Saturday, May 29, 2010

Very Valentine - Adriana Trigiani

Rating : 6/10

At first glance, this book has all the ingredients to make for a wonderful, engrossing read: shoes, romance, food and Italy. Sadly, the book wasn't as satisfying as it promised to be. The story of Valentine Roncalli, her family and how she tries to save their family business, The Angelini Shoe Company, from extinction is spread across more than 350 pages that go by with flair, but sometimes seem dragging.

One of the things that I adored about this book is the importance given to family bonding. The Roncalli and Angelini families are wonderful to read about. They have their fights and problems, but the obvious love, affection, friendly banter and teasing between them is precious. It's lovely to see an author write about the good side of families, after having read so much about dysfunctional families. The book is at its heartwarming best when it talks about Valentine and her family being there for each other in the best and worst of times. For me, this book was more about family, than about shoes or romance as one might assume it to be from its book cover or blurb.

Trigiani has a flair for creating excellent characters that you can relate to. The women in this book are varied, wonderful and fun to read about. The angle of Italian American families, of whom I've read very little about, is fascinating, as is the gorgeous description of food and shoes that Valentine designs. Description was a double-edged sword in this book.  I absolutely loved the descriptions of shoes and the process that goes into designing the perfect shoe. Even better were the glorious descriptions of food that made me hungry; this despite having buttery popcorn with me. By the end of the book, you will be longing for a huge bowl of pasta or risotto. 

Having said that though, description is also one of the problems I had with the book. Overt description of just about everything that doesn't really add up to the story, can annoy the reader and it lead me to skim some parts. I understand that Trigiani is trying to conjure images of the environment, but it just is so very overdone when she starts describing the hues of the sky, the river, the chair, the road, the process of making coffee etc. Crisp editing would have made Very Valentine something more than just a good book to read when one is bored.

Valentine's love interest is chef Roman Falconi and while I definitely wanted and even tried hard to be enchanted by this couple and their romance, it just wasn't possible as the two endlessly try to work out a balance between work and love. 

In conclusion, if the descriptions had not been overdone and if the story wasn't wayward, which I felt the first part to be, this book would have been a great pleasure to read. Maybe it's a personal thing, because I've seen a lot of bloggers give excellent reviews for Very Valentine. Give this book a try if you're in the mood for something light and delicious to read. I'm not sure I'll be picking the sequel to this book unless perhaps on a rainy day, when I'm bored beyond belief. 

I enjoyed the references to Austen-related things in the book. Sample this: 

'Why does Mom overdecorate everything?' I ask. 'Does she think if she keeps landscaping in the English style, Colin Firth is going to come over that wall and take a dip in the birdbath?' 

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

Rating: 6/10

I have heard so much about this book and naturally, I went into it with very high expectations and I will be honest and admit that I have mixed feelings about this book. Considered a classic of sorts, Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a haunting tale of the troubles and travails that the nameless narrator, the second wife of Maximilian de Winter, faces in the ominous house of Manderley. Mr. De Winter’s first wife Rebecca who died recently seems to have left herself in everyone’s memory as a perfect wife hard to compare to, let alone better.

If only the book had stayed with as much suspense, thrill and anticipation as its first line ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’, I would have adored the book. The book takes an uncomfortably long time to set up its main plot and more than 250 pages into the book, I was still wondering where the book was going.

Our nameless narrator, the new mistress of Manderley, is so timid, dull and frankly, spineless. She falls into traps laid by the horrid housekeeper Mrs. Danvers time and again. You can see those traps coming, almost certainly. Yet, our narrator does not. Many a time, she withholds vital information from her husband, which you know she ought to tell soon. As she says towards the end of the book:
“Had I made one step forward out of my own shyness, Maxim would have told me these things four months, five months ago”

Which is precisely my point. That would have cut short some repetitive emotions of the anger, helplessness, sadness and pain that she continues to feel seeing herself compared unfavourably to glamorous Rebecca and would have thereby made the book more crisp and thrilling. Anyway, once the main twist happens, though it happens late in the book, things pick up and the plot moves at a frenzied pace. I could not put down the book from that point onward until I finished reading it.

Du Maurier’s writing is sometimes too descriptive, but she is at her best with the characterisation of Rebecca. Rebecca is a character who stays with the reader long after the book is over, much like she stays with those people she knew at Manderley, even after her death. Her memory haunts, makes and breaks events in this book.

This is one of those books I’m looking forward to rereading, because it has a lot of layers that will be worth analyzing when I read it again. To sum it up, I definitely think Rebecca is worth reading, but I personally didn’t find it to be the absolutely amazing book that it is widely praised to be.

My edition of Rebecca has an ‘introduction’ by Sally Beauman, which I’m glad I foresaw would contain spoilers and didn’t read till I finished the book. I do hope publishers don’t include write-ups with spoilers before the story as an introduction! It would work so very well to read an essay about the book after we’re done reading the story, not as an ‘introduction’ which a lot of people might mistake as a spoiler-less overview or outline. I know I’ve done that mistake before!

P.S. Sorry for not posting much or commenting on other blogs in the past few days. My internet is horrid and till it gets back to normal, I'm afraid it will take time for me to catch up with things in the blogging world!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn - Betty Smith

Rating : 10/10


A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is one of those classics that everyone ought to read. The coming of age story of Francie Nolan and her family who lived in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the 1900s, this book is inspired by author Betty Smith's own childhood. Which is very evident when you read the book, because, one of the most stunning things about this book is its innate realism and honesty.

This is an epic tale of a poor family and the trials and tribulations they go through as they face life. There is room for a lot of tragedy, but the strong undercurrent of hope, hard work and optimism is unmistakable. Betty Smith creates a fantastic world, so real, so intricate and so unforgettable. Indeed, 50 pages into this long book and you're already feeling part of the Nolan family and you're eager to see how they fight their way through life. 

To put it simply, Betty Smith writes like a dream. She has a knack of analyzing emotional angles and relationships in such deceptively easy, simple words. I would read just about anything she writes, not just because of her witty style, but because of her ability to include just enough detail to fascinate the reader yet not create an overload of unnecessary information. Her take on societal norms and idiosyncrasies are wonderful and seem so natural and never forced. 

The best part about this classic is definitely its characters and their development. It is a remarkable achievement to create and chronicle some of the most vivid, memorable characters ever. Francie, her brother Neeley, father Johnnie Nolan, mother Katie and two aunts Sissy and Evy soon seem like people you know very well and you begin to care about them so much. Francie especially is a pleasure to read, though I loved the strong, almost unshakable will of her mother Katie and her loving yet flawed father Johnnie. After all, isn't that the true greatness of a book? When the reader is enthralled, captivated and pulled into a world whose inhabitants and environment they care about.

The book has a lot of lessons to teach, but does so in an elegant, matter of fact way without being preachy. Poverty is never easy and Betty Smith doesn't romanticise poverty, she humanises it through her unforgettable characters. Sample this quote:

'The lady talked as Francie backed awkwardly to her seat. She said: 'You've all seen an example of the true Christmas spirit. Little Mary is a very rich little girl and received many beautiful dolls for Christmas. But she was not selfish. She wanted to make some poor little Mary, who is not as fortunate as herself, happy. So she gave the doll to that poor little girl who is named Mary, too.'

Francie's eyes smarted with hot tears. 'Why can't they,' she thought bitterly, 'just give away the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich? Why couldn't they just give it away without all the talking about it?''

Smith takes you on a trip down memory lane because a lot of things that Francie and her family go through along the years are things we all know. She makes you so involved with the characters that you shed tears for them. Regardless of the immense tragedies that you read about in this book, you come away with a sense of hope, not loss. 

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is exactly what every good book ought to be: engaging, beautiful, emotional and unforgettable. It is also the kind of book you will go back to all the time, because it has something to share with you at every point of your life. Don't deny yourself the wonderful journey that this book offers!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thursdays With Tagore - May 20

Every Thursday, I shall read one of Tagore's poems as translated in this book or some other poem I can find. I shall post some lines from the poem and perhaps a detail of how I liked this poem or not. Any others who want to join in this meme are absolutely welcome to do so!

The Gift

I want to give you something, my child, for we are drifting in the
stream of the world.
    Our lives will be carried apart, and our love forgotten.
    But I am not so foolish as to hope that I could buy your heart
with my gifts.
    Young is your life, your path long, and you drink the love we
bring you at one draught and turn and run away from us.
    You have your play and your playmates. What harm is there if
you have no time or thought for us!
    We, indeed, have leisure enough in old age to count the days
that are past, to cherish in our hearts what our hands have lost
for ever.
    The river runs swift with a song, breaking through all
barriers. But the mountain stays and remembers, and follows her
with his love.

I spent about an hour trying to decide which of the several wonderful Tagore poems I read ought to be posted this week. I kept going back to this poem because it is just so tender, loving, moving and wonderful. Of all relationships, the parent-child one is very special, emotional and has a lot of potential to write about. And Tagore, in the simplicity of his words in this poem, more than captivates the reader. The last three metaphorical lines are absolutely brilliant and made my day:

The river runs swift with a song, breaking through all
barriers. But the mountain stays and remembers, and follows her
with his love.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Confessions Of A Shopaholic - Sophie Kinsella

Rating: 9/10

Sometimes, it's all about finding the right book for the right mood. Confessions Of A Shopaholic, for instance, was a lifesaver. I had a horrid day and was in need of something to cheer me up. TV didn't help, so I picked up this book and read it in a matter of three hours. I laughed out loud, had fun and absolutely loved the book. If there is ever a need to find a book with an equation for perfect chick-lit, Confessions Of A Shopaholic is the best bet.

The plot is simple and sometimes, the details are repetitive: Financial journalist Becky Bloomwood who hates her job, has a major weakness - shopping. And it's gotten her into big trouble with her bank manager. How Becky manages to get herself out of the messy situations she finds in, a la Bridget Jones, makes for a relentlessly hilarious read. 

I'm not really obsessed with shopping and there were a lot of times when Becky did things I never would have. Things that made me want to run inside the book, stop her and say 'What are you doing??' But Kinsella walks a fine line between creating an irritating character and an endearing one and successfully makes Becky seem like that friend you had, who made a couple of stupid mistakes and made you reprimand them. Not because they're irritating, but because you really like them and don't want them to get into problem after problem.

Kinsella is fast becoming my favourite chick-lit author, on par with Meg Cabot. Her heroine in this book is hilariously written and she gets into a lot of scrapes which she tries to get out of with loads of hilarity. The writing is crisp, laden with popular culture references and is a perfect summer read to treat yourself to! Though it may make you want to run off to the mall to do some shopping. And will probably help you keep in mind the downside of spending a lot, without seeming preachy about it.

Talking about this book without mentioning its charming hero Luke Brandon, would almost be a sin. He was great to read about and perfect to gush about! I haven't seen the movie yet, but just the fact that Hugh Dancy is playing Luke Brandon makes me want to watch it right away.

In all, Confessions Of A Shopaholic was worth reading and lives up to all the hype surrounding it. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Becky's crazy adventures too. If you're in the mood for a predictable yet funny chick-lit book, this is definitely going to be a treat. Enjoy!

Friday, May 14, 2010

City of Djinns - William Dalrymple

Rating: 8/10


Some books have the ability to transport the reader into its world and William Dalrymple's City of Djinns does exactly that. This travel memoir chronicles the one year that Dalrymple and his wife Olivia spent in the great city of Delhi.

Perhaps because we Indians pride on our variety, you find that Dalrymple talks about just too many things. I wouldn't call it information overload, but though written in an easy, very readable style, there is a lot, from Sadhus to Sufis to the Mahabharata to Partition to the Sikh riots to Yunani, that Dalrymple presents in the book which will take some time for the reader to process and savour.

Foreigners writing about India sometimes write to fit the default image of an exotic, poor India with all its history, corruption and superstition. Dalrymple is different because of his obvious love for the people that he meets. His hilarious landlady Mrs.Puri and driver Balwinder Singh are characters that you can never forget and though Dalrymple pokes fun at them and teases them, you know it's never vicious and always done with affection. 

Dalrymple's writing is brilliantly descriptive. Which is a pleasure when it comes to describing the people he meets,  from the last surviving descendants of the Mughal Dynasty to Ahmed Ali, the wonderfully cynical, tragic author of Twilight in Delhi, who was displaced from the land he loved due to partition. But when Dalrymple describes the architecture of Delhi too closely, it does get repetitive and indeed boring at times. 

The political incorrectness of the people he meets, is gloriously refreshing though at times shocking. Dalrymple writes with great self-deprecating humour and is a very quotable writer indeed. Sample this:

'Recently, when a 93-episode adaptation (of the Mahabharata) was shown on Indian television, viewing figures never sank beneath 75 percent and rose to a peak of 95 percent, an audience of some 600 million people. In villages across India, simple Hindu peasants prostrated themselves in front of their village television screens for two hours every Sunday morning. In the towns the streets were deserted; even the beggars seemed to disappear. In Delhi, government meetings had to be rescheduled after one memorable Sunday morning when almost the entire cabinet failed to turn up to an urgent briefing.'

There is always a sense of adventure, as Dalrymple goes about finding so much history in every nook and corner of the city. His wife, the artist Olivia Fraser's wonderful illustrations add to conjuring the charm of Delhi. There are some great anecdotes and colourful, delightful characters in the book and this is as good as non-fiction can get. 

Delhi is a city that has seen several empires rise and crumble and has been the home to people of many nationalities and religions. Dalrymple's account does justice to the mystique, grandeur and contradictions of Delhi. His affinity towards writing about the religious side of the city gives excellent results and seems to be the precursor to his latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone interested in India and qualifies as a great book because of its writer's obvious love for not just the city and its history, but also the people who inhabit it. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thursdays With Tagore - May 13

Every Thursday, I shall read one of Tagore's poems as translated in this book or some other poem I can find. I shall post some lines from the poem and perhaps a detail of how I liked this poem or not. Any others who want to join in this meme are absolutely welcome to do so!

This is one of Tagore's more popular poems, that served as a cry to fight for independence from the British.  Known as Ekla Chalo Re in Bengali, here is the English translation of a song Mahatma Gandhi called one of his favourites.

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
open thy mind and speak out alone.

If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart
and let it burn alone.

It's easy to understand why this poem stirred the hearts of so many freedom fighters and is still as relevant today. Powerful, inspirational and emotional. Another unforgettable poem!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Great Blog Neighbor Award

The Great Blog Neighbor Award is a new award created by Felicia at Geeky Blogger's Book Blog

Says Felicia:
"I thought I would create an award to give away and pass along to book bloggers!  I, personally, have so many great blog neighbors that I adore.  They really make my day with their comments and their posts.  We don't all read the same things but we do share a love of books!"

I think this is a great idea for an award and the award image is so pretty! Thanks to Whitney of  She Is Too Fond Of Books for giving this award to me and it's now my turn to pass this award to 5 bloggers who are lovely neighbours.

JoAnn of Lakeside Musing
Priya Parmar of The Plum Bean Project
Vaishnavi of Dust Jacket

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Tribute

Like many Indians, my first tryst with Rabindranath Tagore was when I sung my country's national anthem, not understanding the words throughout most of my childhood. And then there were those fleeting mentions of Tagore in history books. But that was all, for a long time.

I've never been one for poems. I've found most poems to go over my head which lead me to avoid the genre for a long time. But one day I chanced upon the famous 'Where The Mind Is Without Fear' poem by Tagore and I was absolutely stunned by the beauty and sheer emotion in that poem. I made it a point to read more of Tagore's poems and I'm glad I did.

I find myself looking forward to every Thursday, to read several of his poems and have a hard time picking just one to post about here in my Thursdays With Tagore meme. Indeed, every poem of his is a treasure. They touch you where it matters the most and stay in your heart. Romantic, playful, sad, forlorn, glorious, reflective, profound are some words that explain the wide range of emotions in the Tagore poems I've read. But two words are a constant when it comes to describing his poems : soulful and powerful. I'm no expert critic, but these are the words that come to my mind when I read Tagore's poems.

The greatest thing about Tagore is that he was not just a legendary poet who inspired several other poets. He wrote songs, short stories, novels and plays besides travelogues, memoirs and essays on a range of topics. He acted in his plays and was a philosopher and artist too. He also involved himself in India's struggle for independence and renounced his knighthood in protest of the horrific Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. 

Ketaki Kushari Dyson writes splendidly about Tagore's many accomplishments:

'Tagore was a notable pioneer in education. A rebel against formal education in his youth, he tried to give shape to some of his own educational ideas in the school founded in 1901 at Santiniketan.....To his school he added a university, Visvabharati, formally instituted in 1921. He wanted this university to become an international meeting-place of minds, 'where the world becomes one nest', and invited scholars from both the East and the West to come and enrich its life.....At Potisar he started an agricultural bank, in which he later invested the money from his Nobel Prize.'

Tagore also has the rare distinction of having written the national anthems of two countries - Jana Gana Mana for India and Amar Shonar Bangla for Bangladesh. Which leads to another point Dyson makes - 'Tagore does not belong to Bengalis or Indians only". Indeed his poems are for anyone and everyone who feels their impact. There are no 'narrow domestic walls' for Tagore. He is a legend whose work belongs to not just his country but also to the world.

Personally, I find a sense of awe filling me when I read Tagore's poems. Today, on his 150th birth anniversary, as India celebrates the genius that was Tagore, I shall be curled on my couch reading his poems and counting myself very lucky and blessed to have had the chance to read some of his work. Thank you Gurudev for making several of my dull days meaningful in the span of a few of your lines. I shall always read your poems with awe and love, for they are as timeless as they are universal.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Jane Austen Book Club - Karen Joy Fowler

Rating : 8/10

Reading this book is like treating yourself to a luxurious dinner - it's loads of fun and you will enjoy every minute of it. Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club is a must-read for Austen fans because of its own witty look at society a la Austen and more importantly, it's tribute to Austen and her books in the form of enjoyable discussions.

I watched the movie version about a year ago and loved it and meant to read the book. I was a little nervous that I might not like the book since I pretty much knew how the story would pan out. But this book is more than just another Austen-related book that tries to remodel her novels or makes references to Austenian culture. This is a well-written story chronicling the lives of Prudie, Jocelyn, Allegra, Bernadette, Sylvia and Grigg and their Jane Austen Book Club that impacts their lives more than they realize.

The plot isn't marvellous, but the characters are interesting and it's fun to see such different people united by Austen. I loved the fact that the discussion about the books were full of varied opinions on Austen, her books, her life. I could relate to one point or the other made while analyzing Austen's books, which made this book a pleasure to read. Speaking of relating myself to something a character says in this book, this is so scarily similar to what I do:

‘Everywhere Prudie looked she saw the signs of wealth. She tried for the fun of it to view the scenes as a Jane Austen character would. A young woman with no money and no prospects, here, in the way of all these rich men. Would she feel determined? Would she feel desperate? Would there be any point in looking about, making a secret selection, when you could only sit and wait for someone to come to you?"

This book is a fast-read and Fowler writes with exquisite ease and has quite the talent of making incisive, witty, funny, sarcastic observations on society. Even those who haven't read Austen will enjoy the book, if not for the fact that there are Austen novel spoilers in this book, though that is understandable. Fowler is a very quotable author as well. Sample this:

"All the while it’s Austen writing the really dangerous books” Allegra continued. “Books that people really do believe, even hundreds of years later. How virtue will be recognized and rewarded. How love will prevail. How life is a romance.”

Another aspect of the book that I loved was that there are no forced inclusion of Austen-related things. For instance, the mandatory squeeing over Mr. Darcy is very limited and there's not a single reference to Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen! Instead, there are some very creative Austen-related concepts, like the idea of everyone's 'private Austen'.

My private Austen is a sort of confidante whose books I turn to in all moods. There's something in her books that I enjoy when I'm happy or sad or irate and The Jane Austen Book Club is a book that captures this essence of Austen's impact on our lives. The additional pages in the book explaining Austen's novels and containing a collection of the response of Austen's family members, famous writers and critics are a treasure for the devoted Austen-fan like me. Unwind and have fun reading this one!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thursdays With Tagore - May 6

Every Thursday, I shall read one of Tagore's poems as translated in this book or some other poem I can find. I shall post some lines from the poem and perhaps a detail of how I liked this poem or not. Any others who want to join in this meme are absolutely welcome to do so!

Last Curtain  

I know that the day will come  
when my sight of this earth shall be lost,  
and life will take its leave in silence,  
drawing the last curtain over my eyes.  

Yet stars will watch at night,  
and morning rise as before,  
and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains.  

When I think of this end of my moments,  
the barrier of the moments breaks  
and I see by the light of death  
thy world with its careless treasures.  
Rare is its lowliest seat,  
rare is its meanest of lives.  

Things that I longed for in vain  
and things that I got  
---let them pass.  
Let me but truly possess  
the things that I ever spurned
and overlooked.

The thing that strikes me about this poem, apart from its wonderful message and feel, is its beautiful flow. I love how Tagore moves from the concept of  death itself to his reaction and lessons from it. These are my favourite lines:

Rare is its lowliest seat,  
rare is its meanest of lives.  

Things that I longed for in vain  
and things that I got  
---let them pass.  
Let me but truly possess  
the things that I ever spurned
and overlooked.


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