Take up the challenge to expand your interests this year

I think most of us have certain interests/hobbies/pastimes right? Reading, music, star gazing, gaming, photography, and so on. And what most of the passionate ones have likely done is, say music lovers, bought and downloaded music online, bought records from shops, attended every gig in cafes in their city, attended the city’s annual music fest, and maybe attended a concert of an international artist or DJ if they happen to live in one of those cultural cities.

What next?

Now challenge yourself to take your interest a step further. For the passionate music lover bloke we just talked about above, look beyond your city and experience your interest someplace else. No city or country is like the other. Even the same thing can be perceived differently by your friend. The thing about art, music, literature or anything for that matter is that everything is open to interpretation, which manifests in change, resulting in a certain unique outcome to a particular group of people, or region.

Art, music, and literature are also a form of expression of a region and its people, reflecting the way of life, sociopolitical scenarios, and issues plaguing society.

My pastime is reading books. I either buy them online or borrow them from libraries. I generally read books whose synopsis interests me, is a literary prize-winner, or maybe a bestseller. I have been recently pondering over how I could take my reading interest further this year. Read 100 books this year? Join a book club? Choose one author and read all their works? Or save up to attend a literary fest?

I’ve decided to do none of them now thanks to a TED talk I heard yesterday by writer Ann Morgan on “My reading a book from every country in the world.” Her inspiration for this project came from the realization that she mainly possessed books from English-speaking countries. I love her ambition and project, so I’m going to follow in baby footsteps; set the goal to read a few books this year from different parts of the world.

If any of you are interested in charting Ann’s journey or looking for recommendations, you can take help from the interactive maps provided on go.ted.com/readtheworld. You can find book recommendations from 196 countries along with a short review from the writer.

Follow your heart, your interests, and let them take you to wonderful places and new experiences.

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly: Book review

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A beautiful book. Have to admit, I teared up several times while reading it. It’s soulful, poetic, heart-rending, melancholic, yet triumphant.

One is instantly connected to the lead character, Spout, an egg-laying hen whose soul desire is to hatch an egg of her own:

“She had no desire to lay another egg. Her heart emptied of feeling every time the farmer’s wife took her eggs…She couldn’t so much as touch her own eggs, not even with the tip of her foot, And she didn’t know what happened to them after the farmer’s wife carried them in her basket out of the coop.”

Sprout fantasizes about a jolly life out in the open, frolicking in the fields, mingling with the other barnyard animals and birds, and becoming a mother. A day comes when she falls sick and is unable to lay eggs. Useless to the farmer, she is thrown into the “Hole of death” for the weasel to devour. Luckily, she survives and is coaxed out of the pit by a mallard duck, the only barn occupant who befriends her but being at the bottom of the pecking order is unable to help her as she gets kicked out of the barn by the others.

Henceforth begins a daunting and adventurous journey for Sprout; a journey best explained in the meaning of her name:

“Sprout is the best name in the world. A sprout grew into a leaf and embraced the wind and the sun before falling and rotting and turning into mulch for bringing fragrant flowers into bloom.”

As she sadly leaves the barn, she soon discovers an abandoned egg, fulfils her dreams of hatching one, and spends the rest of her life defending her “baby” from the weasel. Interestingly, like most readers I presume, I looked at the relationship between the hen and her baby as successfully capturing the essence of motherhood; however, the South Korean author, Sun-Mi Hwang says she drew inspiration from her impression of her dad.

Written as a children’s book, it was observed with skepticism as the lead character is killed off at the end.

“And then, like a feather, she was aloft. Gliding through the air with her large, beautiful wings, Sprout looked down at everything below—the reservoir and the fields in a snowstorm, and the weasel limping away, a scrawny hen dangling from her jaws.”

Elucidating on this, the author in an interview opines, “Sprout did everything she wanted to in life. She went out and saw the world. It was hard, but she raised a child like she wanted to. She went up against everything one can in life and persevered. You can’t call that a sad ending. I wrote it believing that all things die. We don’t accept that as sad.”

I definitely recommend this book to every adult.  Only 134 pages long, grab your tea mug, a blanket, and read away.

(Don’t forget to keep a box of tissues at hand).

The girl with the white flag

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On 25th June 1945, a young, barefooted Japanese girl in tattered clothes walks towards the beach waving a piece of white cloth tied to a crooked stick. World War II is about to end and the Japanese at the war-torn island of Okinawa are surrendering to American troops after a battle which had lasted for 83 days without respite.

Year’s later, Tomiko Higa, now 39, chances upon the black & white photo of herself holding the white flag in an illustrated English book about World War II. After years of silence, she decides it’s finally time to speak out about her traumatic experience as a young 5-year-old, who torn from family is forced to fend for herself in a war-ravaged country, filled with weary refugees and militant soldiers.

Of the photo, she recollects a man with red cheeks pointing something at her and fears it’s a gun. Behind the lens is John Hendrickson, a young American army signal corps, commissioned to capture photos of the surrender to be later used for war-time documentation.

The girl with the white flag is a captivating and moving autobiography which paints a poignant image of civilian fear, helplessness, loss, anxiety and death in the face of war. This simple, raw, and brutally honest eyewitness account will pull all the strings of your heart as it did mine. It’s definitely worth a read.

Oscar Wilde & the Ring of Death

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 A classic English murder mystery and with Oscar Wilde in the title, Gyles Brandreth gave me two good enough reasons to pick up his book.

 I’m familiar with Oscar Wilde’s work such as Being Earnest and Picture of Dorian Grey, so seeing one of the greatest characters of the Victorian age being portrayed as a detective had me intrigued.

 The Ring of Death is second in a series and has a fairly simple plot: A dinner party, a parlor game by the name ‘murder’ and the gradual demise of the victims. With Oscar Wilde and his wife also listed as intended victims towards the end, Wilde is running against the clock to catch the murderer.

 In comparison to all the other sleuths like Poirot for instance whose analytical deductions are stellar, Wilde with all his wit and charm cannot quite fill in the shoes. There is no ‘aha’ moment and even towards the end when Wilde is exposing the murderers’ names, his listeners seem disinterested; even Wilde’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) is in a hurry to rush home than stay on for the final curtain raiser.

 Rather than stocking up everything on Wilde, Gyles could have used Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker to add more substance and thrill to solving the murders.  

 What is impressive is that Gyles gives us an unforgettable history lesson on fin-de-siecle (end of the century) London; the social and political history of the period and the life of Oscar Wilde. The entire series actually unravels bit by bit events in the extraordinary life of Oscar Wilde from his hey days to his ultimate downfall- imprisonment & exile. 

 And if ever I remember historic names, then this book does the trick with Gyles impressive list of non-fiction characters such as Lord Alfred Douglas, Walter Sickert, Charles Brookfield, the Marquess of Queensberry, and Robert Sherard. If only all the great literary characters had a novel of their own, I would have aced my history tests!

 If you’re an avid Oscar Wilde fan, then this series will definitely be worth your while. 

 

Uncoupled by Lizzie Enfield

I was at the Delhi Book Fair last week reveling in a sea of foreign and Indian publishers; some which took me back to my school days and others I dream to work with one day.

I ended up buying two novels from the Hachette booth; one a sappyUncoupled  sentimental novel (c’mon, a girl needs to cry over a fictional love story once in a while!) and the other a thriller. I also nicked a few stickers and badges from off the counter. (The badges are absolutely of no use to me esp. one’s which say ‘I heart Edward Cullen’ but who ever passes up on a freebie?!)

I’ve just finished reading Lizzie Enfield’s Uncoupled and it left me more or less just going hmmphh! Sadly not a love story to cry over, the story is of Holly, a 40+ mother of two, having a looker-of-a-husband, a demanding job at a radio station and an incident that changes her life completely.

The gist: One day. One journey. Lives changed forever.

Holly is on a London-bound train to work when it is hit by another train and her compartment gets uncoupled. The story unfolds from here with Lizzie tackling the issue of survivor syndrome through Holly’s narrative and through the diary entries of Anne-Marie, who lost her husband on the day of the train crash.

Holly is one of the lucky few who gets away uninjured and moves on with her life as one who really can’t complain about being traumatised. However her life does get unhinged that day just like the train carriage; distancing herself from her caring family and seeking solace in a stranger who was with her the day of the crash. A train blackout one day causes her to panic and rethink her life, finally bringing everything into perspective.

The story starts out fine, we are pulled into Holly’s world, the survivor syndrome is tackled very well but towards the end nearly every couple mentioned in the story is facing some sort of fictional liaison which becomes quite overbearing.

So hmmphhh!

I did learn some new foreign words though which do not have a similar word in English: fresser: Yiddish word for someone who eats too quickly, chantepleurer: French word for singing and crying at the same time, latterkrampe: Norwegian word for convulsive laughter, ikabaebae: meaning engaged from childhood in some Pacific Island language and schadenfreude: German word for delighting in someone else’s misfortune.

Since I love the satisfaction of taking away something new from an experience, even new words from a book, I’m not going to dismiss this novel entirely.

While most reviewers are giving it a 2/5, I’m going to notch it up to 2.5/5 🙂

 

The Swan Thieves

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W.B. Yeats is one of my favourite poets mainly because I find his descriptions so powerfully vivid and captivating:

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

[Excerpt from The Second Coming]

When I read the title of Elizabeth Kostova’s second novel- The Swan Thieves– I was reminded of Yeats Leda and the Swan. Once a literature student, a Yeats fan and a lover of mystery fiction and historical novels, I had all the reasons to get started on the lengthy 564 page novel.

Robert Oliver is a famous artist who attempts to stab a painting called ‘Leda’ in a museum and is soon committed to the care of psychiatrist, Dr Marlow. His surly silence forces the doctor to investigate the events leading up to Oliver’s seemingly inexplicable crime; a unknownjourney that will lead him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and toward a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.

While the book has attracted polarizing reviews regarding the plot, narrative style, characters and final summarization, I personally liked this book. A first-time reader of Kostova’s work, I enjoyed the plot development and her brilliant use of the dual narrative but have to agree that it could have been a hundred pages shorter.  sisley545

I’m now tempted to read Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, mainly because the lacklustre reviews The Swan Thieves received came from ardent admirers of this book.

I strongly recommend you pick up The Swan Thieves next time you’re at a book store and well, maybe, before you read The Historian 😉

 

 

 

 

Picture Bride

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I first came across the term ‘picture bride’ in a book review of The Buddha in the Attic written by American author Julie Otsuka. The term sounds beautiful doesn’t it; as if describing the picture-perfect woman in the photograph: beautiful, coy, radiating youthful innocence. But alas, was I wrong!

The term picture bride refers to a match-making practice in the early 20th century, where immigrant workers, mainly Japanese and Korean working in the United States and Hawaii, sent a picture of themselves back to their native countries where a matchmaker would select a bride for them.

Handsome young men stared out of the photographs with dark eyes, smooth and unblemished skin, straight noses, some standing in front of houses with white picket fences and mowed lawns and some leaning against fancy cars.

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A shy glance at the handsome youth in the picture, a nod of approval, her name entered into her husband’s family registry that consolidates her marriage, and travel documents in hand, she would sit on a boat and dream of her future husband and the life of blissful fulfillment waiting for her.

“On the boat we often wondered: Would we like them? Would we love them? Would we recognize them from the pictures when we first saw them on the dock?”  – Excerpt from The Buddha in the Attic

Japanese women at a flower show in America, 1930.

Who stood waiting for these women on those alien shores? Handsome husbands in striking suits and gray frock coats or a bunch of men in knit caps and shabby black coats that bore no resemblance to the photographs which were taken twenty years ago?

This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.”   – Excerpt from The Buddha in the Attic

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The Buddha in the Attic is a moving rendition of the personal experiences of Japanese picture brides. Julie Otsuka has a wonderful literary style that is half poetry, half narration. She incredibly captures images and emotions in short phrases and sparse descriptions- unfolding a series of scenes and telling a story in frozen moments.

Although I thought I’d tire of the prose, the book reads beautifully and I’d recommend it for a lazy day where you can read it at one good stretch.

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