A good read

Friday, April 28, 2006

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

I must admit I had not heard about Anne Tyler much less read her novels until our book club chose this book (and her other works) for this month. It was hard-going initially. A hundred pages into the book, and still there was no hint of a plot. But the excellently well-observed moments which peppered the anecdotes kept me going. Halfway through the book, I realised that there was never going to be a plot. - the kind that had drama, a crisis and a resolution. The book is simply a story of the Tull family - of three siblings loosely held together by their eccentric mother. A family that does not function well together. About siblings who barely tolerate each other and their mother who was somewhat abusive to them in the past and one who has grown increasingly secluded in her old age. The book starts as Pearl, the mother, lies in her death bed. In the following pages we learn about how Pearl, the 'old maid' got married to Beck Tull in her early thirties, had her three children - head strong Cody, whimsical Ezra and flighty Jenny, was abandoned by her husband a decade into the marriage and how the children grow up to become very different individuals. The story is told through varying voices and it all blends in seemlessly.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant runs much like life itself. Complete with its banality and its grinding everydayness. So in that sense, you may be disappointed if you picked it up looking for a strong storyline. But the style and the insights into complex family relations it offers make it a wonderful read.

p.s. Forgot to mention the relevance of the title. It refers to the Tull family meals left uncompleted at Ezra's Homesick restaurant

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

A Million Little Pieces is the memoir of a 23-year old young man detailing the period he spent in a rehab centre recovering from extreme abuse of drug and alcohol. The book hit big time after it was chosen for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. But soon thereafter, allegations started coming out that the author James Frey had embellished details of his stay at the clinic and his subsequent imprisonment. And so strictly speaking, the book was not an autobiography. Frey was forced to go back on the Oprah Winfrey show and apologise and his publisher offered a refund to anyone who felt cheated. So recent editions of the book carry a disclaimer from the author.

About the book itself, what can you say about the story when it's about someone's life? But some of the sections in the book read like fiction (and apparently were!). Especially the parts where Frey writes about getting his teeth and nose fixed without anesthesia is graphic in description. In the end it all works out fine and Frey has been clean for the past 13 years while most of his mates from the centre have either relapsed or taken their lives.

A Million Little Pieces stands out for its unique narrative style. Frey dispenses with trivialities like punctuations and the result is a prose that is taut and gripping. Even if some of the detail in the book was fabricated, a large portion of it was lived and endured. And that's what makes it an incredible journey. A truly awfully beautiful read.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

1st interesting, 2nd AVOID!

1st dropped, 2nd alright, 3rd brilliant

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Holy Fools by Joanne Harris

There's something about the France that it draws Joanne Harris to set her novels in the Gallic countryside. Be it her debut offering, the delicious Chocolat, or this one - Holy Fools - the setting for her magical tales is perfect. This time it's the Abbey Saint Marie de la mer in a tiny island off the Brittany coast during the 1600s. The story unfolds as the old Abbess dies and a new one takes over, bringing with her reforms that unsettle this peaceful groups of nuns which includes a former gypsy acrobat Juliette now called Soeur Auguste. The new Abbess, a mere wisp of a 12-year old girl is coached and guided by a Father Colombin who is none but Le Merle, the man who was the head of Juliette's travelling circus troupe, her occasional lover and the man who abandoned them to save his own skin in a crisis.

Gradually, Father Colombin leads the nuns to believe that they are in the grasp of demons and whips up a frenzy in order to get his back at the Bishop who once humiliated him. Juliette stays back, partly to reclaim her own daughter Fleur who has been taken away and partly because she feels compelled to protect the nuns from the Father's sinister plans. The novel makes you realise how religion in the wrong hands is a dangerous tool. And how easily its powers can be abused. A wonderfully sumptous read which gives great satisfaction, much like a carefully planned feast.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall

I've never read Peter Pan so I cannot tell you what relation this book has to J M Barrie's more famous novel except for the title which it borrows from Peter Pan's description of Neverland. In Astonishing Splashes of Colour, we meet Kitty Maitland in the years following the birth of her still- born child and her inability to have any more children. She's struggling to cope with the emptiness she feels inside and attempts to find out more about the mother she never knew. Her large family is of not much support and her husband James is warm but distant. Kitty's attempt to make sense of the world around her, her extraordinary escapes into her inner self, the surprise unravelling of a family secret, the absolutely unpredictable risks she takes and the ultimate resolution of her inner turmoil form the rest of this gripping debut novel.

Kitty endears herself as a warm but unstable thirty-two year old who feels trapped as a motherless and childless entity. One with no past and no future, as she likes to say. We like her so much that we are prepared to forgive her for her often irrational, child-like behaviour.

Kitty's strong association of colours with every period of her life is beautifully crafted. They shimmer and spring out of the pages staining every mood, every situation. Fantastic! The plot has a few uneven moments but rides over these little glitches to paint an extraordinary picture. Wonderful!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

Is there such a thing as too much of a good book? This is the last in the series (though second in order of publishing) of the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series that I'm reading and I'm beginning to tire of the simple, uncomplicated plotlines which miraculously resolve themsselves before the 220th page is reached.
In Tears of the Giraffe, an American mother contacts Mma Ramotswe to help find her son who has gone missing for 10 years. Mma Ramotswe finds her life in danger when her fiance Mr J L B Matekoni's maid has had enough of her. There's also a client who suspects his wife of infidelity. All of these issues conclude satisfactorily and in the last page we also find out the reason for the title. Awww...
As always, the characters are finely etched and the humour is gentle. But is it all too easy? And the way Africa and Botswana in particular is portrayed, seems (at times and because of the repetition) patronising. Like a tourist's view of a country. Superficial and on the surface.
Oh dear! I knew I shouldn't have overdosed on this series. Ah well, will try something meatier next time.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Lucia Lucia by Adriana Trigiani

Lucia Lucia is the story of Lucia Sartori, an Italian-American living in the '50s in New York's Greenwich village. The story is told in flashback as Lucia recounts two tumultous years from her youth when she gets engaged twice and breaks off one of them, gets jilted at the altar, suffers bereavements, is made redundant due to obsolescence and grows up from the cosy comforts of being an only daughter, the youngest sister to four brothers in a close-knit family to her own woman. She also goes through much conflict when she tries to reconcile her two diametrically-opposite roles - one as an ambitious career woman working in one of New York's fashionable department stores and the other, a more traditional role of being a wife who gives up her career to stay at home. How she resolves her conflict or to be more precise, how the conflict gets resolved forms the rest of the 300-odd page narrative.
There's plenty of cliches - the close-knit Italian family, protective brothers, lavish weddings, innocent sister-in-law and so on. The situations often seemed forced. Like when Lucia's brother blurts out about a curse uttered many years ago at the family dinner table. It seemed such an unnatural construct. Something put there so that the reader may 'know'.
Neither the eponymous character nor any of the other people who populate this novel endear themselves. It was a quick read, mercifully. So I didn't have to wince for long. If you're in New York or have lived in the city, this book may give you insights into life in the city from the '50s. As for the rest of us, why bother?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

In Morality for Beautiful Girls, Mma Ramotswe is called in to investigate a case where a woman is suspected of poisoning her own husband. As this case takes her out of Gaborone, Mma Makutsi, the Assistant Detective at Botswana's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency is left to take charge. She also ends up running the garage owned by Mr J L B Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe's fiance, when he falls ill. Mma Makutsi solves a case on her own involving a beauty pagent and proves her worthiness as a Manager at the garage. There's also the affair involving a small boy who smells of a lion which solves itself satisfactorily.

In Morality.. as with every other book in this series, the author skilfully sketches Mma Ramotswe's character as a person full of conviction in the old Botswana morality and a healthy disdain for modern way of doing things. She resorts to her intuition more than any conventional sleuthing methods to solve the cases entrusted to her.

Botswana plays an important role in all the books and with every additional read, the reader adds another image to his growing collection of this colourful African country. Delightful read.

Please click here and then click on Tuesday's play to listen to a dramatised version of one of Mma Ramotswe's cases. Quick, this is not available online for long.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

One more from the stable of Alexander McCall Smith and the delightful Mma Ramotse of Botswana's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. In the Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma Ramotswe is faced with competition from Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency (ex-CID, ex-Johannesburg, ex-New York, Ex-cellent! boasts their name board). She has to resolve the problems of clients who wish to set right their conscience about past misdoings and clients who suspect their husbands of philandering. In this book, Mma Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe's secretary starts the eponymous Kalahari Typing School for Men and gets romantically involved with one of her students. An involvement which puts Mma Ramotswe in a quandary. But as always, Mma Ramotswe's intuitive intelligence ensures that all situations are negotiated delicately and conclusions arrived at satisfactorily.

The book is strewn with simple home truths. Mma Ramotswe's legendary views on men, books, Africa and the old-Botswana way of life make you hanker for more from this straight-talking, no-nonsense lady. And if you read really carefully, you'll even notice the author in a walk-on part.

I raise my cup of bush tea to you, Mma! One-derful!

Please click here and then click on Tuesday's play to listen to a dramatised version of one of Mma Ramotswe's cases. Quick, this is not available online for long.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I loved Everything’s Illuminated. I was so head-over-heels in love with Jonathan Safran Foer's screw-all-rules style that I would have willingly lapped up anything he dished out in his second offering. So when I saw ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ in the ‘newly arrived’ shelf in my library, I launched head first to grab my copy. I wish I had not got myself into such a frenzy. For, Extremely.. disappoints. It has a number of gimmicks that have come to typify Jonathan’s writing style. Like two pages written entirely in numerals, several illustrations, photographs, misspellings circled and so on. However, instead of amusing you or drawing you in to the narrative, they feel tired. Like an oft-repeated joke that makes you wonder what you found funny in the first place.

Extremely.. is the story of 9-year old Oskar Schell who sets out to find the lock that would open with the key that belongs to his father who was killed in the attack on World Trade Centre. Oskar is a precocious young man (with Asperger’s?) who is everything from a vegan, inventor, pacifist, tambourine player to an amateur-detective and more. His quest to find the lock takes him around New York and his adventures are told in his endearing voice. This has to be the best part of the book. Because, the part about his grandparents who survived the Dresden bombing can be skipped without missing a beat.

This is a sharply-observed, often-poignant, whimsical tale of love, loss and suffering. But it would have endeared itself more had it been told with fewer frills.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

I was on holiday and it was typical British summer's day - wet, windy and depressing. I picked this book up on impulse in an attempt to cheer myself up. As I turned the pages, the sun broke through and I lost myself in Bryson's brilliant book on the quirks and quintessence of Britain. Bryson came to this country as a young man, made it his home for more than 20 years and on the eve of his return to his native America, he makes a farewell trip around the country and discovers what about it makes it so special.
The author spends a good 8 weeks on the road, exploring the nooks and crevices of this small island. He talks us through forgotten monuments, tourist attractions, countless pints of beer, pub dinners, friendly B&Bs, extra-polite strangers, never-in-a-hurry train journeys, red telephone boxes, sniffling drizzly rains, queues, BBC re-runs and many other British facts-of-life.
This has to be one of the funniest books I've read in a while as page after page, Bryson amuses you with his affectionate take on life here. My favourite has to be his observations of town/village names (including a believe-it-or-not Thornton-le-beans!). I was laughing so hard, I cried! You will like it more if you've experienced some of the things he talks about. But even otherwise, it's a grand read. Bound to leave you chuffed.

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

We are back in Botswana with the irrepressible Mma Ramotswe and her band of clients who need Botswana's No.1 Lady detective's astute intelligence in resolving puzzling issues in their lives. In The Full Cupboard of Life, Precious Ramotswe checks out the background of potential suitors for a wealthy woman who has made her fortune running hair-braiding saloons and cleverly maneouvres her fiance Mr. J L B Matekoni out of a sticky situation involving a parachute jump. In this book, we also get to see a little more of Mma Ramotswe's secretary Mma Makutsi and her ambitious little project - the Kalahari Typing School for men.
As always the humour is gentle and Mma Ramotswe and her old-Botswana way of doing things works out favourably. With this book, Mma Ramotswe endears herself a bit more.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

There are those that grow up and there are others who have adulthood thrust upon them. Nick Hornby's hero in High Fidelity belongs to a third group which comprises those who, having been thrust with adulthood, refuse to grow into it. At 35, Rob Fleming runs a failing record store and has just had his girlfriend of five years walk out on him. He has few friends, has a top five list of nearly everything and judges people on their record collection. Rob finds himself at a dead end and from there on goes onto redeem himself and faces up to being 35.

This is a coming-of-middle age story and Rob's transformation is told through a very funny narrative full of self-deprecatory humour. The conversations in the record store between Rob and his friends-employees Barry and Dick being the high point.
Nothing remotely dramatic ever happens in Rob's life. And yet, this is an absorbing book with clever insights into life and home truths some of us prefer to run away from. Pick it up, you won't regret it.

Friday, August 12, 2005

I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson

Kate Reddy seems to have it all. A high-flying career as a hedge fund manager, two young children, a devoted husband, great sense of humour and tremendous energy levels to keep juggling all the balls in air. But does she really? On closer inspection, Kate is frazzled, tired, saddled with tonnes of guilt and falling apart at the seams of her Armani suit. Kate's is our story. The story of modern women who aspire to have it all and realise that that's not part of the menu.

'I Don't Know How She Does It' is an excellent study in the dilemmas facing today's women. Do I get back to work after children? How soon? Am I neglecting my duties as a mother? Isn't my career important? Am I a bad mother for thinking that it is? Did I slave all those years only to give it up at the first sign of a nappy? How come guys are never confronted with these issues? Why is it all so bloody unfair? Am I allowed to think that a strategy meeting is more important than my child's first words? Whatever happened to gender equality? The quality of time spent with children more important than the quantity, isn't it? Is it?

The questions are never-ending and the answers never-simple. The book is told with great empathy laced with laugh-out-loud humour. The author makes you realise that it all comes down to choice. And so often, women don't have many. That, we can have it all. Only not at the same time.

Beg, borrow, buy, give up sleep, cancel meetings and stand up boyfriends if you have to. But read it.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

When this book was first published, it was available in 10 neon-coloured covers. A different coloured cover was featured with each reprinting. That is just one of the several gimmicks featured in Jonathan Safran Foer's clever little debut.

The story is about a young American (in this case, the author himself though it is not told in first person) who goes to Ukraine to trace a woman whom he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. In his quest, he is aided by the memorable Alex, Alex's grandfather and their dog ("seeing-eye bitch") Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. Alex is the same age as Jonathan and is keen to impress him with his command of the English language. His letters to Jonathan where he recounts their adventure (in retrospect) form the best part of the book. Hilarious!

The narrative alternates between Alex's letters and events featuring Jonathan's ancestors from his great-great-great-great grandmother all the way down the Nazi decimation of the ancestral village. The final chapters are often moving and the humour never takes away from the horrors of Second World War.

About the style, Jonathan Safran Foer is a master of the language. And he plays with it much like how a potter would mould clay. Bringing words and phrases alive with wit and imagination. In one of the final chapters, there's one unpunctuated sentence which stretches across three pages so you feel the breathlessness of the rant. In another part, nearly two pages are filled with the words 'we are writing...' and you willingly indulge the author. He breaks all the rules and invites the reader to join him in this new game.

I was loathe to put this book down. It was an all-consuming read. Effortlessly, extraordinarily brilliant.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Puthagam Club discussion

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult is now open for discussion. Please let me know how you liked the read. Let's keep it freewheeling and open. I'll add my review as we go along. It's okay if you haven't read it yet. Just jump in anyway. Thank you.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Garbo Laughs by Elizabeth Hay

We've all known such people in our lives. It may even be us. Those who can relate to movies better than to real life. The Golds and their neighbours who live in a leafy suburb in Ottawa are a bunch of old movie fanatics. Dysfunctional in real life, they come alive while discussing Garbo, Sinatra, Hepburn and Keaton. Even the quotidian existence of everyday suburban life seems sepia-toned in this wry narrative. There isn't much by way of plot but the characters - Harriet and her children - the
ever-comparing, ever-quizzing Kenny and the romantic Jane, journalist and close pal Dinah, Harriet's anti-social aunt Leah, her odd-ball cousin Jack, song-detective Jim, neighbours Fiona and of course, Harriet's non-movie-watching husband Lew make a motley and colourful group. They fight and squabble over who was a better actor and which is a superior movie. They make a ritual of their Friday night movies and that ritual stays despite changing circumstances of their individual lives.
But, if like me, you are not a Hollywood movie buff, much of the references will be lost on you. Eventually, I tired of the tinsel stars and 360 pages seemed a very long read. This one didn't do it for me.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Puthagam Club

I thought it'd be a good idea to start a book club. We pick up a book, one a month, read it and come back to exchange views about it. Simple as that. What say, people? Let's get this rolling from July. The very first Puthagam club choice is...

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Please click on book to buy it on amazon.com

Monday, June 20, 2005

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Precious Ramotswe brews bush tea. Mma Ramotswe runs Botswana's No.1 Ladies' detective agency. She solves problems with an uncanny knack using intuition and unconventional methods. Mma Ramotswe is a warm, big African woman. End of story.

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