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Ragtime- E L Doctorow :32/52

Is it history? Is it fiction? Is it historical fiction? Fictional history? Well, it is a little bit of everything. And then some.

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The twentieth century has just been born and current events are creating history. The New World is filling up with immigrants from across the world, immigrants pouring into the streets with their hopes and shattered dreams; the lucky ones sleeping in one room houses without heat, the unlucky ones dropping dead on the streets. Socialism and anarchism are trying hard to make their mark in America,  the champions of the causes are being silenced with quick efficiency. Freud visits America and hates it. A young father ties his daughter to his waist, terrified that he will lose her, as he cuts silhouettes and sells them in street corners. Evelyn Nesbit’s husband has just killed her lover. She entertains herself with acquired motherhood, and becomes obsessed with taking care of the little girl. Emma Goldman is making fiery speeches across the country and takes a heartbroken Evelyn Nesbit under her wing, trying to make an independent woman of her.

The moving assembly line has just been discovered and and  workers with unused brains are churning out cars by the dozen. The rich and famous are getting their dose of entertainment through disfigured human beings. Harry Houdini is at his peak, insecure and disillusioned that he is not actually doing something useful for society, mourning his dead mother like a madman. J P Morgan is convinced that Henry Ford is an Egyptian god reincarnated. And in this America, in a small town called New Rochelle there lives the family of Father, Mother, the boy, Mother’s Younger Brother and ailing Grandfather.

Father’s long absence during his North Pole expedition with Peary has tilted the equations and Mother develops a newfound confidence and a taste for Egyptian furnishings. Father is confused, angry but helpless against the circumstances. Mother’s Younger Brother, as directionless as a loose kite, looks for answers in Evelyn Nesbit’s bed at first and then he discovers his true calling in fighting someone else’s battles. A brown baby is dug up from the earth, alive. The baby’s mother comes looking for the baby and the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker, comes looking for both of them.

You know that cliched saying about terrorists not being born, but being created by you and me? That. Coalhouse Walker is this negro who doesn’t realise that he should behave like one. So when some jealous white firemen bully him and vandalise his car, he does the right thing: he goes to the authorities. But the snowball becomes an avalanche and before you know it, he is bombing firehouses across the city to be heard, to have his only demand of getting his car fixed and the vandal arrested met. And finally, he takes us back to J P Morgan’s library; but this time, instead of Henry Ford for company, there is dynamite.

And back to current events of the day, Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated. The rest, as they say, is history.

A patchwork quilt. Loved it.

Thank you The Visitor for the recommendation.

 

 

 

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The Betrayal- Helen Dunmore :24/52

Got Readers Block this April. I was somehow not able to sit down with a book. And then I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Yes, inspite of this rant, I went ahead and got one. And yes, I’m loving it.

Inaugurated it with The Betrayal.

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The Siege made me cold and depressed, The Betrayal made me frustrated and angry.

Ten years after The Siege, Anna, Andrei and Kolya live a happy contended life. The horrors of the siege and the war are slowly fading away and they look forward to the small joys of life like a lazy weekend at the dacha and the hospital ball. And then terror strikes again, this time in the form of stupidity. Yes, there is no other word to describe it, and I shudder when I realise that this kind of stupidity is not just pure fiction.

Andrei gets pulled into treating a little boy with a cancerous growth, the boy being the son of a highly placed dangerous police officer with the MGB. Cancer does its thing and the father, a paranoid Stalin era idiot, sees conspiracy. He sees saboteurs, spies , Jews and everything else in a what is infact a disease that god, a god they are not allowed to believe in, is to be blamed for.

The book takes you into the depths of the horror that is the Lubyanka in Moscow where people are mercilessly thrown  into for their crimes, crimes as shocking as ‘insufficient vigilance’. Don’t report an anti govt joke made at a party? Get a year in prison. Solitary confinement where people communicate through soap impressions and attempt toilet paper scribbles. Cells as large as cupboards where you’re not allowed to sit or even lean against a wall and conveyor belt interrogations that last for days.

And then it also takes you to a safe dacha in the village where there’s a new life being born. And a much awaited death, a death that brings hope.

 

 

The Second Lady- Irving Wallace : 21/52

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I read The Second Lady long long ago, but the book was missing the last few pages. However after that initial torment for a few days, I have managed to live all this while without knowing what happened the moment the two women stepped off the plane. And somehow after all these years, something made me want to find out.
Maybe it is not cool to say that you like Irving Wallace and such authors these days, you got to be snooty and read authors like <insert Cool Author name> to be with it. But hey, I like masala and I will not lie.
A classic USA-USSR thriller. The Soviets embark on an unbelievably bizzare plan to replace the American First Lady with a look alike, an actress with a strong resemblance  and been tweaked to perfection over the past three years. The replacement happens, the impersonator embarks on her role of a lifetime and the pages turn themselves. It is a USA-USSR game, so you already know who will win. But how they win is what makes it a page turner. The Soviets are ugly, potato nosed people. Their First Lady is fat and housewife-looking. Their food is vomituous, their alcohol is bitter. Americans on the other hand are handsome and glamourous. They are sexy and clever. Well ofcourse. And then there is a half-American KGB agent whose loyalties lie with the Soviets but heart lies with the Americans. So he is the  man who has a change of heart, the goodbad guy whom you root for.  A lot of twists, turns, mind games and sex later the book ends in a nailbiting climax. And this time, I know what happened in the end. Or do I?
It was written in 1980, so you can’t read it with an internet age mindset. But the plot unravels  smoothly and there aren’t too many laughable loopholes that will make you roll your eyes.

The sore point between the Russians and Americans in this book is a small uranium rich African country called Boende. And today, when Russia and America are at it again,unfriending each other over Crimea, this book makes it seem like nothing has actually changed in the world.