Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Hiding Place

I first saw the review for this book in Bethany's blog. Thanks for writing about it and making me want to read it Bethany. It was a fabulous book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

The Hiding Place is a memoir of Corrie ten Boom. For the first 50 years of her life, Corrie had a very normal life. She was a spinster and lived with her aged father and another spinster sister (Betsie) in a fascinatingly rundown house in Haarlem in Holland called the Beje. I absolutely loved the quirky house. I could never do adequate justice to the description. Alongside is a recent picture of the Beje (Which is now a museum). It is hard to imagine that a house so small had so much happening inside it!

The picture alongside is a picture of Corrie's parents. Corrie's mom died when she was 63 but not before teaching Corrie and Betsie the importance of being generous and nice to people. Even when she was bedridden with no ability to talk, she remembered the birthdays of the destitute and made Corrie write little notes wishing them. Corrie's father has a watch repair business and was loved by everyone in Haarlem. He was a very simple man and loved his job. He sometimes even forgot to take money for the repairs he did and never thought of anyone as competition. It is tough to find such simplicity these days. Everyone seems to be driven by the need for money. It is sad how our society has become such a money-centric society!

Anyways, during World War II, when the Jews were trying to escape from the Nazis, Corrie helped them hide. She even had a secret room built in the Beje and hid Jews there with an elaborate warning system. The picture alongside is an image of Corrie's room along with the secretroom (Seen beyond the wall). The Beje is now a museum.
Unfortunately, they were discovered and Corrie and Betsie were sent to the Concentration Camp.

Nothing but pure unadulterated faith kept them going. They survived hardships and worked hard but never lost faith. They smuggled in a little bible with them and read it everyday to other women in the camp. Little messages from the Bible were taken and practiced. It really was fascinating to see the power of faith. Faith gave them a reason to survive and go on living even under the darkest circumstances.Even though Corrie was in charge of the Beje operations, Betsie suddenly seemed to be the stronger one when they were in the camp. Through all hardships, she somehow managed to keep her faith intact and her optimism and her faith were infectious. She harbored no bitter thoughts towards anyone and even felt sorry for her prosecutors. To be like Betsie is so tough. Unfortunately, Betsie did not survive the camp. She died a few months before Corrie was released.

But Corrie went on to honor Betsie's dream. She spent the rest of her life helping those affected by the Holocaust and by talking about what she and Betsie had learnt in Camp. She travelled widely and spread her message throughout the world! She died when she was 91 years old.

I think this book is a must read for everyone. It is very inspiring. I know there are loads of people who think that once they are 50, their life is done. Corrie's life actually started when she was 50! This was an absolutely fascinating book. I want to watch the movie that was based on this book as well.. I wonder if they actually shot it at the beje.. anybody knows anything about that? Have you seen the movie? What did you think of it?

If you haven't read this one as yet, go and grab a copy and read it right now!!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

After Dark

I know I have a bunch of pending reviews and I wanted to finish those before reviewing books I read now…but I just finished After Dark by Haruki Murakami and I just HAD to write about it immediately.

This is my second Murakami book. I read Norwegian Wood earlier this year and I found that it was very dark and very intense… but, nevertheless, I liked it! I saw “After Dark” on the library shelf when I was browsing and decided to pick it up.

After Dark is a novel that is based on the happenings in one night. Different people; Different places; but somehow, they are all connected.

Mari Asai is spending the night away from home just to “get away from it all”. She has a voluminous book in hand and she plans to sit in a restaurant all night just reading. Well, that doesn’t happen. Her night is eventful. She meets one of her sister’s friends, helps a Chinese prostitute who has been beaten up by one of her customers, feeds kittens a tuna sandwich in the park, meets a girl who’s been hiding for three years running away from a cruel past, and most importantly comes to terms with who she is and the relationship she shares with her sister. Too much for one night, you might say… and I agree but when you read the book, you’ll realize that a night is actually long and there’s so much that you can do when the world is asleep.

In another part of the city, Mari’s sister, Eri Asai is asleep. But her sleep doesn’t seem natural. She’s breathing but there’s something unreal about her when she’s sleep. [This was, frankly, the part of the book that I never got. Maybe I should read it again to understand what is actually happening to Eri. If any of you have read this book, I would love to have a discussion with you about Eri on this particular night].

As another parallel story, we see a strange workaholic. He works late, has a family that he is not too fond of. She tries to avoid them as much as he can. He doesn’t want to get home until they are all asleep and doesn’t get up until after they leave so he won’t have to meet them. He’s the one who beats up the Chinese prostitute.

As I mentioned earlier, there were parts of the book that I didn’t really understand. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to keep reading. I loved parts of it and I totally loved the way the book was written. I totally admired the way Murakami dealt with complex emotional issues. The conversations were very concise but very powerful and a lot of what is being said in the book stays with you. Murakami tries to sneak in the fact that sometimes, life’s biggest problems are usually not that big. They have a simple solution and all that you have to do is pause, get away from it and think about it from an external perspective. That kinda resonated with me.

Anyways, I enjoyed reading After Dark. It wasn’t too long or too intense. But it was powerful and interesting and different. You should give it a shot sometime too!

Other Reviews of this book -
3M  - I particularly liked the way she concisely, yet perfectly described the story of the sisters : "One of them can’t sleep and the other one won’t wake up".. 

Have you already read this one? Just leave me a comment with a link to your review and I’ll link it to this post.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Choice

There are times when you want to just curl up on the couch with a bag of potato chips and a nice book - Something that is gripping and yet doesn’t require you to think too much. I usually go for a chick-lit or a nice romance book for such times. And I just found the perfect author for days like that. After watching “The Notebook”, I have always wanted to read the book and see if I would like it as much as I liked the movie. I didn’t get to read the notebook, but I did get to read “The Choice” by the same author – Nicholas Sparks. I won this book in a giveaway… Thank you Anna! It was a very enjoyable book!
I don’t want to say too much about the story of The Choice. If you haven’t read it, you should and you’ll know what I am talking about. I loved discovering the twists in the tale as I read through it and I loved the suspense of not knowing what happens next and I want it to be the same way for you.
A few of us were having a discussion a couple of weeks ago. There are times when you finish a beautifully written heavy novel and then you are just not in the mood for another heavy book. Even if you do actually get to picking up one, you’ll realize that you don’t enjoy it as much as you would have if you hadn’t read it immediately after an intense read. The Choice is perfect for times like that; for times when you want to just unwind. When you want to smile and cry as you read without actually feeling the pain… I love that kind of a book. I am such a romantic at heart and books like this will always hold a nice place in my heart.
So if you are looking for a light read, and you haven't read "The Choice" already, grab a copy! You won't regret it!:)

Monique and the Mango Rains

... Two Years with a Midwife in Mali.

Monique and the Mango Rains is a beautiful book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I read the review for this book in Natasha’s blog and I knew immediately that I wanted to read this book. It was an amazing book.

Kris Holloway went to Mali for a year as part of the Peace Corps program. She stayed in a village and Monique, the midwife in the village was her host. This book is all about the year that Kris spent in Mali – the things she sees there, the things she does, the people she meets, the friendships she makes, etc. Through Kris’s eyes, we see the reality. We see Mali for what it is. Through a simple description of one year in Mali, Kris brings out a lot about the life of people there – their culture, their habits, their life, their eating habits, etc. When you finish the book, you almost feel like you’ve been in Mali yourself!

Monique was a very inspiring person and I am glad that Kris decided to share her story with the world. At the age of 24, Monique was the only midwife/clinician for the village of Nampossela. She had an active interest in the health of the community and went out of her way to help those in need. She battled childhood malnutrition, found a way to get contraceptive for mothers, fought against female circumcision, etc and managed to keep her cheerful face and friendly demeanor through all difficulty. Monique the midwife, however, had another life. She had an unhappy marriage and two children. Her salary for being the midwife went directly to her father in law and she only received a small portion that was insufficient to make ends meet.

You don’t have to be a book lover to like this book. It is definitely not a tough read… but it is definitely fascinating and very inspiring. And it definitely makes us more aware of the world around us. Sometimes, it is so easy to take the comforts that we have for granted. So it is good to read books like this once in a while and realize that we are indeed very lucky in the world and most of our cribs and complaints are so insignificant.

I think the best learning experience would be to visit places like this and see all this for ourselves. But then again, not everyone gets to go to Nampossela and stay there for a year and interact with the local community. I guess that is where books like this become so important. They give us the knowledge without actually having to go through the experience.

Well, bottom line – you should read this book. It is an amazing book; Educational and at the same time interesting to read!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Red Azalea

I had reviewed “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” last month. I really enjoyed the book but it raised a lot of questions in me that I wanted answered. One such question was about re-education (the concept of sending children from the cities to villages to be re-educated in the ways of the peasants). I was searching for books which dealt with this and I excited when I came upon something that might be the answer. It was a memoir. A book by Anchee Min about her life in China and how was sent to a farm for re-education and how she managed to get away from it. I got the book and immediately sat down to read it.

Plot Summary
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Anchee talks about her childhood. She’s an outstanding student and a hard working daughter, practically being a mother to her younger siblings from the tender age of 5! She whole heartedly believes in Mao’s communism and knows the Little Red Book of Mao’s sayings inside out and even wins prizes for being able to quote from the book. Later in the book, she and a friend test themselves on their knowledge of the book. She gives a quote and her friend gives the page number and the paragraph number. Wow! She even testifies against her favorite teacher because she is asked to by the Party people.

In the second part, she goes to a farm outside of Shanghai. There, amidst other teenagers, she first begins to doubt the ideals that she had believed all along in life. She sees how individualism is punished and she is not sure she likes it. Anchee, throughout the book, NEVER rejects Mao’s teachings or even criticizes them. She only explains how she realizes that life is not as simple as Mao’s teachings. There is so much more to it. She sees a friend go mad and finally commit suicide after being “discovered” while in a relationship with a guy. Her own frustration in being unable to befriend a guy and have a relationship pushes her to experiment with lesbianism with another friend in the farm.

In the third part, she is selected to train for the part of “Red Azalea” in a movie. In this part, she witnesses abuse of power and gets involved in a complex relationship which I am not sure I can call love. These incidences further increase her disillusionment with Mao’s system. By the end of the third part, Mao dies and his wife Jiang Qing is arrested.
Eventually, Anchee moves to the US.

My Thoughts
Well, I liked reading the book for the things that I learnt about life under Mao. I had read Wild Swans by Jung Chang about 3 years ago and after a long time I am re-visiting China. It is scary to see how individualism was condemned so much. I can’t imagine not having my individuality. I can’t imagine a life where what I say/think/do is not something I want to say/think/do but only what I have to say/think/do! How miserable is that!!

Having said that, I have to say that I didn’t like the way the book was written. It was just a narration and did not evoke any feelings in me automatically. Every time I paused to think about it and put myself in her shoes, I could feel resentment rising in me. But nothing while reading the book. I was detached throughout the book. I finished it because I wanted to finish it and not because I couldn’t put the book down! I think this is going back to my review of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I think it is a talent that a few people have to convert incidences into gripping stories. Just narration of an incident is not enough. Writing a good novel requires so much more than that and I found that lacking in Anchee’s description of her life in China. It was just that – a description. Nothing more! At least that is how I felt about it.
But then again, this was a best seller and did win an award. so obviously a lot of people didn't really agree with me!

There was one thing that I found interesting in the book though. Anchee had not spelt out the names of the characters in the book. She actually referred to them by the translation of their names in English. Her own name meant “Jade of Peace” and it was fun to see how her little brother was named “Space Conqueror” because her father was such an astronomy lover. That was definitely interesting.

I am sure whether I want to call this a great book. It is a memoir so everything said in the book is true and that’s enough reason to read it – to learn more about life in China in the 70s. But I did not find this book very gripping and interesting… so, I am not sure if I should recommend it to everyone. So I leave the choice to you. If you want to read this book, just go ahead and do it.
I tried finding reviews for this, but it looks like this isn’t very popular on the blog-o-sphere. I didn’t really find any review for this. If you have read and reviewed this book and I missed finding your review, just post a comment with a link to your review and I’ll add it to this post!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun

I can now understand why the art of story telling was big in ancient cultures and how story telling was an art. It is so obvious that not everyone is good at it. A lot of people can narrate incidences, but only a few have the ability to take a incident and then weave a story around it and narrate it in a way that would actually make you feel a part of it. I think people like that write wonderful books – deep books that immediately go on your “best books of the year” list. Chimamanda Adichie is surely one such person. She has a talent for taking incidents and then weaving such powerful tales around it. I read Purple Hibiscus for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge earlier this year and I loved it. I definitely wanted to read “Half of a Yellow Sun” and I was not disappointed. It is a fascinating book at many levels. There is a political situation to grasp and understand and then there’s the complexity of human interaction. The book is a perfect blend of these two.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a story about a war - The Nigeria-Biafra war that happened in the early 70s; A war that is being largely forgotten around the world and is going down in history as yet another one of those unrests in Africa. But in this book, Adichie has successfully revisited the war. She goes into the political details and the personal torments that were experienced during the war making it a event to register in memory. And yet, it is not a documentary. She makes sure we understand the cause and effect of the war and she makes sure we remember it for what it was – not as “just another African war”. But then again, it is not all about the war. It is a story full of human emotions – love, friendship, betrayal, anger, lust, envy, pride, etc. It is a powerful tale in which the lives of the protagonists are completely intertwined with the political happenings around them. Some are in a position to dictate the happenings and others just get “dictated”. For some it is a “riches to rags” story, for some it is a discovery of the self, for some it is about losing the identity that they’ve always been familiar with. It would have been an amazing book with just the stories of the people and their interactions but adding the war element to it, takes it to a completely different level.

In brief, the story deals with the lives of Olanna, her “revolutionary” lover, Odenigbo (A university professor with radical political ideas), their house boy Ugwu (a poor boy who comes to Odenigbo from a village and slowly becomes a part of the family), Olanna’s twin sister Kainene (who is nothing like Olanna. They are not identical twins and couldn’t have been more different in character), Kainene’s boyfriend Richard (who is actually white but becomes so much a part of what is happening in Nigeria/Biafra that it is hard to picture him white after a while). Then, there are the other characters that come and go and yet manage to leave an impact.

The book has a lot of characters and a lot of parallel stories and fascinatingly, Adichie manages to keep them unique while seamlessly blending them. I am wonderstruck at her ability to take complicated lives of at least 5 people, add to an already complicated tale of the war and come up with a story that is simple, powerful, entertaining and addictive. I couldn’t put the book down from the minute I started it. I had to get back to it and see what happened next. I smiled when the characters laughed and I felt the pain when they cried. I now feel like I just spent the last two days of my life in Nigeria during the war. I feel as though I know the characters personally. I actually miss the book now that I am done with it. Very few books can actually do that to you; which is why I have to reinforce my point that Adichie is a master story teller.

I totally loved reading this book. I am sure you’ll like it too!:) Give it a shot! Here are some more rave reviews for this awesome book if you still aren’t convinced to pick it up:

If you've read this book and reviewed it, please do leave a link to your review in the comment section and I'll add it to this wonderful list of reviews!