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


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