A good read

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.

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