“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

Celestial and Roy are a young African-American couple — he’s a savvy salesman and she is on her way to establishing herself as a successful artist, making life-like, hand-sewn baby dolls or “poupées.”

Celestial and Roy have many common marriage challenges — in-laws, plans to start a family, their careers. After about a year and a half of marriage, Roy is falsely accused of attacking a woman. Celestial knows he’s innocent because she was there with him the whole time. But he’s still wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Roy’s incarceration is the central axis around which the story revolves — a story of all the people who are affected by it. The story is told from three separate points of view: from that of Celestial, the wife; Roy, the husband; and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend.

Jones uses the three voices to pace her story, to pull back from the relationship and demonstrate the ravages of distance and time. They’re each fighting their individual battles — Roy with the injustice of what has been done to him and all that he’s lost when he has tried so hard to do everything right; Celestial, who is dealing with a battle between responsibility and desire, finding it hard to hold on to a marriage that hadn’t yet had time to “take”; and Andre, who was also Roy’s friend in college as well as the witness at their wedding. It is a story about a black couple in America ripped apart by a flawed justice system.

This is a powerful story with many layers of emotion, and every detail and character are woven together to form a phenomenal story of love, loss and reconciliation.

An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: February 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

I absolutely loved this book. Realistic, powerful, and engaging, I truly felt like I was living in the moment. This book opened my eyes to new areas of society, and while it was intense and thought-provoking, it was also pleasant and easy to read. This makes it suitable for readers looking for a time-passer, as well as for those willing to give serious matters in the American culture more thought.

The Hate U Give deals with some of the controversial topics regarding racism and stereotyping in America, oppression, and fear of speaking out. It was very touching, and I could feel myself connecting with the main character, Starr, as she navigated the troubles in her family and communities (both white and black) and struggled to find her voice to speak out against injustice.

The Hate U Give will resonate with many teenage readers, but is an important book for anyone who feels passionately about racism and other injustices.

The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 2017

Contributor: Ruksana Varma is a high schooler, and an avid reader of fantasy and nonfiction.

“The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez

So far, I have not had a great track record with regard to liking award-winning books, so when I came across a recommendation for The Friend as the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2018, I picked up a copy of it with some skepticism. But, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise — I actually liked this book! It was deep, as award-winning books invariably tend to be, but not at all dense. In fact, I found it an easy read, not just because of its relatively short length but also because of the writing style, which was simple and sparse, devoid of any literary flourishes. It takes a special skill to be able to pack an emotional punch using the simplest of language, and I was gratified to find that this was applauded by literary critics just as much as it was appreciated by me.

The Friend tells the story of a woman writer whose closest friend, a male writer, commits suicide and she ends up taking in his dog, who is equally devastated by his absence but cannot express it. Over the course of the next several months, both the woman and the dog end up finding comfort in each other. They are still grieving, but they grieve together rather than by themselves. The woman writer — the protagonist — lives alone and never married, and while she teaches writing, she never had any close friends apart from the man. He was actually her professor when she was studying to become a writer, and while they were not romantically attached — apart from the one time they slept together, at the suggestion of the man, as an experiment to see what it would like — they had become best friends and remained so for many years, right up to the time the man dies. Because the woman has no support structure, she would have unraveled from the grief, were it not for being forced to take in the dog. She does this only because she is begged to by the man’s wife, who tells her that she cannot look after the dog properly as it was in deep mourning.

The setting of The Friend is in Manhattan, and the protagonist lives in an apartment that does not allow dogs, which is another challenge that she has to contend with. The dog is an enormous Great Dane and is therefore impossible to hide, bringing with it the risk of eviction. The protagonist is advised by her acquaintances to give up the dog in order to be able to hold on to her impossible-to-find rent-controlled apartment, but she finds that she cannot. In the end, she applies for the dog to be considered as a support animal, and her application is accepted, allowing her to continue to stay in her apartment with the dog.

Apart from this, there is no conclusive “happy ending” for the book as such. It is simply a story of how a person and a dog bond with each other through their mutual grief for the person who is now missing from their lives. Just like the woman, the dog is at first so devastated by the absence of his owner that he can barely function. In time, however, both of them come to find some comfort by being with each other and settle down to an existence where they have accepted the pain and slowly learn to live with it.

While those who are dog-lovers would be able to completely relate to this story and vouch for the depth of love and feeling a dog can have for its owner, I found it very poignant and moving even though I am not a dog person. This is despite the fact that the book is not overtly emotional or sentimental. In fact, the grief is very understated, and with the protagonist being a writer, it captures her extensive ruminations on death, loss, suicide, and even writers and writing, all of which are extremely insightful. This is a book focused on thoughts and feelings rather than on things happening, because apart from the main cataclysmic event at the beginning, not much happens.

While the writing style is simple, it is also quite unusual. It is written in the first person — which is quite common — but the man who dies is addressed in the second person, as “you.” So the entire book reads like a letter addressed by the protagonist to the man who has died. None of the people, including the narrator, are named, except for the dog, whose named is Apollo. Even the man’s current wife and two ex-wives — he was quite a womanizer — are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, and Wife Three. (I couldn’t help being reminded of Dr Seuss’ Thing One and Things Two from The Cat in the Hat.) Also, it was not clear if the “friend” from the title of the book refers to the woman, the dog, or the man who has died. It could be any of them, or it could be all of them.

In contrast to most books that are about death, suicide, loss, or mourning, The Friend was far from being the expected tear-jerker. While it does immerse us completely inside the mind of someone trying to cope with the irreversible loss of someone they love, the emotional punch it packs is a lot more subtle. I found that it had a meditative quality to it that made it seem much more like philosophy than fiction, and I am happy rather than bemused by its National Book Award win. It was very well deserved.

The Friend
Author: Sigrid Nunez
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: February 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

I really wanted to like this book. It was highly acclaimed with glowing reviews from both literary critics and readers, and was the finalist for the 2018 National Book Awards. It had come to me highly recommended by a published author whose writing I greatly admired. Also, the focus of the book was the devastating AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which killed thousands of people in the US as well as in many other countries. The quality of the writing was impeccable, which was almost a given, considering that the book was so well acclaimed. It had all the ingredients that go into making a great book, and I should have liked it.

Sadly, I did not care for it. I doggedly continue to read it until the end rather than abandoning it half-way, hoping that, at some point, I would start to care about the protagonists and the outcome of the story. But it failed to evoke any kind of response, leaving me deeply disappointed and questioning whether it was the book or if it was the loss of my own ability to be empathetic and moved by the tragedy of others.

While the plot of The Great Believers revolves around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it actually has two different timelines that alternate throughout the course of the book. The first timeline starts in 1985 and revolves around a group of gay men in Chicago, who are starting to fall victim to the disease one by one. The main protagonist is Yale, and the book opens with the funeral of his close friend, Nico, who has just died of AIDS. Yale is, at that point, in a steady relationship with another man, Charlie, and while some of the other friends in the group are starting to fall victim to the disease, Yale thinks he is safe as he is in a monogamous relationship and both he and Charlie recently tested negative for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). However, Charlie cheats on him and ends up contracting the virus. Yale is devastated, and at the same time, is terrified that he has been infected as well. He eventually gets himself tested, but it is negative, and Yale is so relieved that he ends up seducing a young intern at the art gallery where he works. In an ironic twist of fate, this intern, who Yale thought was not even aware that he might be gay, ends up being HIV positive himself and infecting Yale. Not everyone who is HIV positive gets AIDS, and Yale is able to hold out for a few more years until he eventually dies in 1992.

Throughout Yale’s ordeal, he has had the love and support of Fiona, the younger sister of the friend who had died of AIDS at the beginning of the book. Fiona is like a sister to Yale as well, and she is by his side until the very end, except on the day he dies—she has delivered her baby prematurely just the day before and while she desperately wanted to be with him when he was so close to dying, it just was not possible for her.

Fiona herself is the protagonist of the second timeline of the book, set in 2015, and she has come to Paris to track down her daughter, Claire — the one who was born the day before Yale died — who has been estranged from her parents for many years after joining a cult and refusing to come home. Fiona, who is by now divorced from Claire’s father but is still on friendly terms with him, comes to Paris to find Claire based on a video a friend had sent her showing someone who looked like Claire on a bridge in Paris, accompanied by a toddler. Fiona hires a private detective to track down Claire, and they are eventually able to find her. She is able to have a reconciliation of sorts with Claire, meet her granddaughter, and decides to move to Paris to be closer to them. She has always felt guilty about not being with Yale the day he died, which subconsciously may have impacted her relationship with her daughter. By the end of the book, with the decision to move to Paris, she feels that she is finally making amends.

Try as I might, I couldn’t really bring these plot lines together, and the alternating of the chapters between the 1985 and 2015 plotlines blunted the impact of both stories for me. Had I perhaps only been immersed in the story of Yale and the tragic unfolding of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it would have touched me more. Granted, I knew little about it prior to this book, and I would imagine the story would be a lot more poignant and searing to those who experienced it, either directly or through someone they loved.

However, I think that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of great fiction is that it is able to give us a visceral experience of a tragedy in human history that we don’t know much about, to make history come alive for us.  The Great Believers was not able to do this for me at all.

The title of this book, by the way, comes from a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that is printed at the beginning, but which, I am sorry to say, I found quite meaningless.

All in all, I didn’t like this book, more so because I thought I should like it.

The Great Believers
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: June 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Woman in the Window” by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window

How and why I picked up this book to read is an interesting story. I had vaguely heard of The Woman in the Window as being similar to the two hugely successfully thrillers of the last few years — Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, published in 2012, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, published in 2015. Both had gone on to being made into movies. While I didn’t care for their movie adaptations, I absolutely loved both these books and had bought copies of them to add to my permanent collection. Yet I did not feel particularly compelled to read The Woman in the Window. With a name so much like The Girl on the Train and the story also being similar — a woman sees something from a window, similar to how the protagonist in The Girl on the Train saw something from a train — it seemed like a knockoff, something I was not particularly interested in. Also, the buzz surrounding it was nothing like it had been for Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. In my experience, thrillers have to be really, really good, otherwise you just end up feeling stupid after reading them, feeling like you have wasted your time.

Then, just a couple of days ago, I happened to come across an article in the Feb 11, 2019 issue  of The New Yorker magazine which was a detailed exposé of the author of The Woman in the Window. The author’s name, A.J. Finn is a pseudonym — he is actually a guy called Dan Mallory. The article in The New Yorker was 14 pages long  — I was surprised to see such an in-depth investigative report on one person! It described how Mallory had lied his way throughout his career, climbing up the corporate ladder in the publishing world on false pretenses; how he used his good looks and charm to full advantage to dazzle bosses, peers, and subsequently, readers on book tours. He faked illnesses and deaths in his family to write touching essays to get into college, to evoke sympathy in his colleagues, and justify his absences.  He pretended to have two Ph.D.s, including one from Oxford, which he did not have. (He was enrolled in Oxford — again by lying on his application — but never completed his Ph.D.) It was almost unbelievable that someone would go to such lengths to promote themselves and get a leg up in the literary world.

Coincidentally, I had to go to the library later that day to pick up a book and I happened to see a copy of The Woman in the Window sitting on the shelves, available to borrow. In the past, I had simply glossed over it, but now I checked it out. I was curious, first of all, to see if it was any good, and second, to find out if, knowing what I knew now about the author, whether that would affect what I thought about the book. I had a free evening and was able to read it right away.

What I found is that Dan Mallory is a very good writer. The pacing of the book is excellent –almost like a movie. (A movie is already in the works, and the script-writers should have no trouble adapting it.) The protagonist is a thirty-something woman who has gone though a very traumatic experience fairly recently which has made her extremely agoraphobic. She used to be a child psychologist, but now she never leaves her house and passes her time drinking, taking lots of medications, playing chess online, chatting with fellow agoraphobes in an online chat room, and following the goings-on in the lives of her neighbors in whose houses she can see (apparently, no one believes in closing their blinds or shutting the curtains in her neighborhood!) One day, she sees a murder in a neighboring house through her window and calls the police, even venturing out of her house to help, despite her agoraphobia. But it turns out that no one will believe her — they think she is crazy. And this is not just because she is almost always drunk and drugged, but also because of the lies she is always telling about her family. (These lies are related to the traumatic experience which made her agoraphobic to begin with.) But she knows what she saw, and in the end, it turns out that she was right. The book ends with a dramatic confrontation between her and the killer. (This, by the way, is on the roof of her house and in the pouring rain —  already movie-ready!)

In addition to being well written — whatever his failings, Dan Mallory (writing as A.J. Finn) is a good writer — I found The Woman in the Window riveting enough to read all the way through. And it was an easy read — I finished it in the course of a single evening. The pacing was great, with very short, fast-moving chapters — almost like staccatos in a piece of music — and the tension was maintained throughout.

However, while I was easily able to read the book all the way though, the final reveal about the murderer was quite a let-down. It was too easy and too glib — it just made you feel cheated. Simply put, the ending didn’t live up to the rest of the book, and when I finished it, it wasn’t with the sense of fulfillment at having read a good book but instead with a feeling of dissatisfaction at having wasted my time. It’s a pity that a writer who is obviously talented and can write well could not come up with a gripping ending to a promising story of crime and suspense. The Woman in the Window was stylistically excellent but ultimately lacking in substance.

And with regard to that exposé in The New Yorker, I think it is a credit to Mallory’s writing that I forgot all about it when I was reading The Woman in the Window. It shows that art and creativity can transcend all of our failings and foibles as human beings — you don’t have to be a perfect person to create a perfect piece of art.

The Woman in the Window
Author: A. J. Finn
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: January 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

Still Me

Still Me is the third and final book in the Me Before You trilogy, which started with the publication of Me Before You in 2012. That book was a huge hit and was subsequently made into a movie. At the time it was published, it was not intended to be a trilogy — it was only after the critical and commercial success of the book that Jojo Moyes, the author, wrote two more books that continued to tell the story of the main protagonist, Louisa. (In a recent interview I heard, Jojo Moyes disclosed that she was motivated to write more books by the large number of enquiries from fans who wanted to know how Louisa went on to live her life.)

I wish she hadn’t. It seems to me that sometimes when you create something so spectacular, you should just leave it alone rather than try to continue with it, hoping that the continuation will be just as brilliant and successful. It usually is not. A case in point — Harper Lee’s recent Go Set a Watchman which purports to continue her much-loved classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, but has ended up almost destroying its legacy.

First, some background. I read Me Before You a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend and was blown away by how good it was. It tells the story of Louisa, a regular girl in a small town in England, who loses her job when the local café she was working in suddenly closes down; she then starts working as a companion to a young man, Will, who is confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident that leaves him a quadriplegic, a condition where all four of limbs are paralyzed and which is incurable. Unknown to Louisa, Will is planning to end his life in six months in a facility in Switzerland which provides medically assisted suicide. While Louisa and Will get off to a rocky start, they come to develop a very close friendship and she falls in love with him. But despite her best efforts to change his mind, and unlike a traditional happily-ever-after romantic ending, Will chooses to go through with his assisted suicide plan and dies. The book ends with Louisa reading Will’s last letter to her in a café in Paris that he had visited and loved. The book was beautifully written, the story was so poignant and sad, and at the same time, so fill of wisdom and profound insights on life and living. Will’s letter ends with this:

“Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well.

Just live.”

I absolutely loved Me Before You.

I read the second book, After You, some months later. It lacked the punch of the first book — that was a really hard act to follow — but it was still a decent read. We find Louisa still mourning Will’s death, unable to pick up the pieces and not knowing how to live until a teenage girl, who turns out to be Will’s daughter from his younger philandering days (he didn’t know about her at all) shows up at her doorstep, with a lot of issues that need to be sorted out. While this plot line does seem quite contrived, along with Louisa meeting and falling in love with a new guy, Sam, there are some good things in this book like the descriptions of a support group that Louisa joins for those who have lost loved ones, as well as the descriptions of Louisa’s small closely-knit family in England, their individual eccentricities, and their family dynamics. The second book was nowhere close to the first book in terms of the plot or the quality of the writing, but it was still very readable.

I wish I could say the same for the third book, Still Me, which came out a year ago. The fact that it didn’t generate any kind of buzz should have warned me. The reason that it even appeared on my radar at all was because I recently heard Jojo Moyes on a BBC Books podcast that I listen to. She mostly talked about Me Before You and also read parts of it. It brought back the memories of how much I had loved it. I hadn’t read the concluding book in the series, Still Me, so I picked it up. I also got the first two books in the series and reread them so that I could go back to the beginning and remember how the story unfolds. I was delighted to find that I loved the first book, Me Before You, even more than I had done before. Being older and with a more mature perspective on life, I was able to appreciate its wisdom and insights a lot better. And it was just an incredibly sweet romantic story, even though it had such a sad ending.

I found the second book, After You, just as I had done before — not a great book but still enjoyable.

Still Me, unfortunately, was a real letdown. In this book, Louisa gets a job as a companion to the wife of an extremely wealthy man in Manhattan, and the book is centered around the dysfunctions of this family, the trivial details of their lives, and how eventually Louisa is betrayed by the wife and loses her job. Fortunately, her cranky neighbor comes to her rescue and she ends up reuniting the old woman with her long estranged family. And she and Sam, her boyfriend from the second book, temporarily end their relationship and she starts seeing a man in New York, who, get this — looks just like Will, the former love of her life — but she eventually breaks it up with him because he turns out to be a typical shallow New Yorker. And if all of this wasn’t unbelievably melodramatic enough, there is a whole Sleepless in Seattle type finale to the book in which Louisa has to go to the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan to be reunited with Sam who comes to New York for her!

All in all, it was so ludicrous that I wish that I could go back and “unread” Still Me. What a disappointing, run-of-the-mill, movie-potboiler ending to such a lovely story! It has almost spoiled Me Before You for me. While I can appreciate that authors, just like any of us, have their highs and lows, and cannot always write brilliantly (“You can’t live on a permanent high,” I was once told), I do wish that authors would realize this too. Not everything they write is going to be as inspired as something spectacular they may have written at some point. They should not mess with perfection. If any of their creations turns out to be a masterpiece, they should be thankful for the inspiration that led them to create it and move on to create something else. Leave the masterpiece alone for the rest of us to enjoy.

Still Me
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication Date: January 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Theft of India” by Roy Moxham

thetheftofindia

What the Europeans did in India is what this book is all about. The progress of colonization and the cruelty of the colonists are elucidated using quotes and anecdotes from the colonizers themselves. The book is small, handy, and easily readable.

Vasco da Gama and his men on landing at Calicut in 1498 knelt to pray in a temple thinking it was a church. One of them later wrote about the sacred threads worn by the priests across their upper bodies. The men also took home “some white earth which the Christians of this country are wont to sprinkle on the forehead…”

In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived with six ships and bombarded Calicut. Then he left for Cochin, where the king allowed him to establish a factory. But the Zamorin’s fleet pursued him and he slunk away in the dead of night leaving behind 30 of his men. Ending up at Cannannore, he befriended the Raja. By then the Franciscan missionaries accompanying him had realized the difference between Hindus and Christians.

In 1502 Vasco da Gama returned. En route to Calicut the Portuguese encountered the Miri, a ship carrying pilgrims returning from Mecca. A Portuguese eyewitness described the chain of events: “We took a ship from Mecca in which were 380 men and many women and children, and we took from it fully 12,000 ducats, with goods worth at least another 10,000. And we burned the ship and all the people on board with gunpowder.” Another eyewitness recounted how the women offered their jewellery and held up their babies “that we may have pity on their innocence.” These are Portuguese accounts of Portuguese barbarity in a land where they came as traders looking for spices.

The Arab traders of Malabar resisted the Portuguese from the very beginning. The Zamorin ignored the Portuguese demand to expel them. (The Moplahs are said to be descended from 13 Arab merchants who settled on the River Beypore in the 9th century.) The Zamorin’s 32 ship fleet was destroyed by Portuguese guns. The ships were either sunk or set on fire and floated into Calicut harbour.

Next to arrive was Francisco de Almeida. His son was killed in a naval battle off the coast of Diu where the Zamorin’s ships teamed with an Egyptian fleet and successfully fought the Portuguese. But the betrayal of the Diu Governor precipitated the withdrawal of the Egyptians and the subsequent defeat of the Zamorin’s navy. Thereafter the Portuguese dominated the Arabian Sea coast. Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived next.

Goa derives its name from Govapuri at the mouth of the Mandovi River. In 1510 it was ruled by the Bijapur Sultan, Yusuf Adil Shah. Albuquerque easily captured it but fled when the Sultan’s army approached. The Portuguese massacred the Muslims before retreating to their ships. The fury of the monsoon prevented them from sailing. They ran out of food and were reduced to eating rats but did not surrender. Eventually they sailed away but returned on 25 November 1510, to capture Goa and put to death 6000 Muslims.

Albuquerque wrote to the King of Portugal, “I have decided that all the horses of Persia and Arabia should be in your hands, for two reasons: one being the heavy duties that they pay, and secondly, that the King of Vijayanagar and those of the Deccan may recognize that victory depends on you, for he who has the horses will defeat the other.”
Albuquerque, for all his cruelty, forbade the practice of sati in Goa.

In 1538 the first Bishop arrived in Goa. In 1540 the destruction of temples began. Francis Xavier arrived in 1542 and started mass conversions. He died off the coast of China in 1552, was first buried in Malacca and later shipped to Goa in 1554 to be finally interred at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. The author notes that “…parts of a shoulder blade are in Cochin, Malacca and Macao, the upper arm is in Japan, the internal organs have been distributed as relics…”

At Bassein in 1564, the Portuguese smashed the idols in a temple, killed a cow and sprinkled its blood in the sacred lake. The first Inquisition happened in 1560 in Goa. It was Francis Xavier who had recommended this horrendous practice to the Pope. 16,172 cases were investigated, thousands imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake before the practice was banned in 1774. The Inquisition was revived in 1778 and finally banned in 1812.

The book gives us many interesting anecdotes about the Kunjali Marakkars, commanders of the Zamorin’s fleet, who put up the fiercest resistance against Portuguese intrusion into Malabar. If the Zamorin hadn’t fallen out with them in the last decade of the 16th century and sided with the Portuguese, the history of Malabar may perhaps have taken a different turn. Marakkar’s surrender on 16th March 1600 was followed by treachery and tragedy. The Portuguese carted him off to Goa where he was publicly beheaded and his body dismembered and exhibited on the beaches. Then “his head was salted and conveyed to Cannanore, there to be stuck on a standard for a terror to the Moors.” The Zamorin had effectively dug his own grave. A century of resistance to colonization was over.

“Goa relied on a huge population of slaves……Women slaves were sold semi-naked at auctions and fetched more if they were virgins.” All the European powers exported slaves, mostly to the East Indies. “Slaves were commonplace in Madras. …The accounts show that in the month of September 1687 no fewer than 665 slaves were exported.” Edward Barlow, an English sailor noted in his journal in 1670 when his ship docked at the Company’s newly formed base at Valapattinam that the local people would not sell them cows but that for a small sum “you may buy their children”.

Bombay was ceded to Portugal in 1534 by the ruler of Gujarat. The Portuguese did nothing except destroy a few temples and build a few churches. In 1662 when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II of England, Bombay became part of her dowry. Six years later Charles II leased it to the East India Company. And the rest is history.

The author opines that the Mughal rulers, excepting Akbar, did little to improve the economy or the lives of the people. Thomas Roe stayed at Agra for three years and supplied alcohol to Emperor Jahangir. Shah Jahan ordered the destruction of Hindu temples. Aurangzeb converted Surat’s Jain temple into a mosque. His 50 year rule left a legacy of religious conflict that persists to this day.

Overall Assessment: Recommended for whites, blacks and browns alike.

The Theft of India
Author: Roy Moxham
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Year of Publication: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty

nine perfect strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers is the new book by Liane Moriarty, who has written several novels including the smash hit, Big Little Lies, which was adapted to a highly successful and critically acclaimed TV miniseries in 2017. The TV adaptation was so well done that I went back and re-read Big Little Lies to find out how a book that was enjoyable but not great had been made into such a terrific show. Nine Perfect Strangers is the first book by Moriarty since the Big Little Lies TV series, and needless to say, it has been highly anticipated, as there has been talk of it being similarly adapted for TV by Nicole Kidman, one of the main stars of Big Little Lies. I have always enjoyed Moriarty’s books — they’re very entertaining, with interesting plot lines, and easy to read — and naturally, I read Nine Perfect Strangers as soon as I could get a copy of it from the library. I was curious to find out if the success of Big Little Lies had impacted Moriarty’s craft.

Nine Perfect Strangers is the story of nine people who check into a wellness retreat for ten days and what happens to each one of them in the course of those ten days. While some of them are single or divorced and have come to the retreat by themselves, there is also a young couple as well as a family of three. Each of the nine people have different issues of their own they are hoping the retreat will help them with, and we learn about each of them as the story unfolds, which is told progressively from each of their individual points of view. The singles include a romance novelist whose career seem to be coming to an end, an ex-football player who has become not just out-of-shape physically but also apathetic mentally, a gay lawyer whose relationship is in crisis because his partner would like to have a child and he is strongly against it, and a stay-at-home mother of four whose husband has left her for a younger woman making her deeply insecure. The young couple is primarily at the retreat for couples counseling — they are having issues with their marriage after they won several million dollars in the lottery a few years ago, and it has completely messed them up. And finally, the family comprising the husband, wife, and young adult daughter has gone through the trauma of losing the son — the daughter’s twin brother — to suicide three years ago and they are each consumed not just by grief by also by guilt as they each blame themselves for his death.

In addition to these nine protagonists, the other main characters in the story are those who work at the resort — the owner, Masha, who was a high-powered executive several years ago but quit the corporate world after a cardiac arrest that almost killed her; and two of the employees, one of whom, Yao, was one of the paramedics who had attended to Masha during her cardiac arrest and now hero-worships her.

Given the cast of characters and the plot, there are plenty of opportunities for both drama and comedy that are Moriarty’s trademark and make her books so entertaining. The back stories of each the nine “guests” at the resort as well as of Masha and Yao are interesting, and despite being mostly light-hearted, the narrative has occasional flashes of real insight that are brilliant. Unfortunately, these are not built on, and about halfway into the book, the plot also goes off-course. The retreat is working very well until about Day 5, with lots of meditation, digital detoxification, healthy food, smoothies, massages, counseling sessions, and long periods of silence — just what you would expect in a retreat of this kind. Also, as expected, it is incredibly hard for the guests to adjust to this at first, but they all feeling physically and emotionally better as the days go by.

So far, so good. But then, both the retreat and the plot rapidly degenerate into a mess where the guests are drugged and locked up together, all for the ostensible purpose of forcing them to undergo a dramatic transformation. Masha turns out to be a crazy megalomaniac, and Yao goes along with her as best as he can until he finally comes to his senses. Of course, as with all of Moriarty’s books, it all ends well — and for most of them, including Masha as well as Yao.

Despite this, I still found Nine Perfect Strangers a fun read, and I had no trouble finishing it. As light and breezy as Moriarty’s other books, it is not meant to be taken seriously, so the ridiculousness of the plot halfway into the book did not turn me off it as it may have done for a more heavy-duty book.

Nine Perfect Strangers
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: November 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

the epic city

I picked up this book on the streets of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during my recent visit to the city. I was looking for something local to read and couldn’t seem to choose from among the scores of books by Indian authors at “regular” bookstores like Crosswords. Walking down Park Street, one of the most famous streets of Calcutta, I stopped at one of the streetside book stalls to browse through its collection. I had discovered some excellent books from streetside stalls like this when I was growing up in India, and history seemed to repeat itself. The bookseller handed me a copy of The Epic City and told me it was very good. I read the blurb, which was intriguing; I was also very impressed with the credentials of the author. But what really clinched the deal for me was this quote from the back cover:

 “Stop and ask for directions in Delhi and no one knows, because no one is truly of the city. Ask for directions on any Calcutta street corner and a half-dozen mustachioed men will appear out of nowhere. They may offer radically divergent views on the matter, a street fight may break out as a result, rival political camps may emerge, and traffic may be barricaded for the rest of the afternoon. But it is their city, their streets, their neighbourhoods.”

Not only was this so well-written, it described Calcutta to a tee!

However, The Epic City is not just an ode to Calcutta, glorifying all the wonderful things about it such as its history, culture, character, vibrancy, and the passion of its people. It is also an unvarnished look at the city, warts and all, including the dirt and grime, the poverty, the chaos, the overwhelming number of people, the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheer difficulty of getting anything done. While all of this can be said of any major metropolis in India, Calcutta, in particular, seems to be caught in a time warp, according to Kushanava Choudhury, the author of The Epic City. And yet, it hasn’t seemed to have kept him away. He was born in Calcutta and moved to the US when he was 12, but the lure of the city was so strong that he returned to Calcutta after graduating from Princeton to work as a journalist, went back to the US to do a Ph.D. at Yale, and returned again to write The Epic City. His first return was born from idealism, of wanting to make a difference; the second time, he returned simply to capture the essence of the city he loved.

As a result, we get to experience Calcutta through Choudhury’s eyes at three different stages of his life: growing up in an ancestral home as part of a large, close-knit family with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; working as a journalist fresh out of college in The Statesman, a leading Calcutta newspaper; and finally, as a married young man attempting to be a writer. Needless to say, he has a wealth of stories to share about the myriad aspects of life in the city, all of which stem from his own personal experiences. Some that stood out for me include the attempted renovation of his ancestral home by his uncle, an architect trained in the US, who finally gave up because of the labor problems and red tape, and returned to the US; his grandmother’s death, which brought the entire extended family back together in the ancestral home for her cremation; his search for an apartment to rent with his wife, the news of which spread like wildfire and resulted in many people voluntarily coming forward with prospective apartments that were not remotely what they were looking for; chasing news stories as a journalist that involved trying time and again to have meetings that kept getting postponed; and participating in the omnipresent “addas” of people hanging out having fervent discussions about politics, books, sports, philosophy,  or literally, anything under the sun.

I found The Epic City a perfect companion for my visit to Calcutta, as I could relate first-hand to many of the experiences so eloquently captured by Choudhury and became familiar with several of the places in the city that he described in the book. But even for those not living in or visiting the city, it shows how it is possible for someone to love a place despite all the many inconveniences of life they encounter there, so much so that they would actually choose to live there instead of a much easier, comfortable, and less stressful life in their home country.

The Epic City may not entice you to move to Calcutta, but it certainly allows you to understand and appreciate those who do.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: October 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Captivity, Sufferings, and Escape, of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the Dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib” by James Scurry

jamesscurry

This memoir was first published in London in 1824, two years after the death of the author. Born in Devonshire, James Scurry had gone to sea at a very young age, probably accompanying his father. His Indian ordeal began at the age of 15 when he was captured by the French off the Coromandel Coast and handed over to Hyder Ali. After a decade in captivity he made a daring escape and managed to return to England where he built a chequered career, and died at the age of age of 57, leaving behind a widow and son.

Scurry begins his amateurish narrative by telling us he set sail from Plymouth Sound in the ship Hannibal and ended up near Ceylon where they ran into trouble with the French. He dived into the shark-infested waters and tried to swim to safety. “I had nothing about me but a silk handkerchief with two rupees, all my treasure, tied up in the corner.” He mentions Trincomalee, Batticaloa (which he called Bloody Bay), Tranquebar and finally Cuddalore where he was taken along with others after his capture. The year was 1781.

After two months of imprisonment in Hyder Ali’s fort of ‘Chillembroom’ where a famine was raging, the prisoners were marched off to Bangalore. “No butcher ever drove oxen with more cruelty than we were driven.”

Eventually, a group of 52 boys aged 12 to 17 were assembled and told they were now the ‘sons’ of Hyder Ali. They were marched off to Seringapatam, and their heads shaved. Months passed and Hyder Ali ‘Cawn’ died. “…towards the close of his life, when the ulcer was rapidly spreading, he, by advice, ordered several criminals at different times to be killed, in order to apply their livers to his sore.”

Scurry makes an intriguing observation that, “Hyat Saib was the rightful successor, but Tipoo proved the more powerful.” (Hyat (Ayaz Khan), was a Nambiar boy from Chirakkal who had been captured in 1766, converted and re-named before growing to be a prime favourite of Hyder Ali. Hyder is said to have publicly proclaimed that he wished Ayaz was his son and successor.) Did Hyder actually nominate Ayaz to succeed him? Or was Scurry referring to palace whispers?

Tipu’s accession aggravated the misery of the English captives, as they were incorporated into slave battalions. “Our ears were bored and a slave’s mark was put in each of them.”

Scurry describes the fate of Brahmin prisoners and English officers in Tipu’s custody. “…Colonel Bailey, who was in leg irons, with Captian Rumney, and Lieutenant Fraser and Sampson. The three latter had their throats cut at Mysore. Colonel Bailey appeared much emaciated; I rather think grief was the cause of destroying his constitution.”

Of the Malabar (Mangalore) Christians, Scurry records that 30,000 of them were driven to Seringapatam, “where all who were fit to carry arms were circumcised, and formed into four battalions.” Tipu wanted their daughters for his harem and when they refused, they were all imprisoned. “The chumbars, or sandal-makers were then sent for, and their noses, ears and upper lips were cut off; they were then mounted on asses, their faces towards the tail and led through Patam…”

“The principal street in Seringapatam, on each side, was ornamented with paintings, such as, elephants whirling Europeans in the air – tigers seizing whole battalions of English sepoys – five or six English officers supplicating for mercy…” Later when Tipu feared the English would get to Seringapatam, these paintings were removed.

Scurry asserts that Tipu was a coward and a tyrant, and probably mentally deranged. Tipu kept nine large tiger cages in front of his treasury. Three of his principal officers were thrown to the tigers and devoured in an instant. The tigers didn’t live long either. Tipu went hunting and brought in new ones. Scurry describes in detail the unique instruments of torture that Tipu used. “But his most common mode of punishment was that of drawing to death by the elephant’s feet.” This corroborates the accounts of other writers in Malayalam and English.

Scurry also describes Tipu’s ‘games’ that would have put the ancient Romans to shame. When Tipu concluded peace with the British in 1784, and the customary exchange of prisoners took place, Scurry and a 100 other boys were sorely disappointed. Had their government forsaken them? Scurry records that he went into depression for three months.

To cut a long story short, Scurry was circumcised, re-named Shamsher Khan (he spells it Shum Shu Cawn), and forced to marry a dark-skinned girl from Arcot, also a prisoner. “She was an affectionate creature by whom I had two children, one died and the other I left in the arms of its distracted mother.” Scurry eventually escaped into Mahratta territory and returned to England in 1793. His efforts to trace his wife and child proved futile. Recounting his final moments with them he wrote, “I was eager to give them a final embrace; but fearful of the consequences. Oh my God! What were my sensations then! And even now, after a lapse of more than thirty years!”

Scurry’s language and spellings are quaint. We hear of him speaking the “Moorish’ language, the Canary language and the Tellingey language. He also recounts ‘seeing the Bramin women ascend the funeral pyre with the dead bodies of their husbands, apparently with as much composure as we would sit down to our breakfast.” His words are straight from the heart of an unlettered man.

Overall Assessment: Certainly worth reading.

The captivity, sufferings, and escape of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib
Author: James Scurry
Publisher: Forgotten Books
Year of Publication: 2015 (Original 1824)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road” by Scott C. Levi

caravans

This book is part of a series by different authors detailing the global commercial activities of Indian merchants down the ages. It presents an amazing account of the trading practices of Punjabi businessmen, whose initiative and enterprise will certainly surprise the reader. Moreover, there’s a detailed account of the slave trade and the horse trade, which were inextricably intertwined.

India had been cultivating cotton and producing textiles from antiquity. Textile fragments excavated at Mohenjo Daro indicate that dyes were used for colouring. The Greek historian Herodotus had referred to Indian cottons.

The Arthashastra the Mahabharata and the Manusmriti refer to institutionalized slavery in India. Mahmud Ghazni took away not only India’s treasures but also hundreds of thousands of slaves. The Slave dynasty (builders of the Qutub Minar) also kept up the slave trade. When Timur sacked Delhi in 1398 he returned to Samarkand with plenty of wealth and slaves. Alauddin Khalji (ruled 1296-1316) had 50,000 slave boys and another 70,000 slaves engaged in construction works. Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1351 to 1388) had 180,000 slaves. Th author notes that, “The Mughals regularly included skilled slaves as gifts along with ambassadorial exchanges.”

In 1646 Shah Jahan’s army occupied Balkh and marched to Samarkand under Aurangzeb. Defetaed by the long, cold winter the Indian forces had to retreat. A central asian chronicler recorded that the Central Asian ‘wolves’ captured the retreating Indian ‘slave-sheep’ and sold them in the markets of Samarkand, Tashkent and Turkestan. The voluminous supply of slaves caused prices to plummet from 225 tanga in 1589 to 84 tanga in 1646.

The Lodi dynasty of Afghan Pashtuns (later overthrown by Babur) came to India as horse traders. “The fact that the ancient Indian ashwamedha, or horse sacrifice, is described already in the Rig Veda indicates that Indians were involved in this exchange many centuries before Herodotus,” the author points out. Marco Polo noticed that the Malabar rulers imported 10,000 horses a year at a cost of 2.2 million dinars – and all but 100 would be dead by the end of the year. Niccolao Manucci wrote in the latter half of the 17th century that 100,000 horses were led from Bukhara to India every year and 12000 of them went directly to Aurangzeb’s stables.

Babur wrote in 1504, “From Hindustan, caravans of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand pack animals bring slaves, textiles, rock sugar, refined sugar, and spices.” 22 years later he would defeat Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat and found the Mughal dynasty.

Successive rulers in India and Central Asia carefully protected the caravan trade. When Akbar learnt that Afghan and Baloch tribes were preying upon the caravans, he sent his army to subdue them. Thousands of tribesmen were killed and thousands more enslaved and deported.

The arrival of the Europeans did not impact the caravan trade. The Portuguese brought much silver from the Americas in exchange for spices and textiles. The 17th century French traveller Francois Bernier observed, “Gold and silver, after circulating in every corner of the globe, comes at length to be swallowed up, lost in some measure in Hindostan.” The French monk Raphael du Mans described India as a place “where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss.” Earlier in the 1st century Pliny the Elder and the anonymous author of Periplus Maris Erithraei had bemoaned Rome’s massive trade deficit with India.

Mulasthana or Mulastanapura became Multan in the 8th century following the Muslim conquest. Alexander the Great took the city in 326 B.C.E. 13th century records identify Multanis as money-lenders and wholesale textile dealers for the first time. Indian merchants were considered indispensable to the local economy and the term ‘Multani’ referred to both Hindus and Muslims. As Multan began to suffer repeated invasions in the mid 17th century, Multani merchants relocated en masse to Shikarpur in Sind.

In the 17th century the French jeweller Tavernier commented that Indian money-changers or Shroffs surpassed the Jews in their shrewdness. The Punjabi Khatris prospered due to Mughal patronage but outlasted several dynasties in India and Central Asia. There were Marwari Jains in Astrakhan in the 17th century.

Nadir Shah’s reign was the most disruptive period in the history of the Indian merchant diaspora. In 1736 he slaughtered the Hindu communities across Iran. After his assassination in 1747 Indians began to return.

Indian presence in Russian territory diminished in the second half of the 19th century due to Russian expansionist policies and harsh restrictions imposed on Indian businesses. Ivan the Terrible had annexed the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 16th century. The 1917 Revolution virtually ended Indian enterprise in Russia. With Partition in 1947, the Indians in Afghanistan had to move elsewhere, as the trade lines were cut off.

In 1914 Paramanand Deepchand Hinduja moved from his native Shikarpur in Sind to Bombay where he established firm. Five years later he moved his business to Iran. When he passed way in 1971 his successors maintained a close relationship with the Shah as well as the Indian government. The business shifted to Europe after the 1979 Islamic Revolution but continued to thrive. Today they employ 70,000 people in 35 countries and have assets worth an estimated $35 billion.

Years ago I was travelling in Uzbekistan with a few women. We were frequently accosted on the streets by local women asking to be photographed with us. They would first ask “Hindustan? Hindustan?” and when we nodded they would signal that they wanted a picture. This happened in not only in Tashkent but also in Bukhara and Samarkand. I suspected it was Bollywood mania, but after reading this book I can see other reasons too.

Overall Assessment: Very Interesting

Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road
Author: Scott C. Levi
Publisher: Portfolio (Penguin Books)
Year of Publication: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Since I’m currently attempting to finish and enjoying a long Victorian novel, I was still craving the sensation of finishing a book. I set out to find a short book that I could finish and came across Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez.

What intrigued me about this book was that it was based on a real event set in Colombia. I wanted to be able to read about little details of what life was like in this part of Colombia during a different time since it was written in 1981, although I’m not entirely sure what era this story itself was set in.

Thankfully, I did get plenty of that from this book. I got plenty of little details of what everyday life was like in this small town even though it was surrounded by this horrifying incident (the murder) that would take place and everyone’s foreknowledge of it.

At first I was a little confused as to why this would make a good story. But as I learned more about the events surrounding this crime, I became just as intrigued by the same questions posed by the narrator, “Why did this happen?” “Why didn’t anyone do anything to avoid it?” “Was the victim just as aware?” “Why didn’t he do anything to avoid it either?”

The narrator sets out to understand what happened surrounding this crime about 20+ years later. Why was it able to be executed in spite of everyone’s foreknowledge that Santiago Nasar would be killed at the hands of these two twin men in search of avenging their sister’s honor?

As we read, we go back and forth from past to present and back and forth through different perspectives. The twin brothers Vicario are very vocal about their intentions to everyone in town. They are so vocal about it that people don’t really believe it’s gong to happen. Everyone seems to take a very laid-back approach to their threats of killing Santiago Nasar and go about their lives. As you learn of others’ perspectives, you might even question whether they knew it would indeed happen, and their lack of interest in impeding this incident is because of a deep desire that he would be murdered.

I enjoyed this book because it was short and kept me engaged. Since it wasn’t very linear you kind of had to piece the story together as the author revealed different details through the day in the lives of the other people on the day Santiago Nasar was murdered. I also got little glimpses of life within this town — there was a big religious event taking place that day that kept everyone busy. There were different shop owners getting for their normal day, although they were aware that Santiago Nasar would be murdered. Since this story takes place by a city in the coast of Colombia there are little details of life by the shore, what food some of the people are preparing for the day, details of the kind of clothes they would wear. These were the little things I enjoyed reading, in spite the very heavy circumstance that this story is surrounded by.

One thing I wasn’t able to keep up with was the name of different minor characters and who they were, perhaps because it is a short book so the author does not spend too much time on each or because I simply wanted to get through the book. But I think that is something that can be easily fixed upon a reread, which I don’t mind doing. I was still able to follow along the story in spite of that.

Overall, this book gave me what I was looking for: a short story to finish and details of everyday life in a different culture in spite of the violent details surrounding this murder which I eventually came to be intrigued by as well. It was also my first time reading a book by Gabriel García Márquez. He was an author I wanted to become familiar with for a while since he is a very well known Colombian author, which is where my family is from. I read this book in Spanish but there’s also an English translation available.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Publisher: Vintage, Reprint Edition
Publication Date: October 2003  (originally published in 1981)

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

A Spark of Light” by Jodi Picoult

Spark of Light

For me, Jodi Picoult has, until now, been one writer whose books almost come with a guarantee of being a good read. I have read most, if not all, of her books so far. While her most recent novels, Leaving Time and Small Great Things, were not as good as her previous books, they were still very readable. I was looking forward to her new book, A Spark of Light, as a sure-shot good read rather than something I would have to read a little of to decide if I want to continue reading it or not.

I am so sorry to say that with this book, Jodi Picoult seems to have fallen off the bandwagon. The book started so badly that I was not even sure if I should continue or give up on it and find something else to read. Finally, I did decide to stick it out, based entirely on the strength of how much I had enjoyed her earlier books. I have to admit however, that at some point, I just speed-read through the rest of the book because it got too boring and I couldn’t wait to be done.

A Spark of Light is set in an abortion clinic in a town in Mississippi, a state with strict anti-abortion laws, and it tells the story of a single day, unfolding hour by hour, when a gunman bursts into the clinic and starts shooting. While a couple of people in the clinic, including the owner, are killed right away, the others are taken hostage, and the novel explores each of their individual lives and what has led them to be at the clinic on that day. They include a doctor who does the abortions, a nurse practitioner, a woman who has just had an abortion, another woman who is actually an anti-abortion activist and has come to the clinic pretending to need an abortion so she can spy on what’s going on inside, an older woman who has received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, and a fifteen year girl who was visiting the clinic with her aunt to just get a birth control prescription. The girl’s father is a local policeman who is outside and negotiating with the shooter to let the hostages go. We also get to learn more about the shooter and what motivated him to come to the clinic that day with a gun — it turns out that his seventeen year old daughter had just visited that clinic recently for an abortion, and he was a born-again Christian who was strongly pro-life.

While the plot is clearly an attempt to weave a story around the hot-button issues of abortion as well as mass shootings, A Spark of Light is completely devoid of Picoult’s usual taut and tense writing style that have made her previous books so difficult to put down. Here, the characters don’t seem real — they feel like caricatures — and it’s hard to get emotionally invested in them or even to care about their back stories. And there are so many of them, right from the start of the book, that it was extremely confusing. I had to keep going back to the beginning to keep their stories straight. Another aspect of the book that made it not just difficult but hard to enjoy was that it is told chronologically backwards, starting with the events at 5 pm that day, then 4 pm, and so on, until 9 am in the morning. So as you read the book, you already know what has happened.

As it is, it was hard to care about the characters, and with the knowledge of how the story unfolds, even the normal suspense that is there is any story was gone, making the book even more unreadable. While I can appreciate that authors, especially when they are well established, like to flout convention and break rules, it boggles my mind so to why a writer would deliberately choose to write backwards and still expect the book to be enjoyed by readers.

Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed by A Spark of Light. I had been looking forward to it so much.

A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: October 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky

What encouraged me to pick up this book was the fact that it was written by the same author who had written The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book I hadn’t read but whose movie adaptation I loved. Also, the premise of the book, as captured in the blurb on the jacket cover, seemed intriguing — it was about a man who wants to be a published author by any means necessary, and he will do anything to achieve this. In this day and age, a book about a man who sets so much store by the literary word is quite a rarity!

To be fair, the man in question is not strictly of the current generation, but of the preceding one. Our first encounter with Maurice Swift is in 1988, when he is a young man working as a waiter in a posh restaurant in Germany and meets a writer in his 60s. Already very good-looking — which he uses to great advantage through his youth — Maurice turns on his full charm and quickly ingratiates himself with the older man, drawing out a dark, closely held secret from him that he then uses as the plot of his first book. For Maurice has no real talent — he can write reasonably well, but cannot come up with any ideas on his own.

Maurice continues to build his literary career on the work of others — literally climbing on their “rungs” up the metaphorical ladder of fame. (This is where the name of the book comes from.) While people who are manipulative and conniving are not that uncommon, Maurice’s literary ambitions are so intense that he can literally kill to achieve them — and he does. While disclosing whom he kills and how, would be giving away too much of the book, it is all there, making the book not just a drama but also a thriller or sorts.

I really enjoyed this book. While it is not the kind to be heralded by literary critics, I found it extremely well written with no literary artifices. The story telling was simple and straightforward, yet compelling. It turns out that the author, John Boyne, also writes books for children in addition to writing for adults, which likely accounts for his straightforward writing style, making the plot the focus of the novel and avoiding any stylistic flourishes that often get in the way of the story.

That said, what was not so straightforward about the book was that the story is told not only from perspective of different characters but also from multiple points of view. It starts with the first person written from the point of view of Erich, the older writer who is the first “rung” of Maurice’s ladder to the sky; this is followed by a second person narration from Edith, Maurice’s wife for five years before she dies (she is also a writer); a third person narration of Maurice’s life in New York where he has founded a literary magazine following the success of his books; and finally, a first person narration by Maurice himself in his fifties, when it all comes crashing down on him. Along the way, there are some “interludes,” most notably one with the acclaimed author, Gore Vidal, who sees through Maurice right away. While this multiple point of view narration was a bit disorienting, it did not necessarily detract from the story. And I suppose as a writer, you are obliged to break some rules and do something different sometimes!

One thing that definitely detracted from the book was the blurb on the jacket cover, which gave away the plot of the book right away rather than letting it come forth naturally to the reader as it would have done some way into the book. The first person narration from Erich at the start of the book, where he meets Maurice for the first time, would have been a lot more compelling had we not known upfront that Maurice was just scamming him to get a leg up in the literary world. This spoiler, right upfront on the jacket cover, was a pity, as it somewhat diminished what would otherwise have been a very strong opening for the book.

The fact that I enjoyed the book so much despite this spoiler is a testament to how good it was.

A Ladder to the Sky
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: November 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Ways to Hide in Winter” by Sarah St. Vincent

Ways to Hide in Winter

This debut novel was not on any major book list such as The New York Times Best Sellers, or featured in any of the book podcasts I listen to or any of the magazines I read. It has not won any prizes or awards as far as I know. Therefore, unlike most of the books I read, I had never heard of this one, and I only picked it up by chance when I was browsing though the New Books section in my local library. Not only was the blurb interesting, I was also intrigued by the author’s background — she is a human rights attorney and works on that full-time while writing on the side. Not only do I greatly admire those who can write books in addition to their day jobs, it is always interesting to see what sensibility they bring to their writing and how that relates to what they do professionally. Of course, this is no guarantee of the books they write being any good, but in the case of Ways to Hide in Winter, it was actually very well written. So much so that it was difficult to believe that this was a debut novel and that Sarah St. Vincent does not write full-time for a living.

The protagonist in the book is a young woman, Kathleen, who has retreated to a remote campground located in the mountains of Pennsylvania following a harrowing event in her life. She manages the store in the campground, and because there are very few locals around and hardly any visitors to that part of the country, she is by herself for most of the day, every day, which is precisely what she wants — to be left alone, to be forgotten, to be “hidden.” After a few years of living like this, a stranger shows up in the campground one day, and he too seems to be hiding from something, just like her. He is clearly a foreigner, and he tells her that he is from Uzbekistan and that his name is Daniil. There is a hostel in the campground managed by a friend of Kathleen who lets Daniil stay there for free in exchange for helping out with chores.  Because there is literally no one else around to interact with, Daniil tentatively seeks Kathleen out for some companionship. In the course of their interaction, Kathleen learns more and more about the mystery behind Daniil — she refers to him as “the stranger” for most of the book — and in the process, she is also forced to confront her own past and what has made her retreat so far away from civilization.

I found Ways to Hide in Winter very well written. We don’t get to know exactly what happened to Kathleen until the end of the book, but we do get some hints along the way, which maintained the suspense and made me want to go on reading. The mystery of “the stranger” was also compelling — who was he and why was he there? At the same time, this was not a “thriller” per se, so it was not the kind of book you simply have to finish as soon as possible to find out how it ends — I was able to enjoy it at leisure without needing to rush through it.

However, I do have to say that the end of the book, once I got to it, was somewhat anticlimactic. At the same, I have to acknowledge that it was simply an accurate portrayal of reality — life is, most of the time, not as dramatic as fiction would have us believe. Given its lack of melodrama, the absence of a plot twist, and somewhat of a “damp squib” of an ending, Ways to Hide in Winter is unlikely to win widespread critical acclaim or popular success. However, I found it extremely well written and I hope that the author continues to write more books without giving up her work as a human rights attorney. We need books that are grounded in the real world just as much as we need dramatic fiction and fantasy, and it’s great when these come from authors who actually work in the nitty gritties of the real world.

Ways to Hide in Winter
Author: Sarah St.Vincent
Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: November 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.