Tag: Historical

Reading Slump and Half of a Yellow Sun

Hello. I’m back. Or am I? Too soon to tell!

I’ve been facing the reading block from hell such that there is little else I think about these days. This time last year, I was on book # 31. Whereas, as of this moment, Half of a Yellow Sun was book # 4 for this year. I’m so disappointed in myself that I don’t even feel like counting the other three books. It’s like the gap in reading negates everything I’ve done.

My last review in 2016 was published on Dec 1st. Post that, all I was doing was trying to read. To be fair, I was even trying to live, so everything I did on a daily basis got lost in the effort of keeping myself alive. I confessed in a post last year that I read books to consciously keep the real world out. Therefore, not being able to read was doubly suffocating. Like a singer who woke up one day to find she’s lost her voice.

I tried my best to fix my reading problem – a candle of hope that if I read one book from start to finish, maybe, just maybe, other parts of my life would begin fixing themselves. We attach significance to certain actions in certain ways. In an effort to bring this to fruition, I joined a book club. It didn’t help with the reading, but it helped in other ways – it allowed me to revert to a side of me I had hidden for the last few years under a cloak of introversion. It was quite beneficial to my self esteem which had been on an all-time low. But with the reading, nah – I’d bring a new book with me each week, pretend to read a chapter, and then put it back on my shelf. Nothing stuck, nothing stayed.

6318821It was the same with Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The first time I brought it to the club, I didn’t even open it, as I was  too busy chitchatting with everyone else. Two weeks after that, while at home, I decided to start reading it on a whim. This isn’t my usual “book called out to me” phenomena that I keep talking about on this blog. This was just another attempt to kill the block. At first, it was as bad as ever – not the book, but my focus and concentration. I felt like a calf learning to walk and constantly failing. I’d read one sentence and dream of clouds for the next three paragraphs. I chided myself and a part of my brain became a stern parent to another part. Instead of giving up on the book, I’d go back and read those paragraphs that I’d missed. I vowed to not let the slump get better of me this time. Slow and steady (real slow cos it took me a month to read a book I would have finished in maybe four days before).

Adichie is someone I admire a lot for who she is. I’ve listened to her talks and interviews and I have immense respect for her. Last year, I read Purple Hibiscus and quite enjoyed it. The prose was simple, the story realistic, with characters that stayed in your mind even after you put the book down.

I decided to read Half of a Yellow Sun more out of my love for Adichie than anything else. I didn’t even read the blurb before signing up. And, forgive me for being so ignorant, but I learned about the Nigerian Civil War only after reading this book.

Set in the ’60s, the story does not follow a linear timeline. It starts with the early ’60s, then moves to late ’60s. we go back to the early ’60s where some important revelations are made, and we return to the late ’60s, in the middle of war and starvation and destruction. In the beginning, the characters seemed almost hopeful that the war would come. A fight, a hope for independence. The story is told through the POVs of the three central characters – Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard.

The story begins with Ugwu accepting a job as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor and an intellectual strongly in favor of creation of the new state, Biafra. Odenigbo entertains other intellectuals every evening, while Ugwu observes their mannerisms and tries to learn as much as he can.

Enter Olanna, the beautiful woman Odenigbo is in love with. She has decided to leave behind her hometown and rich parents and move to the university town with Odenigbo. Her arrival makes Ugwu uneasy at first; with her polished manners and refined language, Ugwu believes she is not right for his master, but soon his respect for her grows beyond his respect for Odenigbo. When Odenigbo’s mother hatches a plan against Olanna, it is Ugwu who tries his best to warn her.

Olanna has a sardonic twin sister, Kainene – the ignored one. The different treatment the two girls received from their parents has turned Kainene cynical and indifferent. She meets Richard, a shy English journalist at a party and the two soon become lovers. Even though Richard falls in love with her, he is too afraid to ever fully express his feelings. It is Igbo art that draws him to the country, but he stays to document the war.

In the beginning, the book gave off a Gone With The Wind vibe, as both have a war setting. There is also a tinge of The Kite Runner. However, Half of a Yellow Sun focuses more on the characters in the story than the war itself. The brutality of war has been captured to an extent, but not with the severity it demanded. The war serves as a backdrop, and is almost like an afterthought in the work as a whole – more time could have been devoted to show just how terrible it was (this is just my opinion). In this regard, I liked Purple Hibiscus better, as in that book, the setting is as important as the characters.

I quite related to the character of Olanna and her blind love for Odenigbo. There was a devotion in her love that I could understand in a way that I wish I didn’t. However, it is Kainene I looked up to. Her development as a character has been very well written. She is a perfect blend of strength, willfulness, and levelheadedness. I absolutely admired her (and wished I was more like her than her twin).

I’m yet to read Adichie’s other works of fiction (Americanah, The Thing Around Your Neck etc.), but I enjoyed the two I’ve read so far. Although I liked Purple Hibiscus more than Half of a Yellow Sun, I will still equally recommend both, the important reason being they’re not exactly comparable and are so different from each other, they could’ve been written by two different authors. That said, I will always remember the story of Half of a Yellow Sun. It is, after all, the first book I read in a bloody long and hard time.

Goodreads | Amazon

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New Book Release: Yellow Hair, by Andrew Joyce | Summary and Excerpt

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Yellow Hair

Blurb:

Yellow Hair documents the injustices done to the Sioux Nation from their first treaty with the United States in 1805 through Wounded Knee in 1890. Every death, murder, battle, and outrage written about actually took place. The historical figures that play a role in this fact-based tale of fiction were real people and the author uses their real names. Yellow Hair is an epic tale of adventure, family, love, and hate that spans most of the 19th century. This is American history.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Smashwords

About the Author

andrew-llAndrew Joyce left high school at seventeen to hitchhike throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. He wouldn’t return from his journey until decades later when he decided to become a writer. Joyce has written five books, including a two-volume collection of one hundred and fifty short stories comprised of his hitching adventures called BEDTIME STORIES FOR GROWN-UPS (as yet unpublished), and his latest novel, YELLOW HAIR. He now lives aboard a boat in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his dog, Danny, where he is busy working on his next book, tentatively entitled, MICK REILLY.

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Excerpt

Big Jim sat straight and proud as he inspected the four columns, making sure they were evenly spaced. After nodding his head in approval, he raised his right arm, and in a forward, arching motion he said, “Follow me.”

With that one action and those two simple words, Jim Cody’s infamous train that departed in the spring of 1850 from Westport, Missouri, and traveled into legend, started west, putting into play events that culminated in the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.

The Wolf Trial, by Neil Mackay

“If werewolves existed, Willie, I would have seen one by now.”

“You have not seen England, sir, and it exists.”

28486967I think for me, the most exciting part of the story was the fact that it is based on a true story. The Wolf Trial is the story of a sixteenth century serial killer, Peter Stumpp (Stumpf, in the book) – one of the first ever recorded accounts of a serial killer – who was believed to be a werewolf. When I learned this, I decided to read a little about the original Peter Stumpp before proceeding with the book. Terrible times, I tell you.

Neil Mackay has made a few minor changes to the story (for instance, in reality, Stumpp/Stumpf insisted that he was a werewolf acting under the orders of the devil), and his book follows a debate in which a lawyer and a priest (with the town being on the latter’s side) argue whether he is to be tried as a man or a werewolf. The lawyer, Paulus is a skeptic (see quote above) and an academic, whereas the priest, Fromme is a… well, a priest. The story is narrated by an 80-year old Willie, who was once Paulus’ assistance and who was present during the hunt and trial of Peter.

Mackay’s writing skills are noteworthy. I loved how atmospherically eerie this book was. The whole time I felt I was in some deep dark woods. It reminded me of the beginning of Dracula (if you recollect my review, that is the only part of Dracula that I enjoyed).

However, there are certain things that I did not like – such as the dialogue. The prologue made me think it was set in maybe early 1900s. Even in the rest of the book, the dialogue does not sit well with the image I have of the sixteenth century. Contrast this with, say, Murder at Cirey, which came out last year but is set in the eighteenth century. Perfect dialogues, and they add a lot to the atmosphere and the setting. Given that this book is already rich in terms of atmosphere, it would’ve truly benefited from better dialogue.

Another thing is, while it is understandable that a book about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence (I mean, obviously!), in The Wolf Trial, the violence does not quite blend in. What I mean is, it feels like it has been added to give it some sensationalism, as if the author thought of going a little over-the-top because this is a book about a (gasp!) werewolf, so there has to be some OTT violence. I’ve read up about the man’s crimes – horrifying. Mindnumbingly so. All the more reason to present it more clinically than dramatically.

Last, and most importantly, while Mackay has great writing skills and a great story to tell, there is something a bit “un-thrilling” about this thriller. It was not a compelling read, and there were times when I had to fight the urge to skim or speed-read or simply put it down.

All things said, it is commendable that Mackay used an account of the world’s first (known) serial killer and weaved a story out of it – I would have never learned of Stumpp/Stumpf of Germany otherwise.

Goodreads | Amazon

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Freight Books/Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.

Book Release | a Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other, by Ralph Webster | Summary and Excerpt

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a Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other
The Third Reich is rising.  The creeping madness in the heart of Germany will soon stain the entire world.  This is the chilling account of one family as they flee for their lives.

Blurb

The Wobsers are prosperous, churchgoing, patriotic Germans living in a small East Prussian town.  When Hitler seizes power, their comfortable family life is destroyed by a horrifying Nazi regime.  Baptized and confirmed as Lutherans, they are told they are Jewish, a past always respected but rarely considered.  This distinction makes a life-and-death difference.  Suddenly, it is no longer a matter of faith or religion; their lives are defined by race.  It is a matter of bloodlines.  And, in Nazi Germany, they have the wrong blood.

Genres:  Memoir; Historical Novel; Biography
Page Count:  372 Pages
Release Date:  June 28, 2016
Paperback: $15.95  Kindle: $9.99
ISBN: 1533656924 (ISBN13: 978-1533656926)
Publisher:  CreateSpace

Goodreads | Website |  Amazon

About the Author

bRalph Webster is retired and lives with his wife Ginger on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  An enthusiastic world traveler, he is the son of immigrant parents; refugees who were forced to leave their homelands and families for reasons that defy comprehension.  Through this prism, he has a profound respect for those who must leave their lives behind, and whose only dream is to journey to a welcoming land where there is freedom and opportunity to create a better life.  This is his first book.

 

Goodreads | Amazon

Excerpt

We had no idea, no reason to expect that Father’s business would become a target, too.  There was no forewarning.  That morning, along the front of his building, in large red letters, was the message, “Udo Wobser is a Jew!”

I speak as an adult now, with the collected wisdom of age and hindsight.  I will always remember that Saturday through the eyes and mind of a ten-year-old boy.  That was the day Father became known as Udo Wobser, the Jew, no longer simply as Udo Wobser.  That was the day I learned that I could be both a Jew and a Lutheran at the same time, that being a Jew was about bloodlines and ancestors, that it was about race, not only religion.  That was the day I learned I was still a German, but now I was a German Jew.  That was the day I learned that my family was a member of a much larger family, a family that ran generations deep, a family that was viewed with disdain and contempt.

From that date forward, a line had been drawn.  It wouldn’t matter what we thought, how we had lived, what we believed.  Please don’t misunderstand.  We had never rejected the notion.  We simply had never been taught to embrace it.  Before April 1, 1933, I never entertained the idea that our family was Jewish, that I was a Jew.  It meant nothing to me.  If asked the question, I would have answered, “No, I am Lutheran.”

Ultimately, the answer was not ours to give.  Others told us who we were.  Both Mother and Father were descendants of Jews.  There was no denying.  There was no appeal.

At times, I wonder what Mother and Father really felt that day.  Given the choice, how would have they answered the question.  Did they consider themselves Jews?  Now I know their answer was obvious.  Our opinion did not matter.  There was no choice.  No one asked.  The question was not needed; the answer was evident.

 

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

“We are expected to love our husbands from the day of contracting a kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step above a servant. We love our parents because they take care of us, but are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We are raised by one family for another.”

In sixth grade, we were taken for a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. They were having a historical exhibit at the time (they even had Egyptian mummies – I honestly don’t know/can’t remember if they were real or just dummies, but I wanna believe they were real, so please don’t take this away from me). Among other things, I remember a painting quite vividly. It was a painting of Chinese women with their feet bound. It was a strange painting though, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.  In the painting, the women had their legs (legs, not feet) tied up like they were rope! These women had knots where there ankles should have been.We were told they did this so their feet never grew beyond a certain size and this intrigued me. Or, more accurately, I should say, this bothered me. Which is why I remember the painting to this date.

Bulisa-see-snow-flower-sreeshadivakaran-rainandabookt the funny thing is, I can’t remember how Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ended up on my TBR list. It’s just been there since, forever! The book presents the true picture of foot binding – so unlike the painting I saw, but all the more brutal. The feet are bound in cloth, and the kids (yes, they do it to little girls) are forced to walk with their toes underneath them so that the bones break and… do you want me to go on? Why did they do it? To enter into “good marriages.” What did marriages have to do with breaking the bones in little girls’ feet? Read this for a brief summary. Warning: May piss you off.

Anyway, back to Lisa See’s book.

Genre: Historical, Cultural

Summary: In 19th century China, when women were treated like dirt, the protagonist Lily finds a “laotong“, Snow Flower. A laotong relationship is a lifelong friendship between two women, and is considered more sacred than that between a husband and wife. Lily and Snow Flower communicate using the secret Nu shu script used by Chinese women. They even have their feet bound at the same time, are born in the same year (the year of the horse) and are matched on almost all points, except social standing. At first, Lily believes herself unworthy of Snow Flower, because the former belongs to a family of farmers, whereas the latter’s family is quite well off. The story is narrated by Lily as an old woman, and she begins the tale by implying something went terribly wrong with their friendship. It’s all very tragic.

Good: Had this been a work of non-fiction, it would have been worth devouring! The detail, right to the smallest dot, is fantastic. A lot of research has gone into this book. So fascinating – the secret script, the folk tales and songs, the culture and customs, even the horrid-sounding foot-binding.

Bad: When the narrator tells you something bad is gonna happen, as a reader, you would get this sense of foreboding. That was absent in this case. I knew something was gonna wrong, but it made me go, “Oh yeah? So?” I just couldn’t bring myself to care. You reach the 40% mark before the story actually begins. So you tend to wonder what were you doing up until this point. It’s really slow, and I didn’t expect to finish it for another two days. I did, somehow. I don’t even feel a sense of accomplishment or anything. I just feel like taking a break from books! Happens, when a narrator is particularly drony.

Ugly: Look at that quote I’ve shared in the beginning. Almost every page has at least one paragraph that tells you women are worthless. I mean, okay, I get it, it was the “system” or whatever. But this is a work of fiction! You can turn your heroine around, you know! Make her question the “system”! There’s another popular work of historical fiction, also set in the nineteenth century, but in a different part of the world – Gone With The Wind. The heroine of that book was Scarlett O’Hara and believe me, if she were the heroine of this one, this would be a completely different book, a mindblowing one. She didn’t take the system lying down, I don’t know why Lily did. Or Snow Flower, for that matter. Snow Flower was built up as a strong character, one just waiting to fly off. But she didn’t. Not only that, Lily’s voice almost sounded like she wanted to be treated like crap. Like, all women should be grateful for being treated like crap. It was terrible. The sheer repetition of the words, “We are women. This is our fate.” will make you wanna put a bullet through your mouth. Or six.

I know this book has a high rating on Goodreads and seems to be wildly popular (though I still can’t remember how it ended up on my TBR!) So I may be entirely wrong here in my interpretation. But I can’t overlook the fact that this was so slow, so cliched, so boring, so irritating. Again – it should have been non-fiction. My rating is a reflection of that alone – the research and the depiction of history.

Rating: 2.5/5

Goodreads | Amazon

 

Water, by Bapsi Sidhwa

I am not a movie buff. I am choosy about the films I watch and only very few times have I been cwater-bapsi-sidhwa-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-bookompletely enthralled by a film. Also, when I read a book, I don’t wish to see it as a film no matter how much I enjoy it (in fact, a lot of times, when a book I’ve loved is adapted into a film, I end up not watching it at all).

However, only twice in my life have I watched something on screen that made me think, “How I wish this were a book!” One of the times I wished this was when I watched Water. The poignant story and the breathtaking visuals affected me enough to leave me speechless. The book came out after the film. How often do you see the words “Based on the film by…” on a book’s cover?

Genre: Historical, Cultural, Indian, Feminist Literature, Literary

Summary: Set in 1930s, Water is the story of Chuyia, a girl who is widowed at the age of eight, and forced to live in an ashram for widows. Her head is shaved, she is only allowed to wear white saris, only certain kinds of foods are permitted, and she is not allowed to touch anyone or talk to anyone outside the ashram. With all her innocent curiosity, she questions why the widows must be forced to suffer so much. The more she questions, the more Shakuntala, an older widow in the ashram, begins to wonder why the holy scriptures were so against women, why a widow was considered to be a danger to society, a lustful creature that would lead good men astray. Meanwhile, Chuyia, and a beautiful young widow named Kalyani become good friends. Since the time Kalyani was a child (she was widowed very young, like Chuyia), the head of the ashram, Madhumati, had been sending her out to the houses of rich seths in the city as a prostitute. One day Kalyani and Chuiya meet Narayan, a young man who is a follower of Gandhi. He does not believe in the ill-treatment of widows and wishes to marry Kalyani. Fate, however, has other plans.

The reason why book lovers love to bitch about movies is simple: the movies always get something wrong. For a book lover, this is like a guilty pleasure – like there’s a secret between the author and the reader, which those who’ve only seen the movie will never know. In the case of Water, however, either because the book came after or because I saw the movie before reading the book, I was robbed of that experience. The book is fantastically written, but scenes from the film constantly interfered with what I was reading. Also, the film was woven around Chuyia, the eight year old widow, but the book was more about Kalyani – it’s the same story, but the book somehow leaned more towards Kalyani than Chuyia.

Overall, a heart-wrenching read. If you do get the chance though, watch the film it is based on too.

Goodreads | Amazon

Rating: 4/5

 

Bengal Nights, by Mircea Eliade (Translation: Catherine Spencer)

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“I do not love her, I admire her. She disturbs me. Her body and her mind are overwhelming.”

Bengal Nights, or Maitreyi, or La Nuit Bengali by Romanian historian Mircea Eliade is a title I came across by accident. After reading the summary on goodreads, I was quite intrigued, but what drove me nuts was the fact that this book was not available anywhere. This gave Bengal Nights the halo of “the book that I couldn’t have” and like all things we cannot have, it only made me want it more. Otherwise, there is no chance on earth that I would hunt far and wide for a romance. I had given up on ever getting a copy of this book, after searching for it for about a year, when just as unexpectedly, I found it!

Looks like this is the year of romance for me. *secretly hopes not*

Summary <may contain some spoilers>: Alain (Eliade’s alter ego) is a European engineer working in Calcutta. His life is filled with frivolous parties with his friend Harold and “the girls.” While working on a project in Assam, he contracts malaria and is hospitalized. When he regains conciousness, he is surrounded by his friends, all of whom have a prejudice against India and its people. Just then, his employer, Narendra Sen, visits him with his sixteen year old daughter Maitreyi, and invites him to stay at his residence as he recovers. Alain’s friends are convinced that it is a ploy to make him fall in love with Maitreyi and get him married. Alain does not believe it; also, he dislikes Maitreyi’s appearance. However, he accepts Narendra Sen’s offer and moves to his house. Maitreyi is interested in learning French, and soon, he begins to give her French lessons, while she teaches him Bengali. He is sure she is flirting with him, but she assures him that she is in love with Rabindranath Tagore, her teacher, to whom she had once given her word she would never fall in love. Later, however, under the pretext of arranging books in her father’s library, she calls Alain for help and challenges him to invoke feelings in her. She soon realizes she is truly in love with him, and Alain realizes he has been in love with her since the very first time he saw her. Things soon take a turn for the worse when Maitreyi’s parents come to know of the affair, and it leads to a tragic end.

Although this book is set in the early part of the last century, I am unable to call it a historical romance. The main reason being, although most of the customs and traditions mentioned in the story are now outdated, the story could as well have been set in present day India.

Never have I ever read a story of such inner turmoil, such indecisiveness and such passion. Eliade writes in detail about each of Alain’s emotions, his every thought and he employs a rich vocabulary while doing so. The flaw, however, is that it fails to invoke anything in me, as a reader. Why is it that despite such vivid detail, as a reader, I neither sympathized with the tragic situation nor felt any flicker of emotion in my heart? The only reason I could think of is, Eliade’s writing is too much like spoon-feeding. It crosses the thin line between vivid detail and the murder of imagination. It leaves the reader with the sole job of reading, and not imagining – not completing threads in his or her own mind.

Yet another thing I do not understand is, whilst Eliade has published this as an autobiographical work, he gives himself an alias. He mentions Maitreyi (and her guru, the well known poet Rabindranath Tagore) by the real name, and also writes about every little thing they experienced, with, seemingly no thought to consequence. Why then has he adopted an alias for himself alone?

I would recommend this book only for the setting – Calcutta through the eyes of Alain looks charming, haunting, and beautiful, though he was, at the beginning, filled with prejudice against the land and its people. As a literary piece on the whole though, it leaves something to be desired.

Rating: 3/5

Get it here: Amazon