Friday, August 29, 2008

Shadow of the Wind


I thought writing a review for this book would be the easiest since I enjoyed it so much. But I am beginning to see that it is not an easy task. I recently started taking an interest in reading more about the author while reading a book. I have never done it before and I enjoy doing it now. It gives me so much more insight into the book and sometimes explains so many things about the book! Well, Shadows in the Wind is all about the urge to find out more about an author.
Shadow of the Wind is set in Barcelona. It was originally written in Spanish and it became an overnight bestseller. It was later translated into many languages including English. This is the author’s (Carlos Ruiz Zafron) first book and his much awaited second book is due by the end of 2009. This book is added to my Orbis Terrarum Challenge list! I travelled to Spain this time and i loved the journey.
The book starts with a little boy being taken by his father to a secretive place – the cemetery of books. According to the tradition of the members, Daniel walks around the labyrinth of books to pick out one book that he will treasure through his life. The book finds him. It is “Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax. He reads the book in one sitting and becomes interested in knowing more about the author and other books that he might have written. This seemingly innocent quest changes his life for ever.
The book almost has a magical, mystical setting… or should I just say, Gothic? It almost has a fantasy touch to it – the cemetery of books, people falling in love at the drop of a hat, homeless men becoming heroes, etc. So don’t think too much and just read the book for what it is and you will totally enjoy yourself. Being rational doesn’t help while reading this book!
I must mention that it is quite a scary book - the faceless strangers, the dark mansions, the eerie sounds, the murderers… It still gives me a shudders!
I came across a review for this book and some guy had written that this book was powerful enough to make him cry. I didn’t feel that strong an emotion for this book. It was a tale that I was witnessing, not experiencing. It was a fun read but not something I could cry for (and I cry easily. I cry for ‘you’ve got mail’ every time I see it... so you know what I mean!).
But it is a gripping novel. There are so many parallel stories happening and so many twists to the tale that it is hard to take a break. I’d read up to the end of a chapter planning to put the book down after finishing the chapter… but a single line at the end of it would make me even more curious and I would land up reading the book for a long long time after that! One thing that I have to add here is there are times when the book suddenly gets a little boring.
One thing that I didn’t like too much about the book was the way the protagonist’s character starts out being strong and then slowly dwindles into significance. I am not sure if this was something Carlos was trying to get at. When the book starts, Daniel is very obviously the center of the novel. And then the novel progresses and you suddenly realize that you are no longer interested in Daniel and his doings. Fermin seems to be a more dominant character and you realize that you are drawn to him more than Daniel. By the end of the book, both Fermin and Daniel are forgotten. There’s just Julian. And you begin to wonder if the book was all along only about Julian and you just had missed it in the beginning.

**Possible Spoiler Ahead
One more thing that irked me was the way Daniel gets to know everything there is to know through a letter – a very detailed letter at that. I am wishing that there was more to that part than just a letter. Well, it so turned out that Nuria was on Julian’s side. What if she hadn’t been? How could Daniel just take everything that Nuria mentioned in the letter at face value? I thought that the letter was too convenient an ending for my liking. After all the twists in the plot, the ending was almost anticlimactic to me.

Well, having said all that, I must re-state that I totally loved the book. It was different from books that I have been reading and it was a nice and interesting change.
You must must pick it up if you haven’t already read it!

If you have read this book and reviewed it, do leave me a comment with the link..
Thanks!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lolita


I have heard that Lolita is a complex book of many depths, linguistic acrobatics and brilliant writing. I have heard that Nabokov’s writing style is flamboyant and is characterized by word play, double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, etc. All this made me desperately want to read Lolita. I wanted to delve into the satire and look at the book from a literary perspective. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it. I was too involved in the story line to make note of the literary achievements of Nabokov. And worse, I couldn’t appreciate the satire in the midst of the events that I was reading about.
Lolita, contrary to what I had expected, turned out to be one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. It deeply affected me and I found myself having nightmares for a couple of days after I had finished the book. In spite of dealing with one of the most delicate subjects ever, Nabokov doesn’t use obscene language or graphic descriptions even once through the book. The book definitely doesn’t come across as one of those cheap pornographic trashy tales. It is a dirty little confession made in the classiest possible way.
What disturbed me the most was the fact that a person like Humbert could exist in this world – someone who easily destroys the life of a little girl and then gets away with it too! He does land up in jail by the end of the book, but as we all already know, it is not for the sexual assault on a minor but rather for the murder of a pornographer (Who doesn’t deserve to exist in the first place! {Well, at least according to me!}). Little things that he mentioned in the passing scared me. Like the part where he talks about how he sat in the park, pretending to be absorbed in the newspaper he held in his hand, but actually was looking at little girls at play and waiting for any little interaction with them. That totally scared me.
I haven’t been able to look at the comedy of the events described in the book. And I haven’t been able to see Dolores Haze as a sexually precocious little girl. To me, she was just like all the other little girls we see out there – active, energetic, moody and extremely curious about anything and everything happening around them. All that I saw through the book was a little girl, absolutely helpless with no one to turn to; caught in the clutches of Humbert, and being forced to do all the things she didn’t enjoy doing. She eventually learns to bribe him with sexual favors to get her way – but even that, I don’t think points to any perversity on her part. Given a choice, I am sure she would have preferred the typical life of a pre-teen girl any day!
Anyways, it has been a week since I finished reading the book and I don’t remember registering anything but the story. I completely missed the writing and the literature and the grammar plays. Does that mean I would have to read Lolita again to grasp it all? The very thought gives me the jitters.
With Lolita, I finish my third book for the Classics Challenge. I am currently reading “Of Human Bondage” by Somerset Maugham and I have partially finished classics still sitting on my bedside table – Picture of Dorian Gray and 1984. I hope to finish both sometime soon!

So, if you have read this book, I would love to hear your views. I am curious to see what others liked or disliked about this book.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Siddhartha


As part of the classics reading challenge, the second book that I decided to read was “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse.

The first thing that I noticed about the book was its conciseness. This was in start contrast to the classic that I had just finished before this – Crime and Punishment. In Crime and Punishment, I enjoyed the fact that I was witnessing practically every waking moment of Raskolnikov. The huge book spanned just a period of about 2 weeks. But it included not just the events that happened over the two weeks but also a detailed insight into each and every thought that ran through Raskolnikov’s head over the period of two weeks. As I have already mentioned in one of my previous posts, I totally enjoyed C&P in spite of it being a very heavy read. But Siddhartha was very concise. It spanned nearly the entire lifetime of Siddhartha, the protagonist, in less than quarter the number of pages of C&P. It jumped over years in a single line. Though the writing was concise, the content was vast and extensive.
Siddhartha was completely different from C&P when it came to the mood of the book. Talking about the difference between these books, the first image that comes to mind is of rivers. C&P resembled a slow moving sluggish river, something like the braided rivers in Alaska – heavily laden with silt that it carries from the glaciers. The river twists and turns and struggles throughout its journey burdened by the weight of the silt. It branches out and then the branches join again in an attempt to deposit the silt along its way. It is not turbulent, doesn’t have sudden surprises, no gorgeous waterfalls in the middle of its journey. It is silent, yet beautiful, in its effort. C&P was like this - heavily bogged down with the emotional turmoil of the characters.
In contrast, we have Siddhartha which resembles a free flowing river - rich in content but not heavily laden with silt. It flows easily through flat lands, silently again, and if you are not really conscious, it flows right by you! If you notice it however, there’s so much that you can derive from it. Cool, refreshing water and so much pleasure. Siddhartha flows like the river I just mentioned. It is not a complicated read, not a twisted plot; A simple story that you can glance at, see it but not really experience it. In that, it resembles The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. At first glance, it looks like there’s not much to the book- not much to the story. But the more you look at it, the more you can get from it; the more pleasure you derive. And after reading this book once, I don’t think it is possible to form a strong opinion about the book after reading it just once. You need to read it multiple times, toss the ideas back and forth and then eventually grow into the book.

Having said this, I have a disclaimer. I am not too much into spirituality. I need to put in a lot of effort to read books like these. It takes me a while to get into the mood of the book. And I have to change my whole reading style. I am used to reading fast, consuming many many pages and sometimes whole books at one sitting. But books like Siddhartha and The Alchemist just do not allow me to do that. They force me to go slow, go back and re-read the chapters I just did, pause, think, etc. and that’s tough for me. But I am glad I read Siddhartha. I really am. Thanks to the Classics Challenge for that. So my disclaimer is this: I don’t understand spirituality. It makes me cynical and sometimes I just can’t see the point in what I am reading. So my views of the themes of the book may be way off where I am supposed to me. Feel free to argue with me and put some “spiritual-sense” into my head.

The plot of the book doesn’t require too much discussion. Contrary to my initial opinion, the book doesn’t deal with the life of The Buddha whose name was Siddhartha Gautama. I had assumed that the book dealt with his life. But the book actually deals with another Siddhartha who lives in the same age as The Buddha. Though he leads a sheltered blissful life of a Brahman boy, his mind is filled with discontent. He wanted to discover “inner peace” and he wanted to find the knowledge that every ascetic is in search for. His search for the knowledge takes him away from home, and leads him to a group of ascetics, to the Illustrious One (“Gotama” himself), through a period of material pleasures with Kamala the courtesan and Kamaswami the businessman, and eventually to the riverside where he meets Vasudeva the ferryman. At each step Siddhartha is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to achieve his goal. But eventually, when he does achieve it, he realizes that it not a particular incident/experience that helps you attain enlightenment. “Experience” is the best way to understand reality and attain enlightenment. You cannot understand reality by attending talks and lectures, by mind dependant methods, by immersing yourself in carnal pleasures of the world, etc. Experience is a totality of all these events. You need to live every stage of life if you want to attain enlightenment. (At least, this is what I got from the book). This idea is in sync with the basic tenets of Hinduism.
According to our scriptures, man goes through four stages in life. The first stage (Brahmacharya) is the student phase. This is followed by (Grihastha) which is the stage where he gets married and has a family. Once his household responsibilities are over (his children are grown up, etc) he gives up material pleasures and spends times in prayers (Vanaprastha) and in the fourth and final stage, he totally devotes all his time to the thought of God and breaks all ties with the world. His aim in this stage is to attain Moksha and break free of the material cycle of birth and death.
As you can see, Hinduism believes in the fact that you can attain moksha only after going through all the stages of life.

Though this is the main theme of the book, there are many other concepts discussed in the book, which of course I am not going discuss in this blog.

But I would totally recommend this book to everyone. It is a must read. It really makes you think in a different way. It makes you want to look at bigger picture of life. I am sure that I would read this book again, later in life. Books like these always have something new to tell you no matter how many times you read them. I am experiencing the feeling with The Alchemist as well.
Also reviewed by:
Katrina
If you have already read this book and reviewed it, please leave me a comment with the link and I’ll tag you in this post so that others can read your views as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Blood of Flowers


The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

A fictional story set in seventeenth century Iran describing a life as complicated as the protagonist’s passion – carpets. Not just any carpet, authentic hand-woven Persian carpets. What better era to concentrate on than that of Shah Abbas – the lover of Arts and Architecture. Shah Abbas turned what a tribal art and occupation into one of international fame. He set up carpet workshops around the country and selected the best designers and weavers to work in those carpets – compensating them well for their efforts. Thanks to Shah Abbas, the Persian carpets left Iran and adorned homes all around the world – and still do!

First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.

The book begins with this line. And as you read the book, you see that every folk tale narrated in the book start with this one. I am assuming that this might be similar to the “Once upon a time” of English tale narrations. Even time, I turned a page and found the italicized writing waiting for me, I jumped with joy. I loved Anita’s way of inserting folk tales at appropriate places in the story. Reading this book, I am beginning to see how there are so many similarities between Indian culture and the Iranian culture. We have a set of folktales as well, fondly called “grandmother stories” because they are usually told by grandmothers in an attempt make little brats eat or sleep.

One more similarity that I found between olden day India and Iran was the dependency on stars and astrology. Astrology is still big in India… not sure if that’s the same case in present day Iran. Indians strongly believe that the stars control our destiny and by studying them, we would be able to predict the life of an individual. Coming from a family where astrology has been a ardently followed hobby, I find myself in two minds when it comes to my opinion on believing the stars. The rational side of me refuses to believe that something as distant as the stars can control the decisions that you make here on earth. But, even then I must accept that there are some incidences that provide compelling evidence that there in fact might be some connection…. Anyways, that’s not the point here. What I was trying to get here was the fact that Anita has beautifully brought out the beliefs and practices of ancient Iran woven intricately into the story of an anonymous protagonist.

Unlike European art, art in Asia is not artist centric. Very rarely do we find artists name on the art work. Artists are anonymous. I have noticed this in Indian art work. We talk about regional art – Madhubani prints, Tanjore paintings, etc…. very rarely do we talk about artists who created the wonderful arts. In most cases, the artists are poor women in rural regions who stitch, or weave throughout the day to make a few rupees to sustain their deprived lives. Little do they realize that the dealers, who buy their handwork from them for dirt cheap prices, later sell the same pieces for exorbitant prices. Now, initiatives are being taken to bring the artists in direct contact with the customers so they can get more money for their effort. I have always been interested in traditional Indian art work and have always resisted against buying from dealers. I was really excited when I realized that this book deals with the life of an anonymous poor carpet weaver and the difficulties that she has to go through in spite of being extremely talented in her art.

One thing about the book that thoroughly surprised me was the concept of sighehs or “temporary marriages”- more like a short term contract that can be renewed. I was surprised to read the terms in the book and then on researching further, I realized that this is still practiced in Iran. “Temporary marriages” is a term that I find very difficult to deal with and accept but isn’t that the beauty of international literature. You get to know so many things about different parts of the world that you might never visit. Some practices that resonate with the culture that you have been brought up in and some practices that are hugely discordant.

So, why the name “Blood of Flowers”, you might wonder. According to the author, the title comes from a poem called “Ode to a Garden Carpet” by “an unknown Sufi poet, circa 1500” and it portrays the garden carpet as a place of refuge that stimulates visions of the divine. In the poem come the words “Sometimes it seemed as if every thread in a carpet had been dipped in the Blood of Flowers”. This title is very apt for the novel. To me, it somehow portrays the pain and the sacrifices that go into making of an exceptional art piece.. Again, this takes me back to “The Thorn Birds” where the central theme was the story of the legendary “thorn bird” that spends its life looking for a thorn tree and then impales itself on the sharpest thorn. And while dying, it sings out and its song is better than any other song that the world has ever listened to. Somehow, when there is pain involved the resulting work is made spectacular.

I loved the book and I think it is a must read for anyone who enjoys reading in general and international literature in particular. I think this is a fantastic novel and it is Anita’s first book. I know she is working on another book right now and I can’t wait to read that when it comes out.

Some other reviewers who have read this book:
Softdrink



If you have read this book and reviewed it, do leave a comment with the link to the post and I’ll add you to this list!
Thanks!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bitter Sweets



I had been waiting to read Bitter Sweets for over two weeks before I finally received it in the mail. After reading the book, the first thing that came to my mind was a line from the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. In the poem, there’s a line:
Heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are sweeter;”
Poetry hardly ever leaves a deep impression on me because I always fail to see all that the poet wishes to convey through the lines. I am definitely not one to go about quoting lines from poems. But somehow, I still remember this particular line from this particular poem. Maybe because I found it so true and found myself recalling it at various instances in my life. Well, it is not the universal truth and doesn’t really apply to all possible situations. But it seems really true on certain occasions. I guess what Keats was implying through this line was something to the effect of – the state of anticipation is better than actual fulfillment. Heard melodies will never be as sweet as those we have not yet heard. It is a very eloquent line and is really true sometimes. As I already mentioned, it doesn’t always work all the time. Sometimes, I wait to read a book with growing excitement because I have heard so much about it and when I actually read the book, it is better than what I expected and that is bliss! But with Bitter Sweets, my anticipation was actually “sweeter” than the actual fulfillment.
I got an Advance Reading Copy of “Bitter Sweets” by Roopa Farooki. I had a completely different idea in my head after reading the plot of the book. I was expecting something with deeper roots, something with deeper emotions. Somehow, the book seemed very shallow to me. The people whose lives the book revolved around seemed very materialistic and….for lack of a better word, shallow. I know I keep coming back to the word, but that best describes what I actually thought about it. The story describes the lives of 3 generations of people in a family from Calcutta to Dhaka to Islamabad finally to England. The concentration of the book was not on coping with culture differences but rather on copying with relationship problems. What makes me feel confused about the book is the fact that I am not totally sure that the author wanted it to be just a book on extra marital affairs and coming to terms with it. I am sure she was trying to get somewhere further with it but just didn’t get to doing it!
Well, that is just my opinion.
Well, not everything about the book was totally negative. I received the book on Monday evening and I was done reading it by Tuesday night in spite of having to get to work all day Tuesday. Not all books that you come across can make you do that. The language was simple and easy to read (which was a welcome break from the other two books I have been having difficulties with – 1984 and Mrs. Dalloway which are so complicated in their writing styles that it requires special effort to actually get through even a page!). And then of course, the story was entertaining and kept you glued to the book. There were no boring parts that you wanted to skim through just to get done with the book. I guess it was a good first attempt at writing. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone just to see what they thought of it; to see if they liked it better than I did; to confirm if they felt that the author was trying to get any something more than what the book seemed to say. If you read the book, I hope you like it better than I did. I know that Roopa Farooki is in the process of getting her second book published as well. I would definitely want to read it. Maybe I’d have a better understanding of her writing by then to make better judgements.