Monday, April 4, 2011

The Good Daughter by Jasmin Darznik

Title: The Good Daughter – A memoir of my mother’s hidden life

Author: Jasmin Darznik
Genre: Memoir
My Rating: 4 Stars

After her father’s death, Jasmin Darznik comes across an old photograph – it is a wedding day picture of her mom, Lili. But, with shock, Jasmin realizes that this picture is very different from the one that she’s seen hanging in the various houses she’s been in. For one, Lili is much younger and secondly, the man in the picture – not her dad!

Jasmin had not realized that her mom had a history that she was not aware of. And when she initially questioned her mom – all that she got in response was silence.

Later, however, Lili sent her a series of audio tapes in which she describes her childhood in Iran, her first wedding and her life before she immigrated to America. Darznik has transformed the story in those tapes in to a fabulous book – The Good Daughter.

Having an Iranian friend and listening to tidbits of her life in Iran before the Islamic Revolution made me thirsty to read more and gain more knowledge about Iran and its culture. I read a few Iranian-American memoirs like Funny in Farsi by Firozeh Dumas and Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni. But, “The Good Daughter” stands out amidst other Iranian-American memoirs. For one, it is much richer in the details of life in Iran before and during the revolution. And while the others that I have read focus on dealing with being Iranian in America, Jasmin’s book focuses entirely on her mother’s life and life in Iran and her struggles of fitting in after moving to America.

The Iranian customs, traditions and lifestyles are woven seamlessly in to the story and without really realizing it, you get a complete Iran 101! Lili’s history is so interesting that the book almost feels like a fiction novel. I had to stop and remind myself that this was a true life story and that Lili was an actual person!

One thing that I expected from this book even before I started reading it was good writing. Jasmin is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Washington and Lee University and I knew that her novel had to been well written. I was not disappointed. The Good Daughter is very well written and a joy to read!

The only issue that I had with the book was the title and it’s relation to the book. The title “The Good Daughter” refers to the daughter that Lili left behind in Iran; her daughter from her first marriage; the daughter she was forced to abandon. Being the title character, I expected to read a lot more about Sara and Jasmin’s relationship with her. But that was not the case. Sara was a part of the book, but only a small part and I didn’t think she was “title-worthy”. That’s just my opinion.

And of course, I would have loved to see pictures – at least the photo of Lili’s first wedding; the discovery of which made this book possible.

But apart from that, all other aspects of this book are so fantastic that it definitely makes a wonderful read. After the beginning of each chapter, Jasmin includes a line or two from Lili’s tapes. Those lines were my favorite part of the book. Reading those lines, in Lili’s own words, made her more real to me.

I would definitely recommend this book. I totally enjoyed reading this book and I am sure everyone else will as well!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Palace in the old village - Tahar Ben Jelloun

Title – A palace in the old village

Author – Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translator – Linda Coverdale
ISBN - 9780143118473
Pages – 192
Rating - 4 Stars

Tahar Ben Jelloun is considered “Morocco’s greatest living author”. Although his first language is Arabic, all his literary works are in French. This particular book of his is his latest and I read the translated version. “A palace in the old village” is the story of Mohammed. He is an immigrant in France. He has lived and worked in France for almost 40 years but never considers it home. Home, for him, will always be the village that he grew up in. However, as expected, this is not the case with his children. They consider France home and do not share their dad’s fascination for the old village in Morocco.

After leading a rather monotonous 40 odd years in France, Mohammad suddenly has to face his biggest fear – retirement. Work in the automobile factory has been the only constant thing in his life. He hardly speaks to his wife and barely understands his children, their modern views and their irritation with his old-world values. Retirement, according to him, is almost synonymous with death. It is the point where life stops.

However, to win the battle against his retirement, Mohammed decides to focus on a goal – building a house in the old village and settling there with his entire family. He moves back to Morocco and, almost obsessively, starts construction on what will be the biggest and most opulent house in the village. And once the construction of the house is over, he begins to wait – wait for the day when all his children will return to the village to live in the palace he has built for them.

The penguin website describes the book as follows:

A Palace in the Old Village is not a Zolaesque exposé of the failings of French society. Rather, it is an intimate and affecting portrait of an immigrant facing retirement and the concomitant problems of identity it brings with it.

I definitely couldn’t describe it better.

For me, the book is divided in to two sections. The first section covers approximately the first eight chapters that takes place in a single evening. Mohammed sits down to pray and through his thoughts we learn everything about his life until now and his views on religion, work, family, etc. The second part is the rest of the book – which suddenly becomes very fast paced. This is the part where Mohammad decides to do something about his retirement and moves back to Morocco. Chronology is the not the only factor separating the two sections. Retirement brings about a change in Mohammed as well and it almost feels like you are reading about two different people in the two different sections. The Mohammed before retirement is a confident and his thought process is clear. He is a devout Muslim and faith plays a big role in his life. He has made the trip to Mecca and follows the teachings of his religion. But, at the same time, his views are “moderate”. He criticizes the views of jihadist imams. He feels secure in his role as the provider for the family. He doesn’t interact too much with his children and though he knows that they don’t understand him and his values, this doesn’t perturb him.

However, with the arrival of his retirement, there is a sea change in Mohammed’s character. Without the security of his job, he suddenly begins to realize, and fret about, his relationship with his children. He sees that they have becomes citizens of France, while he hasn’t. and of course, they have no ties to his native land. The clarity in this thoughts and ideas begins to blur. His life, reflecting his thought process, becomes haphazard. His blindly convinces himself that building a house in his village is the magical solution to all his problems. His goal blinds him to everything going on around him. He doesn’t see that the villagers don’t accept him as one of them. He is an outsider to them – a wealthy tourist. He doesn’t realize that his children would never leave their lives and come to live with him in Morocco. And while it is clear to everyone around him (and to the reader) that his is only preparing for disappointment and failure, he refuses to acknowledge this.

The book is very well written (as expected by an author nominated for the Nobel Prize!). It appears to be a very quick read with just a 192 pages of very simple writing but only when you start reading it do you realize the depth of the book. You are drawn to Mohammed. You understand him, feel sorry for him and wish he’d see what everyone else around him is seeing..

I enjoyed reading this book. This is not a usual ‘me’ kinda book. I prefer the fast paced ones that you just can’t put down. But I liked reading this one and I’d definitely like to read more of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s books. I only wish I knew French well enough to read the original and not the translations..

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: The Guide

Title - The Guide
Author - R. K. Narayan
Genre - Fiction
My Rating -5 Stars

R. K. Narayan is one of India’s beloved writers. He is one of the He wrote a series of novels and short stories about people in a fictitious town called Malgudi. The descriptions of the place and the characters are so real that it is hard to believe that a place called Malgudi never existed and the characters are just figments of imagination. Though I have read short stories written by him, The Guide was the first novel that I actually managed to get my hands on.

If you are not new to this blog, you’ll know that my favorite author is Salman Rushdie. I love his style of writing and I don’t minds spending days poring over the pages of his books and flipping back and forth to re-read what I just read, etc.
And I have to admit, I enjoyed reading R. K. Narayan almost as much as I enjoyed Rushdie. They are almost completely opposite in their styles of writing and I would never have thought I would enjoy both to almost the same extent.

The first thing that I found interesting about the book was the way Narayan delved right in to the life of Raju – the protagonist. I expected a few pages (or at least a few paragraphs) setting the stage for the book.
Narayan’s style of writing took me by complete surprise. There were no flowery descriptions, no superfluous words, no pretentious texts. The writing was simple and concise. And yet, somehow, you get everything you need to know about the people and the place! It is totally amazing! I have read books which are hundreds of pages long and finished them feeling like I didn’t know the characters well enough. But with The Guide, I was hardly three chapters in to the book and I already knew Raju!

The book revolves around Raju. In alternate chapters we see Raju in his present avatar – a spiritual guru and in the other chapters, we see the previous avatar – that of a tourist guide. The present story and the past story are slowly developed and finally merge in the final few pages of the book. There are very few main characters but they are all very well developed. Telling you anything more about the book will only take the fun out of the reading.. I enjoyed reading the book when I started out knowing nothing about it and I want you to have the same experience. I didn't like the cover art initially, but after reading the book, I appreciated the nuances in the depiction more.

And a review any longer threatens to be longer than the book itself;) obviously, I am no R. K. Narayan when it comes to brevity of writing..

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Unaccustomed Earth

Title: Unaccustomed Earth
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
My Rating: 4 Stars
Short Review: An interesting collection of short stories dealing with multicultural lives.

I read "The Interpreter of maladies" about 5 years ago and loved it. Then, I read Namesake, and though I found the theme repetitive, I still enjoyed the book. I hesitated before picking up The Unaccustomed Earth because I knew that Lahiri had again revisited the same theme - multicultural lives. Fresh-off-the-boat Indian parents, second generation kids that are caught between the values of the culture they are living in and values of the culture that their parents expect them to follow. How many different stories can you churn with the same theme?
Apparently, many! I was surprised when I picked up the book and realized that I was actually enjoying the book even though I had expected to find it repetitive. Lahiri manages to keep the stories interesting and the characters unique.
I usually prefer full length novels to short stories. Even before I understand the characters and get in to the feel, short stories are usually over and leave me feeling like something's lacking. But Lahiri somehow manages to keep the stories short and yet convey every little information that I require to "get into" the story.
At the end of the story, it feels like I've read a novel. I know the characters, I understand them well, I don't find the story incomplete.. I still yearn to read more about them but that happens with any good book, right? You don't want it to end.
The Unaccustomed Earth is a relatively quick read. The stories are longer than usual short stories but the language  flows beautifully and you are done with the book much before you actually want it to end.
I give it only 4 stars because I find the themes recurring. I wish Lahiri would explore new arenas. She is an amazing writer and I keep hoping she'd get out of her niche and experiment with a different subject.
What did you think of the Unaccustomed Earth?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Review: Moloka'i

Title: Moloka'i
Author: Alan Brennert
Genre: Fiction
My rating: 4.5 Stars
Description: A novel revolving around the fictitious life of Rachel Kalama who is "banished" to the leprosy settlement in the island of Molokai when she was 7 years old. 

On the island of Molokai in the Hawaiian archipelago is a little village called Kalaupapa. The first thought that comes to mind while thinking of a village in Hawaii is beauty. However, Kalaupapa is associated with a very "ugly" history. In the late 1800s, Hawaiians who had/were suspected of having lepsory were immediately isolated and kept in quarantine. If medical tests came back positive, the victims were immediately shipped away to Kalaupapa, which can been aptly described as "a prison fortified by nature". There was no escape from this settlement.Luckily, the colony soon attacted caretakers who were ready to take care of the patients in spite of the widespread belief that leprosy was a highly contagious disease.

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert is set in the village of Kalaupapa. 7 year old Rachel Kalama is diagnosed with the disease and is "banished" to the leprosy settlement.In this place where lives are supposed to end, Rachel's just begins. She leads as normal as life as possible in the village surrounded by victims in various stages of decline. Death is a common phenomenon and life is not taken for granted here. But amidst all the sickness and death, Rachel sees that the victims still live life to the fullest. She, like most others on the island, develops strong friendships, supports other in times of need, falls in love, indulges in favorite activities, and in general stays happy!

Molokai is an amazing book. It is really well written. I sobbed my way through the first part of the book - the cruel action of separating an innocent girl from her family was heart wrenching, the condition of the people on Molokai was appaling and I felt that things could only go downhill when Rachel was sent to Molokai. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. There was so much more to the place than just disease and death. Rachel grows up amidst people who love her.

The books ends in 1970 with the death of Rachel Kalama - but on a positive note. By this time, antibiotics have been developed to battle the bacteria and patients are no longer quarantined and sent to Kalaupapa.

I would definitely recommend this book. Even though this is a fiction, it is a well researched book and the facts about the leprosy settlement are accurate.

Have you already read this book? what are your thoughts? Did you like it as much as I did?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: Harry Potter

Title – Harry Potter – The Complete Collection (7 Books)
Author – J.K. Rowling
Genre – Fantasy

Well, this is not so much a review as a documentation of the fact that I have FINALLY gotten around to reading this much acclaimed set of books. I don't think anybody would need a introduction to the series.

I remember being a HP fanatic several years ago when the first few books came out. I read the first book as soon as it came out, loved it, couldn’t wait for the second book. When the second book came out, I re-read the first book (to get in to the HP mood all over again) and then read the second book. By the time the third book came out, I was beginning to lose interest in the series (more because of the wait involved between books than because of the actual content of the books). I wouldn’t have read the book if a dear friend had not convinced me to read it before dragging me to the theatre to watch the movie! And the rest of the books, I just didn’t read them! The world around raved and ranted about the books. Even those that weren’t too much in to books seemed to have read HP (or at least claimed to have done so!). I knew I’d eventually read them all. I wanted to wait until all the books in the series came out so I could read them all at once and not have to wait for a year or more to figure out what was going to happen next.

And finally, more than a decade after the first book came out, I accomplished what I wanted to. My husband gifted me the complete Harry Potter boxed set on my birthday last year ..:) And what better way to begin the New Years than this?? I started reading the books and just couldn’t put them down. I’d finish one book and pick the next one and continued reading it like one big giant HP book. Having a 9 month old to take care of, didn’t allow me to indulge in ways that I would have done earlier. My reading times were restricted to when I was either commuting or the precious minutes that I managed to sneak in before I slipped in to an unconscious state that only sleep deprived ones can achieve.. But I have no regrets. Reading the 7 books at a stretch (all 4,100 pages of it) was a very memorable experience.

What are your thoughts on the series?