Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is the story of Amir and Hassan and the unique relationship they share. Initially it is a deep friendship born out of being fed by the same mother as babies and eventually turns into brotherhood.

The book is a beautiful and poignant story set in the Afghanistan of fifty years ago, starting from before the Russians invaded Afghanistan up to modern day Afghanistan. Amir and Hassan's story is reminiscent of ancient mythological stories of everlasting friendship. But one day of cowardice on Amir's part changes his life and one sin leads to another and then another.

It is easy to relate with Amir in some sense, when he tries to push away the bad memories by retreating within him and evading all painful reminders. On the one side is his conscience and on the other is his longing for his father’s attention and affections. Amir is all that his father does not want in a son, while Hassan is everything he wants in his son. When Amir and his father escape to America the father-son equations seem to change for the better. America, always playing the symbol of freedom and optimism, heralding the triumph of immigrants of struggling against hardships, in so many books by Asian authors, seems to bury the old wounds
below the surface for Amir. Until one phone call brings back the memories, the feelings of remorse but also the hope to make amends.

Hosseini writes beautifully, bringing a character to the stark Afghan countryside and its culture. He portrays Amir’s characters and deepest fears candidly, so that even though you know Amir is doing wrong, you cannot help but empathize with him at times. A father’s agony over burdens he carries in his heart, Amir’s conscience that drives him to insomnia, Hassan’s innocence and willingness to forgive – everything is written about with insight and empathy. When I began the book, a friend told me I would cry when I finished it. A page turner that it was, I kept hoping Amir would achieve retribution. So did I cry in the end? I’m not telling. I will just say that I’d recommend this book to anyone for a touching and enjoyable read and to appreciate the coming of age of Asian writing.
Title: The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini

Friday, November 30, 2007

To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

It's about this kid who wants to go to the lighthouse.

There. I've got the story out of the way. That's pretty much what it is. And it takes genius to write 200 pages of that.

Woolf is one of those absolutely rare, once-in-a-generation writers who have such mastery over words, and therefore over the reader, that it's almost a surreal experience to be reading her works. You recognise thoughts and feelings and emotions that you felt but could never imagine in ink and paper, even about such mundane things as the kitchen table. Reading Woolf is the literary equivalent of getting high.

'To the Lighthouse' is set in two days, separated by many years and many events. It's a wonderful play of tenses, thoughts oscillating to and fro, blurring the past from the present. As always, Woolf's power of observation is showed off in her acute understanding of the man-woman relationship, the triumphs and the glory, the fire and the ice.

The novel reads like a vision, almost untrue in its clarity. None but her own words, describing a painting in the story, can describe the beauty of her prose:
"Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent; one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses."

Verdict: Virginia Woolf is traditionally high-brow - a lot of people who've tried her novels find it hard to make sense of them, which increases the snob-value drastically and therefore finds special place on our blog. I would still maintain that she writes the most enchanting prose I have ever read, after Shakespeare. (I expect that to change once I learn Russian and read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy like they wrote it.)
As always, the strength of the novel is not so much in its plot, but in the lyrical beauty of the narrative. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The View From Up Here - Litsnob Updates.

Greetings plebs! You’ll notice we have new hands on board. After some observing we found another being nearly listnob enough to join us.

Adi’s a classic rock fan with a penchant for great (as well as really bad) movies and is the proud owner of a really loud orange shirt. On litsnob he’s going to be reviewing books belonging to a slightly different genre than what you’ve seen so far – of course, that’s the point of having him on board, ain’t it?

You’ll be seeing some sci-fi, fantasy and more non-fiction related to science. And since he seems to identify bad movies, he will be able to warn you off some bad books too! He isn’t without his dose of sadistic humor too, and if you end up reading a bad book thanks to him, then you probably deserved it!

Hammer Of The Gods : Led Zeppelin Unauthorized

The Hammer of The Gods, will drive our ships to new lands,
Fight the horde, Sing with Pride, Valhalla I am Coming!!!
- The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin

Little did Led Zeppelin know that this iconic track would provide the title for one of the most controversial biographies and a rather interesting cobweb :-). And this would be my first book review of any kind. I had actually wanted to write a review on this since 2005, but couldn't due to reasons not known to me.
Hammer of the Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorized is "about" one of the most influential bands in Rock n Roll history. Their music has served as basis for many super-groups, such as Aerosmith, Nirvana, Foo Fighters. Ok! Enough of showering praises on my favorite band. It’s now time to rant about the book.
Written by Stephen Davis, HOTG chronicles the rise and fall of Led Zeppelin, their legendary drug and alcohol abuse, their antics at the Continental Riot (Hyatt) House, Page’s connection with the occult, and wherever paper space available, their music. The book starts with the introduction of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, how they met and formed Led Zeppelin (named so because The Who band-members Keith Moon and John Entwhistle jokingly remarked that the new band Jimmy wanted to form with them would go down like a lead balloon.) goes on to describe the incidents that made the band the epitome for the cliché – Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll.
On the whole the book is overloaded with sensationalism. Instead of telling us more about the band and how they went on to make some of the best music I have ever heard, Stephen Davis tries his best to sell the notion that LZ were actually in cahoots with Satan! Yes, Jimmy Page was a big fan of Aleister Crowley, but that cannot become the core subject of a book meant to deal with the band and their music. Also, the authenticity of most of the information provided in the book is questionable. None of the band members were consulted during the writing of the book. Instead, Davis chose as the source, Richard Cole, the band’s former manager, who was fired shortly before the band broke up and was jailed. I smell vendetta here! My biggest disappointment with the book was the fact that so little was written about the music of the band. Yes, there are mentions of Dazed and Confused, Stairway to Heaven, The Song Remains the Same and Achilles Last Stand. Then again, when Davis mentioned Stairway, he preferred to talk about how it was accused of containing hidden messages to Mr.666.
So is there anything positive to take away from this book? Surprisingly, yes. Despite all the waffle, Stephen Davis has somehow managed to capture in words, the aura and the mystique that surrounded Led Zeppelin during their hey-days. And for that alone, I shall give this book a rating of 2/5.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

One Red Paperclip

This is a bizarre book that I first heard of through another blog that I visit often. It took me to Kyle MacDonald’s site, and although I didn’t get exactly what it was all about, it just seemed really weird. Cut to 2 months ago when I first spotted the book at the store and decided it would be worth a read. Cut to a month ago, where after going through Kyle’s blog I had finally decided I had to have it.

Well, bizarre does not even begin to describe this story. And since you know that it is no fiction, not by the meanest stretch of imagination, it gets stranger. A little piece of stationary becomes a big, brick-and-mortar house – all 1100 sq ft of it!
For the uninitiated – I say that because nearly every news and radio channel covered this guy and his remarkable journey – this book is by Kyle McDonald about his Bigger-and-Better-game-gone-Biggest-and-Bestest!

At the start of this book, Kyle is an unemployed, cheerful twenty five year old, who decides to use the red paperclip that is holding his resume together to trade up to a house. Well the house part does not come first, only the trading idea does. So a few craigslist postings later, Kyle has someone who is willing to trade him for a wooden fish-pen. And so the trades go on. From a beer keg to a cube box and even to a movie role! Kyle keeps nothing for himself and gives it a year to trade up to a house. Along the way he meets some fantastic people, who help him along on his journey, with lots of goodwill and of course, a trade item. Kyle travels across Canada and the USA in his adventure, involving his whole family and his girlfriend, Dom. In the end, Kyle is still unemployed, but now a proud homeowner as well!

The book is a real feel-good read. Kyle is a simple guy, not too bright – thankfully! - and his writing is just like him: simple. No fancy words, no territorial jokes, no I-got-lucky sermons. He tells it like it happened, and peppers the books with tid bits of learning – most of them could have sounded like management lessons (because that’s pretty much what they are) but don’t. I am all for a book with pictures and this one has plenty of them, so that made me really happy! Kyle comes through as a fun guy, with immense faith in the goodness of all people. In the end he writes, that this journey that he undertook was not so much about trading up to a house as it was about meeting great people along the way. Even in the people he chooses to trade with, he ensures that the person he is trading with has real need for his item. This is especially obvious in the way he decides the person he would trade the recording contract with.

I’ll just say this: if you want to know the entire sequence of the trades, then you can just go to his website or google it out. You don’t need the book for it. But what you do get in the book is the journey, and that is what is more enjoyable.
Visit Kyle’s page at: http://www.oneredpaperclip.com/

Title: One Red Paperclip
Author: Kyle MacDonald

Friday, October 12, 2007

How Starbucks Saved My Life

You’re probably wondering how I came to read this book; then again you’re probably not, but I want you to know anyway! It was on the new releases shelf, that’s how! And it cost me all of a hundred and ninety five bucks (excluding 10% discount).

So back to the point… What this story is about is most obvious. But what is not is the fact that it’s a really simple story. No major management sermons, no major sob story. Nothing much really. Except that here’s an endearing geriatric (yes, it’s called the arrogance of youth!) who writes this book with humor and lots of honesty.

At the risk of repeating what’s on the blurb, here is the context. Michael Gates Gill is a really successful creative director at JWT. One fine day he gets fired by a woman less than half his age, and one he mentored. The reason? He was too old and therefore dispensable. Michael then starts his own firm which is anything but a success. On the personal front, Michael fathers a son in an extra-marital affair, and his wife files for divorce, his children no longer want to see him. His affair does not last long. So he is verging on broke, has no fancy home and as an icing on the top, he has just been diagnosed with a non-terminal brain tumor that is causing him to lose his hearing in one ear. Michael meets Crystal in a Starbucks and she offers him a job as a barista. Michael becomes Mike and the rest is what this book is about.

The nicest thing about this book was that there was never any self pity. Mike does cry, more than once, but it is never out pity for his life. There are bits where he rambles on about his father and his father’s father and all the luxury that he was brought up in. He never mentions it explicitly, but I also suspect he was quite dyslexic. So at the ripe old age of 60 and wearing his expensive loafers, he commutes an hour and half to his Starbucks store everyday to be a barista. If I say more then I’ll really give away the story – at 260 pages in large typeface, this isn’t much of a novel.

Mike and his style of narration don’t allow you to take everything too seriously. It could have been a sentimental, sympathy-evoking tale, but it’s not; even in the parts where he is describing his sometimes dysfunctional upbringing, it seems more matter-of-fact than sorry. Mike and his rediscovery of the joys of living and life are more about keeping the faith, and learning to make use of whatever opportunity that comes your way. Mike learns at the end of it all that in all his years at JWT he was never as happy nor as respected as he is at Starbucks. This is more of a feel-good story. I read recently, that these days it’s very rare to find books that you can read on an overnight journey. Well, you need not look further!

Title: How Starbucks Saved My Life
Author: Michael Gill
Published by: HarperCollins

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Motorcycle Diaries

For a book that wasn’t meant to be published, ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ is a remarkably thought-provoking, charmingly humorous, sometimes boring account of the travels of two idealistic young Argentine doctors through the continent of South America on ‘La Poderosa’. The title is quite inappropriate when you consider that the motorcycle in question, ‘La Poderosa’ gives way less than halfway through the journey. This unfortunate and unforeseen event seems to have given the foolhardy and ever determined Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Alberto more opportunities to study the strangeness of human ways.

Years later, we know how that significant journey impacted their lives, what became of the two, how it all ended; but to read about what Che was thinking while he looked up at the Chilean stars - that’s what makes it worthwhile. When you read this book, you can almost smell the salty sea breeze, taste the wildness, feel that freedom; and it made me want to pack up and leave on a journey of my own.

The second half of the book, though, drags a bit as enthusiastic Che describes in minute detail, all the architectural grandeur of Peru, while giving an account of the fall of the Inca dynasty to the Spanish conquistadors. This must have been one of the most influential events that spurred him into turning into the revolutionary that he later became; however, from a non South American reader’s point of view, it’s something to be ‘got through’ in order to enjoy the rest of the book.

Che’s style of writing is pleasant and surprisingly good – “Gold doesn’t have the gentle dignity of silver which becomes more charming as it ages, and so the cathedral seems to be decorated like an old woman with too much make up.“ There’s loads of humour too, to keep the reader chuckling; and inspiration if you’re willing to take it. His story is almost unbelievable – and there lies the inspiration. And it does help that the book has a generous number of pictures, though I personally didn’t get enough of handsome Ernesto.

Verdict: While I would classify the book as an interesting read with some slow moving parts, nothing really “happens” in the book. There is no “action”, no destination to the journey; perhaps that is why the book also feels like it ended out of the blue. It was meant to be a journal and it is just that: a warm, human, humorous one.

James Herriot's Favourite Dog Stories

‘James Herriot's favourite dog stories’ is something I should have ideally read ten years ago, but it's one of those timeless classics for dog lovers. Herriot makes you believe that Yorkshire is the most beautiful place on earth and that all dogs are friendly and nice to vets. His stories are warm, comforting and almost always have a happy ending. Though I have my suspicions, I want to believe that all his stories are true. He seems to have led the elusive perfect life.

The book is a collection of short stories, each about a peculiar patient of his; though Tricki Woo gets three full episodes in return for the sherry. My personal favourite was Brandy, the dustbin dog. They’ve all got their deliciously simple humour and Herriot uses simple language, almost in keeping with the simple rural lifestyle where the stories are set.

This is a book that's perfect for a rainy afternoon. It's best read sprawled on the carpet with your dog curled up beside you. This particular edition that I read was hardbound, with glossy pages, which is really lucky in case your dog is jealous for your attentions like mine was.
The water colour illustrations by Lesley Holmes are beautiful and generously spaced throughout the book. It's clear that the illustrator has read and loved these stories from the attention to detail, such as Prince's ears- one erect and the other flopping at the tip. The paw prints over every page number give the book character.

Verdict: A book for all ages, moods and weather - if you love dogs.
We recommend a second hand buy, as always - you and your dog would find the smells equally alluring.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire

I have to begin this review by confessing that I am not too big a fan of Arundhati Roy’s writings. That may be an unjustified statement, considering the fact that the only work of Roy’s that has ever graced my bedside reading pile has been the God of Small Things, her maiden venture. I say it graced the pile only because I could not read beyond the first 40 pages or so, and so it was returned to the library unfinished.
And therefore, it came as some surprise to those who know me to see me engaged in her latest offering, The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. The very reason I picked up this book was that it was non-fiction; which meant to me, no long winding passages describing a minute, perhaps even highly inane and unwanted feature of a somewhat pointless episode. And I was right.

The book is a collection of her writings and speeches from the world over, between 2002 and 2004. Her writings provide an insightful peek into the happenings in the political world around that period of time. Most of the issues dealt with in the book are contemporary in their aftermaths, and provide a deeper understanding of the history of today’s present. It would not be unfair to say that the major chunk of pieces in the book are almost anti-American in their nature: in fact in one of the pieces she goes into a detailed explanation of the meaning of the terms ‘anti- America’ and ‘anti- Americanism’. Right from the indifferent attitude of the Americans towards fleeing Jews during WW2 to the war against Iraq, Roy does not spare America and its policies.

But before u conclude that this book is all about world politics, read the chapter called “Ahimsa”. A touching and thought provoking piece about the protestors working under the Narmada Bachao Andolan, she brings to the forefront the appalling indifference of the Indian government towards the starving protestors.

I recommend this book not just because for its literary value, but because of the tendency of each piece in the book to arouse your curiosity and send you on a quest for further knowledge, made easy by the section called “Notes” provided at the end of the book for people seeking more information about the episodes and organizations mentioned in the book. Especially worth reading are the slightly long but intensely satisfying pieces called “Come September” and “How Deep Shall We Dig?”

Pick up this book because it will encourage you to think of issues in focus in the world today, instead of just absorbing information as you see it on the television or read in print. Pick it up because it is nothing like Roy’s other works of fiction.

Title: The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Author: Arundhati Roy

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I picked this book up after I looked it up on the Booker Long List. The only other book that competed for my attention was Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. But this one came out winner simply because of the theme.
Ever since 9/11 happened, anyone who has kept up with the pulse of New York City will know that New Yorkers are still reeling under the shock. Matters are not helped any, by the site of a barren Ground Zero. But this book is not about that. There are no incidents of grief and of loved ones lost. Instead, this is a story of one man, who was so absorbed in his own problems of identity crises, love and the exhilarating independence of a Wall Street job that picks up the tabs, that he fails to notice the world crumbling around him.
Of course the symbolism of the fall of the twin towers is not lost upon him. Watching it unfold from a hotel room in Manila, Changez, our protagonist, narrates with little remorse, the triumph that finds its way into his heart as the fall of the towers “brings America to her knees”. Yet when he returns, the only indication of the devastation of New Yorkers is in the state of Changez’s love interest, who, for the record, is white and does not like him “in the same way” – those two facts are totally unrelated – and is utterly consumed by the demons of her past who include her dead boyfriend and the ghosts of people of the 9/11 tragedy.
Add to it Indo- Pak tensions – I was not surprised that this was given a significant bit of print – and Changez feels an inexplicable and ill-advised need to return to Pakistan. Once home, he is urged by his family to remain untangled in the politics of the situation and upon their urging, Changez finally boards the flight back to America. Mohsin Hamid brings out the conflict within Changez beautifully in this part of the book.
Changez returns to Wall Street a changed man. Hamid symbolizes this change by means of the beard that Changez chooses to keep even in America. The author offers an outsider’s view every once in a while when a colleague whispers racist comments behind his back or when a random stranger leaps out at Changez in a parking lot calling him Arab. And suddenly we see a different picture. A bewildered Changez watches his carefully constructed life in America fall to bits, much like the twin towers of 9/11. A heartbroken, disillusioned and seething Changez returns to Pakistan to fuel the fires of burning fundamentalist issues within the student community in Lahore. And that is where we find him as he relates the entire story to a stranger.
It will not be fair to reveal the concluding part of this story. Let us just say that there is no definite conclusion. The book speaks to the reader at many levels, initially through the genteel and then through the raging emotions of Changez. Hamid describes the immigrant dream come true and then we watch, horrorstruck, as his almost perfect life is torn apart, thread by thread. Hamid tells a poignant tale of a man, too polite to tell the woman he loves of his true feelings, coming to terms with her illness and her failure to make room for him in her life. Even in the enthusiasm of his first days in his new job, Changez takes in America with a child-like wonder, yet having the decency to feel ashamed of himself and his reaction to Pakistan on his first visit home.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a delightful yet touching read. You cannot quite decide whether to take sides with Changez, and you find your opinion of the man quite mixed right through his dreamlike life in the first half of the book up to the turmoil in the second half. And if you’re like me, you’ll turn the page even after the period in the last line of the book, hoping to see more.

Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Author: Mohsin Hamid

Notes: Man Booker 2007 Shortlist


Lit Snobs. Yeah that's us alright.

And since we must live up to our little monicker here, we decided to start our own web bl(ah)g. We don't really care if you think our recommendations of books to read are outlandish, because in all probability we're looking at you down the length of our incredibly long noses. Or maybe we're not even paying attention, as we go about our businesses.

We're classifying our reads based on genre, or any other way we choose. Really, we just make up the rules as we go along. Give us a buzz if you want to join us. We'll let you know if you're LitSnob enough.

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