Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Invisible Wall

Book: The Invisible Wall

Author: Harry Bernstein

Genre: Memoir
My short review: Very well written, simple and appealing story, vivid descriptions and a peep into lives of people in England during WW-I.

My rating: 4 Stars.

When I heard that Harry Bernstein was 92 when he started writing his first book, I knew that I was definitely going to read the book! It is really inspiring to see his determination to start writing at the age of 92. What made my decision easier was the fact that the person who recommended the book to me loved it and every review I found raved about it as well. So, that’s how The Invisible Wall landed on my nightstand.

Harry Bernstein’s writing appealed to me from the very first page. The Invisible Wall is a memoir. In this book, Harry describes his life before he immigrated to the United States. Harry was born into a poor Jewish family and lived in the Lancashire Mill Town. He had 4 older siblings (2 girls and 2 boys) and 1 younger sibling who came along much later in life. Harry’s family struggled to make ends meet. His father, who was a tailor by profession, preferred spending his evenings getting drunk rather than interacting with his family. He never talked to his children and didn’t bother too much about household affairs. Harry’s mom struggled to feed and clothe the children with the miniscule amount of money that her husband gave grudgingly for household affairs.

What is interesting about Harry’s childhood home is the street that his house was in. The street had houses on both sides. One side was occupied by Jewish families and the other by Christian Families. In spite of the proximity, the occupants of either side maintained such a distance between themselves that it felt like there was an invisible wall between the rows of houses. The interaction between the Jews and the Christians was minimal – restricted to occasional smiles and Friday evenings when the Christian women entered the Jewish houses to light a fire since the Jewish women had to observe Sabbath and could not do it. The descriptions of the street and the lives of the people have a very “D.H. Lawrence-touch” to them. Harry’s descriptions are vivid and you are transported to the England during WW-I.

What adds flavor the book is the love story that is featured in the book – not his own that but that of his older sister, Lily. Lily falls in love with a Christian boy from across the street. This is relatively unheard of in the street and the last time something like that happened, the girl was shipped off to Australia to live with her Jewish relatives and marry a Jewish man like she is supposed to do.

Since I am from India, I could totally understand the reaction of Harry’s family and their neighbors to the romance between Lily and Arthur. India is potpourri of castes and religions and romances across castes and religions is frowned upon and definitely not encouraged. Stories of inter-caste relationships make for good gossip among the ladies similar to what happens in this book as well.

The events on this street happen against the background of World War I. Boys and men are recruited from both sides of the street. Some come back affected in mind only, some come back injured both mentally and physically, and some don’t ever come back.

The Invisible Wall turned out to be a fabulous, entertaining read and I loved every page of the book. Even though it is a memoir, it reads like fiction since the time period that Harry writes about is not exactly contemporary. I guess that’s a big advantage of him writing this book when he is 92! Harry’s writing style is simple but powerful. His descriptions of the people and the places create wonderful images in your brain as you are reading the book. Some parts of the book tug at your heart and make you want to cry. Others are hilarious and make you want to laugh out loud. It is a quick read as it is not a long book either.

I would totally totally recommend this book to everyone reading this review. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Harry’s second book.


A few edits:

1. I just realized that this book would qualify for my Jewish Literature Challenge as well..So, that's 3 books done!:)

2. I forgot to inform you that Harry Bernstein's second book - Dreams is also out and I have that on my night stand..can't wait to pick that up immediately!

3.I also just found out that Harry Bernstein's third book is due to be out this april! he's 99 years old this year! Can you beleive it??? I am more and more amazed at his capability to do this!


Have you read this book? What did you think about it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Midori by Moonlight

Book: Midori by Moonlight

Author: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

Genre: Chick-lit
My Short Review: Refreshing new plot for a chick-lit, lovable characters and a quick and interesting read.

My rating: 4 Stars
Yet another immigrant story and yet another quest for the elusive “green card”… but this time, a much lighter story line. I had read a couple of reviews for “Midori by Moonlight” and I had picked it up from the library hoping to sneak it in after a heavy read. I found the perfect opportunity when I finished reading Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. I enjoyed Midori by Moonlight even more than I thought I would.

Midori is a young girl living in Japan and is in love with everything American. Kevin is an American visiting Japan. Midori and Kevin fall in love and he brings her to San Francisco with him to marry her. Midori is all excited about her American dream coming true. Soon after their engagement party, however, her world comes crashing when Kevin announces that he is dumping Midori to go back to his girlfriend Kimberley. Midori suddenly finds herself in a strange city with no fiancĂ©, no knowledge of English, no job, a soon-to-be extinct savings account, an expiring visa, and no idea on what to do with her life! The only things she knows are these: baking cakes that are out of the world, and the fact that she doesn’t want to go back to Japan. This book is all about how the seemingly mild and timid Midori decides to take charge of her life and do everything that she can to make sure that she doesn’t go back to Japan.

Midori is extremely lovable. Her struggles with the idiomatic expressions in English are hilarious and her passion for baking is contagious...well, almost!(It got me thinking about what I might want to bake, if that counts!).I must however admit that there were times that I thought that she was a little stupid or should I just say, ignorant? For instance, the fact that it took her forever to realize that her roommate’s girlfriend was actually jealous of her! But I guess in spite of that, I still did like her a lot.

While managing to keep the light mood of the book, Wendy manages to sneak in quite a bit about the lives of people in contemporary Japan – the academic pressures of parents, the suffocative society norms for girls, etc.

I must say that I really enjoyed reading this book and would definitely recommend it to you if you are looking for something light to read. I can assure you that it is a quick read and holds your attention throughout. You can most likely get through this in one sitting. I very nearly did!

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: The Inheritance of Loss

Book: The Inheritance of Loss

Author: Kiran Desai

Awards: Man Booker Prize 2006

My short review: Deep subject, Intense Writing, Beautiful Writing, Tough to Read

My Rating: 4 Stars

Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is definitely one of the most complicated books I have read. Complicated in the sense that it has way too much happening in it - a lot of layers and you need to peel away each layer to expose what she is trying to get at. I spent 2 weeks reading this book and I am not sure I have done justice to it. I feel that there’s so much more to the book that I have missed. But I guess that is the reason that this is a Man Booker Prize winner. I had a tough time with the book but I know that it totally deserves the award.

In such a situation, it is difficult to write a concise review for this book. I am going to do my best here but I would highly recommend that you pick this book up as well and work your way through it to truly understand what I am trying to express here.

The Inheritance of Loss is definitely not an easy read. It is a book that is divided into two. On one side is the slums of New York filled with illegal immigrants struggling to find a way to live the “American dream”. On the other side is Kalimpong – a town on the Indian side of the Himalayas – a seemingly peaceful setting which is rocked with conflict. The background for the Kalimpong part of the book is the Gurkha revolution (riots caused by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF)) which happened in the late 1980s.

A very brief summary would probably say that the book is about the inhabitants of Cho Oyu (which is a dilapidated house in Kalimpong, a town on the Indian side of the Himalayas) and their associations.

Jemubhai Patel is a retired judge. He is rude, grumpy and arrogant. His grand daughter Sai comes to live with him (much against his wishes) when her parents die. She is an anglophile, just like her grand father but is different in all other aspects. She falls in love with her tutor Gyan who is a Nepali Gurkha. The cook is a master story teller who weaves fascinating stories about the judge and his son to make his mundane existence more exiting. The cook’s son, Biju, is in New York shuttling from one restaurant basement to another in an eternal chase for the elusive “green card” and of course to escape from the immigration officials.

Through the lives of these five characters, Kiran Desai addresses deeper issues such as the negative impact of globalization and the legacy of colonialism. This is a story of the emotional result of people going between the east and the west over many generations. This is a book that is not about how lovely multi-culturism is but about how difficult it is.

The overall tone of the book is pessimistic. Even towards the end, when you’d hope for everything to magically become better, Desai leaves the characters stranded as they are and that gives you a feeling of incompleteness. At times, the depth of the subject and the intensity of the writing overwhelmed me and I had to put the book down for a while before I could recharge myself to pick it up again.

In spite of all the difficulty in reading, I kept going only because Desai’s writing is a pleasure to read. Her descriptions are vivid – pleasurable when you can feel the cool Himalayan breeze but icky when it is a rat nibbling on your hair in the New York slums. At times, she can make you feel completely involved in the story and at other times, she makes you feel cold and uninvolved - like having a peep into your neighbor’s house. As I mentioned before, no review can do justice to this book. I wouldn’t easily recommend this book to everyone. It is definitely not an entertaining read and I would recommend it only if you are really in the mood to totally drown into the world as portrayed by Desai. If you are a literature fanatic like me, you should surely pick this book up – just to drown in and admire her style of writing.

Have you read this book? Then you know how inadequate my review is. I would love to hear your views on this one.

Haven’t read this one? What are your thoughts? Are you tempted to give this a shot?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: The Red Leather Diary

Book: The Red Leather Diary

Author: Lily Koppel

My Short Review: Very interesting premise, a fascinating story, a peep at the life in New York in the early 1930s.A little slow.

My rating: 4 Stars

Challenge: Jewish Literature Challenge

I came across a description of “The Red Leather Diary” during a Jewish Book Festival here in Atlanta. The cover of the book instantly caught my eye and the story line immediately made me add to it my wishlist. I had bookmarked this book for the Jewish Literature Challenge and I finally got to it this month.

The premise of “The Red Leather Diary” is very interesting. Lily Koppel is a journalist. She lives in New York City and writes for the New York Times. One day in October 2003, Lily walks outside her apartment in 98, Riverside Drive to find a dumpster full of old trunks. The building management had decided to clean out the storage room in the basement and all unclaimed trunks were being discarded. Some of the trunks dated back to the early twentieth century.

In this dumpster, among other things, Lily finds a diary. Little red flakes were crumbling off the worn cover. Many many years ago, this would have been an attractive red leather diary with its own key. The Diary has a page for each date and on each page, and each page had 5 sections for 5 different years.

The diary belonged to a young jewish girl – Florence Wolfson. Florence received the diary on August 11, 1929 for her fourteenth birthday. Every day for the next 5 years, Florence diligently wrote in her little red book. She shared the most memorable moments of every single day for the 5 years until she turned 19. Lily reads the diary and goes on a quest to find Florence. The surprising thing is that she finds Florence, now 90 years old. This book is Florence’s story.

What is charming about the book is the fact that Florence is no special child. I mean with an IQ of 150, she’s gifted and all that… but apart from that, her life is extremely normal. Like most girls her age, she is obsessed with her looks and with boys (and maybe some girls as well!). She spends her days window shopping, visiting museums, drawing, painting, reading, watching plays, etc.

What I enjoyed tremendously about the book was that it gave us a peep into the life of people in New York in the early thirties. 1930s is not that ancient – in fact, Florence is still alive. But it is amazing to see how everything has changed in this short period of time. Everything from the way people think and behave to the most obvious change – technological advancements. One more thing that I really enjoyed were the photographs that were found throughout the book. It was fun to associate the descriptions to real faces and places.

Lily Koppel has definitely put in a lot of effort to recreate the life of Florence based on the few lines she wrote in her diary. Her effort is commendable.

There is one little thing that I must mention here. I found the book a little slow moving at times. There were times when I got a little tired of Florence and had to put the book down and just watch some TV. The premise was very interesting. I sometimes wished that the book could have been a little shorter.
But that might not even be because of the book. I have been in a ready frenzy the last few weeks and it might just be time for me to take a little break before delving into my next book.
Here’s a description from the back cover of the book

“The young woman who emerged from the diary’s pages had huge ambitions, even if chasing them proved daunting. February 21, 1931. Went to the Museum of Modern Art and almost passed out from sheer jealousy – I can’t even paint an apple yet – it’s heartbreaking! January 16, 1932. I couldn’t study today and went to the museum to pass a morning of agonizing beauty – blown glass, jade and exquisite embroideries. April 10, 1932. Wrote all day – and my story is still incomplete. September 2, 1934. Planning a play on Wordsworth – possibilities are infinite. October 12, 1934. How I love to inflict pain on my characters!

What she craved most was to be enveloped in a grand passion that would transform her life. July 3, 1932. Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness – all I want is someone to love – I feel incomplete.”


That was a teaser that roped me in! Are you tempted??

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review: The Scent of Sake

Book: Scent of Sake
Author: Joyce Lebra

My short Review: Well researched, well written, absorbing plot, Enjoyable
My Rating: 4 Stars

Yet another 5 Star read? Yes! And I must tell you that I am definitely trying not to be very generous with my stars. But I can’t really help it if I get 3 fascinating books to read in a single month!

The Scent of Sake is set in Japan in the 1800s. The protagonist, Rie Omura, belongs to the Omura household – producers of the White Tiger Sake, one of Japan’s leading Sake brands. Through incidents in Rie’s life, we get to see how the reputation and the betterment of the Sake business take precedence over everything else in the house. Family decisions, even those of marriage, etc, are made based on the benefits to the business. Rie is passionate about the business as well and is ready to sacrifice her personal life and marry a man she is not attracted to solely for the sake of the business. When she realizes that her husband, Jihei, is not motivated and driven enough to help advance the business, she decides to take business matters in her own hands.

What seems like a simple enough decision today, was an unthinkable one in Japan in the 1800s. The Sake business is a male-dominated world and there is no place for a woman in that world – not even for a woman like Rie who is determined, driven and has the most amazing sense of timing when it comes to making business decisions. Rie is nevertheless determined to fight all odds (starting with her very disapproving husband) and enter the Sake world. She overhears conversations, tracks sales figures, and acquaints herself well with the working and then tries to sneak in suggestions here and there. Slowly, her stand in the family business becomes stronger and she is recognized for her business acumen.

To complement the success of her diversifying efforts, Rie starts taking family decisions to benefit the sake business just like how it was done in the past. Even without realizing, the sweet Rie slowly transforms into a hard, determined, business woman whose sole focus in life is business. Her employees fear her and her family members begin to detest her for her lack of concern for their feelings. But Rie is focused on only goal – making the Omura household the number one Sake producers of Japan – and she will not rest until she has achieved what she wanted.

“Scent of Sake” was a well written book. In spite of having so many characters and a lot of little parallel stories, Joyce Lebra manages to keep the attention on Rie. The character guide at the beginning of the book is very helpful since there are so many characters. When I started the book, I was a little apprehensive. I knew that Joyce Lebra is a professor of Japanese history by profession and I felt that the might have a lot of boring facts and history details to deal with. But I was completely mistaken. There was a lot of history in the book, but the details were so well woven into the story that it only made the book even more interesting.

I am very interesting in learning about different cultures around the world and this was a fantastic learning experience and a very enjoyable one at that.

I very highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading about Japanese culture or about strong willed women who do not hesitate defy norms. It is a very well written book and there’s not a single slow page in the entire book.

Thanks to Professor Joyce Libra for sending me a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review: Remember Me?

Book: Remember Me
Author: Sophie Kinsella

My Short Review: Quick to read, very well written, very very entertaining!
My rating: 4 Stars( The highest I would give for a chick-lit book)

I read the Shopaholic Series a couple of years ago. It all started when I was browsing the library shelves and "The Undomestic Goddess" caught my eye. I loved the book. You can find my review here . I immediately googled Sophie Kinsella and realized that she'd written this whole series of Shopaholic books. I picked up "confessions of a shopaholic" and I was instantly addicted. My very brief review of the series can be found here .

It has been a while since I read the Kinsella books and I had "remember me" on my wishlist for a long time. I was browsing in the library yesterday and suddenly the bright yellow cover caught my eye. I immediately picked it up and as predicted, couldn't put it down!

Lexi Smart is out with her friends one night and it has not been a great day - she didnt get the much required bonus at work, her boyfriend stood her up, it is her dad's funeral the next day and just when she thinks things couldn't get worse, she falls down a flight a stairs and everything goes blank. She wakes up in the hospital all set to get back to the sucky life she's been leading only to realize that it is no longer 2004. It is 2007 and she's in the hospital because she's had an accident in her convertible mercedes. She finds herself slimmer (by two whole dress sizes), her dracula-teeth have been fixed, her bitten nails are manicured.. and in short, she's totally different.
Lexi is diagnosed with partial amnesia.. and she can't remember anything that happened after that fall in 2004. But one thing is for certain.. her life has completely transformed in the 3 years. She looks like a bombshell, drives a convertible mercedes, has a millionaire husband, and has also somehow becomes the boss of the department she used to works in!

Sophie Kinsella's writing is as addictive as ever in this book. It is a very light read and keeps you glued from the first page till the last. If you enjoy light reads I would totally recommend Kinsella's books to you..and this one for sure! If you've already read this one, I'd love to hear your comments!