We will be right back…

For the few readers of this blog, here is an update and an excuse for the dearth of posts.

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Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

sea_of_poppies2Nobody was more excited than yours truly when Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies was set to release in 2008. My journey to finishing the book was diametrically opposite in enthusiasm. I kept picking up and abandoning the book around the same chapter. A year or so later, I finally finished reading the book and I loved it. But the process of reading it was so tumultuous, I just never reviewed the book.

Earlier this week, I surprised myself by picking up and re-reading the book – this time, without giving up on it. It’s not easy for me to re-read books. The temptation of newer, unread, unknown stories waiting to be devoured is just too much. I was to pick up a Murakami book from the library yesterday, with a 100-odd pages left of Poppies, but I postponed the trip and finished the book instead. Good going, me!!

I am so glad I gave Sea of Poppies another chance. It is a book well-deserving of a second reading. I had forgotten so much from my first reading six years ago, and all the parts I remembered did nothing short of bringing a smile to my face. I still loved the characters I loved back then, but the depth and expansiveness of the narrative kept the second reading rewarding.

Sea of Poppies is the first book in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy about the trade of opium from India to China. The ship Ibis’s first voyage in the book does not, however, carry opium, but slaves who are to be transported to Mauritius. Ghosh spends the first two-thirds of the book bringing his principle characters together, dropping hints along the way to show who we should pay more attention to. The first, and seemingly most important one, is Deeti, a simple villager woman who is forced to flee her village after her husband’s death and finds herself on the Ibis with an unexpected companion. Deeti, by far, is set up as the one who will keep the diverse group of characters together. And what a diverse group it is – Kalua, a low-caste cart-driver; Neel Ratan, a once-wealth Raja; Zachary Reid, a lowly carpenter who rises to the position of second mate, and a man who is passing as white; Ah Fatt, a half-Parsi opium addict; Paulette, an orphaned French daughter of a botanist raised by an Indian woman; Jodu, her childhood companion and so-called brother. And many more. Even Ghosh’s minor characters, like Serang Ali, have a lot to offer.

The breadth of Ghosh’s story is so wide that it can take a minute or two for you to catch up. But once you do, the story flows easily and naturally. Like many of his other works, Poppies is historical and the sheer amount of study Ghosh has put into the novel is staggering and awe-inspiring. The author uses a variety of accents and speaking styles for his mixed-bag of characters and it may do you some good to read some of these lines out loud (especially those of Mr. Doughty) if you speak Hindi and English. There is much to absorb and enjoy in this book, and while the climax may be a tad bit expected, it does not stop you from feeling that exhilaration and thrill that a good cliff-hanger gives.

You’ve probably read Sea of Poppies by now. Any chance, like me, you’d read it again?

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John Grisham’s A Time to Kill

In my last post, just like many times in the past, I talked about literature being adapted into movies. If a movie has been creating a buzz and it is based on a book, I usually try to get my hands on the book and read it before the movie releases. However, like most things in my life, matters often go backwards. In other words, the chances of me having seen the movie and then getting my hands on the book are more likely. And in many cases, the movie is one that I have liked and enjoyed (and maybe watched multiple times).

I’d moved on from the likes of Grisham since college. The last book I remember reading by him (which could also be the only book I’ve read by him) was The Pelican Brief. But A Time to Kill is one of those legal dramas I watch every time it’s on TV (just like A Few Good Men). So keeping in mind my recent desire to read books for mere enjoyment, I picked up the book version by John Grisham.

A Time to Kill is Grisham’s first novel – and this is obvious in some parts. The writing is not consistent and there are quite a few editing problems. But, overall, the novel is very engaging and well written. While the movie adaptation is quite compelling, with a moving performance by Matthew McConaughey, it falsely led me to believe that the source material would be just as heavy and somber. Quite surprisingly, Grisham is able to maintain a humorous tone throughout. When Carl Lee Hailey’s ten-year old daughter Tonya is raped and left to die by a couple of good-for-nothing white men, the heretofore honest, black man decides to take the law into his own hands. He shoots the two men in broad daylight as they are leaving the court. Carl Lee asks Jake Brigance, a young, white lawyer, to take up his case because Brigance has successfully acquitted Carl Lee’s brother in the past. Brigance, in spite of knowing that the case will not be financially profitable for him, accepts Carl Lee as a client because he’s savvy enough to know that it will make him famous. What he does not know, however, is that their little town of Clanton, Mississippi is going to erupt in a racial battle, endangering the lives of a lot of people involved in defending Carl Lee.

For someone with little knowledge, but a lot of interest in legal proceedings, Grisham’s writing is enjoyable. I am not sure how one would read his writings if you were well-versed with the law. For me, Grisham explains enough to keep me intrigued and informed. The manner in which both the prosecution and defense play dirty and jump through loopholes to get what they want is utterly fascinating (and these nuances are lost in the movie version). Compared to the movie, which I will enjoy less now thanks to having read the book, the characters have a depth and broadness that just doesn’t translate on the screen. Jake is a competent and kind lawyer, but he also has his eye on the ball – to make sure that defending Carl Lee proves to be a successful career move. Carl Lee is not a helpless, hapless man – he spends his time in jail very well, using his incarceration in a politically suave manner and enjoying the hero-worship he gets offered by people.

It’s little things like these that always make a book so much better than a movie. The only drawback is that it has a negative effect on your movie-watching experiences of the future.

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A need to reflect…

Desktop2In the past when this blog has been silent, it’s mostly been due to the fact that I have fallen off the wagon and stopped reading. I am happy to report that that’s not the case this time around. I am ashamed to admit, though, that I had just no enthusiasm about updating this blog. (Yikes!) While the readership of this blog may be questionable at best, when I created it, I knew that I wanted it more as a personal log than for anything else. I am not a professional reviewer. What I do want to maintain, however, is a habit of reflecting on my readings because I have a terrible memory. So for that, above everything else, I am going to try to be more regular here.

I’ve had a mixed bag of books these past two months. Usually, I push myself to read challenging, academically inclined, serious books, but lately I feel the need to just read for the sake of enjoyment. After reading Lisa Genova’s Still Alice in bits and pieces during several book store visits, I finally got it from the library. It was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read recently. Genova, a neuroscientist, does a fabulous job at explaining how the life of a patient with early onset Alzheimer’s disease deteriorates. Of course, Alice Howland is not an average woman, and one wonders if we feel the tragedy of the disease more so because Alice is such a brilliant person. But, the core of the story is the breakdown of not just a person, but a family, because of a fearsome disease, which Genova portrays quite well. The book left me worried and nervous about how fragile our own relationship is with our bodies.

The book that took up the most of my reading time, and happily so, was a book I just happened to walk by at the library. (Such lovely coincidences are rare in my life.) I truly believe that someday I might have thought of editing a book like Stephanie Harrison’s Adaptations – a collection of 35 short stories that were the inspiration for movies. I love reading books that are adapted into movies, but I am immensely curious about how a short story becomes a full-length movie. I think the latter makes more sense because the chance of glossing over or simplifying a complex story are minimized. When I do find out that a movie is based on a short story, I try to dig around for the source, but it’s often a hard task. Harrison’s book is a gem for suckers like me. Some of the stories in this collection are out of print and hard to locate, and this book makes it so easy. I was delighted to see some stories I’d been looking for, like “Memento Mori” which was made into Memento by Christopher Nolan, or stories that I didn’t even know existed, like “In a Grove” which was made into Rashomon. Harrison divides the stories into genres and has an excellent and informative introductory chapter for each section. All in all, this book is a must-have (not just a must-read) for any lover of reading and films.

I also read Stephen King’s Desperation and re-read Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game. The latter, I had read when I was in school, and I just wanted to reminisce about those days by reading something… what’s a polite word… easy? King’s Desperation was strictly okay. Not worth my time or yours trying to review those two.

I’ll be back soon!

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Tina Fey’s Bossypants

I have been a long time fan of Tina Fey. I binge-watched 30 Rock when I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and Liz Lemon’s eccentricity helped me feel okay about myself. I am also interested in the art of improvisation and its various implications in real life. (This is just one example.) That being said, I am not a fan of biographical, non-fictional books. Especially comedic writing is hard to be a hit with me. I still decided to give Bossypants a try.

There was little to not like about this book. The length is average, most of the chapters are short. Fey is self-deprecating and her humor is underhanded yet likable. If I were the editor, I would have strongly advised her against including the chapter where she replies to rude comments about her on the internet. It was one chapter in a book full of light-hearted, jovial anecdotes that rang mean  and below Fey’s dignity. Or maybe there was a purpose to it that was lost on me.

Fey shares a lot of personal and professional background in the book. There is a lot to her that makes one want her to be your sarcastic and smart best friend. While details about her humble beginnings are nice, the insights into the inner workings of an improv show like SNL are even more interesting and absurd. Fey must have done something right to not just survive, but flourish in the male-dominated world of comedy. It was also a pleasure to go back to the time of the historical 2008 presidential elections, when Fey’s likeness to Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin proved to be a clincher not just in the world of comedy, but also in the results for that year’s election.

All in all, this would make for a great airplane read. Pick it up before your next flight!

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Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Reading wise, the beginning of 2015 has been rough. I gave up on almost every book I
picked up. The only book I did manage to finish reading was Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, simply because it was so trashy. It was such a pointless read that I didn’t even have the heart to review it here. After many unsuccessful attempts at finding a book that would sustain my attention, I thought of reading Neil Gaiman again. I enjoyed his American Gods last year; but his new book of short stories wasn’t available at the college libraries, so I decided to get The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This short, fairy-tale-sque book was what I needed to end my bad run!

Ocean is about a nameless narrator growing up in the English countryside, with a fairly idyllic, if lonely life. The narrator is young, only seven, and has no friends except his books. He doesn’t even get along with his own sister. An unlikely death introduces him to Lettie Hempstock, a neighboring girl, a few years older than him, who befriends him and takes him under her wing. Lettie lives with her mother and grandmother in a farmhouse that is always warm and has an abundance of food. The farm has a pond that Lettie calls her ocean. And that’s the least strange thing about Lettie and the other Hempstock women. Because Lettie takes such a liking for the narrator, she takes him on an errand with her, and due to his inexperience, he ends up bringing back something with him that’s unwanted and dangerous.

The short novel reads like a modern day fairy-tale. The lines between reality and imagination are so blurry that you can choose to believe whatever fits your personality. While the narrator is from a world like our own, Lettie and her family are from someplace else, and yet, they triumph as the nicest, kindest people in the story. Gaiman’s text is poetic and reminiscent of a time we all miss – our days of innocence and faith. Surprisingly, the descriptions of homes, places we think are safe, and foods (even British foods!) are the ones that will transport you to a different world. (I had to make myself a cheese and tomato sandwich just before writing this post!)

For those who haven’t read anything by Gaiman before, this book might be the best way to go.

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Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike Series and Goodbye 2014

Five years ago, if you had asked my opinion on J. K. Rowling I would have scoffed and said I don’t read over-hyped children’s fiction about witches and wizards. Fast-forward a few years, I have eaten my humble pie, and read everything fictional written by Rowling. The credit goes to the writer: her constant ability to reinvent herself, and her unusual (and perhaps not deliberate) manner of creating interest in the reader’s mind about what she puts out. While The Casual Vacancy is probably my favorite of all her written works, I am happy that Rowling is going back to her roots as a series writer. She is incredibly talented at weaving stories together that span over a few years while the books hold well individually also.

Cormoran Strike is no Harry Potter, though. The man is in his 30’s and battles real demons that cannot be done away with a spell. Instead of a magic wand, Strike has a prosthesis for the leg he lost in war. When we are introduced to Strike in the first novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, he has just ended a sixteen year relationship and is desperately trying to make ends meet with his struggling detective business. A mistake from the temping agency brings Robin to his office as an assistant and like a good omen, Strike also gets the case of a model who allegedly jumped to her death from her balcony. Lula Landry’s brother, however, thinks this was not a suicide and hires Strike to find the killer. Eager to get a client that will pay him well, Strike agrees to find the killer of a case that has already been shut down by the police as a suicide. The novel unravels into the world of fashion and the rich, and Lula’s own ghosts and struggles that drove her to her death. While there’s a proper mystery at the heart of the novel, there’s also enough of a human touch with Strike’s engaging, haunted, and lonely central character, and the lovable Robin.

The Silkworm is a more gripping and convoluted follow-up in the series. This time, Strike is hired by the wife of writer Owen Quine, who is missing. While tracking the writer down, Strike finds Quine brutally murdered and his purpose changes to finding the killer. Rowling dives into the world of publishing and literature – filled with obnoxious writers, dominating agents, and calculating publishers. Everyone is a suspect! Robin, in this novel, gets more of a spotlight, much to my delight. While parts of the mystery unravel at a snail’s pace, Rowling is still successful in keeping the readers on the edge of their seats. The payoff with the mystery is much better, in my opinion, than the first book.

I like Rowling as a writer, but I do see her flaws as well (which are minor irritants more than anything else!). Her success, for me, lies in creating characters that you identify with. Even her minor characters are thoughtfully created. The writing in itself may not be a trailblazer, but she is a master at making memorable characters. Eventually, I hope she breaks away from using alliterative names for many of them. And I also hope that her editors begin to use the Oxford comma. But, in spite of this, I look forward to the next adventure of Cameron Strick.

On a completely different note – I am so pleased with all the reading I managed to squeeze in this year! I am a freaking slow reader, but I did well, if I may say so myself. Here’s hoping 2015 will bring more of the same! Happy New Year, everyone!

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