Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Namesake By Jumpa Lahiri

Jumpa Lahiri has done it again. After her marvelous debut short story collection titled Interpreter Of Maldies, she has delivered The Namesake (now a Hollywood movie as well). If anyone had any doubt her talent after reading Interpreter Of Maladies, they would be surely removed once they finish The Namesake. The way she builds her characters early in the novel through short story type episodes and then weaves unexpected turns of events all through the novel is truly amazing and refreshing to read in today’s fiction writing.

The Namesake Jumpa Lahiri

Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli are immigrants to Boston from India when they give birth to their son. Their son ends up with the name of Gogul, just because his "good name" never arrives from his grandmother in India. Gogul hates his name and grows up as American as he can while his parents stick to their Bengali past. The unfortunate Gogol is tethered to this dual Indian-American life, never quite fitting anywhere. At first he shifts to Americanization, pushing aside the Indian rituals. But after a number of relationship failures and some few successes, Gogol is attracted to the comfort of his heritage. His perspective changes dramatically over the course of events, especially when he sets a bond with his father as well as the name given to him.

Jhumpa Lahiri has written a wonderful novel about immigrant lives, families, and bonds that can never be broken. Gogol’s story is actually a simple one, as lived by many Indians in America. This is surely one of the best ones in recent times.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies By Jumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories by Jumpa Lahiri. It won the prestigious Pulitzer prize for fiction in year 2000. It is Jumpa Lahiri's debut and it tries to capture the dilemmas of Indian immigrants and their identity crisis with themselves. The stories are mostly set in America and India.

Interpreter of Maladies Jumpa Lahiri

The short stories are titled as
A Temporary Matter
When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
Interpreter of Maladies
A Real Durwan
Mrs. Sen's
This Blessed House
The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
The Third and Final Continent

This is a remarkable collection from one of the most promising Indian American writer. The way Jumpa Lahiri makes the reader relate to her stories characters is hard-to-believe and need-to-read-to-understand. To write a short story is not an easy thing to do - there is such a short time to build a story and take it to its peak. But Jumpa Lahiri does this wonderfully. Although her message is through the lives of Indian immigrants but it could be globally related - that is the beauty of it - you do not need to understand Indian culture, aspiration, society and mentality to understand her stories.

Surely, worth a read. Short story-telling at its best in some of the stories.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

Notes From A Small Island is a travelogue by Bill Bryson about his farewell journey through England, Wales and Scotland before leaving for U.S. so that to "give his children the opportunity to live in another country, his wife the ability to go shopping after 10 P.M., and rescue Americans from the delusion that they were being abducted by aliens" (all is his own words). He travels through his adopted homeland by rail, bus or foot and captures, as usual, the details wherever he goes.

notes from a small island bill bryson

The best part about Bill Bryson is his eye for detail and his laugh-out-loud humor. This book has the details part intact but the laugh-out-loud factor is somewhat subdued. If you are truly a Bill Bryson fan, you will be a little disappointed by this one - at least I was. The book is more about his experiences rather than the history, people and other local things for the places he visits. Also, the second part of the book goes rather boring with his same type of rant about hotels he stays in, strange place names, identical places etc. Maybe it is because, as he says, there is everything identical in all the British places.

Overall, single time read. Not as good as "Walk in the Woods" or "Down Under" but still it has its own moments.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Transmission By Hari Kunzru

Hari Kunzru's Transmission is a wonderful, witty yet thoughtful fictional novel about an Indian programmer who dreams of working in US, gets the opportunity, but finds it hard to survive there. It is a story about a computer virus, the man behind it and its effect on the global economy. It is also a satire on American culture and its technology dependence by means of the main protagonist's journey as well as other characters.

The main protagonist, Arjun Mehta, is a computer programmer & bollywood movie buff, who lands into his dream - working in Silicon Valley. But once he reaches there, he realizes that the reality is very different from the dream. His job is not what he desired and working is part time. Living in nearly poverty, he lands into a job at an antivirus company. When job cuts in the company threaten his job as well, he devises a plan - to create a virus named after his favorite bollywood actress, unleash it on internet and then become a hero by finding a "cure" for it. Unfortunately, he can't, and the things go out of his hand - the virus threatens the whole world economy and brings a lot of disgrace for his favorite bollywood actress as well.

Although the characters are shallow and the focus is more on their plight as well as satire over American culture, I feel this book is worth a read. Not as good as "The Impressionist" but still readable - easy read and funny.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"White Mughals" By William Dalrymple

"White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-century India" is a marvellous non-fictional work by Dalrymple. The sheer detailness and vastness of the subject shows meticulous research done by William Dalrymple for this book.

The book is set in late 18th century and early 19th century India and tells the romantic affair and marriage between James Achilles Kirkpatrick, East India Company resident in Nizam's Hyderabad, and Khair-un-Nisa, a Hyderabadi nobleman's grand-daughter. I think I have put it very much in simple terms but this book is more than this love affair. It is a research into complex East India working during those early days as well as a research into their complex administrators and office bearers. It is a research into cultural, religious and political state-of-affairs from Indian perspective. It is a research into Nizam's & Maratha's political clout at that time as well as English and French impact on it. The book is solely based on historical archives from those times - never once Dalrymple tries to put unnecessary words into the main character's mouth. It is really a remarkable feat considering the sensational nature of the topic itself.

A great book and must read for anyone who likes to read about Indian history as well as Anglo-Indian legacy with East India Company.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eating India By Chitrita Banerji

"Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices" is a book by food writer Chitrita Banerji about Indian cuisine, its evolution and present state of affairs. It is a wonderfully written book much like a travelogue - or a culinary travelogue. It is a journey filled with food culture across India - from the backwaters of Kerala to the Saffron fields of Kashmir. The most important aspect of this book is her attempt to cover obscure food traditions as well from the Parsis or Jews of India. Really a credible attempt.

For all the people who love good food and love knowing more about what they eat, this book will be worth a read. If you think you know a lot about Indian food then read this book to prove yourself wrong (at least I was proved wrong). The author has covered various aspect of Indian food which we are not aware of - like the impact of Portuguese, French, Dutch and obviously English waves in Indian history. It also touches upon the geographies, local customs, history and people of certain regions and the impact of all these factors on that region's cuisine.

If you are food lover, do read this book.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Three Cups Of Tea By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Very seldom one comes to reading inspirational non-fiction at its best. This book is one of them. If you are reading this review and have not read the book yet, my advice to you to read this one. It is not high on its literary merit but its on the top for its inspirational value. Tegu recommended this book to me and what a recommendation it has been. Thanks Tegu for this one...

This book is one man’s story about fighting poverty, cultural divide and educate girls in some of the remotest corner of Pakistan and Afganistan. It is also this man's answer to the increasing terrorism in these areas - as he says, for every child going into regular school (not extremist schools) he is reducing the terror factor. The man, Greg Mortenson, is a ex-army medic and a mountaineer. During this failed attempt to scale world's second highest peak, K2, he lands into a rather forgotten region of the Karakoram Mountains. And begins the extraordinary journey to defeat poverty and terrorism, one school at a time, in these areas. Inspired by the need to give back to the villagers who cared for him a lot, Greg starts a mission to build schools for the children. And then it spreads from one village to another, till the time it becomes a full fledged humanitarian organization called Central Asia Institute building schools, bridges, water systems, and vocational centers. Although he faces lots of personal, financial & political obstacles, Greg Mortenson works his way through them and is still delivering to people not just in Pakistan but also in Afganistan. And during his course, he is also shattering the very negative views people have about this region. Not every child is terrorist here as is usually projected.

This book would make you think before saying, "What difference can one make?” Read this book for not how it is written, read it for what it has been written.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is truly one of the classics. Jane Austen wrote a number of books, and this particular one was published in 1813 (yes, you read that right, this was almost 2 centuries back). A romantic book with a flavor of comedy, Pride and Prejudice has remained popular throughout, and has inspired many a movie to be made on the story (the latest starring Keira Knightley & Matthew Macfadyen). However, nobody should believe the book to be a classic version of a Mills & Boon type romance novel; the story brings out the England of the time, the class distinctions, the pressures on a family at that point. Most critically, the heroine of the novel is not a girl wont to swoon romantically, but a girl with pride.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The novel has a very famous line right at the beginning, a line that can be easily quoted and remembered: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife". Such a line may seem strange in today's politically correct world, but in the world of the book, it was very true. The description of the England of the time, where a man with a fortune is seen to be a good catch is combined with the sheer drama and emotion of social interactions (calling it hypocrisy is not out of the question). And it's not only the 2 main characters who build the story, but a whole host of characters from different social strata and with different motives who make the story to be a much better one.
The story is set in a small English county village where the Bennet's (a family, not rich, live with the parents and 5 daughters). Mrs. Bennet aim in life is to see her 5 daughters marry comfortably, so when the rich Mr. Bingley and his richer friend Mr. Darcy come visiting, they are the center of attraction. However, the 2 friends are a contrast, with Mr. Bingley seemingly a well natured man, enjoying the attention of all, particularly the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane. Darcy, on the other hand, is more of a man full of himself, and soon starts to put off people, especially the second elder Bennet daughter, Elizabeth (and the main heroine of the story). Soon, because of a quirk of fate (Jane's illness while visiting the Bingley's), Elizabeth comes to stay at a place that Darcy visits, and he continues to fall for her. However, a soldier, George Wickham narrates to Lizzy an injustice done to him by Darcy, and the estrangement is complete.
Elizabeth has already a rich suitor after her (her cousin Mr. Collins who will inherit the Bennet property), but she declines to the horror of her mother. In addition, when Mr. Darcy proposes to her, she declines as well (no doubt helped by the fact that she finds his proposal style as pretty insulting and imperious). What compounds matter is the fact that it was Darcy who persuaded Bingley against going ahead with his relationship with Jane. This is the high point of their separation. However, things slowly turn for the better. He hands her a letter that tells her that some of her thoughts were incorrect, and he also tells her the truth about Wickham.
Later, she meets him in another location, and she feels him to be distinctly warmer. What makes the relationship much closer is when Darcy helps in finding Wickham and her younger sister Lydia (they have run away together), and then persuades Wickham to marry Lydia. Now Lizzy feels much closer to Darcy, and what makes them get together again is when Darcy persuades Bingley and Jane to get together again.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

I'll admit it right away, there are many of Bill Bryson's books that I really liked. I had read some of Bryson's later books before I read this one, so there was always the thought that maybe his earlier books would not have the same level of humour, and the great style of writing that I always liked. Well, I felt great while reading the book and did not regret it one bit. He writes a lot about travel and adventure, while presenting a great deal of information. And to tell the truth, I had not heard of the Appalachian Trail before reading this book; by the time I had finished, I knew a great deal more. And it was not only me; after this book was published in 1998, there was an upsurge in interest about the trail, with a lot more people wanting to hike the trail.

A walk in the woods - Bill Bryson
The book is about the attempt by the author and his old college buddy, Stephen Katz, to walk the 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail from start to finish. Neither of the 2 is in top physical condition, with Katz in a much worse physical condition. By the end, neither of them has done anything like what they attempted to do, having covered a very small section overall of the trail (and for which the book was criticised to some extent, as a travel book that did not even cover the whole trail).
In addition, the book was also criticized to a large degree because of the depiction of fellow hikers, with the author having been accused of turning them into absurdities.
However, the fact remains that this is not just a travel book. The book is not supposed to be a guide for traveling the trail, instead it is a humorous depiction of a journey, with the focus on the effort and the adventures while on the trail. The book is chock full of humour that makes you laugh, and makes you want to read more. About the travel of the author with his old friend, the entire adventure from the start (preparing what to take, and what to discard), and how whether their physical condition is adequate for the trip that they are considering.
The fear of bears, and maybe of mountain lions, is apparent in the writing, and the time where the author described how a bear came into the camp makes for some riveting reading. The book also tries to explain a lot of geological information (how the mountains and its various aspects came into existence), how the trail was formed due to the efforts of 2 dedicated people, and a lot about the fauna and flora along the trail. You also get to read a lot about the various stops, towns, and fellow hikers that they meet when on the trail.
The only time when the book deviates from the light reading and humour is when you can perceive the author's anger against the mismanagement of the trail by various administrative bodies such as the Parks and Forest Services of the federal Government, as well as the ineptitude of the US Army Corps of Engineers. He is downright hostile to their mismanagement, and when you read the way in which the information is presented, you can tend to agree with him.
Overall, this is a book that is worth reading, and you might find yourself chuckling along with the author.