It happened in Aleppo…

Sometimes you read a book that leaves you intensely sad – it could be because of the story, like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief or because it is not only the tale but also the history surrounding the tale. Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying in any way that the events of World War II were not tragic or traumatizing; but to me when I read The Book Thief, what stood out was the profound sadness for the character of Liesel Meminger , especially with the death of Hans Hubermann and Rudy Steiner.  On the other hand, for this book not only was  there a profound sadness for the character, but for the history as well – for the sheer number of sense less killing and destruction and for the sense of lost identity and rootlessness!

I am getting ahead of myself as usual, so let me start where I should start – I am talking about Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls.

I had stumbled across this book when randomly surfing through the Kindle Store and the fact that it was set in World War I was enough to get me interested. However, what made me go for it was the brief note in the synopsis about the Armenian Genocide. I had first read about Armenian Genocide, very briefly in William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountains, where he dedicates a couple of pages to interviewing a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Couple of years later, while studying at the University for a Master’s degree, my professor of Israeli politics, once mentioned, that the only genocide that could bear any remote comparison to the Jewish Holocaust was the Armenian one. While I did contest with him then and still contest now, that the Rwandan and Bosnia-Herzegovina massacres were quite brutal as well, my curiosity was had begun lurking from then. Therefore when The Sandcastle Girls turned up as a recommended read for me in the Kindle Store, I was not going to pass this up!

Now for the book –

I started reading this book way back in October and since it is hardly a mammoth of epic proportions, merely 300 pages, it should not take me so long…right? Wrong. Sometimes the themes and the word pictures leave you so emotionally challenged that you need to take a break ; that’s exactly what happened; I read the first half in October and finished the remaining today! So let me state at the onset, it is an intense book and as a reader you will feel the emotional upheavals that will impact you and should you be of the more sensitive variety, it may take a toll on you.

The story begins with the landing of Elizabeth Endicott, the 21 year old daughter of a Boston Brahmin banker father on a missionary task to help the expelled Armenians who have survived the death march across the desert to Aleppo.  Most of these survivors are women and children who arrive in utter destitution and trauma. It is also here that Elizabeth meets the Armenian engineer Armen Petrosian, who is trying find out the details about the death of his wife and infant daughter during the death march. The story is told through the eyes of their granddaughter Laura Petrosian, who is attempting to piece together the history of her grandparents and in a sense discover the very history of her own people.

The book is told in simple language and moves fluidly between past and present.  The story telling is gripping and at times will actually leave you breathless with your heart in your mouth. The characters are wonderfully drawn. In Elizabeth Endicott, you find an extremely believable heroine who is good, strong, may be a little headstrong and generous to the core. Laura Petrosian is a worthy literary granddaughter – strong, brave and may a little bit stubborn. Though she does most of the story telling for her grandparent’s lives and very little of her own life comes out directly, there is no denying that in her we see a second-third generation settler who does not quite understand the past, until she reaches the very deep end of the family history! This is where I belive lies the master stroke of Chris Bohjalian; to say a lot by saying very little! Armen Petrosian was and is a difficult character to write; a man who has lost all can be all doom and gloom, but in Armen Petrosian, there is a sense of strength, purpose and understandably guilt. What was brilliantly done and here I am giving spoiler alert so please skip the remaining paragraph if you plan to read the book – though he is man who kills, there is no bawdy masochistic tones in those descriptions, something many great authors also seem to be prone to. There are hardly any stereotypes and Germans and Turks could be as kind and as cruel as any other race. All kinds of courage is displayed here – courage to survive, courage to face the most daunting fears and the quiet courage that works in the background to make everyday possible.

Most importantly the book is about some vivid word pictures that Chris Bohjalian – whether describing the horror of the death marches (these are very very intense and disturbing to read) or the sense of rootlessness to a sense of legacy that Laura finds herself being joined to. As a grandchild of émigrés who fled their homeland due to religious persecution that resulted in one of the worst communal violence ever in history, I could very closely relate to Laura’s confusion about her grandparents life and their sadness as well as her own legacy. I remember various such incidents while growing up when on a happy family gathering occasions, everything would suddenly turn silent as my grandmother or my elder aunts looked back at their past and wondered, what if we had not left? How would that person be now? How does that land look now? That senses of identity that flows from belonging to a piece of land you call your home, which when suddenly and violently taken away, is bound to create an irreplaceable sense of loss!

Read it!

The Mystery of Life and All Those Big Questions…

Confession time and don’t raise your eyebrows – I am not about to disclose that I am giving up life to lead an ascetic life on the Himalayas nor am I going to give up my job to spend the remaining life as a poster painter of the streets of Paris. I have nothing against the ascetic living individuals or poster painters, especially the latter since it does kind of have a 1920s glamour associated with it, but I can’t imagine myself as creature deprived of home delivery, cab service and Kindle!

Anyway, as usual I digress; where was I? Oh! Yes! Confession time – I am a crier! As in a bawler! As in I cry over books and movies. I bawl and drown the world in my river of tears. For someone who takes life stoically and bounces through heartbreaks through cherry optimism which even I find nauseating in myself at times can spend hours crying when Elsa is left to fend for herself in the Jungle- yes Born Free! I cried buckets when Boo rescued Jem Finch and takes him home – yes To Kill a Mockingbird! I cried when Maria left without meeting the children – yes Sound of Music. Let’s not even get into the hours of uninterrupted tears shed on reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. My new year’s eve 2013 was ushered with me shedding buckets of tears for while reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I even cried when I understood how poor Snape repented through his life in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (I mean who cries while reading a Harry Potter? I do! I cried for one whole day when Sirius dies!) I am sure I forgetting a million others, but the point I am trying to drive home is that I CRY!!!!

One of my all-time favorites reads, which inevitably leads to a lot of crying, thereby increasing sales of Kleenex and I am so surprised I have never written about this book is called “Welcome to The Great Mysterious” by Lorna Landvik. I had never read Ms. Landvik before I picked up this book and I have never read anything since. But, boy! Am I glad that my flatmate picked up this book one summer afternoon three years ago when our community library was selling of some of its older collections due to space constrains.

The Great Mysterious” is not a mystery/thriller – in fact it is one of the best happy books that I have read – true there are some heartbreaking moments, especially around chapter 10 and 11 (My Kleenex quotient jumps from 3 to the whole box Now!) but in the end when you close the book, you will have a smile on your face.  The book is about dive Geneva Jordan, a broadway star who is in between projects and nursing a broken heart and menopause. It is at this serene moment of her life that her twin sister Ann, arm twists her into babysitting Ann’s 13 year old son Rich, while she and her professor husband take a much needed work/vacation for a month in Italy. Geneva Jordan is not particularly happy at the thought  of spending time in the back woods away from the glamour and comfort of New York where  she had decided on spending this time indulging herself and taking a much needed vacation while coming to terms with the crucial changes in her life. The other worry she had was that Rich suffers from Down Syndrome and she is not quite confident as to how she would manage such a child. After much pleading and emotional turmoil, she agrees to take on her nephews care and moves into her sister’s house for a month. It is there that her transformation begins – how she begins a warm relationship with its natural ups and downs with  her nephew Rich, new enriching friendships with Barb, who is mother to Rich’s best friend Conrad and James the mail man and the discovery of small joys that are far more beautiful than the most expensive indulgences. Intertwined with this journey of self-discovery via a memory book that a 13 year old Geneva and Ann created seeking to find answers to the big questions in life called “The Great Mysterious” and the understanding that all relationships have several layers and a person may not be the way they seem and that the past gives strength for living for the future, when you know how to look!

It is not, and I repeat NOT a pedantic book.  Written in an engaging first party narrative from the point of view of a very warm but very human Geneva Jordan, the book does not aim to be a high brow literature. Instead it tells you an unstoppable story which makes you turn page after page until you reach the end. It’s a funny book – there are many ha ha moments and critics can say that it’s a very linear story and far too simplistic etc. but the book is what it’s meant to be – an entertainer! There is nothing holier than thou or oh! look at the bright side of things and Down Syndrome is god’s gift etc etc. Instead it’s a joy ride of a book – where you laugh, scream and the cry your way through. It’s like talking to a great companion and realizing at the end of 2 hours, that the companion is actually a great friend to whom you can go back whenever you are happy or sad or just need company time after time!

Baking Breads and Tales in Wartime Germany

And now for The Baker’s Daughter

I know I was supposed to post this last week, but between one thing and the other….well, better late than never I guess!

The Baker’s Daughter is a novel by Sarah McCoy.

I had never read any of Sarah McCoy’s previous work and picked up this book solely because of three reasons –

– The back cover told me that it’s historical fiction set during the World War II

– The story for a change was from a perspective of a German and not an allied power and I already had a great impression of writings from the German perspective from books like The Book Thief and wanted to continue exploring this genre

– It seemed to blend in my other passion very well, i.e. cooking! (I mean it’s called The Baker’s Daughter!!!)

Goodreads tell me that Sarah McCoy is a daughter of an Army officer. She spent her early years in Germany and prior to writing books, she taught writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her first book was The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and The Baker’s Daughter was published in 2012.

The-Bakers-Daughter-JacketThe Baker’s Daughter is set towards the end of World War II in the small town of Garmisch, Germany. Its 1945 and Elsie Schmidt lives with her parents above the bakery run by her father. She is being courted by a very senior SS official and her sister is part of the The Lebensborn Program. It’s an all-German family, living and believing in the values set by The Fuhrer, believing in the ultimate destiny of a superior Germany with a Third Reich. However things change for Elsie and her family, when a young boy shows up at her door one night and she is forced to take a decision that will change her and her family’s fate. Parallelly, there is a modern-day story of Reba Adams who is in the lookout for a great Christmas story and bumps into a bakery. Reba Adams is a loner who wants to move out of her relationship with her boyfriend and the town of El Paso, Texas, to start a new life in San Francisco and distance herself from her half-truths and the memories of her past. As the novel progresses, the two tales collide and become one story of valor, humanity and the ability of a human spirit to survive!

Now for the book – it’s wonderful! I know this is like stating it right out there, but it is absolutely wonderful. Maybe because I read it right after The Shell Seekers, I felt the impact more. But I really really liked the novel and would seriously recommend it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the novel does not have flaws – there is the stereotypical sexually aggressive, pseudo masochist Nazi, who conveniently shows up to bring a twist to the tale. There is also at the other end of the Nazi spectrum, the tortured Nazi, who is trying to come to terms with his own harrowing deeds and then meets a very non original end. Towards the end of the novel, it seems like somehow, the author was in hurry to end the book, so she neatly packaged out what could have been a more meaty middle and epilogue of the book.  The writing is also very linear and sometimes too simplistic.

Having said all of this, I still say that this is a marvelous book! To begin with, in the character of Elsie Schmidt, the author has created a wonderful heroine, who is both human and yet capable of great kindness, even at personal costs. She is warm, intelligent and sometimes absolutely hilarious character, whose voice echoes through the book. Another wonderful character is Elsie’s mother, a strong resilient woman, who will stop at nothing to save her family. The book is filled with some interesting insights into Nazi Germany including The Lebensborn Program.  The Program, per Wikipedia, was a state-run program to boost the number of racially pure Aryan children, including those born of extra marital relations. Through the book, the author tries to give an authentic feel of a country at the brink of losing a war, struggling with shortages and poverty and death of thousands and thousands of her men. The reader has a very strong sense of a raging war and its impacts unlike the very superficial layering of it in The Shell Seekers. Lastly, the book has some wonderful description of food – especially German breads and other bakeries and some lovely detailing on how the bakers managed their supplies and kept the business going, as the country spiraled towards scarcity and poverty.

I know there are great many works written about Germany during World War II and of course this book does not stand in competition to such works like Schindler’s Ark, but it is great read and I recommend atleast one read!

One girl, some books and Nazi Germany

New Year, New Books.

I recently read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Though this is not a new book per se, since it was originally published in 2005, but I read it just a couple of days ago and for me therefore it has all the joy of unchartered territory, especially since I had never read any work by Markus Zusak prior to this.

Markus Zusak is an Australian author who has written some great children’s work including The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry. Though he received several awards and recognitions for these works, his breakthrough came with the The Book Thief which was as I mentioned first published in 2005 and since then has been translated in 30 languages and garnered the #1 position in The New York Times Bestsellers.

Now about the book –

the-book-thiefThe Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II and it spans the years from 1939 -1944 in a town called Molching, Germany. The story’s narrator is Death (Yes! As in THE DEATH) and  begins as an eight year old Liesel Meminger is taken by her mother for adoption to a foster family – housepainter and accordion player Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa Hubermann, whose washing and ironing for the richer households. The story then describes Liesel’s relationship with her foster parents, other residents of the neighborhood including Rudy Steiner, who becomes her best friend and Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife and a Jewish fist fighter, who hides in Hubermann’s basement to escape the Nazis.

While the back cover synopsis may look very To Kill a Mocking Bird meet’s Schindler’s Ark, do not go with that kind of mindset, for this book is completely unexpected.  I do mean unexpected – it does cater to certain cliché’s like the German who does not want to be a Nazi or the German who risks his life to save a Jewish life, but that’s where the cliché’s end. This book is beautifully crafted, written with great depth and while the language is simple, since its attributed to a young girl, there is a lot of sensitivity and originality in the whole work. There are several instances of dry humor as well as some very upsetting moments, including one scene where I cried in buckets. (Yes! I do cry when I read books and no, I am not sentimental, just someone who is extremely sensitive!)  The plot is unusual not so much in the characters as much in the details and events of the tale. Another extremely rare aspect of the book is that at the very onset of each book (The novel is divided into 10 Books), the reader comes to know what will ensure in that book as well as the next, so in a way, the author gives away the ending, right at the beginning. However the power of the tale as well as the brilliant writing will keep the reader going despite knowing the obvious end.

New York Times wrote that “It’s the kind of book that can be LIFE CHANGING.” – I am not sure if it can be life changing, since we are all different people and we all react to things differently, but I can say this, that not to have read this is a loss and a big loss at that. This is a must read for all those who consider themselves books/novels/literature connoisseur, for this novel may be considered a  modern classic one day!!! It’s a poetic, touching and absolutely heartbreaking work that scopes out the immense generosity that humans posses.

Some Books and One Wish

Book reading 2As another year draws to an end, I wonder at my last post and think what would be the most appropriate ending for the year. Should I do a scorecard again, like I did in August? Should I carry on with my usual posts on books, friends and sundry? What would be the most befitting farewell to 2012 and then suddenly I knew – for someone who loves books, I would want to list some of my best reads of the year in no order of preference – it’s hard to really always scale things you love; especially if they are tied to a place. So without any further ado, here goes –

Book reading 1

Some are just darn good tales, while others are serious body of literature, while still others are morality tales of modern kind  – no matter what they are, I enjoyed them thoroughly and my life is so much more enriched, because I met these novels and their characters!

While I signoff for the year, here’s wishing all my readers a wonderful 2013 with all the joy and laughter! Thank you for tagging along with me through this year and for sharing your thoughts, experience or simply your likes! Thank you most importantly for taking the time out through this year to read through my random musings!

Cheers to 2013!

P.S. Here’s a special wish for all the follow book maniacs – wish you all a joyous and wondrous reading in the New Year! May we all get new books and brilliant new authors to savor! Happy Reading!