet. Is there anything new I could learn about cancer from this book, I wondered. Turns out there is! There is so much more than just the science to cancer. It is such an intensely personal “journey” (as many would like to call it). As the author herself says on page 93, 

My breast cancer was not mystical, or enchanting or exotic. My breast cancer was not and is not a journey. Getting through cancer is no different from getting through some other terrible disease because that is what it is, a disease. It’s okay to treat it like one. 

“A Breast Cancer Alphabet” is presented like an alphabet book. And between A for Anxiety and Z for Zzzzs, you understand Breast Cancer from the author’s point of view. 

It is an honest description of the trials and tribulations of navigating the murky waters of breast cancer right from diagnosis, through treatment all the way to survivorship. Written with a dash of wit.
Perfect read for someone who is newly diagnosed with breast cancer and is overwhelmed with all the reading material and technical jargon thrown at her from all directions. 

One of my favorite sections in this book is “I for Indignities”. Here she talks about the bright-siding of breast cancer – “a land of sparkling brightness personified by women who are happy and smiling while they are ‘battling’ this disease”. And she ends the chapter by saying “My point is breast cancer is many, many things. What it is not is a fun ride. It is a painful and debilitating and public, and it is okay to feel indignant about that.” Some needs to say it and I am glad she did. 

Recently, a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew all the technical terms and understood the science behind the diagnosis but when it came to actually talking to her, I had no clue where to begin or how to proceed. 

I really wish I had read this book by then.

Buy this book from Amazon.com