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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo

“Doesn’t his tongue feel cold?”

1533682Someday when I look back, I might think of 2013 as the year of horrible reading choices and good music. 2016, on the other hand… This year, I have come across books purely by chance and have unexpectedly and thoroughly enjoyed them. Touchwood.
One of these books is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo, that I found on the Amazon Used Bookstore. On the surface, ACCEDL isn’t a wholly remarkable plot – girl meets boy (man twenty years her senior, in this case), a whirlwind romance, [SPOILER, AVERT YOUR EYES] a realization that they have no future together, and an eventual, quiet and resigned heartbreak. [SPOILER ENDS; CALM DOWN]

What sets ACCEDL apart is the way it examines the West through the eyes of a Chinese girl who can barely speak the language, and how this culture clash causes problems in her relationship with her English lover. And what makes ACCEDL wholly unique is the way in which it’s written – in deliberately bad English.

Books with poor grammar are tedious to read. But ACCEDL works. Whether it works because the reader knows the terrible grammar is a deliberate plot device (yes, it does add to the plot) or in spite of it, I will never know. What I do know is that it was a delightful little read – perfectly paced, flavored just so. Each chapter begins with the definition of a new word that the protagonist, Zhuang (Z for the westerners), has learnt, and how she learnt it. Funny at times (“In France, their fish is poisson, their bread is pain, and their pancake is crepe. Pain and poison and crap. That’s what they have every day.”), profound at others (“Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.” ); the wit is balanced with poignancy. It is presented without unnecessary drama or loud colors, yet with a beauty specific to itself. As for the prose, it is a testament to the author’s skill that even with the poor grammar it is written in, it manages to evoke such vivid images and convey such precise thoughts. Consider the quote at the beginning of this post. Z meets a man who has lost several of his teeth. I was struck by how she thinks about his tongue feeling cold! It is funny, yet so clever.

The story of a naive, homesick girl who finds love, and also learns to live on her own. Do grab a copy and let me know how you like it!

Goodreads | Amazon

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Sprinkling Some Book Love

For some time, I’d been thinking I should do something bookish, but non-reviewish, non-new-releaseish… maybe listish (or is it called listicleish these days? oh I don’t know!) here. I thought of listing down my favourite literary heroines. But that post is still a little ways away, since someone new got added to it recently, and sent the whole thing for a rearrangement.

Lucky for me, I found this on Lata’s blog. How perfect! So here’s me, listing out some favourites.

I don’t think for many of these I can list just one book. I’ll list whatever comes to mind.

  1. A book you’ve read more than once: All the Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Gone With The Wind, 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair, God of Small Things, Pygmalion, The Zahir, The Alchemist, LOTR, Great Expectations, and so many more.
  2. A book you would take on a desert island: A deserted island or a desert island? Why desert island? Who am I asking these questions to? Anyway, should be something long. Maybe I’ll finally finish Anna Karenina or Ulysses. Or Les Miserables.
  3. A book that made you cry: The Book Thief, Eleanor & Park, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rage of Angels, Lessons in Forgetting, Girl on the Train, Unaccustomed Earth (Hema and Kaushik).
  4. A book that scared you: I am currently reading The Shining. Apart from that, in school, I read an RL Stine called The Secret Bedroom. Remember being truly scared after reading it!
  5. A book that made you laugh out loud: How To Be A Woman, Bossypants, Hyperbole and a Half
  6. A book that disgusted you: Dolores Claiborne. I would like to revisit it someday. I think I was too young to read it when I did. I have also been pretty disgusted by some Shaun Hutsons and Chuck Palahniuks that I never finished.
  7. A book you loved in preschool: Hehehe, it was Sleeping Beauty that turned me into a reader. But I liked Cinderella more later on. Was also a big fan of Tintin and The Black Island.
  8. A book you loved in elementary school: Tom Sawyer. Some Enid Blytons too, especially the Famous Five series.
  9. A book you loved in middle school: Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, SVUs, Gone With The Wind
  10. A book you loved in high school: The Outsiders, If Tomorrow Comes, Tell Me Your Dreams.
  11. A book you hated in high school: Doomsday Conspiracy
  12. A book you loved in college: The period in which that I discovered Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho. I’m sure there were others. Can’t seem to remember
  13. A book that challenged your identity: Not challenged, but more like reinforced, How To Be A Woman and Bossypants. Also, The Namesake.
  14. A series that you love: Harry Potter (duh), The Dark Tower
  15. Your favorite horror book: All of Stephen King’s short stories (his full length works, not so much, as you would know if you’re a regular reader of this blog). Can I also say Silence of the Lambs? That’s not really “horror” horror, but it’s still one of my favourites.
  16. Your favorite science fiction book: Not a fan of this genre. No favourite books. There was a short story I once read called They’re Made of Meat, by Terry Bisson. If it can be classified as sci-fi, then I’d highly recommend it in this category.
  17. Your favorite fantasy book: Same as #14. Also, The Hunger Games.
  18. Your favorite mystery: The Millennium Trilogy, Girl on the Train, Sherlock Holmes, A Pocketful of Rye, Evil Under the Sun.
  19. Your favorite biography: Haven’t read any. Have been meaning to read Che’s biography for a long long time now.
  20. Your favorite classic: Gone With The Wind
  21. Your favorite romance book: Is #20 a romance? How about Great Expectations?
  22. Your favorite book not on this list: The Fountainhead, The Book Thief, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Oh, so many! Goodreads me, okay?
  23. Your favorite translated book: Like Water for Chocolate.
  24. What book are you currently reading: The Shining and An Equal Music. (The latter may soon be the answer to #21)
  25. What book have you been meaning to read: Love in the Time of Cholera. Oh, when will I read it!

Care to take this forward? Make a chain out of it!

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

There’s so much in your head that you can’t bear any distractions, you want to pay attention, careful attention, otherwise everything is going to explode.

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I am not quiet about the books that I like. I talk about them. To whoever’s willing to listen. But I’m reviewing Em and The Big Hoom really late. Why? Because I was still trying to gather my thoughts around its beauty.

While I regularly shout out book recommendations from here, I sometimes share them on goodreads with selected people. On rare occasions, I write a personal note with my recommendation, because I want people to know that I’m not just clicking a button. I genuinely want to know what they thought about a particular book. I want them to know that they crossed my mind while I was reading this book – whatever the reason may be.

In the case of Em and The Big Hoom, I recommended it to only one friend. Not because I did not want others to read it. In fact, most others already had. I sent it to my friend because he is often hard pressed for time, and is therefore choosy about the books he invests his time in. I recommend to him only those that I believe he would enjoy, and those whom I want to discuss with him, during the few and far occasions that we meet or speak. At that moment, I wanted my recommendation to be exclusive, and thus Em and The Big Hoom went only to him. I decided to write a note. That is when it struck me.

I cannot describe in words how beautiful this piece of literature is. If I’m recommending it to others, I can’t help but turn into a bumbling idiot, unable to convince people that if you read one book this year, or this decade, let it be this one.

2016 has been a good year for me where books are concerned. Forget that my own depression has resurfaced, or that I have decided to stop updating my other blog. At least, I have good books to keep me company through this. I have discovered and read some great books this year. I’ve learned something from each; each had its own merits, and its own beauty. Out of all those wonderful books, Em stands out with its simplicity. It is a profound book, yet utterly unpretentious. It deals with truth. No glory, no gilded-frame of self-pity, but stark truth. The reality of living with a depressed parent. The lightheartedness of that parent narrating to the children the story of how she met their father. The fear of living with a parent always on the verge of suicide.

The book is so fabulously effortless to read. But as Pinto himself describes,

I have discovered since that such effortlessness is not easy to achieve and its weightlessness is in direct proportion to the effort put in.

Pinto’s prose isn’t the musical kind like Zusak’s or the slow, glide-into style of Lahiri’s or the heavy, engrave-this-into-your-memory style of Rushdie’s. It is a class apart. It stands its own, with its head held high (and rightfully so) in a scenario where simplicity is often confused with stupidity. There is no dumbing down for the reader here, much like Em never talked down to her children, however young they were. This here is a book that tells us a story directly to the reader, considering the reader as an equal who can understand the issues of this dysfunctional family, but one who does not offer false sympathy.

Em has no time for these falsehoods.

Goodreads | Amazon

This is a book I will read again. And again. And again.

 

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 3)

“When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women and the men who enable it.”

7677839(See also, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy # 1))

Fiction must ring as true as non-fiction to the reader, just as non-fiction must be as engrossing as fiction.

This is a book that’s as cold, as precise, as categorical as if it were a true account of certain horrific events. Larsson’s writing reminds me of that of Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett. Except that Larsson has a singular motive and it is crystal clear – to highlight crimes against women in every way possible.

Part 1 of the trilogy could be read as an independent book. As I stated in my review, I needed a bit of breathing space after reading it, because it was dark and brutal. I had no clue what was in store for me in the final book.

Book 2 and Book 3 are actually part 1 and 2 of the same story. We learn Lisbeth’s true history and uncover a massive government and secret service operation. We learn things that can never be un-learned.

The Millennium Trilogy Parts 2 & 3 is one of the most ambitious political thrillers I’ve read – which is saying a lot, since political thrillers are generally ambitious. In the hands of an author less skilled than Larsson, this subject matter would have injured itself. Not only that, Larsson gives a lot of back story to each character, no matter how unimportant. No other author could have accomplished that form of storytelling while not sounding boring. Larsson does so, and keeps the reader hooked. He makes the reader eager to listen, and he makes each character sound like someone you want to read about – no matter how insane or dull they are. Yes, I want to know what the characters are eating, wearing, just tell me (ordinarily, as is clear from my other reviews, I list this as a drawback)

The best part of this book is the snippet of history that precedes each major section of the book. Each snippet describes historical armies made up of only women soldiers. The author says how these rarely get documented or talked about. It was fascinating to read about the Libyan armies and the Amazons.

This is a story of abuse. If you thought Dragon Tattoo was graphic, this is a lot worse in terms of violence (and by “this”, I’m fusing Part 2 and Part 3 as one book). Are there completely unbelievable bits? Yes. But we’re back to the statement I made about less skilled authors not being able to carry it off. We hang on to every word. We believe every incredulity.

To give you a high level picture, I don’t think I have ever:

-Felt like I was on the roof of a bullet train, desperate to keep my balance (while enjoying that feeling)

Celebrated the death of one of the bad guys (or maybe I did, way back when Bellatrix Lestrange died. But that was a long time ago)

-Gasped audibly at an unexpected twist

-Screamed the following words at a page during a courtroom scene: BUTCHER THAT BASTARD!

I know those sound like hyperbolic statements that I am making impulsively. But wouldn’t you rather read the book and find out for yourself? It’s a whirlwind of a ride, I assure you.

As to why I have not summarized the story: the quote at the beginning of this post is the summary. Reading that quote made me feel like I was hearing it directly from the author. Like all his characters were put in this world, just so he could say that one line.

Oh, Mr. Larsson! You wonderful, brilliant man. Thank you!

My one regret remains that I’ve had these books since 2012, and only now did I read them.

Amazon | Goodreads

I have to put a note here about the translation: The book has been so flawlessly translated from the original by Steven Murray (pseudonym: Reg Keeland). Not once did I feel I was reading a translation or that something was lost or broken. Completely flawless!

Wages of Love, by Kamala Das

“Like other women writers of my class, I am expected to tame my talent to suit the comfort of my family.”

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I remember reading a poem by Kamala Das in school. It was part of the English literature syllabus. I had heard Kamala Das’ name whispered conspiratorially between my parents, but I never knew why. (I had also heard Arundhati Roy and Neena Gupta’s names mentioned in those very same tones, on different occasions). So when I found a poem by her, I was wildly curious. I hoped to find a glimpse into the adult world of literary gossip. I found nothing; I did not even like the poem very much. I was perhaps too young to appreciate Das’ direct way of expressing thoughts, being more used to as we were back then to rhyming poetry about sunflowers and daffodils and such.

When they saw me read a poem by Kamala Das, my parents casually remarked how she wasn’t very good. I was easily influenced (still am) and so I nodded my head in agreement. Similar casual (snide) remarks followed, with my mother going rather ad hominem and colouring Kamala Das as an example of what a writer – and more importantly, what a woman – must not be. I did not press for details, but I smelled a scandal.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when someone (who intensely dislikes me) read my blog and commented that I write like Madhavikutty (Das’ pen name). I felt proud, humbled, and insulted all at the same time! The childhood bias was still present, I suppose; however, being compared to a splendid writer such as herself did wonders for my ego, even though I knew I was nowhere near as good. The sad thing was, I had never read any of her works, apart from that one poem.

Fast forward again to last week, when Amazon Kindle decided to treat us all with some cash to buy any ebook of our choice. As to why I chose a Kamala Das book, I’ll never guess (given that I have several other books on my TBR, and hers is one name that never really crossed my mind), but that is, as you can see, what I chose. Sometimes, our instincts know.

Wages of Love is a collection of short stories, plays, poems and essays compiled by Suresh Kohli. It starts with the short piece “The Fair-Skinned Babu”, the story of a contract killer. Its ending gave me goosebumps. And with that, I was hooked. Das’ writing is as raw as it gets. Poignant and melancholy, set against a sepia tinted background. Stories such as Neipayasam will tug at your heartstrings and leave a cloud of sorrow over you. There are other stories and plays that question traditional notions of morality and holds a mirror over society’s rigid and frigid laws.

It’s the non-fiction section of the book that I absolutely loved above all else. If there’s one thing you must read, it is Das’ thoughts on religion. She wanted to get the fields “Religion” and “Caste” removed from all government forms, a view I completely agree with. Every time I go to a hospital, and their registration form has a “religion” field (most do), I make sure that my displeasure is obvious. Another essay worth noting is Shattering Misery’s Silence. It talks about how the matriarchal and matrilinear society of Kerala went on to become a patriarchal one, and how the bold women of previous centuries gave way to meek, submissive ones. She talks about how clothing is used to judge people. The slightly sardonic tone in which Das writes is quite gut wrenching.

“If wrappings of cloth can impart respectability, the most respectable persons are the Egyptian mummies, all wrapped in layers and layers of gauze.”

Finishing this book has filled me with a quiet restlessness. Why had I not read her books for so long? Why was I advised against reading her, when of all the writers I’ve read, she seems to be one of the fearless ones that need to be read. Yes, her work NEEDS to be mandatory reading. She spoke her mind; how many of us do? What holds us back?

For far too long, I have placed Sylvia Plath and Anais Nin on the pedestal of honest and bold writers. For far too long, I have revered Anita Nair’s skills as a writer. Today, I place Kamala Das on that pedestal. Or perhaps on an even higher one.

Amazon | Goodreads

A Place of No Importance, by Veena Muthuraman

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A Place of No Importance (APNOI, for the rest of the post) is collection of 13 short stories set, along the timeline of the Tamil Calendar, in the little village of Ayyanarpatti. The book begins in the month of Aipasi (mid-October to mid-November) with the story A Festive Suicide, Attempted. As the book (or the year) progresses, the reader learns of the characters who live here, and their idiosyncrasies.

As the author mentions in her note at the end, most of us are accustomed to reading stories with an urban setting. APNOI with its rural setting is refreshing, not only because it offers a different viewpoint (the “other India”, as some people call it) but also because the customs and traditions of the characters in the book give the reader a whole other-worldly charm. Not an unfamiliar one, just a forgotten one. In Ayyanarpatti, caste and gender roles are still strictly defined – the lower castes cannot own houses on the main street (there is only one main street that runs through the village – The Upper Street), the women marry young and stay in their kitchens, the men work in fields and send their sons abroad for work.

The stories in this collection are:

A Festive Suicide, Attempted – A drunkard attempts suicide on Diwali to show his villagers that his family does not take care of him.

Possessed – A boy believes that a ghost from a banyan tree has possessed him.

God’s Own Country – Muthu buys land from Rathinam to set up an international school, but Nithya gets suspicious

A House On Upper Street – A man from the lower caste returns from Singapore and decides to buy a house on the main street.

A New Release – A young wife, whose husband is abroad, and whom she has only known for 2 weeks, awaits the release of her favourite actor’s new film.

Scenes from a Scandal – The village’s only divorcee and an old widower set tongues wagging (this story is my favourite in this collection)

A New Beginning – An old farmer’s wife goes missing one day.

A Love Story, starring Councillor Muthu – An inter-religious love story with a political background

Prelude to a Wedding – A mother and daughter try to dissuade their family from marrying the daughter off to someone she does not like.

The Demon Wind of Adi – A farmer thinks of the “olden days”

A Yank in Ayyanarpatti – An American builder gets confused and fascinated with the village’s politics and superstitions.

The Amman of Saris – A sari seller hatches a plan to sell more saris to the naive and pious villagers.

Macondo Thatha: Origins – A man decides to get married for the second time, but his plans go awry.

APNOI is the literary equivalent of a lopsided grin. The way the author has captured fine details with her evocative prose, the stories are a clever and satirical portrayal of life in this little village that few have heard of. The stories aren’t interlinked, but several characters appear in multiple stories, such as the witty Nithya or the wily Muthu. Some stories have tragic ends, but are so well written that the reader applauds the author’s skill even while mourning for the characters. Some others have elements of black comedy in them, while yet others bring a smile to the reader’s face.

APNOI has been compared to R. K. Narayan’s famous Malgudi Days, and it does not come as a surprise. Veena Muthuraman’s sentences do sound post-colonial with a smear of vernacular thrown in, the kind of language one does not get to read nowadays. It is utterly captivating and a joy to read.

Highly recommended! Rating: 4/5

The book is available on the Juggernaut app. The book has not yet been added to Goodreads. Will update the link once it’s available.

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the Juggernaut team for an honest review. This has in no way affected the review and my opinions are personal and unbiased.

A Bunch Of Thoughts I Had While Reading Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Disclaimer: This is not a review.
rain-and-a-book-raymond-carverIf you follow me on Instagram, then you probably know I was really excited about this book.*

Every time someone tells me he/she is a voracious reader, then proceeds to gush about the latest 100-buck newsstand bestseller, I groan inwardly. Then they ask me if I have read it, and I say no with a polite smile, while snootily thinking how I’m “used to better literature” I ask myself if I am turning into that horrible person called a book snob.

Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love has proven to me without a doubt that I am not. I am still sighing with relief.

I’d recommend this book to fans of Haruki Murakami. Dark, magical realism? Haha, no. Just mass confusion. Like I said after I’d read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, I did not get the purpose of these stories. I like my stories to be contained in well-defined plot-lines. Sometimes I even like open-ended stories if they are satisfying in other departments. I like anything that does not make me go, “Yeah, so?”

On the other hand, master storyteller, Mr. Carver has left me baffled, and feeling, if I may say so, quite unsophisticated. It appears to me I do not appreciate the fine art of sparsely constructed sentences or, erm, episodic stories or vignettes about boring individuals. While the stories in Murakami’s book had some creepy elements, Carver’s stories have an undercurrent of bitter grimness. Old couples who seem unwilling to go on with their grating, lonely lives, drinking their way through it all, bored and cynical.

And here I am, just, you know, yawning.

Whether Carver’s stories are an acquired taste or not is not for me to decide. He seems madly popular (this book has a rating of 4.24 on Goodreads, if ratings mean anything to you) and I feel like someone the bouncer kicked out of a club. No doubt, the sparse narrative and conversational dialogue adds to its appeal, and are perhaps the reason the critics love this one, but I hate it when I turn the page over and see something’s ended when I was most definitely expecting more.

What am I missing?

Goodreads | Amazon

*I’m weeping; I feel like my book instinct cheated me.