Edited by: Marion Dane Bauer
Keywords: Young adult, LGBTQ, Authentic
This is a collection of short stories by various authors, all portraying the theme of growing up gay or lesbian, or with gay/lesbian parents, family or friends. They are realistic, humorous at times, and moving. Some of the stories illuminate that moment when a character realizes that someone she or he knows well is lesbian or gay. The tales explore the internal and external turmoil this can cause, and the reactions of other people. Emotionally rich, engaging and varied, this book is definitely worth a read. More significantly, it open our eyes to the struggles of the protagonists, and the complexity of trying to fit into a world that’s not yet progressive and accepting enough.
Author: Jeet Thayil
Keywords: Evocative. Offbeat. Authentic.
Narcopolis takes you deep into the heart of another world. Welcome to the opium dens of 1970s Bombay, with their seedy little rooms, gritty alleys and notorious inhabitants. There are just a few main characters: a eunuch, a dealer, a Chinese officer, but each is endlessly fascinating. The overall mood of the book is dark, of course, but not as dark as one would expect. The writing style is riveting and intoxicating. Not many writers can write a first chapter that is one continuous paragraph, and yet not have the reader feel the strain of reading it. The writer touches upon the struggle to free oneself from addiction, and shows human nature with all its flaws. The drug world has not been glamourized (as it typically is in film/tv) or looked down upon (to send out a preachy ‘message’). Its story has been told with all its grime and glory. A semi-autobiographical tale, the authenticity of the writing shines through. The unsentimental storytelling makes for a refreshing read.
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Keywords: Family. Epic. Political.
In this well-titled book, the author takes us deep into the lives of a large joint family who live in Calcutta in the 1960s. There are the elderly parents, their children, and their children, growing up and growing old together. There are the servants, who play a critical role in the household in more ways than one. Within this one building we see different characters, their insecurities, fears, their political leanings, and how they clash and merge with one another. One character leaves home to help farmers in the Marxist struggle. Another struggles to accept that she is perhaps too dark-skinned to get married. Their lives are a fascinating labyrinth of emotional connections and intersections and arguments. They are just one family, but they are a world within themselves and that makes this book a fascinating read.
Author: Tan Twan Eng
Keywords: Intriguing. Mysterious. Historical.
This is the tale of a judge who has been a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Word War II. After the war she tries to make sense of her life. She is also battling an illness in private. While visiting old friends, she meets a Japanese artist who was previously the Emperor’s gardener. She is conflicted, as she wants to learn the Japanese art of creating a garden from a master, but she also hates the Japanese for what they did to her and her people.
The Japanese philosophy of building a garden, which goes beyond the obvious, affects her without her knowledge. She also overcomes her hatred and anger against the gardener to become friends, and later lovers. This tale moves effortlessly across different times of her life. Her journey draws the reader in. Although the book is set against the backdrop of war, it is not only a war story. We see her young days with her parents and sister in Malaya before it was torn by war. We get to know her as a well-known judge, and later, as a person searching for peace, and searching for herself. The slow revealing of her character, and the story, makes for a wonderful read.
Author: Bel Kaufman
Genre: Epistolary novel
Tags: Realistic. Humourous. Unconventional.
My cousin – a school teacher – never stops raving about this book. So I finally got my hands on it. And no wonder teachers love it, because no book explains the life of a teacher with all its trials and triumphs as well as this one.
Set in a school in the New York area in the 1960s, Up The Down Staircase rings true even today. The book unfolds in different voices, in the form of dialogues between people; notes between teachers, from the trash, or the suggestion box; letters between characters; scribbles on papers and so on. This lends authenticity, landing the reader smack into the life of a teacher, with all its challenges and rewards. It also makes for an interesting read, as you experience school life from various points of view. We see the growing pains and difficult lives of certain students, the insecurities and pettiness of some of the staff, and the dedicated teachers who truly love their profession. There are plenty of little stories sprouting around the main theme. Even fifty years later and continents away, one can relate to and enjoy Up The Down Staircase.
Author: Alex Haley
Tags: Realistic. Historical. Poignant.
Human lives often makes for the most interesting stories and Roots is no exception. This is the story, or rather the history, of one family. It starts seven generations back, with the first ancestor, Kunta Kinte. He is a young boy living with his family in a Gambian village in Africa in the 18th century. He is captured by white slave hunters and brought to America. He tries to escape several times, with brutal consequences. Finally, he is resigned to his fate. Later, he marries and has a daughter, but his deep hatred for the white race always remains, and with good reason too.
The book recounts the story of his daughter, her children, their children, and so on and so forth until it ends with the author himself. The African words and tales from Kunta Kinte had been handed down through each generation, connecting all of them to their origins.
This however, forms just the background narrative of the book. The main story recounts the lives of slaves on the white-owned plantations, their work, their families, their struggles for survival, identity and freedom. At times, the oppressed identifies with the oppressor. We see the attitudes of both black and white communities to one another. The story weaves in and out of important moments of American history, such as the abolition of slavery. It is a fascinating, and at many moments a heart breaking read. This is the best and worst of human nature told through one long family story.
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.
Happy New Year! 2016 is here, and with it the usual well-meaning resolutions of
‘exercise more’, ‘wake up early’, and so on. Besides these, I’ve realized that I’ve been lazy about blogging for the better part of 2015. My last blog post was in mid-May (pathetic!). It’s quite easy and far too tempting to just forget that one has a blog. Some of the hiccups I’ve faced in maintaining a blog:
So now in 2016, I’m going to hopefully resolve all of the above by writing short (150 words at the most) posts, once a week, on a book I’ve read or am reading. This way, I don’t have to wrack my brains for a topic. Since I love reading, and love encouraging others to read, why not dedicate this blog to just that?
The books we see in Indian bookstores are mainstream. My cousin — a middle-school English teacher in Mumbai — has introduced me to some fantastic literature in the last two years. I’ve suggested these books to other friends, who have absolutely loved them. These books are well known abroad, but are not easily available in India (most of them are on Flipkart, but aren’t cheap as they are foreign editions). We readers felt that it’s a real tragedy that the typical Indian bookshelf has to be so limited.
So here’s to reading new books in the new year!
Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.