Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bridget Jones's Diary

After the dark, depressing, heavy feel of Norwegian Wood I desperately needed something light to refresh my mind. I found the perfect antidote in Bridget Jones's Diary. It totally reaffirms my faith in the fact that books are indefinitely better than their movie counterparts.
I saw the movie ages ago and I didn't like it too much. I didn't like Renee Zellweger and I thought Bridget was fat, obnoxious, silly and sometimes even irritating. But the book made me change my mind.
The book is set in London - and this is my quick stop over in my Orbis Terrarum Travels - A peek into the life of a 30-something single girl living in London.

It starts on January 1st with a list of new year resolutions - a typical list with items that are there in most of our lists (Haven't you ever made a resolution to organize all those photographs??, to go to the gym atleast three times a week??, to not bitch about anyone?? or to make better use of time?? well, i have!). The posts are hilarious. They each start with a daily measure of weight, number of alcohol units consumed, number of calories consumed, number of lottery tickets bought, number of cigarettes smoked.. and then goes on to describe her fairly regular days..
Midway through the book , I was able to push Renee Zellweger's image out of my head and give the lady on the cover a life.. The book was much better after that.
Bridget turns out to be more normal than how they had portrayed her in the movie (or atleast what I got of the movie)..
Anyways, BJD turned out to be the perfect stopover.. Its nice to have a chick-lit to relax with in the middle of all those hectic travels.
And i must add, that the book does say a lot about life in it adds to the purpose of the challenge as well! Maybe someone should plan a "Tarts and Vicars" party here sometime..:)
I love the little references to Laurel and Hardy, Sound of music, etc through the book. Feels like something I would write in my own diary.. if i had one!

The end of the book makes you roll with laughter too..a summary of all the vital facts over a year.. for example, number of pounds lost 72! Thats amazing one would think.. only to realize that the very next line says Amount of pounds gained - 74!!
So much for obsessive monitoring of weight and calories..:))
I totally loved the book and if you havent read it as should definitely pick it up! Its a total fun book!:)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Norwegian Wood

My next destination in the Orbis Terrarum challenge was Japan (yes..back to Asia! Can't seem to get it out of my system!).I was excited about the Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami because I had heard so many rave reviews about it. A little bit about Japan before I start off on the book:
Japan is an archipelago - a collection of around 3000 islands. Tokyo is the capital city and Yen is the official currency.

The one most striking feature of the book was the fact that it was a morbidly depressing book. It definitely totally pulled my spirits down. I am not saying it was a bad book. It was a very well written book and it had some element that kept pulling me back to it every time i put it down. I just had to go on and on until i finished the book and put it away. And even after I put the book away, it affected in a very different kind of a way. The world definitely seemed more gloomy and depressing and I had to quickly pick up a chick-lit to raise my spirits again.

The book is narrated by Toru Watanabe as a recount of his life. He recollects his life when we was in his late teens. When he was 17, he loses his best friend in life - Kizuki. The loss of a friend is traumatic enough. When coupled with the fact that the seemingly confident normal friend took his own life for some strange unknown reason I guess it magnifies the situation out of proportion. The loss of his friend puts Toru in a deeply depressed state for a while but he continues living - a living where every waking moment is a struggle.

The book is about Toru's life for a few years after the death of Kizuki. He meets new people, makes new friends, falls in love..and seemingly normal activities. But Toru seems to have a predilection for strange and depressed people. He meets and falls in love with Kizuki's girlfriend - Naoko. But Naoko is a very troubled person - having to deal with two suicides in her life - her sister and her boyfriend/best friend of many many years. When Naoko goes away to rehad, Toru meets Midori - a very strange person with an obsession for anything sex-related. And then, there's Nagasawa - a friend to replace Kizuki. but i must add,he is pretty strange too.
As you can see from just these couple of lines, the characters are all strange and many are depressed.. and the whole book has a gloomy air to it.
I sometimes wonder what it is that made this book so popular in Japan. Do the japanese enjoy reading dark gloomy books, or was it was the sexually explicit scenes and language.. or did they really appreciate the author for his unique style of writing and ability to make the characters actually seem real?
I am still really confused about what I actually feel for the book. I am not sure if i like it or not.. Maybe in a few more days, i would have assimilated the matter thoroughly and would be able to say more..

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Purple Hibiscus

From a castle in the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in the Austro-Hungary Empire, my next destination was Nigeria in the middle of political unrest and the threats of military coup. After seeing the world through the eyes of a 70 year old general, I now got to see it through the eyes of a 15 year old girl.. Refreshing change.
Location: Nigeria

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presents the world through the eyes of an adolescent girl in Nigeria and the world has never looked more unfair. Kambili is 15 years old and to the external eye, is one of the privileged ones. Her father is very affluent and shes seems to lead a model life - expensive education, good food everyday, no shortage of clothes, etc. but in spite of having all the material aspects, Kambili lacks the "Joie de Vivre" that her poorer cousins seem to have.
Until the age of 15, she has led a very sheltered life.. or maybe you could just call it imprisonment without bars.. Her father, though affluent and generous, has a dark side. He is fanatically religious and demands perfection from his children. He rule their lives- giving them a strict schedule for every hour of their lives, punishing them brutally for trivial things like coming 2nd in a class exam, etc etc.. The atmosphere is so oppressed that Kambili has never heard the sound of her laughter..

When Kambili is 15, a series of events change Kambili's life forever. For the first time in her life, Kambili's father allows her and her brother Jaja to visit and stay with their aunt and cousins. Kambili's aunt is poor and the first things that Kambili notice on visiting them are the sad and dilapidated condition of their house, the lack of money, the lack of proper food, the lack of water to flush, the earthworms in the bath.. and then she sees something else.. the happiness, the way that laughter is constantly echoing off the walls, the freedom that her cousins have to say what they want, the freedom they have to do what they want.. they envy her for the money she has and think that her silence points to her arrogance. But soon they too realize that her silence is not attributable to arrogance, it is the only thing she feels comfortable with. At her aunt's place, Kambili finally starts living the free life of a 15 year old..she even has her very own first adolescent crush..:)

The political unrest in Nigeria is weaved in beautifully throughout the story. We see glimpses of it through the events that happen that the newspaper that Kambili's dad owns and then we learn more from what her aunt goes through..

The book is divided into three sections - First, Breaking gods - this is a description of a palm sunday where things start to go wrong in Kambili's house.
The second section, Speaking with our spirits, take us back in time to describe the happenings that eventually led to the events on Palm Sunday. The final part, The pieces of God describe an unexpected turn of events that follow the palm sunday..

The Purple Hibiscus is a very eloquent book. The simple language and the simple writing are endearing.. Through the observant eyes of Kambili, we get to know more about the food they eat, the languages they speak, the cultures of society, etc in Nigeria..

It is a great book to read and I loved reading it..

Friday, April 18, 2008


I love this week. I have had all the time in the world to catch up on all my reading. I finished the fourth book in my Orbis Terrarum Challenge. For a change, I moved from Asian side of things that i seemed to be stuck to and decided to head to Hungary. It was a good decision.

The place: A castle at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains
The Country: The Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian empire (This dissolved at the end of world war I to give rise to two independent countries)
The date: August 14th, 1939.
A memory: July 2nd, 1899

After 41 years and 43 days, to be exact, the general gets a chance to finally get some answers to the questions that have plagued him for the past four decades.

The book revolves mainly around a dinner and post-dinner conversation between the general and his closest friend that he's meeting after 41 years.. For most part, it is a the general. But Konrad's silence is more eloquent. The general, through his monologue, describes the events of a hunt and a dinner 41 years ago. The events have had a major impact on his life because he recollects minute details of the events and the surroundings like it happened the previous day. He knows the facts but he wants the answers.

Once you pick up the book, you want to keep reading until you find out what the events were..and once you find out what the events were, you want to know what Konrad has to say to defend himself..but more than that, you want to read the book for the way it has been written. Monologues by the general don't bore you. Somehow, the monologues tell you more about Konrad than they do about the General himself. What starts as pity towards the general for being stuck at the wrong end of love triangle, soon turns to an understanding of Konrad though he doesn't speak a word and then, at the end, turns again to pity towards the general, a pity because he still respects a friendship that never was....

The power of words is seen in this novel. It is truly a beautiful beautiful book. This is not a book where you read to understand the events.. you read the book to drown in the writing.. to untangle the web of emotions that Marai has created with just words..

What better conclusion to this post than the closing lines of the novel?
"But like every kiss, this one is an answer, a clumsy but tender answer to a question that eludes the power of knowledge."

Need I say more?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Memoirs of a Geisha

With this book, I finish my Eponymous challenge! It has been quite a short and sweet challenge and I have enjoyed every book in this challenge - The English Patient, Mistress, Funny Boy and finally this!

Well, I don't have to say much about this book. Everyone has either already read it or seen the movie. I have been a little slow. I finally read the book now. And as i expected, it was a beautiful book. It tells you so much about the mysterious life of a geisha. It is amazing how one 's whole life can be dedicated to pleasing and entertaining some one else. It is really sad that they don't have a life of their own. Spending every waking hour dressing up, singing, dancing, making pleasant conversation.. it must be really tiring! I mean, what if you just get up one day and don't feel like doing it? What if you just want to snuggle in bed reading a book? What if you fall in love with the poor boy you see on the street? Well, he doesn't have the money to become your danna but that doesnt mean you cant be happy with him!
But, the life a geisha is a truly fascinating one. It is a world of its own. This book might have its flaws. As Mineko Iwasaki claims, it might not be very honest in its portrayal of the life of a geisha. For that fact, I liked "Geisha, A Life" - an autobiographical account of Mineko Iwasaki written in an attempt to show that Arthur Golden was not writing about her in his much acclaimed book.
Though Mineko's book might be true, it lacks the thrill and the charm of Arthur Golden's book. His book makes the life of a geisha seem almost magical.. whereas her book just states the facts.
They are each good in their own way, i guess.

But, here's the deal. I am FINALLY done with "Memoirs of a Geisha" and now, I want to go to Japan!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Mistress

From Sri Lanka, I didn't travel too far to get to the next country in my Orbis Terrarum Challenge. My next stop was India. The book - The Mistress by Anita Nair.

If i start writing about India I can on and on about it. I love so many things about my county. But if there i just one thing that I have to pick that makes India so special, it is its diversity. India has 28 states and 7 union territories. But the fascinating thing about this, is that there is so much diversity among the states. There are 22 official languages in India but there are about 150 languages totally spoken by at least 10,000 people each. And these languages are vastly different from each other beacause they belong to four linguistic families. The cultures followed in different parts of the country as completely different as well. In this book, we zoom into one of the states in India - Kerala. It is on the peninsular part of India. Kerala is a very beautiful state - lush green thanks to the maritime climate and is fondly referred to as "God's own country" by the Keralites. The cultural speciality of Kerala is the Kathakali dance ("Katha" - story, "kali" - Performance). As the name suggests, it is nothing but the recital of stories from Indian mythology in dance form. In a way, it can be called a religious dance drama. Kathakali was traditionally performed only the men. Female characters were performed by men dressed in female costumes. A performance started in the night, and went all the way till dawn. The performace is accompnied by a live band of musicians. There are 101 traditional stories that are usually performed. Nowadays shortened versions of the stories are performed that last for no more than 3 hours. The following is a picture of a typical kathakali dancer.

Make-up is a very integral part of the Kathakali dance. The make up has profound under tones of feeling and mood and it is a very elaborate process. It goes on for several hours before the start of a performance. During this time, the actor gets into the shoes of the character he is playing during the show. Also, the naunaces of the make up differentiate between the different characters. Different colors are used for the villian ( the lead negative role) and the hero. The heavy costumes are also significantly different for the hero, the villian and the women. Hence, by just looking at the costumes and the make up, you can recognize the characters.

As it might be evident from the picture, two of the most important elements is this dance are the expressions and the hand movements. According to kathakali, there are nine different expressions (Navarasas) - Sringaaram (Love, Amour), Haasyam (Ridicule, Humor), Bhayam (Fear), Karunam (Pathos, Sadness), Rowthram (Anger, Wrath), Veeram (valor), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutham (Wonder, Amazement), and finally Shantham (Peace, Tranquility). These expressions involve complex muscle movements in the face and hence, kathakali training is very intensive. The dancers spend hours everyday just sitting and practising the complex muscular movements. Also, since the costumes and the head gear are very heavy, they have to strength train to gain the ability to dance gracefully while carrying so much weight on them.

So, why so muh about kathakali, you might wonder. Well, the beautiful thing about "The Mistress" is that the the story line is weaved in with the dance form. The whole novel follows the sequence of a typical kathakali performance - a prologue, the body, and a conclusion.
The body of the novel is divided into 9 chapters. Each chapter is named after one of the navarasas (expressions). At the beginning of the chapter, there is an explanation of how this expression is portrayed in kathakali and an example from nature to portray the expression (the wrath of the monsoon rains, etc). This is the most beautiful part of the book. This is followed by the actual story. The story is not a single person narration. As in the dance, each character tells us his/her side of the story.

The beauty of the book, however, ends with its structure. The storyline lacks in depth and reason. Though the central character of the novel is Koman (a famous kathakali dancer), the character doesn't grip you with its story. The other characters in the book are Radha (Koman's niece), Shyam (Radha's husband) and Chris (the foreigner radha has an extra marital affair with). The characters are not very well defined and the I didn't feel that the story was very substantial.

But nevertheless, Anita Nair brings the dying art form of kathakali to life. That is what made me pick this book up to read as part of the challenge. It seemed very relevant. I would totally recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading about kathakali. Someone who would appreciate the effort gone into researching the dance and weaving it into the story line.

The Funny Boy

So, I read "The English Patient" and "The Funny Boy" in a span of two months. Two authors of similar origin - both were born in Sri Lanka, both moved to canada and live currently in Toronto - but yet, two very very different books.
The funny boy is by Shyam Selvadurai.This book is my second book in the Orbis terrarum Challenge. My second stop - Sri Lanka to view the discordance between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. I am loving this challenge.
A little about Sri Lanka before I proceed with the book - Sri lanka was known as Ceylon till 1972. It is one of India's neighboring countries but doesn't share a land border with it. It is a tiny island shaped like a little coconut hanging off the Indian mainland. It is sometimes referred to as the "Pearl of the Indian Ocean". Sinhalese form the majority population, while the Tamils (who mainly occupy the northern region) are the largest minority. These two populations have been at war for quite a while and a part of this book deals with that. Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and Rupee is their official currency.

Anyways, Shyam Selvadurai is originally from Srilanka - he is of mixed tamil and sinhalese origins. And, the funny boy is a Bildungsroman (The German word Bildungsroman means "a novel of formation," that is, a novel of someone's growth from childhood to maturity. Generally, a Bildungsroman is concerned with the protagonist's development from a young person to a young adult, and the character's need to either accept or reject the morals and customs of society). I put the word in there with an intention - that word describes exactly what the book is all about. It is the most concise way of saying what I want to say about the book.
The irony of the book is that as we read about Arjie's growth and development, we cannot turn away from Sri Lanka's disintegration. The book is set against the Tamil Sinhalese violence that erupted in Sri Lanka and forced many srilankans to move to the Us, Canada, etc as refugees.
Arjie belongs to a Tamil family in Columbo. His family, however, does not support the Tamil Tigers intention of having a separate country - Eelam.
All that his parents want is peaceful co-existence with the sinhalese in sri lanka. working towards this, his dad gets into the hotel business with a sinhalese man, they live in a sinhalese neighborhood, arjie goes to the sinhalese sections in school,etc. The same emotions, however, are not echoed by the rest of the family. Arjie's grandparents live in a tamil neighborhood and are anti-sinhalese because arjie's great grandfather was killed in the tamil-sinhalese riots.
So, Arjie is brought up in Columbo sorrounded by the political unrest. And yet, that is not all. He is just beginning to understand and come to terms with his own homosexuality which is not easy considering he is brought up in a society where homosexuality is not accepted and boys with such tendencies are referred to as "the funny boys".

Even though the concept is beautiful, the author's writing comes across as amateurish. The chapters describing Arjie's self-discovery and his experiments with his sexuality are completely disjoint from the ones where Sri Lanka's political unrest is described. They just don't flow together.

But he gives a very clear picture of the turmoil in Sri Lanka. It is a one sided picture - The side of a Tamil family in Columbo, who are not Tigers supporters, but yet cannot live in peace and pulled into this whole mess for the sole reason that they are tamil - but nevertheless, it is a peep hole into the happenings in Sri Lanka. Of note, the Funny Boy is not autobiographical. Arjie and Shyam are both gay and both move from Sri Lanka to Canada during the unrest. But their similarities end there.

For me, this was a perfect way to continue with the challenge. A novel about the unrest in sri lanka, by a sri lankan author.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Two young and pretty girls, wearing black scarves are bent over something...and it looks like they are reading something. That is the image on the the cover of this book and that is somehow an image that stays with you for quite a while..

As part of the orbis terrarum challenge, the first book that I decided to read was "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. I have been meaning to read this book for a while and this seemed like the perfect time. This book is perfect for this challenge. It is like a journey across the world and my first stop - Iran.

A little about Iran before continuing with the discussion of the book. Iran was known as Persia until 1935. Islam is the official religion, Farsi is the official language. It is in Central Eurasia. It is home to one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations. Tehran is the largest city and the capital of Iran. The rial is Iran's official currency.

Now, coming to the book...

I remember reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov a long time ago - I was too young to appreciate the complexity of english literature then and just read it for the story and the fact that it was a controversial book. It is definitely a book that I need to read again. The very name "Reading Lolita in Tehran" tells you so much about the book.. even before you start reading it. It brings to mind a clash of beliefs, a rebellious attitude and a struggle to maintain your individuality! The book is about all this and much more.

The book is divided into four sections. It starts with "Lolita". But of course, lolita is not the only book discussed in this section. They even discuss "An invitation to a beheading". In this section, apart from discussing these books, nafisi also talks about leaving the university of tehran and starting the thursday morning book club with a few of her favorite students.
The next section is "Gatsby". Along with the dissection of the novel and the author (and other works by the author), the story of nafisi goes into a "flashback" mode. Here she talks about the begininng of the islamic revolution in Iran.
The next two sections are "James" and "Austen". As the names suggest, the works of the two authors are discusses, characters are compared, etc. Nafisi's life that is described in the section "James" chrologically follows the "Gatsby" section. The part of her life discussed in the "Austen" section is the final part where she leaves Iran and her students and moves to the US.

Overall, this is a beautiful book. It satisfies your thirst for literature with an in depth analysis of all those classic novels (i have mentally made a note to read every single one of the novels discussed in this book again. maybe, i'll see it in a new light after reading all the discussions in this book!). At the same time, there is an accurate portrayal of life in Iran during the onset of the Islamic Revolution and the period following it. Under the strict Islamic rule, the girls have been forced to lead a rather repressed life. Reading these books helped them more than it would ever help anyone living in a free world. At times, it almost seemed like they were living vicariously through the lives of the characters in the book they were reading.

I could go on and on talking about this book and the characters and of course the books they discuss.. but i would like to stop here. But if you love literature and love reading about other countries, this is a perfect book for you!