The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is turning out to be a year of really good reads. I cannot express enough how much I enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale. This is the first Margaret Atwood book I’m reading and I started it with the knowledge of the cult fan following she enjoys. Having read it, I can understand why it is so and I am also a fan now 🙂

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Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

I’m currently reading 1984 and between these two, I must confess I am getting quite freaked out. The Handmaid’s Tale is as chilling as dystopia can be and particularly at one point where Offred reminisces on and almost regrets about how she took magazines for granted, I found myself feeling quite …. what’s the word I’m looking for ? …. you get it, right ?

” …. was of the opinion from the outset that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature; control of the indigenous by members of their own group. In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called “traditional values”, or for the benefits they might thereby acquire.When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.

Without much ado, let me just, in my usual style, scream at the top of my lungs that this is a wonderful read and you absolutely have to give it a go. It exceeded my expectations at being a page turner and the hard-hitting messages that need to be conveyed are done with subtlety without being preachy.

I found the best and most effective expression about this book on the back cover which was a section of the review in The Listener  — “Moving, vivid and terrifying. I only hope it’s not prophetic”.  Couldn’t have said it better !

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum ! 🙂

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

What better way to get back to blogging than with a contrarian view ? 😉

So here it is – this book was seriously not worth all the hype. I have a problem of being too generous with 5 star ratings and I’ve given it 3 on Goodreads but now that I think about it, even 2 is on the higher side.

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This is once again a classic case of the blurb presenting an interesting premise but the actual book failing to live up to it. I have already written about one such book here.

Here is a spoiler free deconstruction of the pros and cons

The writing: pretty average. I have the habit of taking photos of quote-worthy paragraphs from all books but no such inclinations here.

The characters: the protagonist is one of the most linear and boring characters you’ll find with absolutely no layers. Almost textbook black and white characters.

The length: don’t even get me started !

The actual mystery: this was my main problem – there is nothing even remotely extraordinary about the mystery here. Its half decent because of one premise but apart from that, its very old-school mystery writing of meticulously introducing all characters and making them all look suspicious. It is nowhere close to Devotion of Suspect X or Gone Girl where the mystery, when revealed, messes with your mind brilliantly and leaves you shocked.

Take it from a mystery junkie – skip it !

 

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

If there is one book I could recommend to everyone, this is it. Especially if you are a woman.

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This text tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life in Tehran from six to 14, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution & the devastating effects of war with Iraq. Satrapi paints a portrait of daily life in Iran & of the bewildering contradictions between home life & public life.

Those who have been following my blog for a while will probably not take this seriously since every time I get unduly excited about a book, this is what I say. You’re right, I do have a tendency to use this blog to scream at the top of my voice about how great some book was. But this time, it is different. I read this book months ago and since then I have had so much time to process it and revisit some sections.

I don’t think I have ever related to a character as much as this. The graphic novel format works so well for this story where so many things are conveyed in a subtle manner. Most importantly, issues of such depth are handled with an endearing sense of humour. persepolis-images

Another important point I wanted to discuss – what is it with all the negative reviews ? The only point they make is that they found the character “arrogant” or “annoying”. First of all, this is autobiographical. I really do not understand how you can dislike an autobiography purely based on your judgement of what is right or wrong. Second, have we reached a stage where only goody goody characters and stories are worth praising ?

Anyway, this isn’t yours truly getting hyper as always and trying to get you all to read it. This is a very serious me giving a very serious recommendation *hands crossed on desk , stares with gravitas*

*slow fade out*

PS: Do let me know if you read it though ! I would love to discuss it with you guys 🙂

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

My first “graphic novel”. According to Wikipedia, a “graphic novel” is

“a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and presented as a book.”

I’m not a big fan of comic books but I did enjoy reading this. At some points, the comic format did get to me though. But despite that, when you look at the novel as a whole, it is worth reading.

The strength of V for Vendetta lies in the fact that its themes are universal and they remain relevant till date. In fact, I think some of the ideas are becoming more relevant in this day and age.

So give this one a try even if you dislike comics. If not anything, it will give you something to think about.

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How does it compare to the movie ? Well, for one thing, I was quite surprised at the degree of difference between the two. The movie is a more toned down version and I somehow found the novel to be darker.

But where the movie scores big time is with the character of Evie played by Natalie Portman. I’m sure everyone will agree that she did an amazing job and brought strength and dignity in her portrayal. In contrast, the Evie in the novel is a perpetually weepy, confused mess who keeps saying things like “I dunno”. This gets irritating and frankly I found Rosemary’s character to be more likable.

Have you read/watched V for Vendetta ? What did you think ?

Roseanna by Sjowall and Wahloo

The first book in the classic Martin Beck detective series from the 1960s – the novels that shaped the future of Scandinavian crime writing. Hugely acclaimed, the Martin Beck series were the original Scandinavian crime novels and have inspired the writings of Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo. Written in the 1960s, 10 books completed in 10 years, they are the work of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – a husband and wife team from Sweden.

Roseanna’ begins on a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from Sweden’s beautiful Lake Vattern. Three months later, all that Police Inspector Martin Beck knows is that her name is Roseanna, that she came from Lincoln, Nebraska, and that she could have been strangled by any one of eighty-five people. With its authentically rendered settings and vividly realized characters, and its command over the intricately woven details of police detection, ‘Roseanna’ is a masterpiece of suspense and sadness.(From Goodreads) 12104861

Honestly, I hadn’t heard of the book or the authors at all. I happened to come across it while browsing through the library and thought I’d give it a shot. I never realized Sjowall and Wahloo were such a big deal ! Their story is pretty amazing – it seems they wrote 10 novels in 10 years and would write alternate chapters through the night after putting their kids to bed.

As a novel, I would definitely recommend Roseanna but let me include a short note on the genre and style.

Roseanna is a “police procedural” which basically means that it is different from the usual crime fiction style of the crime, followed by introducing possible suspects, checking facts/alibis and finally the detective solving the case.

Here, the focus is more on how the police set about solving the crime when they have so little to work with. Like its mentioned in the blurb, she could have been murdered by any one of 85 people and here is the kicker – they were all tourists in Sweden ! So effectively the suspects are spread around the world and the concept of “alibis” doesn’t really apply here. Since it is about police work that takes place over years, the pace is slow but the interest remains high as they keep progressing towards their target.

There is also the occasional humour thrown in, some of which made me laugh out loud like this one where Beck’s colleague Kollberg reads out a statement from a tourist couple

“They had no idea that Sweden could be so nice. Damn it, I had no idea it could be either,’ continued Kollberg. ‘Of course the cabins were rather small and the second night – wait here is something – there was a big, hairy arachnida on the bed. Her husband had a great deal of trouble getting it out of the cabin. Well, does arachnida mean a sex maniac ?’

‘A spider,’ said Melander without taking his pipe put of his mouth.

‘I love the Danes,’ Kollberg continued.  

Give Roseanna a try ! 🙂

Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

Original Title – Ghaire Bhaire (Bengali)    Translated by – Sreejata Guha

I read this way back in January and it has taken me all this time to write something about it. This book enjoys a somewhat cult status in India but I’m afraid it wasn’t my cup of tea.

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Here is the blurb from Goodreads which pretty much sums it up

Set on a Bengali noble’s estate in 1908, this is both a love story and a novel of political awakening. The central character, Bimala, is torn between the duties owed to her husband, Nikhil, and the demands made on her by the radical leader, Sandip. Her attempts to resolve the irreconciliable pressures of the home and world reflect the conflict in India itself, and the tragic outcome foreshadows the unrest that accompanied Partition in 1947.

The only positive in this were the arguments on political ideology and ethics that Sandip and Nikhil have. Many people suggest that the character of Sandip was in fact based on Gandhi and his ideology and that Nikhil could have possibly been based on Tagore himself. These portions are indeed thought-provoking but are sadly only a very small portion of the novel. The major part is the love triangle.

This is where I was majorly irritated with the novel. The style of writing is completely lost on someone like me. It is “poetic something” ( I even forget what its called 😀 ). So we come across Bimala saying things like “he loved my body like a parijata flower from heaven” and “his waves of masculinity crashed against my feet like the ocean”. After all this, nothing happens (if you get what I mean).

Read it only if you like pages and pages of such writing.

My own feelings are summed up below

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

My first 5 star rating this year ! After a string of disappointing reads this feels so good ! 13446688

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered. When Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police tries to piece together the events of that day, he finds himself confronted by the most puzzling, mysterious circumstances he has ever investigated. Nothing quite makes sense, and it will take a genius to understand the genius behind this particular crime…

I am going to make this review very simple … GO AND READ THIS BOOK ! Especially if you are a fan of crime fiction. Even more so if you tired of the usual crime fiction template. I am not going to discuss anything more about the story since I want to be very careful in not giving away spoilers. I would also recommend that if you are planning on reading it, don’t go through too many reviews and risk it.

I don’t understand why the author has to be labelled the “Japanese Stieg Larsson”. Maybe it helps sell more but to me it seems unnecessary, especially since the styles are different.

On a side note, this also reminded me of an anime I was crazy about ages ago – Detective School Q. Those who know this would agree with me that it is one of the best crime solving shows ever. If you haven’t watched it, I would strongly recommend that you do. It is simply amazing ! Detective school q Vol1.jpg

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

I’m sensing a pattern this year …. I keep picking up these books that have this huge hype and hoopla around them, get disappointed and feel bad about leaving them unfinished. This is one more added to that alarmingly fast growing list. But having read quite a sizable portion, I’m going to go ahead and review it anyway. 10310 To prevent myself from ranting away without control I am going to just put it down as 3 points

1. History does not begin and end with Akbar and Ashoka 

The first essay is good since it outlines the history of argumentative tradition in India. But that is it. He then continues to refer to the first essay in all the essays that follow. Every other historical reference he makes is either Akbar or Ashoka. Out of some 1000s of kings who ruled India across history, he talks about only 2. For someone who knows even a little history, it is boring.

2. Culture does not begin and end with Bengal 

This should have been “The Argumentative Bengali” ! Why add “Writings on Indian culture” with the title when all we have is pages and pages of Tagore followed by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen, etc. ? Do not mislead the readers so !!

3. The overwhelming bias in the writing 

Numerous essays are devoted to the critique of a political party’s ideology. First of all, I would expect the scholarly work of an academic to be objective.Even if he is going to take sides so blatantly, equating donations made by NRIs to “religious fundamentalism” is taking it a bit too far and it speaks to a deep seated bias.

Bottomline : Do not fall prey to the hype like I did – just skip it !

One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

Original title: Madhorubhagan
Translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan 

(Preview post with excerpt here)

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Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test.

I had initially given 3/5 for this but then upon giving it further thought for the review, I have revised it to a 2/5, which in Goodreads terms is “It was ok”. That pretty much sums up my feelings about the book. And all the hype and hoopla around the book didn’t help.

Somehow I had been thinking that it was set in contemporary times – turns out it’s set in the immediate post-independence period so that was a surprise.

The positives first ….

The story is definitely unique and the author claims he has done years of research for this so credit to that.

I liked how Kali and Ponna’s relationship has been portrayed – the story starts 12 years after their marriage and in all this time they have been quite happy with each other. They don’t blame each other for not being able to conceive a child. When others insult them, they withdraw into a shell and gradually cut down on socializing but never take it out on each other.

It also highlights how society reacts, superstitiously at times even, to couples who don’t have children.

The negatives …

The writing goes from one extreme to another – one line is a lyrical description of palm and the next line is full of someone hurling abuses. The abuses made me cringe and I suspect they have actually been toned down by the translation. Of course, this is subjective – another reader may justify it as being real so it depends on you.

The blurb is pretty much the story. In an effort to make it into a full-fledged novel, the author has dragged it on and on. There are so many repetitive threads in the novel ! For instance, if you had presented 5 cases of people insulting them, wouldn’t that have been sufficient enough to drive home the point ? But no, every alternate chapter has a description of one such incident. Similarly there is the non-conformist uncle Nallupayyan who turns up every few chapters to dispense unsolicited advise. There is also a random (and unnecessary, in my opinion) story about how Kali’s great-grandfather won a competition held by a British officer. Beyond a point they get tiring.

Final thoughts …

I wouldn’t recommend it. The ending is ambiguous and the journey towards it gets boring very soon.

Have you read it yet ? What do you think ?

Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee

I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars in Goodreads after a lot of thought. I say this because the writing was wonderful yet somehow I didn’t fall in love with the story. In all fairness, it is also possible that I completely missed reading between the lines. Its one of the problems I face when I read highly acclaimed works – the minute I start disliking them, I get the feeling that maybe I have missed something.

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The Blurb …

A divorced, middle-aged English professor finds himself increasingly unable to resist affairs with his female students. When discovered by the college authorities, he is expected to apologise and repent in an effort to save his job, but he refuses to become a scapegoat in what he see as as a show trial designed to reinforce a stringent political correctness.
He preempts the authorities and leaves his job, and the city, to spend time with his grown-up lesbian daughter on her remote farm. Things between them are strained – there is much from the past they need to reconcile – and the situation becomes critical when they are the victims of a brutal and horrifying attack.

Like I said, the writing is brilliant and its enriched by the fact that David Lurie is in fact a professor of Literature. Here is one such discussion on Wordsworth

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I also the way Lurie’s stand before the tribunal was phrased

“Manas, we went through the repentance business yesterday. I told you what I thought. I won’t do it. I appeared before an officially constituted tribunal, before a branch of the law. Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.” 

If you are wondering why there is a dog on the cover, its because it is one of the central issues the book deals with. These parts make for really tough reading since the gruesome and inhumane killing of dogs is described in detail. I guess that is one of the “Disgrace” themes along with the more obvious ones outlined in the blurb.

None of the characters are close to being likable but that isn’t the objective here either so I won’t crib about that.

My only problem was with the continually shocking decisions taken by the daughter Lucy and her irritating way of communicating them. I’m not going to dismiss those decisions since I have no understanding of South African society during that period. But the way the decisions were presented wasn’t convincing at all.

If you have read the book, let me know if I am missing something. Especially if you have an understanding of South Africa.