Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Valeria's Last Stand

Book: Valeria’s Last Stand

Author: Marc Fitten

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

My short review: A light and mildly entertaining read set in a fictional village in Hungary.

Marc Fitten’s ‘Valeria’s Last Stand’ is a geriatric fairy tale. Yes, you heard me right. Cupid strikes and hormones rage amongst the elderly population in an all-but-forgotten Hungarian village. In a typical rustic folk-lore fashion, the men are referred to by their professions. We have the potter at the center of the tale. A relatively silent widower who is used to minding his own business but manages to stay favorable in the villagers eyes thanks to his generous wedding gifts. The potter is involved with the boisterous owner of the tavern down the street from his workshop – Ibolya. Ibolya’s is the only tavern in the village and is the “hang-out” spot for most of the older men who spend their days there drooling over Ibolya’s raised skirts and open shirt buttons. Ibolya’s plan to maintain an “open relationship” with the potter backfires when an unexpected romance blooms between the potter and the village hag – Valeria.

Valeria was once a beauty – the village belle. But a romance gone bad and a lifetime of loneliness makes her mean, condescending and distrustful of everyone around her. She is the only one to even give the village locksmith his business in an otherwise trusting place. She locks up every door and even every drawer! She is a perfectionist – her house is spic and span and her vegetable garden bears the best vegetables. But since she expects the same degree of perfection from the others as well, her routine visits to the market are a nightmare to other vendors whose produce are not necessarily as perfect. She can spot a rotting vegetable from a mile and would make sure to point it out in her loud mouthed manner. She is universally hated and doesn’t really bother about it until one fine day, in the market, she suddenly and abruptly falls in love with the potter.

She rushes back home to clean up, wears a flowered skirt and a kerchief around her head and pedals away furiously towards the potter’s workshop to woo her man with a can of milk. This is the start of a romance that drives Ibolya mad with jealousy. The potter discovers that Valeria inspires him to create more than just utility pots and pans. Her inspiration makes him an artist!

The romantic triangle breaks the social balance of Zivatar. The villagers helplessly watch as the potter shuttles between Ibolya and Valeria. They are intrigued by Valeria’s distraction with the chimney sweep and even the mayor’s little indiscretion fails to divert their attention.

All this and more happens against the backdrop of Zivatar’s slow transformation. The greedy and ambitious mayor travels all over the world and there’s always talk of investors – there are plans to bring the railroads through Zivatar (the Mayor’s pet project), Korean investors are looking to open a television factory in Zivatar and the market suddenly sees bananas (a fruit new to the inhabitants of Zivatar).

Valeria’s Last Stand is different and entertaining. It will not make you drop everything else that you are doing and it fails to make a deep impression. It is a light read and the antics of the small village are entertaining. The language is simple and the author does a good job of creating a rural Hungarian atmosphere.

If you are looking for something light, this is a good book to consider. I definitely needed something completely different after “The Blue Notebook” and this was a perfect book for me to “recover” with.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: Friday Night Knitting Club

Book: Friday Night Knitting Club

Author: Kate Jacobs

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Short Review: A relatively light read with some unexpected turns.

The Friday Night Knitting Club is a story of friendship between some very different women who happen to visit the same yarn store in Manhattan’s upper west side.

When James breaks Georgia Walker’s heart and walks away from her life, she is completely shattered… and pregnant. With the help of close friend and mentor Anita, Georgia slowly builds her life around her daughter - Dakota and her passion – knitting. ‘Walker and Daughter’, the yarn store that she runs with Anita’s and Peri’s help, soon blossoms into a successful business. It attracts a wide range of customers. Some of the regulars start coming together at the same time and soon “The Friday Night Knitting Club” is formed.

There are a lot of characters in the book. Though they are unique people and completely different from each other, it took me a while to get them all in to my head. In the beginning, I had to constantly remind myself who each person was but slowly, I settled in to the rhythm of the book and the characters didn’t seem confusing anymore. I must accept that the characters are well developed. Kate has done a wonderful job of giving each one of the myriad of characters a unique personality and of course their own issues. Each woman is struggling with a different kind of a problem and somehow coming together as a group helps them all.

However, it is not just the regular customers that need support – the strong willed and successful Georgia Walker has issues of her own as well. James is suddenly back in town and wants to be an active part of Dakota’s (and Georgia’s?) life. To make matters worse, Georgia is suddenly forced to come face to face with Cat – a wealthy socialite who was once Georgia’s backstabbing best friend.

Unlikely friendships are formed in the club and the women support each other more than they expect. The Friday Night Knitting Club is more than just a collection of women with a single interest. It is a potpourri of cultures and relationship issues.

Though I enjoyed the book, I personally thought that it had so much more potential. Kate brings up so many cultural and relationship issues but lets them all fizzle out without giving it any definite shape. It was definitely a light and easy book to read and some unexpected turns do bring tears to your eyes but I kept feeling that she could have done so much more with the book!

Have you read this book? I am sure most of you must have already read it. There was a time in the middle when every blogger I knew was reading and raving about the Friday Night Knitting Club. I finally managed to get hold of a copy.

Anyways, do let me know what you thought of the book! And if you haven’t read it, you should give it a shot. Even if you are not a knitter.. yes! Don’t let the title and the front cover let you think this one is one only for the knitters!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: The Blue Notebook

Book: The Blue Notebook

Author: James Levine

My Rating: 4 Stars

My Review: A painful and disturbing book about child prostitution in India. Graphic descriptions and disturbing subject matter. Recommended only for adults.

I thought reading Lolita was hard. Reading about child predators and they way their mind worked scared me and it definitely wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Compared to the Blue Notebook, Lolita was a chick-lit!

The Blue Notebook is about Child Prostitution. James Levine, the author of the book is a doctor with the Mayo Clinic. As part of his work for the Clinic, he interviewed children in “The Street of Cages” – a famous prostitution street in Mumbai, India. While interviewing the kids, he was intrigued by a girl who sat outside her “cage” writing in a notebook. An in depth interview with the girl formed the basis of this novel.

Before I describe the book or my views of it, I have to mention that this book is only for adults. The descriptions are graphic and the subject matter is depressing (to say the least).

Batuk Ramsdeen was living with her family in a small village in Central India. When she was 9 years old, her father takes her Mumbai. Batuk is never warned about what she is getting in to. Her father takes her to meet someone and even before she realizes it, he leaves her never to return. And at that point, Batuk’s life changes forever. She is forced into prostitution. Her virginity is sold to the highest bidder; she is raped repeatedly until she breaks her defense; and she is beaten mercilessly by some of the customers. Her “nest” becomes her world. Batuk is an intelligent girl with a sense of imagination and that helps her get through her life. She imagines her “nest” to be a kingdom and her bed “the throne”. She uses euphemisms to describe what she has been forced to do. Even euphemisms cannot hide the sad state of affairs. When she finally gets her hand on a pencil, Batuk starts writing a journal. She writes about herself and her friend who lives in a nest two floors down – Puneet. Puneet is a pretty little boy who is eventually castrated to retain his “feminism” that he might have lost growing up. Batuk’s description of her life is somehow very detached. She writes about incidences, never about her feelings and emotions. I guess that was her way of dealing with her own. She never stopped to think about how she actually felt about the whole thing.

Batuk is not a character that you can identify yourself with. And she is not meant to be. At many parts in the book, she comes across as manipulative and cunning. Her character is in contrast to that of Puneet’s. Puneet is sweet and innocent and manages to retain a bit of the child in him despite everything that happens to him. Batuk on the other hand, is completely aware of her scenario. She is rational and uses almost “too adult” for her age. When she gets philosophical, it is hard to imagine that the words come from a teenager.

I must mention here that I found the ending of the book to be ambiguous. There is no explanation for the chain of events and you are left to form your own conclusions. I have to accept that I actually liked the way it ended. It just seemed very synchronous with the world that Levine was trying to introduce us to.

There is no pretty way to say Batuk’s story. As much as I found this extremely hard to read (I cried and had to put the book down several times because it was too unbearable!), I must accept that James Levine has done a fabulous job. The writing is beautiful. In spite of the heavy subject matter, Levine’s writing helps you get through the book easily. It is not distracting and lets you immerse yourself in a world that you wish didn’t exist.

I would definitely recommend this book. It is most definitely not an enjoyable read but it’ll definitely help you become more “aware” and I can assure you, you’ll be a changed person when you are done with this book.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Book: The Boy who Harnessed the Wind

Author: William Kamkwamba with Bryan Mealer

Genre: Memoir

My Rating: 5 Stars

My Short Review: An amazing and very inspiring book about a boy who built his own wind mill! A must read for everyone – not just book lovers!

What severe drought conditions struck Malawi, 14 year old William Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school because his father didn’t have enough money to pay his school fees. William helped his father in the Maize field. But farming is not a year round work and there were periods when there was nothing that he had to do. Instead of whiling away time like other school drop-outs, William went to the library to learn what he was missing out in school. William was always curious about science and was already taking radios and cycle dynamos apart to figure out their working by this time.

From the library books, he came across electricity concepts. He learnt how the mysterious dynamo in the cycles worked to light the bulb. Concepts that baffled engineers seemed simple to this high school drop out.

In Masitala, a small village in Malawi, there was no one that William could turn to help or advice. Better still, there was no one to tell him that 14 year old boys didn’t go around building windmills. So that is exactly what he did.

William was perturbed about the fact that there was no electricity in most houses in his village. It cost a lot to get a power line to supply electricity to your place and even then, the constant power cuts made the expense worthless. He saw pictures of windmills and read about how they were used to harness the wind energy and produce electricity. If there one thing that his village wasn’t lacking, it was wind. William scoured the local scrap yard for discarded stuff – motors, wires, nuts, bolts, etc and two months later, he had his very own working windmill! I am definitely not kidding! A 14 year old boy in the middle of nowhere in Africa built his own windmill just by reading about it in books and using scrap that he found around him! That is pure genius!!
Luckily, the genius was discovered and we now have a chance to get to know this super-brain! Thanks to all the aid he’s been getting, William went back to school to complete his education and is now working towards like life easier for his family and friends in Malawi.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is William’s story in his own words. The first half of the book describes the simple lifestyle of William and his family in rural Malawi – a land filled with poverty as much as it is filled with superstitions and blind beliefs. William describes the pitiful conditions caused by the famine and some of the descriptions brought tears to my eyes. Then he goes on to describe what he learnt and how he built the wind mill. William talks about AC/DC/Transformers/Voltage, etc like he was talking about chicken and maize plants! These complicated terms did not baffle him one bit! I remember all those sleepless nights I spent during my engineering days cursing my decision to learn stuff that didn’t seem relevant to me at all! All that I needed was electricity. Why did I have to care about how I got it? Reading this book has given me a new perspective. It has made me see my knowledge and education in a new light!

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. The achievements of William Kamkwamba are not small. He deserves all the recognition he’s getting and even more!
Willaim’s bok “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind” co-written with Bryan Mealer is coming out on September 29. I think you should pre-order this book right now and read it definitely!

You can read more about William in his blog here.