Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Around the World in 7 books: Contemporary Classic Fiction

As a book lover and a book blogger, I get many requests for reading suggestions. I have an "armchair travels" project where I am trying to read a book from every single country in the world. It is, of course, an ambitious life long project. Many have been inspired by it but request a "lite" version of the project. So I decided to put together this list of 7 books which will take you on a whirl wind tour around the world - with just one stop in each continent. Well, not exactly whirl wind - since this is a list of 7 contemporary classics (published in the mid to late 1900s). 7 fictional books that would leave a lasting impression in your mind. 7 books that will transport you effortlessly to the place it is set in. 7 books that I have really enjoyed.

1. Africa - From Africa, I decided to go with a nigerian classic - Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). Readers will follow the life of the unforgettable Okonkwo - an Igbo leader in Nigeria.The book is divided into three parts - the first describing his personal background and the latter two dealing with the british colonialism and the arrival of christian missionaries in Nigeria and how "things fall apart" with these changes.

2. Asia - One of the most memorable books I have ever read is Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1991). The book is almost a saga - a detailed family history of sorts detailing the lives of three generations of women - a grandmother, a mother and finally the daughter. It is set in China. It is biographical in the descriptions of the lives of Chang's mother and grandmother; and autobiographical in Chang's narration of her own life.

3. Europe - After much deliberation, I picked Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Against the backdrop of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s, the book tells the complicated tangled romantic relations between a womanizing surgeon, his wife whom he dearly loves, his mistress and the man who faithfully loves her (the mistress). Kundera's writing effortlessly sweeps you in to the book and merges the political background with the storyline so seamlessly that it becomes difficult to differentiate the two.

4. North America - I might be prejudiced since I live in Atlanta, Georgia, but my first pick for a contemporary classic set in North America is Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936). The unforgettable romance between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler needs no introduction. The book is set against the backdrop of the american civil war and its aftermath in the south. It is a pulitzer prize winning novel.

5. South America - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). This colombian masterpiece is an epic. a saga of seven generations of one family - the Buendias. The patriarch of the family Jose Buendia establishes the fictional town of Macondo and the book follows his life and the lives of the six following generations. Marquez sprinkles magical realism generously throughout the book and amidst ghosts and misfortunes plaguing the family, he tells us the story of Colombia.

6. Oceania - Colleen McCullough's Thorn Birds (1977) is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the vast wilderness that is Australia. When she is really young, Meggie Cleary moves to Australia with her parents and older brothers to live with her aunt. The book follows Meggie's life from childhood all the way to old age in Australia - the happenings on the ranch, the complicated relationships, some life long friendships and love. This is another epic saga spanning three generations.

7. Antarctica - Alfred Lansing's Endurance : Shackleton's Incredible Voyage (1959). In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton leads a group of people on an ambitious expedition - an attempt to cross the antarctic continent. The ship they were on, Endurance, crashed in the violent waters and stranded the entire crew on ice. This is the story of how Shackleton sends most of the crew safely to Elephant Island, continues with a smaller subset to Saint George Island and eventually rescues the ones in Elephant Island. Endurance is one of the most gripping novels I've read!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: Anna and the Swallow Man

Author: Gavriel Savit
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 Stars

Every book lover knows and understands the irrational feeling of falling in love with a book at first sight. Sometimes it is a promising title, sometimes it is a gorgeous cover, sometimes it is an interesting blurb at the back promising an unforgettable story, sometimes it is a combination of these. Very rarely do you come across a book where it is all 3. Anna and the Swallow Man was one of those rare ones. A book that made me ignore every other book on my TBR pile. A book that I just HAD to read the minute I received a review copy in the mail. And of course, the Young Adult tag only added to the allure. I am a huge fan of young adult novels! I happy to say that the book lived up to its promise.

Anna is a 7 year old girl living with her linguistics professor father in 1939 Krakow, Poland. When he is summoned to a meeting suddenly one morning, he leaves Anna in the care of a friend and heads to the university unaware that he's being rounded up with other Jewish intellectuals by the Nazis. The "friend", when he realizes what's happened, takes Anna back to her building to save himself. When Anna slowly comes to terms with her father's disappearance, she runs in to a strange man - multilingual like her dad but very mysterious. The swallow man takes her 'under his wing' and together they begin a journey in the quest of a "beautiful rare bird". The swallow man masks the gruesomeness of Nazi occupation and the German, Russian attacks on Poland in a metaphorical story in the beginning but eventually as the years pass, he's unable to hide Anna from the reality. Beneath the cool, calculated, mysterious nature of the swallow man, there is an undeniable soft spot for the little girl he rescued from the streets of Poland. So much that he's ready to tag along a jewish musician that Anna found and became attached to. 

Savit's writing is like poetry. There is a hint of a magical realism element to his story that is appealing. The innocence of Anna, the mystery surrounding the swallow man and the tragedy of the war are all very nicely depicted in the book. 

Towards the end, the tightness in the story line slips a bit. Anna and her friends seem travel aimlessly and the quest for the metaphorical bird seems to be forgotten. It's hard to see Anna beyond the 7 year old that she is in the beginning of the book. 

But in spite of the minor slips, this is a fantastic read. A great debut novel by the very talented Gavriel Savit. I can't wait to read more of his writing. I definitely recommend Anna and the Swallow Man!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Book: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Author: Jackie Copleton
Genre: Cultural Fiction
My Rating: 4 stars

About the Book:

When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?

My Views:

I love cultural fiction especially those set in Japan. But this book was different from everything else I've read until now because the story revolved around the after effects of the bombing of Nagasaki on one particular family. Kenzo and Amaterasu live a calm peaceful life in Nagasaki with their daughter Yuko until a chance discovery of a drawing sends their life spinning in a direction none of them expected. I really enjoyed reading this book because it was almost like peeling an onion.. peeling each layer just revealed another layer under it - another slight twist in the tale, another direction turned. It was a definite page turner. Copeland's characters are very well defined and the story line has the perfect pace and has no plot holes. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel. With the majority of the novel set against the backdrop of the world war and japan's role in it, a passionate yet forbidden romance, a complicated relationship between a protective mother and her daughter and secrets that could tear relationships apart - this novel appeals to so many of my reading interests. You are pulled in to the solitary life of Amaterasu and slowly discover that there's much much more to her than just the grief that she's been living with.

I very highly recommend this book to anyone interested in cultural fiction, historical fiction and high drama romance novels.