Category Archives: Book reviews

Three books, three genres, three great reads

Les Miserables manga book coverLes Miserables – Manga classic

Gorgeous artwork for a classic story adapted into a Manga edition – what more could you ask for? If you’ve never read Les Miserables, or even if you have, you’ll love this book!

Beautiful, expressive character drawings, incredibly detailed scenery, and a true love for the original classic shine through on every page. Of course, not every facet of the classic could be explored in the Manga version, but if you’ve never read the original, chances are, after reading this, you’d want to run out and get your hands on Victor Hugo’s original classic. That, to my mind, is the biggest victory of this beautiful book.

Highly recommended!

Vanessa and Her Sister Priya ParmarVanessa & Her Sister – Priya Parmar

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer. Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.

The story unfolds through Vanessa’s diary entries, interspersed with postcards between Lytton and Leonard, painting a picture of a young Vanessa as she breaks away from stiff formality, embracing a bohemian, non-conformist way of living and entertaining. While she worries about not knowing how many people to prepare sandwiches for and experiencing a slight pang at breaking away from tradition, Virginia seems mostly caught up in her own madness, craving everyone’s attention and going to any lengths to get it.

But since the entire story is told from Vanessa’s point of view, none of the other characters are substantial enough – we see them primarily through her lens. Nor is her “diary” a particularly interesting read. Sure, there are times when she philosophizes a bit, or delves deeper into a problem, but it’s more like reading a chronicle of her daily activities – Julian (her son) was sick; she had to pack up her house and manage the finances even while traveling.

As individual vignettes, there is a lot of interesting detail about life in the early 1900s in London. But as an overall novel, it leaves something to be desired.

When Mystical Creatures Attack! By Kathleen Founds

When Mystical Creatures Attack! Kathleen FoundsThe book opens with essays from Ms. Laura Freedman’s high school English class. They’ve been asked to writes essays about how mystical creatures resolve the greatest sociopolitical problems of our time. And the responses – random, occasionally vague, unique, mysterious, eccentric, magical – set the tone for the rest of the book.

Students include Janice Gibbs, “a feral child with excessive eyeliner and an anti-authoritarian complex that would be interesting were it not so ill-informed,” and Cody Splunk, an aspiring writer working on a time machine. Following a nervous breakdown, Ms. Freedman corresponds with Janice and Cody from an insane asylum run on the capitalist model of cognitive-behavioral therapy, where inmates practice water aerobics to rebuild their Psychiatric Credit Scores.

The lives of the main cast of characters – Janice, Cody, Ms. Freedman – are revealed through class essays, journal prompts, letters, emails, therapeutic journal exercises, an advice column, television transcripts and a Methodist women’s fundraising cookbook.

It’s wholly original and utterly delightful. It has its laugh-out-loud moments and its serious ones; some random ramblings and some crazy teenage hormones. It’s deep and philosophical, profound, strangely moving, and irreverent all at once. Overall, it’s absolutely brilliant!

Highly, highly recommended!

Book Review: Sita’s Curse – The Language of Desire by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu

From the back cover: Trapped for 15 years in the stranglehold of a dead marriage and soulless household domesticity, the beautiful, full-bodied and passionate Meera Patel depends on her memories and her flights of fantasy to soothe the aches that wrack her body…until one cataclysmic day in Mumbai, when she finally breaks free. Bold, brazen and defiant, Sita’s Curse looks at the hypocrisy of Indian society and tells the compelling story of a middle class Indian housewife’s urgent need for love, respect, acceptance – and sexual fulfillment.

What I expected: Simply put: feminist erotica. This is the first book whose book trailer I actually watched. And I had high expectations from it. I thought it would be bold and brazen; daring and defiant; eschewing the stereotype of an Indian “bahu” (wife) and looking, instead, at the woman – at her dreams and hopes; her fight for respect and acceptance in her new household; her flight from the cage that traps her.

What it is: C-grade thrash. Honestly, 50 Shades of Gray was literary manna compared to this.

We have Meera, an innocent village girl, who starts her sexscapade as a child with her twin Kartik, moves on to underage sex with her dance teacher, girl-on-girl sex with the daughter of her father’s associate, and then has sex with a stranger on a riverbank before she’s pushed into a loveless marriage with Mohan.

Now Mohan, despite trying really hard, just cannot get it up. So in between pleasuring herself, Meera has sex with their guruji, indulges in voyeuristic behavior by spying on her brother-in-law having sex with his wife, bangs the dance teacher in her colony, and then discovers the joys of internet porn. And on that “cataclysmic day in Mumbai”, she calls her chat room lover to a seedy hotel in Colaba where she discovers that maybe she is in love with the gigolo.

And if you’re wondering where Sita fits in all of this – you’re not alone. I have the same question. Apart from the fact that Meera played the role of Sita every year on Dusserha, Sita has nothing much to do in the book. Except to cringe at this gross misuse of her name.

By now I am sure you can surmise that you will have to hunt for the plot with a magnifying glass. The sex will not titillate you – it will disgust you. And feminists everywhere are most probably seething at having this book labelled “feminist erotica”.

Final verdict: Give this one a miss

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

{S} Book review: Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant

From the back cover:

Servants of the Goddess weaves together the heartbreaking, yet paradoxically life affirming stories of five devadasis – Women, in the clutches of an ancient fertility cult, forced to serve the gods. Catherine Rubin Kermorgant sets out attempting to make a documentary film about the lives of present-day devadasis. Through her, we meet and get to know the devadasi women of Kalyana, a remote village in Karnataka. As they grow to trust Kermorgant and welcome her as an honorary sister, we hear their stories in their own words, stories of oppression and violence, but more importantly, of resistance and resilience. Kermorgant becomes a part of these stories and finds herself unwittingly enmeshed in a world of gender and caste bias which extends far beyond Kalyana, all the way to Paris, where the documentary is to be edited and produced. Servants of the Goddess is a testament to women’s strength and spirit and a remarkably astute analysis of gender and caste relations in today’s rural India.

My view:

Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin KermorgantFor some reason, I thought that the cult of devadasis was over. I was wrong. Through this eye-opening book, Kermorgant draws the readers’ attention to devadasis and their plight.

Forced into the tradition due to poverty, kept there due to their superstitious beliefs, devadasis have largely been pushed out of temples except during traditional pujas and ceremonies. They’re forced into a life of prostitution, plying their bodies either in their village or in red light districts in Mumbai and Delhi. And every year, thousands of girls are dedicated to the system, a majority of them by their own families.

The book shows us glimpses of their life and their beliefs, but it falls somewhat short.

I tend to compare any book of this nature with Mayank Austin Soofi’s absolutely brilliant Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. He creates an emotional connect with the people who populate his pages – right from the prostitutes to the pimp – without moralizing or philosophizing. And this is exactly what Kermorgant’s book lacks. It reads more like an essay on “this is why I could not present my documentary the way I wanted to – the reason: an Indian partner who could not overcome his prejudice against untouchables and devadasis.” And so, she portrays herself and only one of her translators as sympathetic to the devadasi cause, while everyone else was blinkered and blinded by their own prejudices. And while that may be true, her constant lament against them takes away from the hard-hitting story that this could have been.

The sad thing is that there are kernels of hard-hitting writing throughout, but they get lost in her larger narrative of the documentary shooting and editing process. Had she focused on the devadasis, telling us about their lives and their stories, the book would have had a much more profound impact.

Having said that, I would still recommend this book – just go into it knowing that there are hiccups to the tale.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: The Hunt for Kohinoor by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

Art historian Mehrunisa is back. This time, the fight is more personal – finding the Kohinoor (a set of documents that will help India to avert a major terrorist attack) is the only way she can be reunited with her father, a man she thought was dead. Thrust into the high pressure world of espionage, where no one is as they seem, Mehrunisa finds herself in Pakistan, trying to hunt down the Kohinoor.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Babur Khan – a hard-lined jihadi who enforces strict Sharia laws and promises to get rid of the Poppy pashas and infidel Americans –is also hunting for the Kohinoor to ensure that India doesn’t get its hands on the document.
Also thrown into the mix is the CIA, who are also after the Kohinoor as it could help them in the war against terror.
Against these formidable opponents, will Mehrunisa be able to find the Kohinoor in time? And if she does, will she be able to get it to the RAW commanders in time?
Someshwar delivers another fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat thriller with some interesting history, Pashtun culture, and a bit of geo-politics thrown in. I have only one complaint with the book – the American side of the story wasn’t developed at all. The agonizing of the American station chief and the tension she built up as the American spy was to fly out from Afghanistan wasn’t followed up in the rest of the novel. The American spy makes a fleeting appearance in Pakistan – and the station chief gets a passing mention towards the middle of the novel. In an otherwise well-plotted story, this was the biggest lose end. Despite this, it is an interesting read, and I will be looking forward to Mehrunisa’s next adventure!

Book review: Exposure by Sayed Kashua

“The moment the lawyer opened his eyes he knew he’d be tired for the rest of the day. He wasn’t sure whether he’d heard it on the radio or read it in the newspaper, but he’d come across a specialist who described sleep in terms of cycles. Often the reason people are tired, the specialist explained, was not due to insufficient sleep but rather a sudden awakening before the cycle had run its course. The lawyer did not know anything about the cycles – their duration, their starting point, their ending point…”

exposure_sayed_kashuaStarting slowly, languidly, Kashua sketches the plot and characters in broad, bold, sweeping strokes.

There’s the lawyer, an Arab-Israeli with a thriving practice and an image to uphold, driving around in his luxury Mercedes, with a fancy house in a pricey neighborhood, monthly dinner meetings followed by a salon discussion, where the menu is decided on the basis of the impression it will create on guests. So when it is their turn to host dinner, the lawyers’ wife decides to serve sushi from the most expensive Japanese eatery, Sakura. That is also the day the lawyer’s life starts to crumble. Because before picking up the sushi, the lawyer stopped at a bookstore, where he picked up a second-hand copy of The Kreutzer Sonata, in the pages of which he finds a love letter written in Arabic…in his wife’s hand.

Then there’s Amir, a young, painfully shy social worker who recently completed his degree and started working at a clinic in the Arab sector. His room mates hold down two jobs to make ends meet, which means he’s almost always home alone. In desperation, he agrees to takes up a second job – as a night-time care taker for a comatose young Jew. Then along comes Leila, a young intern with whom he falls in love. But being as painfully shy as he is, instead of saying anything to her, one day he just puts in his resignation and leaves his day job. Soon, his room mate decides to go back to his village, and now all he has is Yonatan, the young comatose Jew he is taking care of. So he starts spending his days roaming around the city and his nights going through Yonatan’s things, learning more about this Jewish boy he is looking after.

The novel raises a lot of questions – Can you change the value system that you were brought up in, where a woman’s honor is a direct reflection of yours? What is identity – a name, a nationality, a piece of paper? Can you unlearn how to be an Arab? Become something else – maybe a Jew – instead? To what extent does your imagination play up, what scenarios does it build, do you believe your imagination more than the facts that are laid out in front of you? Is there an end to suspicion and jealousy?

Some of these questions are answered. Some are questions you, as a reader, have to answer yourself. And some questions will haunt you long after you finish reading the book.

Masterful, immensely believable, a look into a different culture, a land that’s still in strife, a novel of love, loss, life…lies, deceit, betrayal…rising from the ashes and never being able to free yourself from the chains that bind you.

In a nutshell: Very highly recommended!