Archive | February 2014

The House of Blue Mangoes- David Davidar : 16/52

Tamil movie meets a rambling mega soap opera

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Maybe it should have been three different books. A trilogy or something.

Chevathar. Having watched endless Tamil movies with caste wars, this part of the book played in my head as a Thevar Magan-like movie with Kamal Hassan playing Solomon Dorai and Napolean as Muthu Vedhar. Detailed descriptions and lyrical prose bring the entire village to life, but somehow, the characters fail to linger in your mind. Solomon isn’t built on a solid foundation. His role in the book ends too quickly and though it is his legacy that is supposedly carried over in the next two sections, you don’t feel his presence anywhere. I expected a little more about Joshua, but he came and went in a flash. It is strange that caste wars don’t get even a passing mention in the other two sections of the book.

Doraipuram. The only character  I really liked was Aaron. The accidental Freedom Fighter. Daniel wasn’t a well chalked out character. I couldn’t place what exactly he was or what he wanted to be. Did he want to be the thalaivar or not? Was Doraipuram his dream or his ego trip? Was he a dedicated doctor or just an eccentric rich man who got lucky? It seemed very contrived, the way the settlement was built and populated. Characters just popped in and out without giving you the opportunity to actually know them. That gossiping woman who had an entire chapter dedicated to her, I read the book two days ago but seem to have forgotten her name already. Such forgettable pieces of characters.

Pulimed. Was the tiger woven into the tale just to give the name of the place more impact? Or did the author just remember the Jim Corbett book he read long ago and decide to plug it in? If this had been a separate book, it would have had more weight. The brown man in a white man’s domain with an inbetween wife having an identity crisis. Life in a remote tea estate tucked in a corner of South India when Britain was at war and India was on the cusp of independence was very well described. But again, Kannan aka Thirumoolan isn’t someone you’d remember or quote long after you’ve finished the book.

A lot of Tamil words and references have been peppered in. I wonder how non Tamil readers, leave alone non Indian readers can relate. Calling this book an epic or a saga or any other cliched term is an exaggeration, but it is worth a read if you have a lot of time and no expectations.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction : 15/52

When I was growing up, a certain kind of books were widely popular among the typist akkas who worked in the small tea companies in my neighbourhood. They would always have a slim book with a large eyed woman on the cover next to their typewriters. These books were traded back and forth and at some point, the women on the covers would have been embellished with ballpoint pen bindis, additional tendrills of hair and sometimes moustaches or blackened teeth. Ay Naaval Time. There was something in these books. Something. So I left my brains behind and read this translated anthology. And oh, it was one crazy ride.

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The Women: ( Except for the ones in the two sensible Vidya Subramaniam stories)

a) Good ‘family’ women never cut their hair, not even split ends. They get terribly disturbed when they see PDA and the degradation of Indian/ Tamil culture. ‘Modern’ women go to beauty parlours, cut their hair, wear ‘chudithars’, gossip about film stars and some even try to seduce their bosses.

b) When the clue to a murder is a cigarette butt, Tamil women can be eliminated as suspects because they will never even be in a room where there is a cigarette, let alone smoke. ( But on the other side there are also college girls who do drugs and sleep around)

c) They silently bear their husbands’ insults and make cashew pakodas for them

d) There are also ‘free type’ women, the detective’s sidekicks,  who wear shorts and T-shirts with words like ‘Swelling yours’ (ewwwww) written on them. They talk about Debonair and take sleazy innuendos in their stride.

Science Fiction : Idhaya 2020 made me wonder which came first Endhiran or Rajesh Kumar’s robot. And there were Fate Life Readers. But by the time I read the story with NASA astronauts planning conception in outer space, my mind was blown.

The Detective stories : Take a bow Sherlock Holmes. Murders solved from carefully written diary entries, torn magazine covers,  beedi butts under the bed and jasmine scented hankerchieves, again, conveniently dropped under the bed. But I must cut them some slack since one of these stories was written in 1967.

Words :  Most of the words and expressions were explained for non-Tamil readers in the glossary at the end of the book. So you need not wonder what a ragalai or kuja is. But this one word, one that I would love to use in a real life conversation someday, wasn’t explained: Jagadalapradhapan. I’ve been rolling it around on my tongue ever since I read it. 

While I would not buy the next volume of this anthology, I recommend this one. Pulp Fiction deserves its rightful place in Tamil Literature and this book gives you the right sized bite of it.

The Testament of Mary- Colm Tóibín :14/52

A book by Mary the mother, not Mother Mary.

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First, this book made me realise how much I miss the feel of a real book. The soft, powdery- velvetty-silken feel of the cover was enough to make me put aside my current ebook and start reading this. The denim blue was a refreshing change from the usual sky blue you normally associate Mary with.

Sometimes in soft whispers, sometimes agitated , sometimes in painfully controlled agony. This book spoke in several voices.  When reading Zealot, I somehow thought of Jesus as a Naxalite ( In a positive way, of course) Here again, that’s how I found him. Zealous, revolutionary and so blinded by The Cause that he pushed ahead fearlessly, unaware of his mother’s concern for him. And  the fierce way in which his followers were determined to carry on his legacy, come what may, made him seem even more so. And Mary is just a mother. A mother worried about her son’s companions and his transformation when in their company. Scared when she finds out that he is being watched by the authorities. Protective when she sees the crowds he draws. Confused when she hears about the miracles he performs. And afraid for his life.

The name is never uttered in the book. But of course, you know. She finds it difficult to come to terms with what he has become, with what people see in him. She wishes for a miracle that lets her go back in time and redeem her son, get back those moments with her helpless little baby and naughty little boy. She describes a quiet Sabbath day with her family when he was a child, and you ache for her.  She speaks of her husband, and how she misses him. A person who has never played an active role  in the other book. She worries for Lazarus, the one we only know as raised from the dead.She worries about his health, his mental state and his newly acquired show object status. The relationship between her and Mary, Lazarus’ sister makes you wonder about something that seems obvious, but remains unsaid. There’s the heavy ache of sadness that runs throughout the book.

And somehow, after she takes you through those last moments, her torment and her account of the events that followed, the cynic in me actually began to believe.

Kaleidoscope- Danielle Steel :13/52

This was the first Danielle Steel I read, feeling all grown up at 17. I remember weeping throughout the book and this was one story that stayed with me even after I got over my Danielle Steel phase. So I revisited it after all these years. And not surprisingly, I wasn’t choking up as much this time.

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A love story that begins in the midst of the second world war ends in a tragedy with the man strangling his wife in a fit of anger and then committing suicide. Their three daughters get separated, two of them adopted and the eldest one ending up drifting from foster homes to juvenile hall. And hardened by the horrors of ill-treatment, rape and apathy, Hilary grows up seemingly cold and unfeeling. As with all Danielle Steel women, you have the rich , posh and titled Alexandra, married to a man decades older, dripping diamonds and designers. Megan who was a baby when separated is a doctor with not much of a back story.  Arthur Patterson comes across as the helpless henpecked wimp, but you don’t understand why Hilary hates him so much until she reveals a shocking secret towards the end, when he’s on his deathbed. John Chapman, the investigator hired to find and reunite the three sisters is again, the classic Danielle Steel hero, all sensitive and caring and gets conveniently coupled in the end.

Maybe because it was the second time reading it, or maybe because I’ve outgrown hardcore chicklit, this book didn’t do much for me this time.

(Another series  that I loved back then and feel like rereading are the books by Claire Lorrimer. The Chatelaine, The Wilderling and something else. Should try to get hold of them in some library. They’re too expensive here )

Hallways in the Night – R.C. O’Leary :12/52

Sometimes you stumble across a good book or a new author in the most unexpected way. I met Andaleeb Wajid through a Twitter conversation about kichda.  R C O’Leary somehow got to this blog and he was kind enough to send me his novel as a Kindle gift. And so I spent the weekend in a courtroom with Remo Centrella and Dave Mackno and I must say, it was a weekend well spent.

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An arrogant, steroid pushing baseball player gets killed by a cop. Self defense, he says. But when there’s 45 million dollars involved, a clean self defense claim doesn’t fully cut it. So what we have is an edge of the seat legal battle that makes you keep turning the pages till the very end. I love American legal dramas, be it reruns of The Practice or John Grisham novels. I don’t know if I am being fair to the author by saying that this was like a Grisham, but it was. And some more. The characters were well formed and I actually didn’t take sides till the end. I wavered back and forth throughout the trial. Did Dave Mackno overreact? Was he driven by his own ghosts from the past? At one point you want him to win, and a few pages later, you wonder if he should.

There are little backstories for all the characters, one of which becomes a vital twist towards the end. The book touches on some relevant and sensitive topics like the identity crisis that the African American lawyer goes through, how the internet broke a family and of course, the usage of steroids in sports ( Made me wonder why we never ever hear of steroid use in cricket. Could Slapgate have been ‘roid rage?) And then there was even a dumb witness who actually named his kid after Hulk Hogan!

A totally unputdownable book. Looking forward to the sequel.

Nope. No Kindle for me.

Update: A couple of months after I wrote this post I succumbed to an offer on Amazon and bought the Kindle Paperwhite. I love it to bits. I hope it forgives me for this nasty post below

I was one of those people who swore by physical books. I never ever thought that I’d go the e way until I bought my Samsung Galaxy Tab. And then the Kobo and Kindle app happened making me an an instant convert. I devoured books day and night, in the darkness and in the light. But as awesome as it was, reading on the tablet did have a lot of limitations. It was too distracting. With the internet on, I kept checking my social networks every ten minutes, sometimes live tweeting the book. Without the internet on, there was always Candy Crush tempting me with Just-One-More-Level. It was too bulky to carry around and too delicate to rough it out on a train journey. And reading in the dark was too stressful on my eyes. So I decided to become a hardcore ebook reader and get my Kindle.

Going by the numerous reviews of the Kindle Paperwhite, it seemed like it was the ultimate reading device . There was not a single negative review that I came across. So I put it in my Amazon cart and almost clicked on Buy.  And then, I had second thoughts. So I borrowed a Kindle from my friend to try it out for a few days before investing almost Rs. 14000 on one.

And I’m glad I did.

After a week with a Kindle Paperwhite, I decided that it was not for me. Am I the only one or are these issues that bug other people too?

The Refresh Issue:

Maybe the time lag between page turns is less than a second and a lot lesser than the time taken to turn a page on a physical book. But it irritated me to no end. After experiencing the smooth page transitions on the tablet, that blink that happens for a fraction of a second on each page turn was so annoying. But that wasn’t the worst part. Every sixth page, the screen would turn black and then white again. On pages with tables or pictures, it was worse. This is supposedly an e-ink thing. All the online forums that discussed it said that I would ‘get used to it’. But I don’t think I ever could. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. I would brace myself for that sixth page blackout even before I turned the first page. Adjust your blinking pattern , you’ll get used to it they say! I’m outraged that people would even suggest such a thing.

And this black blink happens on every single touch when you handle the menu. Extremely irritating.

Size 

Yes, it is compact. It is thinner than a pencil, lighter than a paperback and it even fits in the back pocket of your jeans. But seriously, who carries around a Kindle in the back pocket of their jeans? Everyone slips it into a bulky and bigger cover. Some use a leather case, some a padded cloth pouch, some even a hardwood box. So why that stingy 6 inches? Why not the dimensions of a small paperback. And extra inch of screen space would have made such a difference to me. ( The iPad Mini has the best dimensions )

Page numbering

The Kobo app is really great when it comes to page numbering. It gives you the page x/n at the bottom of each page. Makes reading more pleasurable. You can tell yourself, five more pages to go and then I’ll sleep. But the Kindle has the weirdest way of showing your progress. Location 3 of 5760. 1%.  Why not a simple page this of that? Now imagine reading A Suitable Boy on the Kindle.

Cover design

Ok. I am shallow. I like pretty covers. I can accept the fact that the covers on the Kindle will be in black and white, but why have the same cover as the actual book? It makes your collection look so ugly. Like those photocopied textbooks with blurry black and white photographs. Why not have different covers for the Kindle (or any eformat) versions with crisper, sharper black and white images? Look at the cover of the book Kite Strings. That is the kind of cover I am taking about. It should work on both the colour screens and the black and white ones. Here is my collection on the Kindle app on the tablet vs the collection on the Kindle. Can you blame me for wanting pretty things?

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Flexibility

There was an offer on the Play Store and I got a bunch of books free. Flipkart gave me a bunch at a discount. I have a whole set of books from the Kobo store. I have a stash of pirated books. I have author friends who send me manuscripts in a Word doc or official documents  that run into several pages that I convert into epub or mobi using Calibre. How do I read all those on my Kindle? I can convert a few an transfer to the device, but not all. It seems unfair that I would need a different app or an eReader for each format. Why not allow me to upload my entire collection whether I bought it from Amazon or not on the Amazon cloud and access them on my device? Piracy and all that, I know. But still.

Price

Almost Rs.13000 for a device (with all the limitations above) that you use only for reading books? Slightly pricey don’t you think? And they don’t even throw in a charger for free.

So tomorrow, I will return the Kindle to my friend and remove the item from my Amazon cart. I’ll put cucumber slices on my eyes after a night of reading on my tablet. Maybe I’ll uninstall Candy Crush. And I’ll wait until Amazon can give me a better Kindle. For less than half the price of this one. I’m like that.

More Than Just Biryani- Andaleeb Wajid : 11/52

A book that makes your mouth water and stomach growl

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Food.

It starts off with soft, crispy shaamis, rice and dal and ends with a comfort food called kichda. And in between there’s gajar ka halwa, different kinds of lauz, kutt, prawn masala and even halwa made out of bottlegourd. And of course, there’s biryani.

But this book is More Than Just Food. There are women.  Four women, four lives.

When the book was launched, the author asked readers not to rush through the book and instead read it slowly and savour each word. And though I polished it off in just two days, slow is how this book is to be enjoyed. It takes you from the hot summers of Vellore in the late 50s to the odd smelling air of Hong Kong in 2010 through the lives of three generations of women

There is magic in the browning of onions, the sinful sugary goodness of lauz  in the comfort of kichda and even in the perfect tea. Ordinary lives made extra ordinary through everyday food.  Food that helps Tahera cope with loss, food that redeems Ruqayya from the being ostracized for hating to cook, food that helps Zubi cope with the invisible torment that has been haunting her all her life.

I loved the way the little things that make women women have been explored in this book. From Tahera’s uncontrollable hostility towards Suman, Suman’s patient eagerness to fit in, Ruqayya’s seemingly shocking independent streak, Nadira’s quiet acceptance of her life, Zubi’s fierce resolve never to become her mother right to Sonia’s silly little crush, small emotions add up and make this book a delightful read.

And once you’re done reading this book, believe me, you’ll head straight to the kitchen.