Showing posts from 2013

The Summer Book

By Tove Jansson A remote island, one of many in the Finnish archipelago, is the setting for Tove Jansson’s lovely little The Summer Book. Sophie and her grandmother, inhabit the island in the Scandinavian summer. They spend their hours building Venetian castles, writing a book about angleworms, discussing God, Heaven and Hell, superstitions. They squabble, make up, squabble again.They entertain visitors, take in a cat, worry about storms, swim, take a boat out to another island. The summer seems long and endless but the island is filled with fascinating things to wonder about, work on and watch. “A small island, on the other hand, takes care of itself. It drinks melting snow and spring rain and, finally dew, and if there is a drought, the island waits for the next summer and grows its flowers then instead. The flowers are used to it, and wait quietly in their roots. There’s no need to feel sorry for the flowers, Grandmother said.” The island is a character in itself.
Sophie’s father is …


By Colum McCann
“When you get up to sit with God or the devil you can curse them both for me. This god-awful manufacture of blood and bone. This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers.” The war in question is the Irish conflict. It is a conflict that has been documented well in English literature. Yet it is one that is unfamiliar to me in a very fundamental way - and I have to go back to google to pick up the bits and pieces of that history that McCann litters his Booker-nominated novel with. Which is probably the reason the book does not grab me the way his Let the Great World Spin did. Lily, Emily, Lotty, Hannah - four generations of women who live through love, loss, pain, loneliness, joy. This is their story, set against the larger political backdrop of Irish (and North American) history. The Irish famine, the civil war in America, the waves of Irish immigration to America, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the peace process… it’s all in there. Through it all, the first…

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

Grief. It’s the primary emotion underlying the book. Everything is tinged with it - even the most evocative descriptions of beautiful landscapes - warm, marshy Tollygunge in Kolkata in the ‘70s, the harsh yet gorgeous Rhode Island coast. This is my first Jhumpa Lahiri and the emotion doesn’t surprise me. I watched The Namesake and saw the same. 

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in the Kolkata of the sixties. It’s a middle class childhood spent playing football in the fields beyond the lowland that flooded in the monsoon, sneaking into the exclusive Tollygunge Golf Club in the neighbourhood, spying Bengali actresses outside Technician's studio, working hard at their lessons in school. Subhash, older by a year  is the conventional, timid brother; Udayan the quick and impulsive one. While Subhash is content to let things flow, Udayan questions, prods, pushes. As they move into college, their lives diverge irrevocably.
The Naxalite movement in the ‘70s alway…

Forbidden Kingdom no more

7 days in Bhutan
Bhutan, the land of the Thundering Dragon, the last Shangri La, the Forbidden Kingdom, the place time forgot. Well, it’s not quite all that in the summer of 2013. There was wireless in almost every hotel and restaurant we went to. The TV had more channels than Tata Sky gives me at home. Mobile phone penetration was nearing 100%. Hindi film songs and the Indian Army were ubiquitous. Jeans and sneakers and Starbucks-style coffee shops seemed the norm in Thimpu.. There is a construction boom as the Bhutanese build newer hotels and homes everywhere. And they are a democracy - that most modern of political theories.

Yet, people still talked of that quaint term, Gross National Happiness as something real. They wore the traditional gho and kira. They seem to love their kings, especially the one who abdicated - K4, they call him. They still have an amazing 70% of their land under forest  cover. Dzongs and lakhengs continue to be important hang-out joints (as opposed to malls). …

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

By Mohsin Hamid I am not a fan of Mohsin Hamid. I didn’t quite get the character of the Reluctant Fundamentalist and so couldn’t quite believe in its plot (Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier was a more credible and affecting exposition of a liberal Muslim turning fundamentalist, even though it wasn’t Nagarkar’s best work). And I could not get past the first fifty pages of Moth Smoke. The title of Hamid’s latest though, was intriguing. And it does turn out to be the best of his three books, in my opinion. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not a story that’s not been told before. In fact, it so totally recalls Adiga’s White Tiger that you can’t but help compare the two. Both have protagonists that feed off South Asia’s liberalized economies and climb out of debilitating poverty to a measure of wealth unbelievable a generation ago. Both use forms of storytelling a tad too clever, but which make an already engaging story even more so. But it’s been a few years since we read Adiga. And …

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean RhysAntoinette Cosway is a Creole, meaning a person of French descent, in the West Indies. She comes from a stock of slave-owning European settlers, who are left quite high and dry, when slavery is abolished. Her father dies, leaving her, a mentally incapacitated younger brother and her mother Annette, the Coulibri Estate, near Spanish Town in Jamaica. It is an impoverished existence they live; fearful of the resentful freed slaves, never completely belonging to the land that has become suddenly hostile, yet not knowing of any other place to go. But her mother is young and pretty and manages to marry a rich Englishman Mason, who is willing to lavish her and her children with his wealth and love. But when the Coulibri Estate is burned down by former slaves, and her brother dies, her mother goes insane. The effect of all this on Antoinette is quite devastating. The only thing constant for her is her sense of the place; it is a sense that even the hostility of the locals does not…

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

By Paolo Giordano (Translated from Italian by Shaun Whiteside) A prime number is of course indivisible by anything other than one and itself. Giordano describes them as numbers standing aloof and apart from the rest, their tracks running parallel to but never meeting the other prime numbers.And in his debut novel, he creates two characters, Alice and Mattia, investing in them the same characteristics of prime numbers – the apartness, the solitude, the parallel tracks. Alice and Mattia are severely damaged people. Alice, who never gets over a skiing accident as a child that leaves her scarred and limping, grows up anorexic and unable to fit into a normal world. Mattia, who leaves his retarded identical twin sister in a park, out of a childhood fear of embarrassment, loses her forever. He is a mathematical genius, but this childhood trauma never leaves him, and he grows up hurting himself with knives and burns, unable to fit into any semblance of a normal life. Alice and Mattia find each o…
The Heart of the MatterGraham Greene
I visited Greeneland after years. And I am struck by how much an outdated religious sensibility still has the power to affect. Scobie is a police officer in an obscure African colony during the war. The Vichy French are neighbours and a clandestine trade in industrial diamonds means an air of suspicion hangs around the colony. Colonial Africa is a character as much as any of the others – the heat, the colonials with their ‘boys’ and pink gin and the club and the gossip and their deference to hierarchy. Scobie is a good man, an honest police officer, with a faded wife and a genuine love of the land and people he has governed for over 15 years. He is also a converted Catholic and that proves the defining characteristic taking the story forward. Pity and sympathy are Scobie’s routes to love. He loves his wife Louise best when he is able to pity her disappointment at his not getting a promotion (something that does not really bother him). So, to accommoda…