Several years (ten or more) ago, I tried to read John Steinbeck. At that time I struggled through The Grapes of Wrath, which is known as his best work. I couldn’t quite digest it.
But sometimes, certain books captivate us when we are of a certain age. You have to come to the book at the right moment in your life. I think that happened only now. Steinbeck’s writing is spellbinding, a slow and exquisitely detailed unfolding of life and people in California in the 1920s and later. Steinbeck has been rightly called a ‘giant of American literature’.He writes about the simple everyday lives of people, but it is incredibly realistic, stirring, and thought provoking.
His work is a fabulous time machine, a journey back to a very different America, when farms filled Palo Alto, and many struggled against crippling poverty. Some of his descriptions, especially of the hardy farmers and their families, resonate with the sorry state of farmers in India today. Like all great writing, the themes are universal. His characters lived in a different time and place, but they are so real, you feel you know them personally.
Closer home, Rohinton Mistry is the writer who reminds one of Steinbeck.
The Grapes of Wrath
Touching. Compelling. Philosophical.
The book describes the journey of a family of poor farmers — from Oklahoma to California — in search of better land and a way out of poverty. They travel on Route 66, stopping in makeshift camps. They have to struggle for food, water, and gas, all the while running out of precious money. But more hard-hitting is the hope that keeps them going, and at moments it seems to be all that holds them together and keeps them from going insane or turning criminal. There are incredible descriptions of the land and the people who inhabit it. Steinbeck makes you feel the dust in your shoes and the burn in your belly as you walk alongside the Joads. The concluding scene of the book is powerful and unforgettable.
The Moon is Down
Suspenseful. Dark. Intriguing.
This story is set in a small town in Europe during World War II. Although the countries haven’t been named, it is obviously German-occupied territory. When an enemy solider orders a townsman to work in a mine, he retaliates and kills the soldier unintentionally. The soldiers then execute him by a firing squad. This incident turns the townspeople against the soldiers. Though they are largely unarmed, they start plotting revenge. The atmosphere of secrecy and animosity takes a toll on the soldiers' spirits. The town's Mayor is faced with a hard decision, an existential crisis. The book reveals the great truth that there are no truly peaceful people. Under threat, everyone changes, often for the worse. Finally, the book is a great proponent for peace, as it reveals the utter futility of war.
East of Eden
Rich. Emotional. Biblical.
This is truly an epic, following the lives of two families in the Salinas Valley. Their interwoven lives and intricate back-stories make this a captivating tapestry. Most interesting is the female character Cathy, a dark and twisted soul who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. It is not often that one encounters a powerful female villain in literature, and this is one hell of a gal. This is a journey through several people’s lifetimes, both physically and emotionally. Although the ending doesn’t have the same impact as the end of The Grapes of Wrath, it is still a very soul-satisfying read.
A story set in Monterey — a town in California — and the characters that live on one of its streets. A group of poor friends wants to do something nice for Doc, a person who is always kind to them. They have good intentions, but in their enthusiasm they mess up their plan and have the reverse effect. They cause Doc considerable trouble. A humorous read, definitely lighter than his other works. But at times it becomes a little monotonous. Personally, this is the only book of Steinbeck that I did not absolutely love.
Of Mice and Men
Two migrant workers are strongly bonded together, and share the dream of owning their own land someday. They work on a ranch. One of the workers has a limited mental capacity but unlimited strength. One day, he kills the ranch-owner’s wife, entirely my mistake and is petrified. He runs away but is followed by a lynch mob. It is upto the other worker to save him from a painful death. This is a heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of friendship, dreams, hope, and the unforgiving side of human nature.
Author: Sheena Iyengar
Tags: Informative. Interesting. Insightful.
How do we make the choices? This book analyses factors that influence choice, such as cultural conditioning, our perception of the situation, being in or out of our comfort zone, and so on. The author discusses research and experiments in the field, and breaks some myths such as – more choice is always a good thing. We see how we make choices in both the mundane (which butter to buy), and the emotional realms bl(family-related decisions). Most interesting is the fact that humans – and even animals – feel happier when they believe they are being allowed to exercise choice (even if it is an illusion of control). One can understand why we celebrate or regret certain choices. We can understand if our choices are driven by our personality, our convictions, or our cultural surroundings.
Author: Julia Alvarez
Genre: Non-fiction historical novel
Tags: Inspiring. Heart-breaking. True.
This is a gripping account of the incredibly brave Mirabel sisters who lived under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The story is told in the different voices of the sisters, moving seamlessly from first to third person as needed. At times we read of experiences typical to young women anywhere, with light-hearted episodes such as teenage crushes. As they grow up, we read of the non-typical terror of living under a dictatorship, and the personal difficulties they face as women and citizens. The slow rebellion that always boils beneath the surface creates an atmosphere of terrible suspense. Their country’s circumstances made these women into brave, inspiring national heroes.
Two brothers, and their travels and travails as they move across America, are well captured by Patrick DeWitt in The Sisters Brothers, a runner-up for this year's Booker Prize (The Booker Prize finally went to Julian Barnes). These two contrasting characters are on their way to loot and kill, but their experiences change them, build them and burn them.
Told in the first person, by the younger (and relatively milder) brother, The Sisters Brothers is captivating right from the start. The writer's descriptive power builds up vivid images of the wild, wild West. One can see the filth, smell the blood, the bullets, the dust, and come face-to-face with the ugly and wretched characters all integral to the plot. DeWitt uses simple language, nothing complex here, and even the thoughts of people are simple, direct and in-your-face. One experiences the hard, tough life, made easy only by regular alcohol consumption and the occasional woman. The brothers are two hardened killers (especially the elder one), moving from desolate town to desolate town. They have no one in the world they can trust but one another. Despite their constant bickering and contrasting natures, or perhaps because of it, they grow closer over time. Even in the most hardened person, there is still a thread of humanity. The main story is made interesting by little diversions and sub-narratives. One of these involves Tub, the old, faithful horse that carries the younger brother. Tub has a severely infected eye, yet he plods on. Ultimately he meets his end. The brother's attachment to Tub, and his unwillingness to really give up on him, is bound to pull on the reader's heartstrings.
The author launches into 2 or 3 'dream' descriptions, which masquerade as 'Intermissions'. These seem boring and meaningless, as they don't seem to add anything real to the book. Apart from this, there is little to criticize in The Sisters Brothers. The brothers' bizarre adventures give a real picture of an uncivilized place, uncouth people, the Gold Rush, and the desperate greed that accompanied it. But more that the physical things, it is the subtle description of the intangible that is truly gripping. The love-hate relationship shared by the brothers is apparent in their dialogues, which are by turn both nasty and entertaining. One's love and longing for home, and the desire to leave the bad life and be a better person, is strongly contrasted by the other's complete disdain for a civilized and decent life. Unexpected events however, change both of them, and in the end their natures undergo a transformation. Each becomes more like the other. The cold-blooded murderer becomes subdued. The soft-hearted sentimentalist becomes ruthless and calculating, for one last kill.
DeWitt is a master of description, and even with numerous details, he never bores you needlessly. It's not easy to make a reader imagine a place they have never seen, but he pulls it of with ease. His characters are unique and quirky, with twisted minds, but good intentions too. They are, in a word, very human, and fallible. Psychologically, they are extremely interesting. What goes on in the killer's mind? Does he ever regret his life? Does he really think that his killings are justified? Can he ever really escape his past and make a fresh start? How long can a person kill for money? Someone who doesn't squirm while shooting a man clean in the face, has qualms when it comes to killing a horse. Everyone gets attached to something, even if it is an animal.
The quick pace, and descriptions that hold nothing back make this book like a Western movie playing across the pages. Sometimes, I even found myself reading in a Western accent. Blood flies, eyes are gouged out, guns are drawn and chemicals gorily eat away gold prospectors, while the two brothers stick together through it all.
Haven't read any of Aravind Adiga's other books but The White Tiger is a gripping tale of a loyalty, treachery, hatred, love, anger, servants, masters, poverty and wealth. In short, all the extremes of life are covered in it, and in that the author has painted a brilliantly accurate picture of modern India, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and humour thrown in. Told in the first-person, through the eyes of a chauffeur living in Delhi, it's one book that is really hard to put down. After a long time the real tale of 'two Indias' has got the attention it deserves.
Through one person's story, we get to travel to village India, experience their troubles, then to the typical rich person's world in urban India, the businessman's world and their nexus with politicians, we see the point of the view of the Indian who has just returned from abroad and who believes he can change the country, we deal with his rising frustration. Meanwhile we see the faithful servants, an integral part of the Indian family and Indian way of life. They happily serve their disgusting masters, while deep inside some plot far more evil doings. We see the servant's world, both tragic and fascinating, enriched with servant's gossip, which is, as everyone knows, the best and the juiciest gossip there is. More specifically we get a first-hand account of the driver's world, which revolves around the Honda City, polishing and cleaning the Honda City, the hot memsahib in her miniskirts, the sweet and unsuspecting sahib, the dominating relatives, the other pesky drivers, and the servants hierarchy. We see that older generation of India, who control their children well into adulthood. We see the backwardness that rules much of India, both the super-rich and super-poor. The over-arching theme reflects the reality that India is an anarchy, and lends authenticity to the book. A poor, illiterate village man, through sheer intelligence and cunning, rises to become a millionaire. A rich man's son, full of hope, positivity and with a good heart, still ends up with nothing. Humour, sarcasm and brilliant dialogues make this one fast-paced and insightful read.
Once in a while a person wakes up from their situation, and realises what they want in life. If there is nothing holding them back, not even their conscience, then they may achieve the most impossible of things. The human spirit can rise to be anything and fall to be nothing, both in the same moment.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a long title for a not-very-long book. Set in the time of World War II, on the island of Guernsey, a tiny little island off the coast of England, it tells the story of the islanders, and a visitor.
Due to the war, there was a great shortage of food and basic amenities. The islanders make the best of this situation, by scrimping, sharing and being really creative with the way they use their resources. The situation is worsened by the starving German soldiers who grab whatever food, drink, soap, blankets, etc they can get their hands on. At the height of war-time, this miniscule island is almost forgotten by mainland England, and with no supplies reaching them, things are really hard. Even though the situation looks bleak, the mood is not pessimistic. The islanders are good, strong, simple folk, who help each other, rally around, and keep the group's spirit flying high. One of the ways they do this is by starting a literary society, which meets often (and secretly) to read and talk about their favourite books. They are enthused enough to start writing too.
The best part is, the entire book is in the form of letters, much like another wonderful book, Love Letters, by AR Gurney. Through letters traveling between the various characters, one gets personal insights into the nature of people's lives, loves and human nature. The letters gradually unravel the story, bringing forth the characters of people, and the incidents that occur. Though a work of fiction, the authenticity makes it seem like non-ficiton.
Most heartening are the little things that give people joy in hard times, and how human contact is so essential to us all. One realises the value of the 'softer' things in life, such as literature in this case, and why we need it as human beings. We take it for granted till it is denied to us. The book is reminiscent of a wonderful quote by Albert Camus, "In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Half of a Yellow Sun is gripping and award-winning book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is about the civil war in Nigeria and the struggle to create a new country, Biafra, back in the sixties. It is told through the eyes of Ugwu, a loveable, young houseboy, who comes to work in the house of a revolutionary African professor, Odenigbo. Ugwu is from the village, and everything is strange and fasinating to him. His master is a kind man, who treats him as an equal. Later, the love of Odenigbo's life, Olanna, daughter of a rich Government servant, moves in with them. The book explores human relationships deeply, the relationships and dynamics between man and woman, servant and master, woman and child, man and mistress, people and their government, people and the rich, people and their oppressors, rulers and the ruled, blacks and whites. Local identity overrules the national identity, and also overules common sense and humanity, especially at times of war. War is the great leveller, making refugees out of an entire nation.
Ugwu, Odenigbo and Olanna struggle with the life that has been thrust upon them. Things get worse before they get better, and they undergo trying circumstances, with remarkable strength. This is especially true for Olanna, who grew up in luxury, never wanting anything, but adjusts to life without the basic necessities. They forgive each other, even when grievously wronged, and their very unique bond is the only thing that gets them through extremely hard times. As you read, you feel their pain, and find yourself praying that they get through this alive.
The author makes the reader experience the war raging outside, by narrating the war within each of them, and between them. In pain, people do strange things and hurt one another, and these are no exception. They come very close to losing all hope and sanity, but they are pulled back when they are at the brink, by a return to normalcy. Though a novel, it is based on real events, and very real emotions. A great author understands that you can't make people experience an actual event, you can only make them experience the emotions that make the event so real. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one such author.
Through their dialogues, the book raises larger questions which plague countries that underwent colonial rule. The Nigerian struggle to be their own people, to stop bowing to all Western thought, the enforcing of a national identity, the love of one's country are all issues that any thinking Indian grapples with on a daily basis, even unconsciously. Worse than the economic and political oppression that a colonial power creates, is the loss of identity, the loss of the sense of self, and the hatred of one's fellow citizens, that are the real left-overs of colonial rule. These take generations to remedy. Odenigbo's hope and burning idealism to see a truly independent Nigeria, free of the colonial shadow, almost kills him internally, while the war kills everything externally.
A good weekend is one where you get to relax. A great weekend is one where you finish reading two juicy books! I finally finished The Fountainhead (very late in life). It is an epic, with a really strong dose of some pretty headstrong philosophy thrown in. This was the Centennial Edition, and at the end of it were notes, reviews, and edits by the author herself. These were more illuminating than the book itself, and give us a little peek into Ayn Rand's formidable brain. Books like this are pure hard work, sweat, blood and toil as the notes confirm. Not that she was complaining about the work. She was her own most stringent critic and heartless editor.
Rand started work on the characters of the book a few years before actually starting the book. Each character has been sketched out in detail, with descriptions of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Some of these characters are not used in the final book. Then there is her own first review of her first chapter. The notes read 'too many adjectives', and 'don't use words for the sake of it, use them only if really needed' and many more notes to that effect. Each chapter has its own review. More than the books, I would love to get my hands on the journals of Ayn Rand, and they do exist. She also interned at an architect's office for a year prior to writing the book, as part of her in-depth research. A monumental undertaking, this book must have been. It's one thing to have a strong, unique and original philosophy. Its quite another to build a fictional world around it, that is detailed to the nth degree. And it's the ultimate, if you have the sharp reasoning to cut, trash and re-write portions and pages of your work. She designed this book, and crafted every word, thought, and blink, down to the last comma.
One minute I was on the sidewalks of New York in the last century, with Roark challenging all existence, the next minute I was crossing medival Europe and stepping into ancient Iran. In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek is a non-fiction work about his own journey across countries, centuries, and gods. A Polish Jew and a dentist, he had a long-time fascination with Zoroastrianism, and its beginnings and influences. He believes Zoroastrianism has influenced Christianity, Judaism and Islam, infact many world religions much more than anything else. Its just that its never been documented. And since Zoroastrianism has been in the twilight zone for 1300 years, its even harder to get evidence of anything. But it does exist, as he takes us through his long journey through Europe and finally to Iran via Turkey and many other places. Some interesting points are that Avestan, the ancient language is surprisingly close to Old Sanskrit. In fact some prayers when translated, are almost exact.
The author, and some others believe that it was one band of people from Central Asia that separated into two branches. One settled on the river Indus, and the other on the river Oxus (now the Amu Darya). The custom of shaking hands, apparently can be traced to Zoroastrian culture, as it was not originally Christian, and definitely not Islamic. It is also shown in some Iranian sculptures. Zoroastrianism also strongly influenced ancient Egypt, a fact unknown to most of the world. This is probably because history is written by the winners of the last war. One fact that comes out glaringly in this book is how present day history is dominated by Roman/Greek history, and is strongly one-sided. The Zoroastrian empire at its height, stretched from Egypt to the Indus (Kushan) and from Rome to the Gulf. It was, by all accounts, the greatest civilization of the ancient world. It was the first time in recorded history that the rulers were 'civilsed' in the true sense, being tolerant, open-minded, and just. Many other religions were allowed and encouraged to flourish within the empire too. For instance, Cyrus gave the persecuted Jews a home, and let them flourish. Yet, all this never gets mentioned in history. The world started and ended with the Roman Empire. And films like 300 don't do anything to help this. Now I understood where the two-winged symbol so common in ancient Egypt came from.
The beginning of the book is a bit tedious, but later chapters are engrossing and deeply moving (for a Parsi reader). He explores Iran, and visits sites of the great civilization. There are still Zoroastrians living in Iran, and practicing the faith. He visits the ancient sites of Cyrus and Darius, analyses and links Iranian art and sculpture to other times, cultures and places. Even in ancient days, it is astonishing to know the amount of cross-cultural exchange that happened. Finally, someone enlightened me about the beginnings and significance of the festival of Noruz, still celebrated worldwide. In spite of centuries of Islamic rule, Noruz (Navroze) is celebrated in a very Zoroastrian way in Iran, as it has been since the beginning. Infact, Muslims in Iran are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, though they might not be very well-informed about it.
The author ponders on the beginnings of Zoroastrianism, which was in the Bronze Age. We can imagine what people were like in medieval times, but its hard to imagine life in that era. What was life like then? Did the same things move people? And what was the prophet Zarathushtra himself like? These are questions that will always remain unanswered. However his teachings, thoughts and philosophies are relevant even today. Externally life changes, but internally humans remain the same, and the same issues of ethics, morals, and meaning of life plague us since the beginning of time. The author set out to find this ancient and all-but-lost culture and religion. He was looking for signs, symbols, places and events, but in the end, he is led to Zarathustra's core teachings. That is the thread that lives on inside people, that is the thread that connects us to people of the Bronze Age, and connects us to Zarathustra himself.