Friday, December 26, 2008

Vikram Seth: Two Lives

I devoured Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” when I was working in East Timor in ’96 – ’97 and it was still under Indonesian military occupation and there wasn’t much to do in my spare time. “Two Lives” is also a thick book, fortunately not quite as thick, but very different. This is the story of Seth’s maternal uncle, known as Shanti Uncle, and his wife, known to Seth as Aunty Henny. Seth’s skill is first to see that there was a story to be told, then to do all the necessary detailed investigations and interviews to learn as much as he could from his uncle and from old documents and letters, and finally to set these personal histories into the broader framework of world events.

Shanti Seth was born in India in 1908 and as a young man went to Berlin in the 1930’s to study dentistry. He found lodgings in the home of the Caro family, comprising the mother, Gabriela Caro, and her three grown children, Henny, Lola, and Heinz. At that time Henny was engaged to a handsome young man and the two of them made an attractive couple that, if the war had not intervened, would doubtless have married. However, the Caro’s were Jewish and soon the restrictions against the Jews in Germany began the work of destroying their lives. Seth has done his research and provides details that I’ve never read elsewhere about (for example) specific restrictions on what people could not do and what they were forced to do, where they were allowed to shop (and when), where they had to live, the clothes they were or were not allowed to own, the personal belongings that were ‘confiscated’ (stolen) from them by the government, and so many more degrading, soul-destroying and health-destroying rules. It is easy for me to focus on this period of the book because the pre-war, during, and immediate post-war periods in Berlin are the most moving sections of the book. Visiting the Museum of Jewish History in Berlin after reading the book, I looked up and found the names of Gabriela and Lola Caro in the remembrance volumes containing the names of all the Jews murdered by the Nazis in Germany.

Seth outlines the broader context of the story:

“Many of the great currents and movements of the century are reflected through the events of their lives and those of their friends and family: the Raj, the Indian freedom movement, post-Independence India; the Third Reich; the Second World War; post-war Germany, including the division of Berlin and the blockade and airlift; the emigration of Jews from Germany in the 1930s (with some of Henny’s friends going as far afield as Shanghai, South Africa and California); the Holocaust; Israel and Palestine; British politics, economics and society.”

The details of family life in India are also fascinating and provide information about Seth’s own early life, as well as his uncle’s. A generous collection of photographs adds interest, along with copies of personal letters. Seth is honest and open in giving personal details and describing his own feelings for his subjects whom he knew well, since he often stayed with them. In his final summing up of their lives which had spanned so many of the crucial events of the 20th century, Seth makes his plea for a saner world:

“As I walk back to the tube, I consider the word in the context of an evil century past and a still more dangerous one to come. May we not be as foolish as we are almost bound to be. If we cannot eschew hatred, at least let us eschew group hatred. May we see that we could have been born as each other. May we, in short, believe in humane logic and perhaps, in due course, in love.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Anthony Trollope: Barchester Towers

Who will be the new bishop? Will Mr. Harding get his old job as warden back? Whom will Eleanor marry? Who will become Dean? This novel is full of questions that pull us in and hold our attention, while the narrator makes pithy comments and never lets us forget that the author is in full control of his story, giving us only such information as he cares to:

“It is hardly necessary that I should here give to the public any lengthened biography of Mr. Harding, up to the period of the commencement of this tale. The public cannot have forgotten how ill that sensitive gentleman bore the attack that was made on him in the columns of the Jupiter, with reference to the income which he received as warden of Hiram’s hospital, in the city of Barchester.”

This is the second volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire published between 1855-67, and although the language at times feels circuitous and old fashioned, it is also extremely funny. The characters’ names are delightful: Mr & Mrs Quiverful (who’ve had a productive marriage with14 children!), Obadiah Slope (slippery fellow!), Dr Fillgrave (whose medical skills we can’t help but question), Mr Omicron Pie, Bishop and Mrs Proudie (and very proud of themselves they are too), among others. Through the names and the addition of skilfully scattered words and phrases the author allows his feelings about his characters to show:

“Mr. Slope having added to his person all such adornments as are possible to a clergyman making a morning visit, such as a clean neck tie, clean handkerchief, new gloves, and a soupçon of not unnecessary scent, called about three o’clock at the doctor’s door.”

Barchester Towers is a classic, and it’s not by accident that Trollope’s work is still current – another of his stories was recently serialized on BBC Radio 4.

Friday, September 26, 2008

David Lodge: Small World

This could well be the funniest book I’ve ever read. I grinned and chortled all the way through to the very last sentence. Set right at the end of the 70’s when air travel still felt glamorous, computers were still in their infancy, and mobile phones unheard of, the story follows a set of British, Irish, American, German, Italian, Japanese and French academics as they jet around the globe from one literary criticism conference to the next. There’s plenty of bawdy sex, romance, mistaken identity, quotations from literature, discourses on literary theory, the quest for the Holy Grail of the UNESCO chair of literary criticism, and even a kidnapping. The action whizzes along at a pace to match the characters’ whizzing around the globe attending conferences from the smallest and dullest at the so-called Rummidge University in England, to the biggest and brightest in New York City – with plenty more in-between. Persse McGarrigle, a young Irish poet who’s still a virgin (will he lose his virginity by the end of the book?!) is chasing after a mysterious and intelligent young woman with a mane of shining black hair (will he ever find her?), while the older but no wiser professors are all chasing after the UNESCO chair, with plenty of back-stabbing and in-fighting going on in the process. Having jetted to, attended, and organized a number of such conferences myself, and having tackled literary criticism as an undergraduate, I think this book should be on every professor’s office shelf.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Orhan Pamuk: My Name is Red

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, which makes it a bit more difficult to admit that I'm not crazy about this book. It's obviously good, and he's a great writer, but it's not the type of story nor style that I generally enjoy. He seems obsessed with Istanbul in winter: there's cold snow and ice everywhere – does it still snow there these days? However, there's also no shortage of humour, for example I enjoyed the diatribes for and against coffee: it’s a sin, it’s what enables people to think clearly, and so on.

The story highlights the impossible situation of women, how they must always be in some man’s charge: either the father or the husband or the husband’s family. Here a woman is in difficulty when her husband disappears and she’s neither divorced nor widowed, but forced to stay with the husband’s family against her will. There are many references to pretty boys, making it clear that boys were frequently used for sex in that world. And many references and retellings of old Middle Eastern stories and myths which would have more resonance for a reader already familiar with these tales.

But the main theme of the story is art, and I learned a lot: the history of the great miniaturists of the Middle East; the discussion over the difference in styles between the east and the west; the meaning of art in religion, and the meaning of religion to artists (religion = Islam). How the style of western art began to influence artists in the east, and how the preachers became involved in these discussions. This was the most difficult part for me. It requires a reader with more knowledge of the history of art and the interplay between art and religion in the Islamic world – many indeed saw art as being incompatible with religion, i.e. art as immoral; also, the immorality of artists having such a thing as individual style, something we take for granted in western art. At times the discussions became tedious and inhibited the progression of the story. At other times the story speeds along, one character taking up where the other leaves off, allowing for different viewpoints, so we know what Shekure (the female lead) is thinking and then we know what her would-be lover, Black, is thinking.

It’s also a murder mystery set in 1590’s Istanbul. There are fascinating tidbits of everyday life: chamber pots; mattresses being unrolled; details of the clothing women wore; the food served at a wedding feast, the role of the match-maker, and more. Each chapter is narrated by a character in the story talking directly to the reader; but some of these narrators are not real characters - some are drawings, for example, and even the murderer is a narrator, while still hiding his identity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ellis Peters: The Leper of Saint Giles
Brother Cadfael series
A marriage is about to take place at the abbey; the groom is a strong, thick-set man over 50, very rich; the bride is a young 18 year-old, orphaned, taken care of by a wicked uncle and aunt – the uncle is her dead mother’s brother; she is enormously wealthy, but the uncle and bridegroom between them will divide all her lands. She doesn’t want to marry him, and is in love with a young squire to the bridegroom. The bridegroom is murdered on the eve of his wedding; the young squire has already been thrown out of his master’s house and accused of theft, but he escaped from the sheriff’s men and is in hiding with the lepers of St Giles. Brother Cadfael sets out to find the murderer; the young squire is accused, but Cadfael and the girl believe him innocent, as does his friend, Simon, the nephew to the murdered man. Cadfael traces the man’s mistress, and from her discovers the name of the only person who knew where she was, and hence where the bridegroom was on the eve of his wedding.

There's a happy ending, of course!

I had read this before but had forgotten almost every detail, even the actual perpetrator. It’s a classic Brother Cadfael mystery, the identity of the perpetrator well hid in clear view; well-researched use of words as they would have been used in the 12th century – ‘capuchon’ ‘jennet’ ‘assart’ and so on; the history of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude; the Crusades; the daily life of the Abbey and the monks; the situation of lepers in those days; all these details add interest to the basic “whodunit”, with a riveting plot that had me holding onto the book until late at night even the second time around. This book has also been produced as a TV episode in the Brother Cadfael series, so if the story sounds familiar, that may be why.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Film: Mamma Mia

Go on, just go and see it! I haven't laughed so much since...actually, I don't remember ever laughing so much. Meryl Streep is fabulous and obviously enjoyed every second of her performance; Pierce Brosnan can't act, can't sing, and I'd rather not see him without his shirt on; he was so bad he had me in stitches. Oh, and musicals bore me to tears! But this one is set on an alluring Greek island, has three outrageously sassy older women in the lead, and who can help themselves from tapping their feet to Abba? I loved every second. If you're feeling down, this film is guaranteed to cheer you up!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ellis Peters: City of God and Shadows
Detective Chief Inspector Felse Investigates

Set at the site of an imaginary Roman town on the Welsh border called Aurae Phiala, near the supposed towns of Comerbourne and Silcaster. More than just brain candy, references to archaeology, roman history, how to get rid of valuable ancient treasures, murders and attempted murders, unusual words: “How did any of us get here…in this tragic palimpsest of a city without people?”, “…the whole group…dispersed like a dehiscent fruit bursting” etc.
Charlotte Rossignol’s great uncle disappears; she goes off to the place he knew best, the site of Aurae Phiala, to better understand his work; there she meets Gus Hambro, a specialist in antiques who’s slightly mysterious; a school boy wandering around the site disappears and is later found murdered; someone tries to kill Gus at around the same time, but Charlotte saves him; the curator Paviour, and his much younger wife Lesley offer Charlotte a place to stay. Someone tries to kill Gus again, and he’s buried alive in an underground passage.

An enjoyable read; more action and more complicated than McCall Smith books. Of course there’s a love interest to keep it moving along – Charlotte knows there’s something not quite what it seems about Gus Hambro, but she saves his life all the same; we’re a little dismayed when he appears to fall for the siren-like Lesley, but naturally all is well in the end!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith: Blue Shoes and Happiness

This is the seventh title in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Gabarone, Botswana – where the Scotsman McCall Smith once lived. The series has been a huge hit and was recently made into a film for television directed by Anthony Minghella. McCall Smith doesn’t hesitate to use these books to let his readers know that there is a different side to Africa. He shows us the good relations between people, how they help each other, how friendships and family relationships have meaning, how the land and traditions are important, and above all how one African country at least can be well managed and successful. The books have had some success in that quarter, as I’ve heard that in Botswana there are now tours to show visitors around the places mentioned in the books. (I don’t know if actual visitor numbers have increased, but I would like to think so.) Although McCall Smith doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of life in Africa (but he’s yet to touch on the Kalahari Bushmen issue), I fully support his focus on the more positive aspects of life. There is far too much bad news coming out of Africa, and also a misguided propensity to see the continent as one whole.

Not a great deal happens in the stories; there are minor moments of action that gently nudge the narrative along, and along the series we have followed the “traditionally built” Mma Precious Ramotswe through a very long engagement and finally marriage to the best mechanic in town, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Mma Ramotswe has an assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, who is addicted to unsuitable shoes and has had her share of difficulties in finding a suitable husband. In Blue Shoes Mma Ramotswe investigates the blackmail of a college catering service manager, the atmosphere of fear at a game reserve, and the malpractice of a general medical practitioner from Uganda. Mma Makutsi runs into a misunderstanding over exactly what kind of feminist she is with her fiancé, and buys a new pair of shoes. Brain candy – delightful summer reading!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
An Isabel Dalhousie novel - second in the "Sunday Philosophy Club" series.
I think of McCall Smith books as “brain candy”: sweet, delicious, easy on the brain, with a smooth aftertaste that leaves one wanting to pick up another. This series is set in Edinburgh; the main character, Isabel, a well-educated and comfortably well-off woman in her early forties, divorced, is editor of the Review of Applied Ethics (a job which provides for plenty of philosophical topics to ruminate on as she goes about her daily errands). She’s also endowed with something more than the usual sense of curiosity and need to see things through. In this story she meets a man who’s undergone a heart transplant and has been seeing uncomfortable visions; he asks her help in figuring out why this is happening. There are many interesting digressions on life after death, cellular memory, the morality of getting involved, and the relevance of age differences in romantic relationships (Isabel is rather stuck on an attractive young man fifteen years her junior). McCall Smith is a past professor of medical law and served on bioethics bodies, so he knows what he’s writing about when it comes to the medical and ethical issues – although he doesn’t allow Isabel to get weighed down or go into too much detail. There is, however, slightly more depth to this series than one finds in the series set in Botswana: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Extremely enjoyable light summer holiday reading!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nick Hornby: How to be Good

I enjoyed How to be Good. It deals with lots of those questions that many of us frequently ask ourselves – am I good? What does that mean? How best to deal with the street children problem? etc. And he’s also very funny while he’s about it. I liked the bit about people from Surrey: “All the lonely people… At least we know where they come from: Surrey”. I suppose that’s really an in-joke for people from London. Hornby lives in north London.

It’s also about the rough spots that marriage can get into when you’ve been married for 20 years and have two young children and are working full time. But he’s written it from the woman’s point of view and although I can’t find any serious faults, I’m also not totally convinced that this is how women in such situations think. Why didn’t he write it from the man’s point of view? Is he just trying to be clever? Or does the fact that in this case the woman is the bread earner and has the affair, and her husband the one who works from home and picks the kids up from school, mean that the author finds it easier to write from her perspective?

Whatever. It’s a good book. A page turner. Amusing. Entertaining. It says something about how we live today.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kate Atkinson: Case Histories

Jackson Brodie, private investigator, is looking into three cases; these bring back memories of the much earlier murder of his own sister – and on top of everything else, someone is trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why.

Case 1: a 3 year old girl called Olivia disappears in the middle of the night from a tent in the garden. Years later, two of her older sisters find her soft toy mouse in the locked drawer of their father’s desk after he dies and turn to Brody for help in solving the mystery. The tale involves the garden of their neighbour, an old woman with the unlikely name of Binky Rain who keeps an awful lot of cats.

Case 2: a young woman of 18 is murdered in her father’s office and her killer is never found. Ten years later her father comes to Brody to see if he can track down the killer. Brody talks to the right people, previously away at the time and therefore left out of the investigation, and of course he identifies the killer without too much trouble.

Case 3: a young mother, in the throes of post-natal depression with a baby who never stops screaming, kills her husband. Her sister takes the baby, but doesn’t look after it as promised, because the dead husband’s parents take the baby girl. The girl grows up, becomes a runaway, and disappears. The sister comes to Brody to ask him to look for the girl. This sister sleeps with him, he figures out that something about her story is off, then he finds out she’s married, so he drops her case. In the meantime, the sister who was in prison is now living under another name and has married again (to a very rich man) and is pregnant.

Binky Rain, from Case 1, is always calling Brody in to look for her lost cats. He often visits her, feels sorry for her, and never charges her for his services. It turns out that the person trying to kill him is related to her - but you'll have to read the story to find out why he wants him dead and how this leads to a happy ending!

The three cases are linked by a homeless girl on the streets of Cambridge, whom some of them give money to and some try to ignore. This girl is, of course, the missing child from Case 3. She ends up saving the life of the father from Case 2, who then takes her in to his home, and they look after each other.

At the very end, Brody, now very rich, is looking for a house to buy in France after retiring and selling his agency. He’s together with Julia, from Case 1, who turns up again as his partner in Atkinson’s next book (One Good Turn) which I read not long ago, set in Edinburgh during the Festival. In that book all the different puzzle pieces do end up being connected, whereas in this one they’re not really connected and all the names get a bit confusing at times (or it could be due to mildew on the brain); in any case, Atkinson is a brilliant and funny writer, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever follows!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Film: Everything is Illuminated
Starring: Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz

This is my kind of film: hilarious, terribly sad, clashing cultures, set in another country about which I know nothing (Ukraine). It's based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, which tells how he travelled to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1942. But the story is just as much about the other family - that of the interpreter (Eugene Hutz) who makes glorious mistakes with his English, and his grandfather - and how what they all find is different from what they expected. There is pure comedy, including a deranged t-shirt wearing dog, supposedly the "officious seeing eye bitch" for the supposedly blind grandfather who drives the battered blue car; visual delights - their goal is a small wooden house set in an enormous field of brilliantly yellow sunflowers; a terrible tear-jerking history - the nazis killing and wiping out an entire village; unexpected friendship between the two young men of opposite character; and brilliant music mostly played by Eugene Hutz's own band, Gogol Bordello (read more about them on Wikipedia), which has been described as "like a raging Eastern-European American wedding celebration teetering on the brink of chaos" (College Media Journal, quoted in Wikipedia). I loved it all!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Film: Lady in the Water
Written, produced and directed: M. Night Shyamalan

A cool, rainy Sunday afternoon in a London suburb, and someone else chose the film. That's my excuse. So corny I found myself laughing and making snide comments. I can't recommend wasting your time with this, unless you're a real Shyamalan fan. The Sixth Sense was far better.

The entire story takes place in a large apartment building, seemingly set in a field in the middle of nowhere, although we're told it's Philadelphia. The caretaker lives in a small dilapidated house to the side of the building, looking totally incongruous. Someone is using the swimming pool at night; the caretaker hears splashing but sees no one, until finally he sees the girl. She's a nymph come from another world to help a writer (played by Shyamalan himself), who lives in the building, to finish the very important book he's working on. This book, she tells him, will influence a man who will later become president, so that he can save the world. Having cleared his writer's block, it's then up to the inhabitants of the apartment building to help her get back to her world. Of course there's a very nasty creature waiting to tear her apart the minute she ventures out alone. Told you it was corny.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Patricia Cornwell: Cause of Death
The seventh Dr Kay Scarpetta novel. Begins with a man who dies while scuba diving in a ship yard full of decommissioned navy vessels. Ends with a terrorist attack by New Zionists taking over a nuclear power station to steal uranium to sell to Libya. Meanwhile, Kay’s love-interest, Benton Wesley, is getting divorced from his wife, and Kay and Benton get to spend a night in London together. Excellent writing as usual, the story speeds along with Pete Marino and Lucy included at every turn. Highly recommended for murder mystery addicts!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tom Reiss: The Orientalist

Tom Reiss is no relation, but I wish he were! Being a detail person I thoroughly enjoyed the abundance of detail and footnotes in this book, and marvel at the author's persistence in tracking down what he could find about the forgotten life of the early-mid 20th century writer, Lev Nussimbaum.

Nussimbaum was born somewhere in the vicinity of Baku, Azerbaijan in the early years of the 20th century, and would have been just a few years younger than my grandmother. His story reflects the revolutionary history of the first half of the century and that of Jews and many others forced to flee their country of origin.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Tracy Chevalier: Burning Bright

I’m rather jealous of Tracey Chevalier. First she took the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (, then her book Girl with a Pearl Earring was made into a film, and now she seems to effortlessly churn out new books, all while being a mother and looking like she’s still only 25. The Creative Writing MA is one of those courses that I dream about taking “one day” if I were ever lucky enough to be accepted on to it.

I read Girl with a Pearl Earring several years ago, and was lucky enough to be in The Hague and see the painting soon after. Reading the book gave me a greater appreciation for and interest in the painting. Likewise with Burning Bright, which has sparked my interest in the life of the English poet William Blake, whom I’d never been interested in before. The story is set in London in 1792 – 3, while the French revolution is taking place across the channel in France. Although I’d studied the French revolution in high school, I don’t remember learning about how the revolution affected the lives of ordinary people in England at that time. Now I’m tempted to take a look at this – I wonder if anyone has done this as a dissertation topic?