Travelling Through Soviet Union

In July of 1948, a writer and a photographer started on a journey for 41 days across Russia and the other Republics of Soviet Union in a quest to find out how does the common people act, “what do they serve for Dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? What do they talk about?” . They were not interested in politics and instead try and understand the everyday Russian people if they can. They sold the idea to Herald Tribune and convinced the Soviet Embassy to give them necessary permissions and visas, and thus began A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa.

 Andrei Mylniko, In Peaceful Fields (1950)

The two geniuses started their journey with a stop at Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Georgia . They were assigned by the Government to help them navigate their journey’s as they visited farms, factories, nigh clubs and writer’s union dinners. They wrote about the suffocating flights where no food was served, so passenger’s carried their own food. They wrote about magnificent dinners which were put up on their honor by collective farms and farm managers and playrights. They attended local community theater and the scintillating ballet. They spoke to farmers, factory workers and the drivers who drove them around and documented everything they saw, including farms which had been burnt to the ground, by the invading armies, the complete destruction of Stalingrad and of heroic factory workers who fought to defend their factories and then went back to complete their work because the country needed their machines. They wrote about Russian music, including “popular music”, folk music and the Russian attempts at American Jazz, They spoke of the dignity of a city destroyed but still standing tall and the beauty of Georgia. They also captured the essence of the Soviet populace with characters of being cold and bureaucratic in Moscow and larger than life, boisterous people of Georgia; of women who crawl out of destroyed buildings and fix their hair on the way to work and of now demobilized soldiers working in the factory wearing their army clothes because that was all they owned. They also discover that the people in Soviet Union have the same questions that they themselves had about USSR – what do people eat, what do people wear, how do their farms work?

Konstantin Shurupov,  Azov Steel Mill (1957)

The book does what it set out to do – describe the everyday life of Russians. Steinbeck with his innate brilliance manages to convey facts, with humor and empathy with a deep understanding of mankind. Capa’s photos, black and white capture every singular detail of what it is to live everyday, work everyday and build back a life that had been brutally torn apart. The book is alive with the presence of hard and long fought battle and it comes through in every page – farms destroyed, families with pictures of son’s lost in the war, of a magnificent city called Stalingrad, destroyed to pieces, but still holding on. This book was written as the “Iron Curtain” described by Churchill was descending between the former allies of USSR and USA-England allies and before another bout of Stalin’s purges. In the introduction to the book, scholar Susan Shillinglaw states that the lives and facilities described in the book was a carefully staged act provided by the Soviet Government and all succeeding books have similar description. It may have been stage managed, the USSR government was hardly known for it’s benevolent and tolerance for any kind of dissent, but the jokes that the farm wit cracked and the dignity with which people struggled to re-build their lives cannot ever be “created” and here lies the brilliance of the two in not only being able to capture those moments and pieces, but managing to masterfully communicate the deep understanding of courage of human soul, while reporting everything factually. The book is replete with insightful observations about Soviet people; while they appreciate the cleanliness of the cities and the good working conditions of the farms, that included apartments for the workers, schools and creches for the children and a clinic, they were smart enough to be able to distinguish between what was real and unreal and this comes through in a wry statements which they make through the book “Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” “In Russia, it is always the future that is thought of. it is crops that will be next year, it will be the comfort that will come next year” The humor of both craftsmen keeps the book from becoming a dry document with observations like “Capa says that the museum is the church of Russia” or when they kept hearing about wait till you see Georgia “We began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will not go to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.” To end, with some lovely photographs and sparse but powerful prose, the books makes you realize that the authors had succeeded in doing, what they had set out to do, tell stories about everyday people and help realize that “Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones, there are surely, but by far the greater number are good.”

If you have not read, it is high time you did! In this world where more than ever we are dividing ourselves in us versus them, this books stands as a historical testimony to the simple thought, that folks are just folks everywhere!

Shout out to Karen for setting me on the path of this wonderful book!

The July Round Up

I know I am kind of late by a few days on this post, but then atleast I have a round up post. For last 2 odd years, life had become so challenging that let alone blogging even reading was a difficult and round up posts were not even on the bench in the line up things to do. Strange that in these crazy times of a pandemic, I am able to do things that are more akin to my normal life, than the recent past when things were considered normal! Anyhow, the most important thing is I am reading and reading a lot and hopefully what is varied range of subjects and I just hope nothing happens to jinx this again!

La-Lecture by Berthe Morisot, 1873

So what all did I read in July?

Direct Hit by Mike Hollow – This was an impulse request to the publishers on Netgalley and turned out to be a very good detective story story set in 1940 as a former WW1 veteran, now Chief Inspector investigates the death of a local Justice of Peace, which may be a suicide or a murder. Extremely satisfying read for those lazy weekends.

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore – An engaging and insightful history on the rise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 17th century from obscurity to building an empire spanning Europe and Asia to the ultimate downfall with the 1917 Revolution. A very detailed history which Mr. Montefiore manages to keep interesting by adding a lot of personal details about the Tsars and their family, adding personality, color and even poignancy to this narrative.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondey – This book had been lying in my TBR for literally years. Then a wonderful review by Ali made me want to read it and post reading it, I have only one question – why did I wait so long?? First published in 1899, it follows the lives of two young women, Rachel West and her friend Hester Gresley as they navigate love of an imperfect man and a writing career amidst people who do not appreciate her talent respectively. Narrated with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, the book speaks of the time it was written in where woman were awakening to their aspirations and rights!

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – Again this came via a wonderful recommendation by Ali. Set in 1945 post war England, Elinor MacFarren, middle aged, unmarried, horticulturist, is forced to rent a portion of her house with its exquisite interiors to ensure financial independence. The tenant, recommended by one of Ms. MacFarren’s friends, seems to agree to all her requirements; however, the reality turns out to be very different and it takes the combined effort of Ms. MacFarren, her nephew, his actor friend Miss Maxine Albert, Dr. Wilmot who was her competitor, but became a good friend to oust the troublesome tenet. The book was a lot of fun and the well drawn out characters added a whole enriching layer to what can be thought as simple plot.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – I fell in love with Ms. Thirkell after reading High Rising and the Headmistress and Pomfret Tower gave me more reasons than ever to continue my obsession with her Barsetshire Series. In this book, the very shy Alice Barton is forced by her mother to spend the weekend with her brother at a party at the majestic Pomfret Tower, home to the local lord of the Manor Lord and Lady Pomfret. Soon there are new friends to be made, dances to attend and even get attached to someone as the other guests, including the heir, the cousins and the friends all sort their lives out. This was literally laugh out loud fun and the comedy of manners beautifully plays out in a world that was soon to disappear.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – Now that I had started with reading Ms Thirkell’s works, it made perfect sense, to re-read the novel, which got started me off on this journey. Laura Moorland, a successful, happily widowed middle aged woman comes back for the summer to High Rising with her ever enthusiastic,railway obsessed son Tony as is her routine. She hopes to catch up with her old friends like Ms. Todd and the Knoxs, George the father, who is a famous author of historical biographies and his daughter Sybil who is almost Laura’s adopted child. However this time around, things are not all that smooth, for George Knox has a new secretary Miss Grey and she has aspirations that may destroy the peace of everybody concerned. Written as always with gentle humor and wonderful characters, this book is treat when you just want something fun, but insightful and just a perfect setting of a small English village.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – This is one of my all time favorite Margery Sharp and the dynamics between Laura and Tony made me want to read about another such story and this was it! Lesley Frenwen is an independent young woman, socializing and living the high live in London, until some minor incidents, come togther, and she ends up adopting an orphan boy, the son of her now dead companion to her aunts. Lesley is no way prepared for the changes that are needed to bring up a little boy and she struggles into the role, which she considered temporary ( until the boy starts school at 8) , she discovers a life that breaks away every stereotype helping her discover herself! This is such a wonderfully written, sensitive and beautiful book, that destroys all the cliches props of a plot to build a unique and emotional.

That then was my reading for July! It was after many many months a much more fulfilling reading month and like I said before, I hope to continue this stint through August; fingers crossed!

So how was your July reading?

The Murder during the Blitz

JB Priestley in a wonderful book called Delight said that “there are times when we do not want anybody’s social criticism or deep psycho-logical insight or prose poetry or vision of the world: we want a narrative, an artfully contrived tale.” And such narratives he believed were only available in a good detective story! I have never heard of a better description of this genre and my recent read, The Blitz Detective, checked all the boxes to be considered a a good detective story by the maestro himself!

The Blitz Detective by Mike Hollow was first published in 2015 and is the first in the series of 3 books. The novel is set in 1940’s England, West Ham to be exact, just as Germany starts its Blitz, the bombing of London and her suburbs, every night. Detective Inspector John Jago, a veteran of the First War and a tenured detective, who has worked his way from a beat cop, is summoned along with the newly inducted Constable Cradock to investigate a body found lying one of the streets. Though there is no identification on the body, the Detective Inspector recognizes the man, as the local Justice of Peace, Charles Villers and what befuddles the policemen is the fact that it looks like a murder and suicide at the same time. As Jago and Cradock start to dig through the matters, stories emerge and suddenly, it seemed that there was more that met the eye in the case of this particular JP.

This book is published in 2015 but no one, can fault with the atmosphere, the language and the everyday scenes of a nation and her people at war. London in 1940s came alive through the pages, with her bombed out buildings, rationing and politics of rich and poor. Mr. Hollow does a brilliant job of resurrecting the past with in-depth research and small subtleties that makes the novel feel grounded and real. In the creation of character of John Jago, he follows the same grounded approach and tries to create an every man hero. Jago is irritable and is traumatized by the bombs, living through the nightmare of the past, where he survived and many did not. At the same time he is considerate and patient with Cradock, understanding of the follies of people stuck between devil and the deep blue sea and honest enough to apologies for his mistakes. He does not have flash dash style or astounding intelligence, what he is a plodder, who keeps at it until he finds the truth. Craddock is a perfect foil to the senior Jago, looking up to his superior, enthusiastic, and smart enough to not lose temper, when people try to bring him down. The other characters are also deeply etched out and stand on their own merit; my favorites were Charles Viller’s brother and Son. The murder mystery is linear but not boring, there are very few complexities and by the middle, you clearly know that of the few, one should be the murderer so, you are not completely surprised. However the plot is well arched to pull it off and you keep turning the pages; and if the culprit does not take you by surprise, the motives and the fall out does. The only flaw that I found in the book was the introduction of American journalist and I found that angle unnecessary and distracting from the main plot of the book; though it did provide an interesting back story to Jago’s war. However, this is just one strand in this extremely rich attempt to provide a good yarn while being historically accurate, and this success of this remarkable feet makes this book a must read, for those times when you want an artfully contrived tale!

Many Thanks to NetGalley and  Allison & Busby Publishers for providing me a copy of this book!

The First Multinational & The Conquest of a Sovereign Nation

In a globalized world of free markets and open economy, the idea of a multinational subverting the national interest of a country where they are expected to only conduct business is not new. Infact these days, they hardly seem to make news, after the initial furor. It’s almost an expectation that a large for profit organization almost always, may indulge practices that cannot be accounted for in the books and which will propel the interest of certain few in power, while subjecting the larger populace to many inequities and struggle. However despite such organizations being larger than ever in 21st century, not one of them can quite match the sheer greed and treacherous conduct, that led to the subjugation of a nation for nearly 200 years, all to enrich another nation and the company stockholders – The Honorable East India Company!

The Anarchy – The East India Company, Corporate Violence and The Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple looks at this very phenomena that led to the rise of a group of merchants who had to work long hard years to simply be allowed a trading outpost in India to becoming the very rulers of that nation, in less than 100 years. The story of East India Company, and those of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings and the Nawab of Bengal and Oudh are well known to every child in India; drilled in from grade 6 history books, with the Battle of Plassey as the day of infamy; a nation conquered through bribe and betrayal. But Mr. Dalrymple goes much beyond this epoch making time of Indian history, to bring to the readers, the very events that led to the creation of East India company; her initial and mostly unsuccessful forays into India. It traces in parallel the history of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperors inter-played with merchants, starting from grant that led to creation of a trading outpost, to being defeated and expelled from the country by Aurangzeb and finally the fall of the House of Timur that led the great grandson of Aurangzeb, the very talented but ill fated Shah Alam to become a pensioner and a puppet ruler of the Company. The book also sheds light to the rise of local powers like the legendary Marathas and the valorous Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the sultans of Mysore as they fought each other and the company is a gallant effort to keep their states sovereign and were defeated each time by conduct of bribes and other underhand means by the Company. It showcases the economic and aesthetic prosperity of almost all parts of India under these local rulers, through the 18th century and the consequences, of Company conquest leading to famine, destruction of native art and trades and displacement of the local populations. Further the book delves deeply into the kind of administration that the company set up from taxation to justice under the name of the Mughal Emperor but really running an independent nation state with the help of a private army. The books also looks at the rise and fall of such iconic British statesman like Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellesley and spin to the conquests and settlement that each of these Governors brought to the country, until it became a suzerainty of a multinational corporation. Finally, in a succinct manner, the author also manages to illustrate, how as a multinational corporation, East India Company set a precedent for all such companies in future, from corporate lobbying, to the unholy government – company nexus for military action to government bailouts; all well before, any of these terms were actually invented. In the usual style of the author, the book is filled with nuggets of wonderful information, that historical books usually do not contain, including some wonderful Urdu couplets and Ragas now all lost. It also has some rare paintings drawn from a wide variety of sources, once again shedding light on the fact that the so called “dark age” of India was anything but dark and it was the really the interpretation of few westerners who did not understand the country or its history that led to such a narrative.

Let me start by stating the obvious, Mr. Dalrymple never is never disappointing. Filled with quotations and citing, the book is a work of meticulous and thorough research. The author has exhaustively used both primary and secondary resources to tell a story that needed to be told, in the most interesting, easy and lucid manner. The Bibliography and Notes alone stands at nearly 100 pages and talks of the extensive reading done by the author to present this work. It shows in the almost neutral tone of the book; I say neutral, because I have always felt that Mr. Dalrymple like the very Warren Hastings he quotes in the book, loves his adopted country, i.e. India a little more than his birth country. He writes with all the fairness that must be accorded to historical events, balancing good with the bad; but his righteous indignation at the way India was exploited and complete destruction of her trade, commerce and art, for the enrichment of few merchants several thousand kilometres away, speaks volumes about his sense of justice as well as his love for his adopted nation! The language is easy and free flowing and for a chunkster history book, it is also remarkably a page turner. The battle scenes which I usually skip, are described flawlessly, with suspense and thrill, without being long winded or boring. Like always, Mr. Darlymple introduces us to books, long forgotten; in his Age of Kali, he re-introduced many of us with a remarkable and now almost forgotten novel called Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. Similarly, in this books, he re-introduces us to historian Ghulam Hussain Khan and his remarkable Seir Mutaqherin or the Review of Modern Times, a book that is first hand account of the last years of Aurangzeb to the Battle of Buxar. In the end, the author states, that the “story of East India has never been more current“; one has to agree and only add that this is a must read for anyone who wants to understand India, England or multinational companies.

This book is also part of my 2020 Big Book Summer Challenges.

The Challenge….

The two things among many things, that I realize in the hindsight I missed the most during my blogging hiatus were good book recommendations and reading challenges! After blogging for 8 years I can proclaim to all and sundry that Blogging besides helping me become part of tribe, called readers; forced me to read books that I would not have usually read and find favorites that I did not know could be a favorite. Virginia Woolf’s To The Light House and Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin to name a few! In the absence of book discussion, I found myself drifting in deeper in the reading slump and I was running out of ideas and definitely motivation! But two weeks back into this familiar comforting world, I have added more book’s to the TBR (as Kagssy recently mentioned in her post, Ahem! and then went ahead and introduced me to a author whom I have never read; I really missed this!) and there are enough challenges to push one into action!

I am aware that I am slowly returning to form, so I am being sensible and not signing up for everything! However I am supremely tempted aka as in given in to join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, hosted by Sue Jackson over at Book by Book! There are no rocket science rules and it’s easy and flexible and I quote them directly from the blog page –

  • Anything 400 pages or more qualifies as a big book.
  • The challenge will run from Memorial Day weekend (starting May 22 this year) through Labor Day weekend (Labor Day is September 7 this year).
  • Choose one or two or however many big books you want as your goal. Wait, did you get that?  You only need to read 1 book with 400+ pages this summer to participate! (though you are welcome to read more, if you want).
  • Sign up on the first links list on Book by Book.
  • Write a post to kick things off: you can list the exact big books you plan to read or just publish your intent to participate, but be sure to include the Big Book Summer Challenge pic, with a link back to Book by Book. It’s fine to kick-off your Big Book Summer as part of another post.
  • Write a post to wrap up at the end, listing the big books you read during the summer.
  • You can write progress posts if you want to and/or reviews of the big books you’ve read … but you don’t have to! There is a separate links list at Book by Book for big book reviews, progress update posts, and wrap-up posts.

This challenge works beautifully for me – I have just started a chunkster The Anarchy by William Dalrymple and am also in the middle of The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. After a book slump that lasted so very long, I could do with the additional impetus this challenge brings and the timelines are generous enough to allow me some room for distraction if I desperately need it! A shout out to the wonderful Classic’s Club for always keeping me posted on what is happening in the bookish world!

Outside of this, the only other read along that I may jump in is with Cleo and if and when she reads, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. All folks who have been following me know Cleo is my soul sister and our reading adventures have been far and sometimes totally wild (we never did finish Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol despite all our enthusiasm!Yikes!)and reading with her is both insightful and funny! It’s been ages since I read anything with her and to read a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that defined my character, just makes it doubly wonderful!

So that’s my Summer reading plan! The idea is to keep it simple and tread with care, but move forward neverthless! What then is your reading plan?

That Day, Way Back…..

Life as usual continues to play hide seek with some sunshine and a lot of rain! Therefore this post which should have been up 10 days ago, finally goes live NOW! One late night, 8 years ago, absolutely frustrated with the commercial and maudlin sentimentality around , I took to the blogosphere to share my unprecedented, and complete abhorrence for the celebration of Valentine’s Day. It was a rant, and I did not think much about it, but somewhere the rant, became a habit, the habit led to opening of mind, the opening of mind, led to new books and interesting discussions and those discussions led to friendships all the way round the world, with men and women I have never met, but whose affections and support has helped me navigate through losses and reach out for the triumphs! All I can say, I am so darn glad, I started this blog, 8 years ago, I did not see how far this journey would go, I did not know if I would still be writing 8 years later, and I had no ideas, I would become part of tribe – wonderful, warm and mine!

8

8 years seems a long time and what at the age of 29 I disdained, I can now look back with tolerant amusement, if not humor! Therefore in honor of the eventful day that started off this journey, I thought I would do a fun post on what I consider 8 most endearing romances in the world of Fiction. It seemed like a wiser and indulgent commemorative to the scathing blog journey that I began so many years ago –

  1. Sir Samuel Vimes and Lady Sybil from the Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett – As many of you know I am a die hard, completely committed to the alter of Sir Terry Pratchett and his brilliant Discworld type of a fan. While, Captain Carrot and Sargent Angua are a razzle -dazzle couple of Ankh-Morpork (the greatest city in Discworld) in terms of relationship goals, I cannot but feel that Sir Samuel Vimes and Lady Sybil set a new heights. They come from the opposite sides of the world, he grew up at Shades and she is aristocracy, he is cynical, she is wise, he does not marry her for money and she does not care that at the start of series he is only a Captain Vimes. They support each other, care for each other and often do things they do not want to do, because, I guess that is what being together is!
  2. Ron and Hermoine from Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – I do not care what could have been and what was intended, to me the relationship between Ron and Hermoine is just what it ought to be. The Smart girl, does not go with the Boy Prince, but rather with the friend, who opened his home, his heart and even his corn beef sandwiches when Harry was alone and orphaned. Sure, he acts like a Dork and sure he makes mistakes, but he realises and goes out of his way to correct them and that is the essence of any relationship – not that we do not make mistakes, but we correct them!
  3. Ann Elliot and Fredrick Wentworth from Persuasions by Jane Austen – In  Ann Elliot and Fredrick Wentworth, the incomparable Ms. Austen, created a couple whose maturity of age and love sustains, separation, misunderstanding, rise and fall of fortunes and still endures. Away from the more light hearted approach of her usual novels, in this Austen classic,  Second chances do not happen, but rather come together, when you have you have loved none but one, through every single obstacle and doubt.
  4. Princess Julie and Captain Ashton Pelham Akbar Martin from The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye – Among the revolutions, the Afghan wars and the varied history of British India, is the love story of an Indian Princess and a British Army Officer. Brought up together, and separated by social, economic and cultural requirements, their love endures, in the most heart rendering sacrifice to duty and honor when hope was all over and until, fates brought them together again. In Princess Julie, the author had created a character like any other, whose only strength in the darkest despair is her belief that she did her duty and her love, which she sacrificed for the duty. Ash Martin was of course a revolutionary hero sketched by Ms. Kaye, brought as a Hindu until the age of 8, he is an Indian soul in British body and his rootlessness only finds home with a Princess among the distant mountains of Himalayas
  5.  Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe from The Green Gables series by LM Montgomery– They start with sibling like arguments, to companions in adult years, to falling in love and setting up a home together. It is one of the most simplest, naturalist and beautifully moving romances, rooted in love, respect and the realities of the world that surround us!
  6. Cal Trask and Abra Bacon from East of Eden by John Steinbeck – I believe this is one of the most underestimated couples of Literature and I have no idea why. Cal is a flawed character whose choices lead to disastrous results. Abra is hardly perfect, she is after all the girlfriend of his brother Aron, though it evident that they are growing apart and is the daughter of man implicated in financial crimes. Yet, it is Abra who gives hope to Cal, she makes him return home, and along with Lee, helps him seek the forgiveness of his father.  If this is not the perfect partnership, where we elevate each other, I do not know what is!
  7. Royce Westmoorland and Jennifer Merrick from A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught – As a teenager, I read a lot of romances by Judith McNaught; they were all a typical romances of strong silent rich heroes and heroines who are poor but proud and there is a lot passion. Yes we all make mistakes, even in books. However this historical romance stands out; yes Royce Westmoorland is hardly a noble or gallant man and Jennifer Merrick needs to use her head more, but set in 14th century as England and Scotland wage brutal wars, suddenly, there is rich and complex history making the tension in the romance very understandable and the love, betrayal and finally forgiveness,  all very as comprehensible country and nation and love forces people till date to make unimaginable choices!
  8. Elizabeth Bennett and Fritzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Yes I know cliche, yes, I know everyone knows everything there is to know about these two iconic characters and yes, I will still put them on the list because they redefine romance and equality couple goals!

That’s my list, and I am curious to know what you all consider as exemplary fictional couples! Do let me know!

To end, a big shout out to all my tribe for all their love and support over the years, that made 8 years seems like yesterday and a big thank you to all my readers, who patiently, and kindly not only read my posts, but comment and like and have done that for years! This blog still continues despite storms, because of all of you!

Reading Plans and 2020

I know it is almost 15 days in the year for this post to go up. But I am guessing better late than never and if nothing else, these kind of posts inspire me to have some kind of a reading map to guide me through, instead of all kinds of crazies. Having said that, I must also say, that this reading plan is not really a plan, but some guidelines that I want to adhere to while making reading selections through this year. These are not exhaustive reading plans or list. I love those detailed plans I used to make at the start of the month and at end the month assess of how I fared. I also used to love participating in various reading events and read alongs; many books and genre’s that I would never read would become my absolute favorites thanks to these events. However life has been totally out of control for the last two years and if that should be the trend this year as well, then it is better to be selective and chose or not, wisely so that there is no sense of I-really-have-not-read-much-this-year at the end of the year!

Therefore moving on, here are my very basic rules for reading anything this year –

  1. Read two chunksters – I have several and there was a time when reading chunksters was BAU and did not need to be called out. However, life is throwing me spinners and I need to manage accordingly, so I am calling it out and restricting the number to two; if I end up with a miracle and read more than two, that would be even more awesome. But for now two. I started on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I bought this book nearly 5 years ago but never really got around to reading it, so now I am pacing myself with a couple of chapters every week and trotting along. I have no idea what the second chunkster will be.
  2. Read more classics – Again, something that would not have been called out in the past but lately I have skipped reading the more richer works, unless one counts, re-reads of Austen. I need to get back into the groove of reading Classics again and I will consciously try and read a few more, maybe 5 through this year.
  3. Read Non Fiction – Lately I have been reading significant amount of Non Fiction beyond my usual trope of Travelogues and History. And I must say, that it has been quite an enriching and significantly transforming experience. I have read and learnt and observed and it definitely challenged my mind and forced me to think in ways I do not do and overall, it has been a learning that I would want to continue on.
  4. Read Books already Bought – I think this is a common issue of all Bibliophiles. We see books, we buy books and then we go back re-read Austen or Harry Potter. I have nothing against re-reading Austen or Harry Potter; in fact most of you know, those are my go-to comfort books. However, I have over the years bought several 100 books and my house is filled to excess with unread books, I want to try and read some of those this year, I cannot commit to never buying new books; I have yet to reach that stage of Nirvana, but atleast control by spending spree, I have developed a simple rule – I will add books to my cart and keep them for 24 hrs; if post that I still am itching to buy them, then I will. I have trying this since December and the only book I have bought since then is a Strategic Management book which is part of the coursework I am doing for a certification. I hope, super hope, I can stick to this one critical resolution.
  5. Have Fun!

That is my reading plan for the year. The only read alongs I have so far signed up for is to re-read Pather Dabi by Sarat Chandra and Bleak House by Charles Dickens with Cleo, whenever she takes those two on. The other event I want to participate is The 1920’S Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I love that era and inherently gravitate towards that time period and therefore being part of this event is only a natural progression!

This then is the plan for 2020! I am hoping in the last week of December this year, to be able to show case a relatively favorable report than those I have shared or not over the last few years! But that will be when, it will be! Until then, here’s to all the good things in life in 2020, including and especially Books and Readings!

The Russian Nobleman

Vladamir Nabokov called this book “the first and fundamental Russian Novel”; in fact he was so frustrated by the what he considered the lack of qualitative translation of this critical piece of work of Russian Literature, when he started to teach at Wellesley College in 1944, that nearly 20 years later, he would produce his own attempt, which would as always create a furor, like everything Nabokov did; but that is another story! This “novel: which he considered key to Russian literature is not even a novel, but rather a work of poetry, describing the life and times of one Russian nobleman in the early 19th century Russia; it’s called Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. This work which has spawned an Opera, several films and more translation that one can count was published in Russia in a completed form in 1833 and was to change the very nature of Russian prose!

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This novel in the poetry form follows the lives of Eugene Onegin, Vladamir Lensky and the narrator, a fictionalized Pushkin from the early days in the glittering society of St. Petersburg, to the estates of the Russian country, where all three meet and become friends. Eugene is a dandy, cynical and selfish who is easily bored, does not find any creature or object interesting beyond a short stipulated time and who comes to the country after inheriting an estate from an uncle, to overcome the boredom he had begun experiencing in the glittering society circles. He becomes great friends with the narrator and Vladamir Lensky, a young, naive poet of 18; and it is Lensky who takes Eugene to the home of Olga, his finance and the younger daughter of a fellow landowner. There Eugene meets Tatyana, Olga’s elder sister, a quiet romantic girl, who is drawn to Eugene and goes on to confess her emotions to him eventually. However, Eugene rebuffs all attempts and states that he will become bored with marriage and Tatayana should be careful of baring her soul in such a manner. In an effort to reconcile a listless Tatayana, Lensky invites Eugene to her name day, stating it will be a small gathering with only the girls, their parents and two of them; however on reaching Eugene realizes that the entire country is there and to get even with Lensky for what he considers his “traitorous” act, starts  off a chain of events, that will alter the lives all four!

I read the translation by James E. Falen, and words fail me to say enough and more about this work that would do justice to its brilliance. The characters, to begin with, are masterfully etched out, standing independently and distinctly, sometimes, white, sometimes grey, sometimes, a unique hue of its own! I have read the Eugene Onegin was considered an anti-hero by many but this seems to be a simplistic definition; the protagonist is a brilliant, creative individual lacking enough outlets to use his brilliance in the limited occupations and social restrictions of early 19th century Russia. He is capable of considerable goodness, but can also be mean and caught up in pettiness. Lensky is a perfect foil to cynical and bored Eugene; he is optimistic, full of vigor and constantly eager to see life with all its beauty and perfection. Finally, in Tatayana, Pushkin created a memorable heroine,  innocent and untouched by worldly requirements, her heart burns with a certain purity, which establishes itself a strong moral character as life experiences are forced on her and then tempt her! She is the one solid ethical character around whom the rest of the amoral characters revolve, bringing out her contrast as an ideal and worthy! Even the minor characters are wonderfully drawn and support the main cast ably. The conversation between a love-struck Tatyana and the wise old Nanny is an illustrative example of such interactions. As a narrative, this poem is faultless; it brilliantly combines worldly with the ethereal, practical with the spiritual; the fictionalized Pushkin at several instances breaks away from the main plot to digress into some deeper questions of life including what is art? But he is not only able to skillfully bring the audience back to the main narrative, but also create several instances of suspense when the reader rushes through stanza in an effort to understand what happens next! This in itself would have been enough to make this outstanding example of poetry in a narrative form, however, the brilliance of Puskin takes it into a whole new level by the wonderful and deeply moving lyricism of the language, that manages to convey the strongest and most powerful emotions without for a moment sounding maudlin. I am quoting the translation and can only wonder, how beautiful the original will be –

“Another! No! In all creations, there is no one else whom I’d adore,

The heavens chose my destination and made me thine for evermore,

My life till now has been a token in pledge of meeting you, my friend,

And in your coming, God has spoken

You will be my guardian until the end.”

Vissarion Belinsky wrote that in Eugene Onegin one could find “an Encyclopedia of Russian life” and I felt this through the novel. From the glittering ballrooms of 19th century Moscow to the quiet and haunting landscapes of the large and unending estates of the countryside, this work covers it all. There are travels by coaches and name day celebrations; there are landowners and peasants and relatives and army men; there is a range of amalgamation of items and details which all beautifully come together to present a vivid and lively picture of Russia. Once again, the sheer magnificence of this effort leaves one breathless.

Finally, a word on the translation; translating this work cannot be easy and it took a genius of Nabokov also 20 years to come with a manuscript that does justice to the original. James Falen did a wonderful job in keeping things simple and I believe as close as possible to the original narrative and yet make it easy for the reader to read and absorb what is essentially a vast body of information in poetry in a different language which is actually a story! Though there is the use of some words like “awesome”  which cannot have in vogue in the period this work is set, they are far and few, and do not take anything away from the brilliance of this work!

To end, this profoundly beautiful piece needs to be read by anyone who considers themselves Connoisseur of literature!

Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!

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Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

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Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!

 

Some Things and A Book List…..

It’s as usual been a crazy busy month and things at work are not so great! While work per se is brilliant, the auxiliaries, of people and their selfish squabbles do not make for fun environment! It seems the more we evolve as humans, the more we get stuck in the mundane and lose grip over what are the things that are most important in life – loyalty, decency and kindness! But I am told all Corporate work place is similar and its one set of nonsense or the other; I most often think I am misfit and I do long to do something else. But firstly there are bills to be paid and secondly and perhaps more importantly, we cannot run away from our troubles; we have to stand and fight it! So here I stand, and here I stay and we will see, what the morrow brings!

Someone very close to me keeps telling me that we are fortunate to have resources, outside of work, from where we can find happiness and that is the key to true nirvana! I think there is much truth in this statement and thank goodness for books that keep things going for me – they provide wisdom, solace, laughter and an escape!Isee many of you putting up a 20 Books of Summer post, a wonderful event by Cathy at 746 Books and while I really not sure if I will make it the end of the whole list, I am reading one too many books, so might as well join the fun? So what am I reading now and what am I planning to read next? Too many things, as always –

  1. The 4 Loves by C.S. Lewis – This is a read along that I on an impulse joined and is hosted by my dear friend and partner in crime, Cleo. I make slow progress, as while it is a slim book, it has a lot of things to say; and absorbing all of that and processing it all is time consuming. Work being what it is, naturally, allows me for barely any time for the kind of focused reading that this book truly deserves. I am hanging on anyway and while I am not sure I will make it to the end by June, I will make it to the end and my guess is that is what counts!
  2. What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon – This time traveling book set in 1920s Ireland has been garnering rave reviews and I have seen it on many 20 Books for the Summer list among my friends. I picked it up again on an impulse, and now half way through the book, I realize that this books deserves all of the praise and more.  Ireland comes alive, with its politics, beauty and lyricism in this novel!
  3. The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye – One of my all time favorite and go to books, this timeless tale of Captain Ashton Pelham Martin, an English Officer in the Corps de Guide who was brought up as a son of a Hindu woman and Princess Anjuli Bai, the neglected daughter of an Indian King, set in the backdrop of the 2nd Afghan War is an epic read of the British Raj and the men and women, who loved and served India as their own!
  4. A Journey to the Western Island of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour of Hebrides by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell – Yet another reading adventure that I started with Cleo and we both are making slower progress than snails in 100 meter dash! I am not sure why we are slow in reading through this one, considering we both are really loving the description and the take on manner and societies of late 18th century, but we do plan to complete this, sooner rather than later.
  5. Outlander by Diane Gibbon – Ok! I confess, I have no idea why I picked this one up and now mid way at some 400+ pages of 800 page monster, I am wondering how I shall get to the end! If I should get to the end at all? I think, everyone gets the drift on how I feel about this book!
  6. Gun Island by Amitava Ghosh – Mr. Ghosh remains one of my most favorite Indian English author and I usually love his writings! The Shadowlines pierced my heart and The Glass Palace was  a story so close to my families history, it was like my ancestors came alive! But not all his writings go down well with me – I was left with such a trauma with Hungry Tide, that it was literally years, before I picked up another book by him. Gun Island is a gift and my sister who finished it last weekend, cannot stop ranting and raving about it. So I am now 100 pages in the book and it is needless to say quite interesting and exotically so, but I await the end before I can actually share a verdict!
  7. The Binding by Bridget Collins – Another book about which I heard rave reviews and am yet to start. Its about a young boy apprenticed to a book binder, a position of power and in the vault of his mentor’s workshop, he discovered, books and books of records and memories! It’s a book about book and I am hedging my bet that it should be good!
  8. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell – Yet another impulse buy. This will be the last of the Gaskell that I have not read and I have held off reading it for years in the hope that I can look forward to actually reading it. But the time is here and I will soon pick it up and start reading, sooner than later!
  9. The Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss  – A buy on the insistence of my sister, but not that I needed too much of insistence. This blog turned book documents one Kitchen maid’s attempt to love, new culinary skills and adventures in a new city. I am super curious and super interested to find out  how this plays out!
  10. The Island of Sea Woman by Lisa See – I read a great review about the book over at Helen‘s and while wondering around the books shop the very next day, I found it on display and picked it up. It is fate and one cannot fight it. However the premises of the novel in 1930’s -1940’s Korea through the eyes of two very different woman – a daughter of a Japanese Collaborator and daughter of a sea diver, who will inherit her mother’s position as a chief see diver, has much promise!IMG_20190616_160919_101
  11. The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer – Can a Summer list be complete with a Georgette Heyer? I think NOT! And this one has been on my TBR for a long time. I ma glad to have finally picked it up and am looking forward to it with much anticipation! This one has a tinge of mystery attached to the usual Regency romance and that makes the deal even sweeter!
  12. The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry – This came as a recommendation from another close friend and she actually said, when you just want to switch off, this is series for you. It’s got history, mystery and interesting locales and as I turn to page 113, I have to say, I agree. A good read to forget and to be forgotten after a good read!
  13. The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton – A wonderful review by Jane made me pick up this book. Though I am yet to start reading it, the fact that it is a Golden Age Mystery and has an interesting plot line of an eccentric woman, living in an isolated cottage being murdered on the eve of the arrival of her niece and everyone having something to hide, even the closest friends, makes for an interesting read.
  14. Selected Letters by Jane Austen – It’s rare selection of letters that survive, which Ms. Austen’s sister had not burned before her death. It gives a lively, vibrant and tongue in cheek look at early 19th century England and one can trace the thinking and the observations that went into writing some of the best works of English literature
  15. The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn – Two of my most favorite and trusted friends and fellow bloggers, Jane and Helen have written wonderful reviews, strongly recommending this coming of age story set on the eve of World War 1. A lucky find at thrift shop of a very good copy of the book made me pick it up and I am raring to get to it as soon as possible.
  16. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson – Another great thrift shop pick up, this book which has been recommended by many portrays the life and times of a community in the English country at the turn of the century, with customs and celebrations now long gone.
  17. The First Firanghis by Johnathan Gel Harris – A study of  “firanghis” or Caucasian foreigners who settled in India, well before the English decided to colonize the country, and the roles they took up, the way they adapted themselves to the climate and the inheritance they left behind.
  18. The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath – Set in the post World War II London, the death of the great Stage actor, Charlie Grice sends his wife and the Wardrobe Mistress of the production into whole new world as she tries to discover the truth.
  19. The Headmistress by Angela Thrikell – Set in the imaginary county of Barsetshire, during World War II; a London school has to be evacuated and finds temporary residence at the Harefield Park. The Headmistress of the school is exactly what the Headmistress should be, but not all is right!
  20. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – When troubled, the calming presence of Ms.Austen shall hold you up, make you smile and ensure to get up, suit up and show up! What more needs to be said?

I am truly unsure if I will be able to get through the list by September but I need  to give it a go and remember that my happiness is not truly sourced from work!