Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi – Geoff Dyer


Geoff Dyer was one of the authors who charmed the quaint city of Wellington with his presence during the Writers and Readers week a couple of months back. Add to that a catchy title and it was but little wonder that this book soon occupied the grand stands of every book store in Wellington. Not to be left behind I got a copy from the local library and was soon walking through the art galleries of Venice and trying to “find myself” in Varanasi.

Jeff Atman is a freelance journalist who loathes his job (well who doesn’t?), but for the sake of the fine bread and butter on his table goes about writing mindless articles. He lands up with an assignment to cover the Biennale art extravaganza in Venice. Jeff is going through an acute mid life crisis and his self-esteem has reached an extreme low point when he meets Laura, a mind blowing, beautiful woman, who is in Venice to promote the art gallery for which she works. Amidst the pomp and splendour of the Biennale adventure, and a lot of mindless parties Laura and Jeff find themselves enjoying each other (sometimes they even have conversations ;)) to a point of excess. Jeff starts to fall in love with Venice when the spiritual city of Varanasi beckons in the form of another assignment.

After the raucous adventure in Venice, he is confronted with an entirely different experience in the city of Varanasi. Surprisingly Jeff and Varanasi start getting along splendidly with each other and soon he is in search of himself in the crowded streets of Varanasi.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is an interesting book written in two parts which, other than the connecting thread called Jeff are entirely different. Geoff’s sense of humour is very apparent all through the book especially his accounts of life in Varanasi. The author deftly switches from third person narrative of events in Venice to a first person narrative in Varanasi. It is symbolic of Jeff’s journey from being a nobody to truly finding peace with himself. Geoff’s descriptions of  Varanasi, although coming from a westerner’s point of view are very accurate.

The part set in Varanasi started to resemble a travel guide of sorts after a while, but Geoff’s British humour more than made up for it. After some graphic descriptions of sex scenes in Venice, their absence was a bit conspicuous in Varanasi but they seem to go well with Jeff’s spiritual journey.

Jeff is Venice, Death in Varanasi is a good choice if you are looking for a book to crack up on but the reader has to be a bit patient in Varanasi.

Book Rating – 3.75/5

Book Stats:-
No. of Pages:- 296;
Year Published:- 2009;
Publisher:- Cannongate Books Ltd;
Book Setting:- Venice;Varanasi
Reading dates:- 10/Apr/2010 - 16/Apr/2010

Laughable Lines:-

“Anand was completely wrong about driving in  Varanasi. The traffic is not terrible at all. It is beyond any idea of terribleness. It is beyond any idea of traffic.”
You need three things if you are driving in Varanasi. Good horn, good brakes and good luck.”
Even the fake holy men- and I’d been warned by Jamal, that many of them were wholly fake – were genuine.

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After all the flamboyance of Venice and the hustle and bustle of Varanasi, join me in a ride through 18th century France in my upcoming review of Perfume:The Story of a murderer by Patrick Suskind.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Long Song seemed to be occupying the front shelf of every bookstore, that I nearly grabbed the book off the bestseller shelf in the library, when I saw it lying in innocent wait for a reader. I had no clue what the book was about, except that the cover and the name seemed reason enough to want to read it. Little was I to know that I would be transported nearly two centuries back in time to the island of Jamaica. What a journey, it indeed was!
Set in the mid nineteenth century, The Long Song chronicles the life and times of a house slave called July who lives in Jamaica at the height of the slave trade. This revolutionary tale spoken through the voice of July, whose extraordinary journey began soon as she was sold to Caroline Mortimer, the sister of John, who owns the plantation of Amity, where July’s mother, Kitty is a slave worker. Caroline, who even after ten years, laments the comforts of the lifestyle that she left behind on the shores of England, tries to recreate those settings in the hot island with the aid of her house-maid July. All their lives are soon thrown into a state of turmoil as the slaves march forward in their struggle for freedom from the shackles binding them to the plantation and their owners.
There is a certain levity and mischievousness about Andrea’s character, July which makes the book so enjoyable. Narrated in any other tone and it would have depressed the reader so thoroughly that it would have taken not one but several Wodehouses to restore his/her equanimity. Despite the heavy air surrounding the unjustness of the events unfolding in the book, there is a very positive feel to it highlighting the strength of the human character in their fight against injustice and their extreme endurance. The character of Caroline has been so aptly depicted as one who turns a blind eye to everything around her and in doing so believes that ‘What you cannot see, surely must not have happened’. Andrea has recreated the settings of Jamaica so well that they seem to come alive before the reader’s eye.
The only thing that the reader may find hard to grapple initially is the language of the natives but drink in a few pages and you soon get used to it. The Long Song is indeed a very powerful book about different (difficult) times to be ignored.
Book Rating – 4/5

Book Stats:-
No. of Pages:- 308;
Year Published:- 2010;
Publisher:- Headline Publishing Group; 
Book Setting:- Jamaica;
Reading dates:- 07/Apr/2010 - 10/Apr/2010

Other books by the Andrea Levy:-

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Join me along with Jeff Atman in his wanderings around the arty water city of Venice and the spiritual rehab of Varanasi in my upcoming review of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

It almost seemed like a lifetime since I had read a collection of short stories. I was also looking forward to reading a book set in India to partly quell my nostalgia, but partly to give my readers a spicy, aromatic taste of this exotic land. Interpreter of Maladies just seemed to fit my bill and so I set about perusing it. In the end, I was left with some mixed feelings about the book.
Interpreter of Maladies is a motley collection of nine tales travelling between the frigid New England winters to the bustling city of Calcutta in India. There is a strong undercurrent of love and longing welling up in her characters, some for their homeland, while still others for the life that once was, with the familiar stranger that they have grown used to. Through these stories, Lahiri has tried to capture the feelings of awe and fear that passes through an immigrant’s mind as they travel the seas to a land far removed from their own. All the tales are heavy with an air of poignancy, typical of Lahiri.

Lahiri is definitely a good writer with her vivid imagination and accurate depiction of her characters. It is because of this latter trait that the reader becomes quite attached to most of her characters, although they are only available for twenty or so pages. I liked her knack of bringing unlikely people together in a relationship that seems to extend it’s arms of friendship, while making strangers out of once-upon-a-time-lovers. She has brought our attention to the strangeness of the human mind when a woman cannot tell her husband some bitter truths about their relationships but can do so to someone she has met for only a day, for precisely that reason.

However a few stories like ‘This Blessed House’ and ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’ seemed to have been stretching on forever and in the end, revealed themselves to be quite pointless.
Interpreter of Maladies is a decent choice if you are looking for a collection of stories to read.

Book Rating – 3.5/5

Book Stats:-

No. of Pages:- 198;
Year Published:- 1999;
Publisher:- Houghton Mifflin Company
Book Setting:- US, India;
Reading dates:- 05/Apr/2010 - 07/Apr/2010

Stories in my order of preference:-

  • Sexy
  • A Temporary Matter
  • Interpreter of Maladies
  • When Mr Pirzada came to dine
  • Mrs Sen’s
  • The Third and Final Continent
  • A Real Durwan
  • This Blessed House
  • The Treatment of Bibi Haldar

Other books by Jhumpa Lahiri that you might be interested in:-
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Watch out for my next review from the exotic Caribbean island of Jamaica, A Long Song by Andrea Levy, the tale of a 19th century slave and her owners.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Broken Verses – Kamila Shamsie

After reading Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, I was so taken in by her elegant writing style that I could not stop myself from picking up Broken Verses. Kamila has revealed yet again the artful story teller that she is. If a book can move you to tears, then surely there is something much more to it than just a story.
The protagonist, Aasmaani Inqalab literally meaning Celestial Revolution, lives in the seaside city of Karachi, where she flits from one mundane job to another so she can remove any spark of the person she once was willing to be, a person who thought she could change the world. Born to a highly unconventional activist mother and a regular banker, Aasmaani, since her childhood has been embroiled in conflicting worlds, an idealist world of protests and poetry which belongs to her mother, Samina and her lover, The Poet, and the pragmatic comforting world of her father and his family. Aasmaani, who cannot come to terms with her mother’s disappearance, has been conjuring up images of her glorious return the past fifteen years. She is so caught up in thinking she has never been good enough for her mother to stay, that she fails to see the people around her reaching out to her and trying to pull her out of her shell, including her half sister Razia and her colleague Ed. It remains to be seen whether Aasmaani does loosen up as this riveting tale draws to a close.
A literary feast, a political fiction, a tale of passionate love, the story of a person torn between her role of lover and mother, I cannot even begin to categorise what Broken Verses is all about. Kamila etches out her characters so vividly that the reader soon becomes engrossed in them. In a nation, at a time when one cannot even say the word democracy loud enough for fear of getting caught by the minions of the government, Samina fearlessly dons the activist garb and you find yourself wondering through Aasmaani, whether she stops being a mother when she starts becoming an activist. When she takes her beloved in her arms, is she any less of a mother? These questions torture the reader as Aasmaani goes through her life not being able to let go of any hatred as she imagines herself to be the girl whom her mother has left behind over and over again.
The sea speaks out to you through The Poet’s muse, which is a passionate rendition of his love for Samina. Their love is beyond words that, it is little wonder that everyone who loves Samina, including Aasmaani, feel they are competing with a force they cannot reckon. I loved Kamila’s portrayal of the quiet courage and determination of Bheema, Aasmaani’s step mother, who fights battles everyday at home for the sake of her family, which are no less courageous as compared to the battles fought on the street for the sake of the country.
I enjoyed reading the book thoroughly, although, I wish it had ended differently. But I quickly brush aside that thought as the book has too many merits to be ignored. With Broken Verses, Kamila has once again proved that she is a literary genius.
A little bit of cricket, a lot of politics, impassioned poetry, lyrical verse, subterfuge, religion, the book has it all. Do yourself a favour and grab the next copy you find.
Book Rating – 4.25/5

Book Stats:-
No. of Pages:- 338;
Year Published:- 2005;
Publisher:- Bloomsbury Publishing
Book Setting:- Karachi, Pakistan;
Reading dates:- 03/Apr/2010 - 05/Apr/2010

Lyrical prose from the book:-

…language somersault through rings of fire
Yes, it is comforting to blame our failures on the bigotry of others, isn’t it?
…lines that could wrap themselves around your chest until your ribcage cracked open and your heart lay exposed.
Prayer is as quiet and as resonant as a single drop of raindrop falling on a desert.
Karachi lit up in lights like a bejewelled bride trying to draw attention away from the ungainliness of her natural facade.

If you like this you might also like:-

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From novels to short stories, coming up next is a review of The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, her first literary publication.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Patriots Club – Christopher Reich

001The Patriots’ Club was one of those books that I had been wanting to read for quite sometime now. I have read several books by Reich in the past and considering this was one of the first of his books to have been made into a movie, I was all excited about it. But, as with any book where the expectations are very high, there is a high probability of disappointment too.

The Patriots’ Club is about a secret Club of , well patriots, whose super computer system detects that Thomas Bolden, your regular investment banker is a threat to the security of the world’s super power. One day, Thomas Bolden is basking in the warm sunshine of his immense achievements at Harrington Weiss, the company for which he works, and the next day, he is America’s Most wanted criminal and all because a little toy, controlled by the rich and powerful decides that he needs some looking after. This action packed thriller follows Bolden through some of the most dangerous parts of New York as he and his girlfriend Jenny try to beat the system, which is pretty much everyone from the FBI to the guy next door, who are bent on getting a piece of Bolden, preferably alive. Without giving away much of the story, suffice it to say that there are a few twists towards the end, which the reader definitely does not see coming.

The ideas and conspiracies that Reich exposes are quite thought provoking. It makes you sit back and think about how much technology advances can swiftly turn into the biggest threat, when they get into the wrong hands. Reich always introduces difficult concepts in the guise of fiction so the average reader can grasp the enormity of the issues surrounding the world. As with any of his books, the story is set around money and banking.

Despite all these great things going on for The Patriots Club, it does not stand out as a book par excellence because the idea of one man against the system and beating them over and over again just seems a little too un-palatable. There are too many chance co-incidences, too many opportunities when the bad guys end up making basic mistakes that it just seems quite unbelievable. It was probably a book that Reich wrote keeping in mind a movie, as some of the scenes might seem quite convincing in a movie format.

The book is definitely worth a read for all the conspiracies that it tries to expose but set aside your belief cap when doing so.

Book Rating – 3.25/5

Book Stats:-

No. of Pages:- 342;

Year Published:- 2005;

Publisher:- Headline Book Publishing

Book Setting:- US;

Reading dates:- 27/Mar/2010 - 02/Apr/2010

Christopher Reich is a great writer and though The Patriot’s Club is not his best, I would definitely recommend these:-










I was quite taken in my Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows and so I went ahead and picked up Broken Verses. Do watch out for the review coming up shortly.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Juliet, Naked - Nick Hornby

Juliet, Naked was one the suggestions that came up on the librarything site for Her Fearful Symmetry and I immediately got a copy from the local library. I got latched on to the book pretty fast ,  this being my first Nick Hornby selection, but, unfortunately my great enthusiasm fizzled out after the initial few chapters. But it did provide me some much-needed laughter after The Piano Teacher debacle.

Juliet, Naked starts off in a little English seaside town called Gooleness. Duncan, a man obsessed with the work of former singer and songwriter, Tucker Crowe, lives in Gooleness with his partner of fifteen years, Annie. Duncan who does not have much to show for his own life, spends it fervently spinning conspiracy theories about Crowe's life (or what there was of it from a different era), with a few of his internet buddies, Crowologists as they call themselves. As the story progresses, Annie and Duncan start examining the pointlessness of their relationship, where Tucker always seems to be lurking as an invisible presence.

Just when the reader starts warming up to the character of Duncan, he is completely pushed aside by Annie and the story starts to weave around Annie. Exit Duncan; Enter Tucker and then the reader cruises through parts of the U.S., following the life of Tucker. Duncan soon becomes a shadow while Annie enters centre stage, with her trivial crush on Tucker looming into something more dangerous and serious.
I found the character of Annie quite insipid and pretentious, exhibiting an intellect and taste for music that she very well did not possess. The Duncan/Annie pair did remind me of the  couple, Martin and Marijke from Her Fearful Symmetry, although M&M were far more interesting. If Nick had stuck to Duncan's character throughout the story, it might have made for an interesting book. The title and the beginning of the book seem to suggest some serious insights to be gained into the nature of relationships but these are soon reduced into banal trivialities. Just when the reader is about to give up on the book entirely, Nick tries to win back his/her interest with all the drama surrounding Tucker's enigmatic albeit colourful past.

All is not lost with the book as there are some places where the reader truly enjoys a good laugh. The chracter of Jackson, Tucker's son, soon wins over one's heart and as with any child, one is taken in by his innocence and the hundred questions he keeps firing back at adults.

Juliet, Naked is definitely not a great book, but might be a safe bet for that long flight haul.

Book Rating - 3/5

Book Stats:-
No. of Pages:- 249; 
Year Published:- 2009; 
Publisher:- Penguin Books
Book Setting:- UK, US; 
Reading dates:- 26/Mar/2010 - 27/Mar 2010

Similar book(s) that you might be interested in:-

Do you have a flair for some thrilling action and high drama? The Patriot's Club - Christopher Reich, my next review, is just what you are after.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Piano Teacher - Elfriede Jelinek

The Piano Teacher, a book that was made into a movie, one that had received so many rave reviews over the years, a book that was part of the 1001 Book List, written by a Nobel Prize laureate, Elfriede Jelinek. These were definitely compelling reasons to peruse the book and I decided to plunge straight into it. Maybe it was the hype surrounding the book, maybe my own expectations were quite high, but in the end the book just left me feeling cold and unmoved.

The protogonist, Erika, as the title suggests is a Piano teacher in Vienna, living with her over-ambitious mother, a mother who delights in dreaming and pushing her daughter ahead, while being resigned to her own failure. The mother-daughter pair are involved in a constant love-hate battle. Erika resents the thought of being burdened by her mother and yet she is most comfortable in her mother's presence. The story, or whatever there is of it, trudges along rather slowly, much to the annoyance of the reader, trundling along with Erika and her lustful adventures with her student, Walter. 

The Piano Teacher is a translated work, but surprisingly the language is very powerful and resonates well with the character of Erika. Unfortuantely, even the beauty of language is soon lost on the reader, because language alone cannot make up for lacks of a good story or structure in the background.There is no direct speech anywhere in the book, which is quite unusual for a work of fiction. Erika, being the central character, is depicted as a selfish, lustful with her petty whims and fancies, atypical of most books.  The love affair between Erika and her student Walter, transfused with music, in the backdrop of Vienna would have charmed the reader but their lustful consorting only leaves one feeling disgusted.

The Piano Teacher, lacking the vitality of a contemporary collection or the beauty of a classic can be safely tossed aside. 

Book Rating - 2/5

 Interesting books part of the 1001 Books List that you may want to read:-

The God of Small Things - Arundhathi Roy

Sadly this book has been a letdown but I hope to have some interesting review coming up shortly about Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby.