“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South

I picked up North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell based on the premise that this book would be about the Hale family and their decision to leave the South of England. I wanted to know what struggles or personal convictions Mr. Hale faced with the Church in order to resign his position as parishioner and move his family to the North of England, to a manufacturing town.

I was quite disappointed that the story did not develop this reason at all. However, all my disappointment was forgotten as I continued reading and learned more about the character of Margaret Hale, Mr. Hale’s daughter. She had initially struck me as someone gentle and kind as she interacted with her mother. But as I continued reading, I soon learned that she was also very bold in communicating her thoughts/disapproval when she felt it was necessary.

This story largely focuses on the misunderstanding and conflict between two groups. One group was the factory owners and their mill workers while the other group was the Hale family, who are from the South and the people of Milton, from the North. Throughout this story, we meet different characters which give us insight into the issues of each group and what biases each group must overcome to understand one another. This was probably one of my favorite parts.

The author, Mrs. Gaskell, does such a fair job at allowing each side to plead their case through dialogue between characters. The dialogue was kind of heavy, at times, for me because it contained a lot of references to how unions and factory businesses’ work, which I am not too familiar with. However, it was coupled with compelling events that demonstrated just how much each person’s life was affected by the environment at Milton such as illness, poverty, hunger, work strikes, death, etc. Again, all very striking and heavy social issues relative to the culture and time. Mrs. Gaskell was able to sustain me as a reader, as I grew to love each and every one of her characters to whom she gives so much depth to as they interact with one another.

Going into the story, I knew that Margaret’s love interest would be Mr. Thornton, which is what intrigued me to continue reading. Amidst all the societal issues, I was so curious to know how Margaret and Mr. Thornton resolved their prejudices towards one another and move on to becoming more than acquaintances. There were many times Mrs. Gaskell created such opposition between them and allowed us, the readers, to be aware of events that maybe the other party was not, which really magnified the tension causing me to ask, “Why, Mrs. Gaskell. Why?!” In a good way, of course.

Overall, this story has left quite an impression on me, especially Margaret’s character. I was so inspired by how strong of a woman she was throughout her experiences at Milton. Mrs. Gaskell did an excellent job at crafting this story together.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics, Revised edition
Publication Date: June 1996 (Originally published in 1855)

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

“The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel” by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk.jpg

I picked up The House of Silk thanks to a comment that was posted in response to my take on Anthony Horowitz’s book, Magpie Murders, a few months ago. While Magpie Murders was a classic whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie — whose books I find thoroughly entertaining, even today, and even after multiple re-readings — The House of Silk is directly based on the style of Arthur Conan Doyle best known for his Sherlock Holmes detective books. In fact, The House of Silk is not just inspired by Sherlock Holmes, it is, as the title states, an actual Sherlock Holmes book. This means that it is written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, as the original books were, and features the same characters in the same setting. It’s almost as if Arthur Conan Doyle rose from the ashes and gave us another Sherlock Holmes book, or if there was another book in his canon that was lost and was discovered only now. In fact, that is the premise of The House of Silk — that it was written over a hundred years ago by Dr. Watson but was sealed until now because the “case” that was solved in the book was too shocking and too controversial for those times.

I found the premise very successful in its execution — the book is indistinguishable from the original Sherlock Holmes books and transports you back to 221B Baker Street, the London address where Sherlock Holmes lives and which forms the base setting for all his cases. At the time of this book, Dr. Watson is already married but his wife is away visiting friends, so he returns to live at 221B Baker Street as he used to and continues to be Holmes’s trusted right-hand man and chronicler of this case. Their intrepid landlady, Mrs. Hudson, plays only a small role in this book, but the loyal Inspector Lestrade has a large part to play. The case starts off being a relatively straightforward one of an art theft and a murder threat, but soon balloons into something a lot more sinister — the brutal murder of a young boy, an underground opium den, another murder that Sherlock Holmes himself seems to have committed and is arrested for, an orphanage for boys that does not quite seem to be what it purports to be, and a conspiracy that seems to go so high up in government levels that even Sherlock Holmes’ well-connected brother, Mycroft Holmes, cannot help.

As with all Sherlock Holmes books, The House of Silk is a thrilling ride that takes you back to the familiar setting of Victorian England, and the case that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have to solve gets increasingly darker, complicated, and dangerous. Fans of the original books will revel in the resurrection of their favorite detective, and there is no doubt that Anthony Horowitz is an extremely talented writer who has shown that he can match the writing styles of Agatha Christie as well as Arthur Conan Doyle to a tee. The only problem I found with the book was with the intent of the premise — it pointed to something “so monstrous” and “so shocking” that the book had to be locked up for a hundred years. However, when the finale came, I did not find it to be as big a deal. While I can appreciate that Horowitz needed to find a way to explain why a new Sherlock Holmes book was being published now, the explanation he chose was not very compelling.

But despite the problem I found with the intent of the premise, its execution, as I mentioned earlier, was spot on, making The House of Silk a terrific read.

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: November 2011

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

“The House of Unexpected Sisters” (Book 18 of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series) by Alexander McCall Smith

House of Unexpected Sisters

This is the latest book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, which I absolutely love. I own all the books in the series and have previously written about the 17th book that was released last year, Precious and Grace.  I find the newer books in this series every bit as enjoyable as the first, which was published all the way back in 1998. This a remarkable achievement for any writer, even one as prolific as Alexander McCall Smith, who writes other series as well as stand-alone books (such as My Italian Bulldozer, which I also wrote about recently). It recalls other favorite authors of mine such as Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie (who are no longer alive and cannot write any more books) as well as J.K. Rowling, who seems to be done with Harry Potter but is still continuing to write the Cormoran Strike books under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.

What never ceases to amaze me about the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series books is how they manage to capture the sights, the sounds, and even the smells of Botswana, where the series is set. I have not personally been to Botswana, but the country seems so familiar to me because of these books. What is also amazing is how McCall Smith is able to write from the point of view of an African woman, Mma Ramotswe, who is the protagonist of the books and the proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It’s almost as if he is able to get into the skin of the character — she seems so real, so authentic. I know that this is what all writers aspire for, but it seems to me that there are few writers who are able to inhabit the character of someone who is so diametrically different from them as Alexander McCall Smith, a Scottish man, is from Mma Ramotswe, an African woman. He did spend a part of his childhood in Botswana, however, which is probably where the “heart” of the novels comes from. He is able to capture his love for the country in these books so beautifully that, as a reader, you can’t help falling in love with the country yourself.

The House of Unexpected Sisters returns with its familiar cast of endearing characters: Mma Ramotswe, who runs the detective agency and is an old-fashioned, “traditionally built,” astute woman; her prickly assistant, Mma Makutsi, who has promoted herself throughout the series and is now the “co-director” of the agency; Mr. JLB Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe’s husband who is a mechanic and runs the garage that is co-located with the detective agency; Charlie, a part-time apprentice at the garage who also occasionally helps out with detective work, and whose main interest in life is “girls”; Mma Potokwani, the matron of a nearby orphanage who is the closest friend of Mma Ramotswe and makes irresistible fruit cake; and Mr. Polopetsi, a school teacher who is also a part-time colleague at the agency. While the main “case” in this book that the agency investigates is a woman who seems to have been unjustly dismissed from her job, the other big mystery is a personal one for Mma Ramotswe — the discovery of another woman who shares the same last name, which might point to Mma Ramotswe’s father not quite being the man she looked up to and revered.

As in all the books in the series, each one is focused only on two or three cases for the detective agency rather than being a “thriller” as such — the focus is more on the characters, their daily lives, their conversations, their thoughts, and their relationships. Reading all the books sequentially makes you feel like you are growing up with the characters, you know them so well. What I also love about these books is how funny and chock-full of witticisms they are, with the humor coming naturally from everyday thoughts and conversations rather than tacked on. For instance, in The House of Unexpected Sisters, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are discussing why more and more women think that the shorter a skirt, the more fashionable it is, and Mma Makutsi comments: “I do not understand that. Men know that women have legs — that is one of the things that they learn at any early age. So why do you have to show them that you have legs when they are already well aware of that?”

Now who can argue that that?

The House of Unexpected Sisters (Book 18 of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series)
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: November 2017

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

“Cigarette Girl” by Ratih Kumala

Cigarette Girl.jpg

The unusual title caught my attention as I was browsing in a bookshop in Bali. I picked it up. The book’s central character is a cigarette rolling, cigarette smoking girl, Dasiya or Jeng Yah, who remains an enigma right until the story reaches its climax. The tale begins when a cigarette tycoon utters her name on his deathbed to the utter amazement of his three sons and the utter disgust of his wife. Soeraja’s appeal is heeded by his sons – Tegar, Karim and Lebas – who set out on a wild goose chase to find the mystery woman, much to the anger and resentment of their poor mother.

“As if the Angel of Death was casually stopping by his room, taking a little piece of him each time it visited, and along with it pieces of his memory as well.” This is how the author describes Soeraja’s slow descent into oblivion. She says of Lebas, the youngest of the three brothers: “He had been a Bob Marley follower for eight months, until some lice decided that his dreadlocks made a nice and cosy nest.”

There is pathos and humour and suspense. But far too much about cigarette smoking and cigarette making to attract a non-smoker. Djagad Raja clove cigarettes, Lady cigarettes, Mendak medicinal cigarettes, Independence cigarettes, Proclamation cigarettes, Red Sickle cigarettes, Djojobojo klobot, and what not. Frankly, I disliked the portions where much is made of the “flavour,” “feel” and “formula” of the weed. The cost, the weight, the texture, the smell, the taste – all these were enough to drive me mad! I felt myself going up in smoke – and almost lost my grip on the story.

The family drama is interesting though – and the language simple and sweet. Rivalries, jealousies, and human struggles spanning three generations, the liberation brought by the Japanese, followed by unexpected repression, the coming of Independence, the brutal suppression of communist groups, the danger of political activity and its deep impact on the daily lives of common people – all form part of this pot-boiler. The cigarette ads are totally hilarious. Lady cigarettes: inhale just once and the lady of your dreams will appear before you. Garwo Kulo cigarettes: the cigarette for the man who loves his wife.

The tale is set in Java, Indonesia. We are reminded in rare flashes that the country once had a Hindu legacy. “But her husband had pulled her way cruelly, like Kurawa who had won Drupadi from Yudhistira in the Mahabharata.” Idroes Moeria and the scribe’s daughter, Roemaisa, Soedjagad and his desire to win the same woman, the American education of Soerja’s sons and its influence on Lebas in particular, the conformism of Tegar and the bohemian lifestyle of Lebas, Pak Djagad and his daughter Purwanti, the search for the elusive cigarette girl and the final unexpected twist to the story are all laid out in fascinating detail. How I wish it had been about some herbal product instead of cigarettes! The characters have one thing in common – they all enjoy smoking! No, I’m not joking. (And yes, I did get away before Mt. Agung erupted.)

Overall Assessment: Not bad.

Cigarette Girl
AUTHOR: Ratih Kumala
PUBLISHER: Monsoon Books
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (First published in 2012 in Bahasa Indonesia)

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

“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies

I had read many of Liane Moriarty books, including Big Little Lies, a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend. I found them all very enjoyable, the kind that are difficult to put down and that you don’t really have to because they are so easy to read – written in a light-hearted manner and not at all dense. You could read them quickly, be entertained, and move on. They didn’t, however, stay with me – I would be hard-pressed to remember the characters and the plot of a book, let alone how it works out, after a few months.

This is why when Big Little Lies came out earlier this year as a TV miniseries with A-list stars like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon and I started watching it, I simply could not remember the story beyond a sliver of familiarity. This turned out to be a good thing as I could enjoy the series without any “spoilers,” without knowing exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to end. The show was so well made and was so successful – winning eight Emmy Awards – that the book got a new lease of life and became an instant bestseller. I just found a copy of it in the “New Books” section of my library and decide to re-read it. I wanted to see how such an excellent TV series had been made from a book I didn’t recall as being “great” as such – it had been an enjoyable and fun end, but was definitely not literary by any stretch of imagination. Perhaps the televised version was only loosely based on the book, as many well-made “based-on-a-book” movie and TV adaptations tend to be?

I was wrong about that. After re-reading the book, I found that the TV adaptation was almost a scene-by-scene translation of the book. Some changes had been made, but the story was, by and large, very true to the original. It starts with a murder, which takes place in a school during a “parents only” costumed trivia night party. But who exactly the victim is, how the murder happens, and who did it are revealed only at the end of the story.

As in the book, there are snippets of the parents being interviewed by the detectives trying to figure out how the murder happened, and you can sense their frustration when most of the parents they are interviewing are telling them about the school politics, about the two main “camps” of parents in the school. In one camp are Madeline, the ringleader, a non-nonsense person who “tells it like it is”; Jane, a single mom who has just moved into the area, attempting to escape from a traumatic past; and Celeste, an ethereally beautiful woman, but one who is struggling with demons of her own. In the other camp are Renata, a career mother who is a high-powered executive, and some other moms who are aligned with her. All these mothers have kids who are just starting kindergarten in a local school, set in the suburb of Australia where they live.

The trouble starts when Renata’s daughter, Amabella, is bullied by another kid during the kindergarten orientation the kids attend at the school, and when pressured to name the kid who bullied her, she points to Jane’s son, Ziggy. But Ziggy maintains that he did not do anything to Amabella, and is, in general, such a sweet and honest child that Jane believes he is telling the truth. So do Madeline and Celeste, who have, by now, become good friends with Jane. However, Renata is livid that her daughter was bullied, does not believe that Ziggy is innocent, and repeatedly attempts, over the course of the school year, to ostracize him. This is how the two camps are formed, which provides the backbone of the drama that eventually results in the murder at the heart of the book. Additional intrigue comes from the thorny relationship that Madeline has with her ex-husband and his wife, Bonnie, whose daughter is also attending the kindergarten class where the drama is unfolding. Add to this domestic violence, sexual assault, teenage rebellion, and a budding romance, not to mention the murder, and you have all the elements of a cinematic “spice mix” – or “masala” as we call in Hindi, India’s national language.

It goes to show that even a “not-so-literary” book can be adapted into a high-quality movie or TV show. What is important are the individual ingredients in the story and how they come together, and Big Little Lies has all of them.

Big Little Lies
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Berkley; Reprint edition
Publication Date: August 2015
(Originally published by Penguin in July 2014)

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

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere

One of the surest signs that a book has been a good read is when you reach the end and are disappointed that it is over — you wish there was more of it. That is how I left after finishing Little Fires Everywhere. It’s not a traditional page-turner – not a mystery or a thriller that you can’t put down because of the suspense. Rather, the book is a family drama, and not even a highly melodramatic one at that. It is not written in scintillating prose that sweeps you off your feet but in “normal” language for regular people. It is, simply put, a very good story.

The story opens with a fire, or rather, “little fires everywhere” as described by the firemen who come to put the fire out. The fires are in a house in a wealthy suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights (which happens to be a real place) and have actually been set by someone living in the house – the youngest daughter, Izzy, of the Richardson family, who absconds after setting the fires. What inspires her to set the fires is a comment made by a woman, Mia, an artist whom she greatly admires and has become very close to. Mia had said: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.” Although Mia had said this in the context of a tragedy someone else was going through, the rebellious, tempestuous, adolescent Izzy found this idea so powerful, so deep, and so intense, that she took it literally and was so upset with her family — especially her mother, Elena, with whom she has never got along — that she methodically lit a fire in each room of her house before she left.

What makes Izzy actually set the fires is the crux of the story, along with the mystery of Mia’s background, who has come into the neighborhood with her daughter, Pearl, and is renting an apartment that belongs to Elena. No one, including Pearl herself, knows who her father is. Just as Izzy of the Richardson family is drawn to Mia and persuades Mia to take her on as an (unpaid) assistant, in the same way, Pearl is drawn to the Richardson family and constantly hangs out in Elena’s house with her son, Moody, and her two older children. (All the kids go to the same high school, but are in different grades, except for Pearl and Moody.)

In addition to this “switch” where Izzy hangs out with Mia and Pearl hangs out with the Richardsons, there is a lot of additional intrigue in the story including a surrogacy, an abortion, and a custody battle for a Chinese American baby between the baby’s mother (a coworker of Mia) — who initially abandoned her because of her circumstances but now wants her back — and the wealthy white couple (close friends of the Richardsons) — who took in the baby when she was abandoned, loved and nurtured her, and desperately want to adopt her as they have not been able to have children of their own. Above all, there is also the uneasy feeling Elena has about Mia, who makes her feel unsettled just by being who she is. She takes it upon herself to investigate Mia’s background and find out more about her and the mystery behind her fatherless daughter.

I really enjoyed reading this book and am happy to find that it has also achieved critical acclaim, especially after many unsuccessful attempts at reading award-winning books (recent examples being The Underground Railroad which won the Pulitzer Prize and Lincoln in the Bardo which won the Booker Prize). It’s good to know that even books devoid of literary calisthenics can be appreciated by literary critics in addition to being enjoyed by regular folks like me.

Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: September 2017

 

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

“Misery” by Stephen King

Misery1

This was one of the few “page turners” that I’ve read. I got pulled into Misery the moment I read the plot summary. Technically, it is something that could happen to anyone, any unlucky celebrity to be precise.

It starts with a back-breaking accident to a famous novelist and thankfully he gets rescued by his number one fan. Hold on. It’s a Stephen King novel. The man who is famous for his thrillers and killers. I’ll have to take that “thankfully” back… I won’t spoil anything here, but I guarantee you that it’s not a horror story (but a scary one).

There are books that can give us surprises, good scares, heart breaks, adrenaline rush and so forth. For this book, courtesy the title, I was expecting a miserable time for our lead character and was prepared to sympathize with him even before I started reading. But I got a surprise right away when I learned that “Misery” was, in fact, a character’s name in the book (Misery Chastain is a beautiful name). And our lead did not have a miserable time. He had something worse!

Here’s some more leverage to get you start reading. The book was adapted into a movie in 1990 and Anne Wilkes (the female lead character) was portrayed by Kathy Bates. Ms. Bates won the Best Actress Oscar and the Golden Globe for the role.

Then again, if you have already read the book then you might be a tad disappointed with the way the film turned out. I can’t say it was totally bad but it could have been much better. I’m not sure how to put it. Let’s just say that there’s a big difference in using an axe to hack someone versus using a hammer for the same thing.

Ouch. Gruesome! I know. But it’s Stephen King. Not me. So the example demands gruesomeness… 🙂

You can expect some heart-thumping moments in the book. And it beautifully (or should I say, rather casually) portrays a writer’s agony and thought process in creating something new.

With Halloween around the corner, you could get your share of thrills by reading Misery or by watching the movie. I won’t suggest both.

Misery
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Viking Press
Publication Date: June 1987

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility

I picked up this book at the recommendation of my daughter, who told me she read it in one day. While I didn’t find it so gripping that it was impossible to put down, I did find it engaging enough to hold my interest and keep reading — which was remarkable to me given the number of books I started recently that I couldn’t read beyond the first chapter. Going through somewhat of a dry spell with regard to reading fiction, I was happy to get out of the doldrums and be reassured that books could still give me the enjoyment they always have.

Rules of Civility is set in New York in the late 1930s, a time period that is so reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald that it is impossible not to be reminded of it. Rules of Civility fares quite well in the comparison, and while it comes nowhere to achieving the classic status of The Great Gatsby, it is far from being a cheesy rip-off. It is extremely well written and strongly evocative, bringing vividly to life all the details of the Big Apple in the 30s — the people, the culture, the parties, the music, the smoking, the clothes — the overall milieu.

The story is told from the point of view of a 25 year old single girl, Katey Kontent, and of the most eventful year in her life, 1938. What sets it off is a chance meeting that she and her best friend and roommate, Eve, have with a wealthy, handsome banker, Tinker Grey, at a jazz bar on the last night of 1937. Both fall for him, but instead of a someway predictable storyline in which the “heroine” eventually gets the “hero,” the plot takes several twists and turns, including a car crash, a move to Los Angeles, a relationship between a wealthy older woman and a younger man, a friend who enlists in the war and is killed, and dropping out of high society to become a blue-color worker. In the course of that one year, Katey goes from becoming a secretary to the editor’s assistant of a high-profile magazine, and further leaves behind her working class roots by moving and socializing in the upper echelons of New York society.

I found Rules of Civility less of a story with a definite plot and more of an experience, an indepth look at what life in New York must have been like in the 1930s. The details are so rich and seem as authentic that it really makes the city and the characters come alive. Even more so than The Great Gatsby, I found that this book is inextricably tried to its setting, so for those who can’t get enough of reading about New York, this book is a must-read.

PS: And by the way, the title of the book comes from “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation,” a list of 110 rules compiled by George Washington as part of a school exercise when he was sixteen. They are used in Towles’ Rules of Civility as a reference by one of the key characters to appear refined in high society. To name the character would be giving too much away!

Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: June 2012

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

“My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

My Italian Bulldozer

This is a recent “one-off” novel by Alexander McCall Smith, by which I mean that it is not part of a series. He is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which I absolutely love – I own all of those books. He also writes many other serialized books including the 44 Scotland Street series, The Sunday Philosophy Club series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. While he is continuing, fortunately, to write books in these series (such as Precious and Grace, which I wrote about earlier this year), he does occasionally write stand-alone books such as My Italian Bulldozer. Although I haven’t become addicted to any of his other series as I have to his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, he is such a good writer, and such a prolific one, that you can be assured of a good read whenever you pick up one of his books.

This is exactly how I would describe My Italian Bulldozer. It tells the story of Paul Stuart, a successful food writer in Scotland, who is heartbroken after his girlfriend, Becky, dumps him for another man (that too, her personal trainer, which seems to add insult to injury!), and goes to stay in Italy for a few weeks. He is ostensibly going to wrap up his cookbook on Tuscan food and wine at the suggestion of his editor, Gloria, who is secretly in love with him and thinks it would do him good to get away and have a change of scene. Once he lands in Italy, some unexpected snafus cause him to first be arrested and spend some time in a jail, and once he is released, to have a bulldozer as the only rental option available to him. And that is how he comes to be driving around on a bulldozer on Italy.

That, in itself, is funny when you visualize it – driving around the Italian countryside in a bulldozer! During the course of his trip, a lot happens in a similar humorous vein – he knows a smattering of Italian and is able to have some really interesting conversations with the people he meets; Becky unexpectedly visits to say she is sorry for leaving him, but he realizes he doesn’t really want to get together with her and encourages her to go back home; he develops a crush on an attractive, intelligent American woman he happens to help out when her car breaks down, but she is already with another guy and can’t reciprocate; and finally, he comes to realize that his deep friendship with Gloria is the solid foundation of a meaningful and loving relationship. Also, he is able to finish his book, so at least “mission accomplished” on that front.

I found My Italian Bulldozer to be a delightful and entertaining read, in the author’s trademark witty style with lots of tongue-in-cheek humor. And as with all his other writing, his humor never degenerates to becoming outlandish or slapstick in the least. Another typical characteristic of McCall Smith’s fiction is that it is always lighthearted, never dark or depressing. Even the “villains” – which in this book would be the rental car agent who duped Paul and made him go to jail – are bad in a funny way. In McCall Smith’s world, there is some humor in every situation. It’s a world that I, for one, would very much like to live in.

My Italian Bulldozer
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: April 2017

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

 

“Canada” by Richard Ford

Canada

Richard Ford’s “Canada” is the first of his books that I have read, but it will not be the last. An author in the grand tradition of Franzen in his description of family dysfunction, he writes a slow moving and subtle book, emphasizing the inner workings of his character’s mind and his difficult coming of age story rather than the intricacies of plotting.

Dell Parsons is the teenage son of Neeva and Bev Parsons and twin brother of Berner Parsons whose life story is grandly dramatic and worthy of a fast-moving pulp fiction thriller. Dell’s life falls apart one summer in Montana as his parents make a giant foolish leap into criminality and fail spectacularly. He is cast from the proverbial frying pan into the fire in his “escape” to Canada. Within the broad and grand sweep of this story, the author details his protagonist in small steady brush strokes. The first couple of hundred pages are very slow as Dell prepares for high school in his little town and talks about his family, his surroundings and small day to day events and descriptions. Taken at the pace the author sets, it’s like watching a train wreck in super-slow motion. Richard Ford sets this up cleverly, telling us the most important dramatic details right up front in the first few sentences.

This book falls short on a few counts and succeeds in others. It needed some self-discipline to plod through the first couple of hundred pages which are slow and meandering. For the more impatient modern reader, 200+ pages of slow moving storyline could be a deal-breaker. However, the second half of the book had me completely hooked, so the discipline of working my way through the slow first half paid off amply in the end.

The book’s great success is in describing a “regular” adolescent faced with “irregular” life experiences and painting a clear, believable picture of the protagonist that resonated with me as the reader. The poignant contrast of the melodramatic events in the plot and the protagonist’s calm and matter of fact narration are masterful.

Canada
Author: Richard Ford
Publisher: Ecco Press
Publication Date: June 2012

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader – mystery, fantasy, literary fiction.