Quick Reviews: Shanghai Baby

Shanghai Baby by the Chinese writer, Wei Hui, has been translated into English by Bruce Humes. The novel is set in the turn of the 21st century in Shanghai, China.

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What is the book about?

Shanghai Baby unravels a story about Coco, living in Shanghai, who wants to be a writer and who eventually drops her waitress job, when she meets the artist Tian Tian, at the same cafe. After a little encouragement from him, she decides to pursue writing a novel full time. She had already published an erotic and daring collection of short stories titled, Shriek of the Butterfly, and was working at a magazine before. What prompted her to leave that job and become a waitress is not explored. What is explored, however, is her relationship with her city, with her parents, with Tian Tian, who is a drug addict and impotent; and her lover, Mark, a German expat, working there and the one who satisfies her sexual desires.

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Seeing Red

!!!! Spoilers Ahead!!!!

I had diligently followed the idea of Women in Translation Month in August and the last book in my list was the intensely terrifying Seeing Red by Chilean author, Lina Meruane.

(On a side note: Click here and see the other books that were part of my Women in Translation month)

Translated from Spanish Megan McDowell, Seeing Red, narrates the story of Lucina, a Chilean national, who moved to New York and is pursuing her PhD. One night at a party, something strange – yet something that she has been forewarned about – happens!

Her eyes haemmorage; blood gushes through her veins in her eyes leaving her vision clouded. She returns home with her partner, Ignacio, trying to make sense of this new reality. The months that follow show Lucina navigating through this new found blindness: they move to a new place and she tries to orient herself there, she goes back to Chile for a vacation where her relatives provide her with unsolicited advice about her impending eye operation. Even her parents who are themselves doctors, are stunned by Lucina’s illness.

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Musically Yours: Music in Solitude

Aranya is chaotic.

Ishan systematic.

Ishan is a family person.

Aranya questions the idea of family.

Ishan is spiritual.

Aranya a feminist.

Now I know what you are thinking: that this is just going to be some modern run-of-the-mill opposites attract love story.

Fortunately not!

Because Music in Solitude by Krishna Sobti, translated from Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia, is not a love story, but rather a loving tale of two elderly individuals, Ishan and Aranya, who are in the autumn of their lives and yes you guessed it, are complete opposites. Yet it is their age and the life that that brings along in it’s wake, which helps them come together. Not to mention that they stay in the same building in Delhi!

Originally titled as Samay Sargam, the novel stitches together episodes from the two protagonists’ lives. Especially the time spent together discussing myriad topics over tea, lunches or dinners!

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The Reading Spree: Women in Translation Month 2019

And so the Women in Translation (WiT) month has ended. And oh what a beautiful reading spree it was!

As part of WiT, I read female writers that have been translated into English and I managed to read a humble total of six books!

Here is the list:

1. First on my list was When the Dives Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers. This novel is a story of two Estonian cousins and their very different reactions to first Soviet occupation, then Nazi German and then back to Soviet occupation. Told using two parallel timelines, this was my first book by an Estonian writer that also shed a lot of light on a little known aspect of world history: Estonia’s role and struggle for independence during dark periods of occupation.

2. Next was The Music of Solitude by Krishna Sobti, translated from Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia. This is a touching tale of two elderly people living in Delhi, Ishan and Aranya, who are diametrically opposite people yet are brought together by proximity and burdensome and very palpable questions of old age and death. Read my complete review here.

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Quick Reviews: Gigi and the Cat

Gigi and The Cat by the acclaimed French writer, Colette, are two novellas published together by Vintage and I read them as part of Women in Translation Month.

Don’t know what that is?

Find out here!

What is this book about?

Gigi and The Cat consists of two stories: one is titled Gigi and the other, The Cat. Translated from French, both the stories adeptly capture the vivacity of the fin de siecle in Paris.

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Gigi is about the eponymous protagonist, ebullient girl of 15, dictated by her grandmamma who lavishly rains on her several rules of how to behave like a woman. Both her grandmamma and mother think that she is a simple, childish, naive girl who is unable to understand the intricacies of class and its politics. However, when an admirable suitor, Gaston Lachaille, confesses his love to her, Gigi or Gilberte, employs her own tactic of figuring out how to handle the situation, breaking away from her grandmother and mother’s advice.

La Chatte or in English, The Cat, is a much more complex story narrated in rich, detailed prose. The Cat outlines the love of the protagonist, Alain, towards his beautiful cat, Saha. The story then unravels how his marriage to Camille Malmert affects Saha and Alain’s relation with Saha. The story takes a plunge into Alain’s thoughts and emotions toward Saha, Camille, and his life in general, especially his deep love for the house he grew up in. Alain’s love for Saha is clear in the way he fondly calls out her name (with an aspirated ‘h’) and behaves with her ever so lovingly. His instinct toward Saha and his ability to know her inside out irks Camille to a certain extent, though she does try to come to terms with the cat.

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Women in Translation Month!

Starting the Women in Translation month with this promising read:

Because August is Women in Translation Month!

Let’s celebrate it and put the limelight on more women writers!

When the Doves Disappeared is an intriguing tale about Soviet occupation of Estonia which is told through the interweaving of two separate timelines!

I am excited to dig into my first book from Estonia!

Click here to read more about Women in Translation month and about endless lists of books by women writers that have been translated.

Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology

I am pretty sure that I have read Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Eunice De Souza, in my undergraduate days but I stumbled upon it once again in the library and the faint familiarity of the poems within the book wafted in my mind.

As the title suggests, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, contains a selection of poems written in English by nine Indian female poets. The poets included in this anthology are Mamta Kalia, Kamala Das, Melanie Silgardo, Eunice De Souza herself, Imtiaz Dharker, Smita Agarwal, Sujata Bhatt, Charmayne D’Souza and Tara Patel.

The most familiar poets for me were Mamta Kalia, Kamala Das, Eunice De Souza, Imtiaz Dharker and Sujata Bhatt.

My favourite has to definitely be Mamta Kalia’s cheeky and wry poetic style.

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Most of the nine poets have a common theme through them of addressing ideas and issues that affect them such as identity and language, marital relations, family matters or even ex lovers. However, saying that this is all that their poems express would be a gross generalisation which I will not be a party to. Each of the nine poets have specific issues that they deftly express. Each is versatile and each has her own unique style.

For instance, one of the central ideas in Kamala Das’ poems included in his collection is navigating the dynamic of male and female gender roles. On the other hand, Mamta Kalia’s poems artfully use wit to portray women and their routines and challenge those very routines, be it in the automatic love expected out of a daughter to her father or the routines of married life. Whereas Sujata Bhatt’s poems are on the other end of the spectrum where she tries to make sense of the various identities that she carries within. Eunice De Souza’s poems however often take into consideration very Goan Catholic themes as do Melanie Silgardo’s poems.

One of my favourite poems is by Melanie Silgardo titled, Cat, simply because of its words’  visual power that being a cat lover, I can immediately recognise as being typically belonging to any cat’s idiosyncrasies.

Mamta Kalia’s poem, Tribute to Papa, is another of my favourites as it boldly challenges a typical Indian privilege we proffer on to our fathers. The poem stands out because of its sheer defiance.

All in all, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology is a visual and aural delight as one gets to read the best of 20th century female Indian poets.

Be sure to read them out loud and immerse yourself in their lilting rhythms!

Travel Diaries: Circle of Karma

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden is the first novel written by a woman in Bhutan. Using simple language and straightforward plot line, the story weaves around Tsomo and her literal and metaphorical journey from her childhood to her old age.

Set in the mid-20th century Bhutan, The Circle of Karma‘s protagonist is Tsomo, who lives in Tang valley in Bumthang (one of the districts of Bhutan), is burdened with household chores and envious of her brothers getting a religious education from her scholarly father, who was a gomchen (a religious scholar/monk).

She deeply loves and respects her mother. She fears her father. She wants to learn to read and write but being a girl, she is not allowed to do so.

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Her observant nature though allows us a glimpse into several cultural aspects around her such as the nature of society and its bias towards women or the rituals that happen around her in her society.

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The Bees

If you have not yet fallen in love with Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, you must pick up her latest collection, The Bees (2011).

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Divided into four sections and encompassing various themes that are held together by the one of the tiniest yet the most important creature of the planet: bees.

Interspersed between odes to the vitality and importance of the bees and the gardens they enable to bloom, are myriad poems ranging from feminist to ecological themes to the ones that comment on current political scenarios that dominate the West.

The ecological poems are beautifully portrayed through the use of the bees metaphor. The use of the bees metaphor is definitely something that is not an oft used idea, particularly to talk about the ultimate devastation that our planet is heading towards; yet it is one of the many creatures that is threatened and which also threatens our existence in return.

Though all the poems that center around bees are heady and evocative of lush blooms and bouquets of flowery beauty, my favourite is Scheherazade. It is about the need to speak, the necessity to speak out rather than die. It is a lovely take on a well known fairy tale trope of Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights, weaving tales to stay alive; each story narrated taking her one step away from death.

Sarcasm is also a tone prominent in many of her other subversive poems such as The Female Husband which portrays a different side of gender or the immensely witty, Mrs Schofield’s GCSE which takes a dig at the way we assess the learning of literature.
Read the poem here.

Romantic strands are subtly woven into a few other poems. These poems’ obviously hidden romantic veneer comes as a surprise at the end. Case in point is Rings. Take a guess what it is about.

And true to her well known style, many of the poems in the collection are devoted to the questioning and presenting of issues through use of larger mythological characters such as Achilles or Leda.

While it is easy to simply say that The Bees is about saving the bees and introspecting about the environmental damage, the poems will actually take you on a roller coaster ride of varied themes with its ups and downs of subversion, sarcasm and stark beauty.

It is akin to entering a beehive itself: well organised but so vast that one can get lost. But only when one is lost though, that one can come out enriched and truly know why Carol Ann Duffy poignantly says, “Honey is art.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Reviews: Touching Earth

Touching Earth by Rani Manicka opens with the graveyard and the narrators long gone but reminiscing about their lives. Then the novel plunges into the beautiful vistas of Bali to feast on; its power and the magic that can beguile anyone. It is Nutan, one of the twins who is narrating the story, who herself is about to tell a story but she starts with her childhood: the typical fairy tale start of innocence when she lived with her twin, Zeenat and her mother, grandmother and father. But therein lay a dark secret that is cut wide open right at the beginning. And that sets the course for the lives of the Balinese twins.

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Top 5: Female Bildungsroman Novels

If you have been following The Book Cafe posts, you may have noticed about how I have been trying to read more female writers and how many of their novels have had a sense of growth and change in the female characters which makes them qualify as a bildungsroman novel. A bildungsroman novel can be loosely defined as a coming of age novel focusing on the protagonist’s formative years or a novel that highlights a physical or psychological growth and change.

Often, these bildungsroman novels have a male protagonist and their specific growth. But in this post I would like to highlight my top 5 picks of female bildungsroman novels!

Come take a look!

5. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez:

This is a heart wrenching true story of three Mirabel sisters who became legends because of their defiance during the gaunt Trujillo regime in Dominican Republic. It is not just about their rebellious years but also about their innocent childhood, their family life and how they grew into the symbols that they have become today.

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Read my full review here.

4. Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden:

This one is a debut novel in English from the renowned Bhutanese author, Kunzang Choden and she takes us to join Tshomo’s journey towards her acceptance of her self and her spiritual love.

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Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth

*********SPOILERS***********

Right at the beginning of Aruna Nambiar’s Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth, we know that the protagonist, 11 year old Geetha, is going to change. The third person narrator tells us that much.

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In a wave of childhood relish, Geetha, who lives in Mumbai (then Bombay), is looking forward to her annual summer vacation with her entire joint family in Amabalkunnu in Kerala where she gets to play and eat endlessly with her cousins. And this time, it is going to be even more promising since she is going to spend the entire vacation at her mother’s parents’ house (who are far more liberal and fun) rather than dividing the vacation between her mother’s and father’s parents (who are stricter and make the kids follow a rigorous schedule even in vacation!)

But something has changed this time around. Her sister and cousin, Minnie and Divya, refuse to play with her and indulge in their own secretive rendezvous considering Geetha too immature for whatever they are doing. As a result, Geetha is almost friendless this vacation and turns to the boys, her brother and cousin, Raju and Vicky, for company. But their endless devotion to cricket utterly bores her.

So what do you think Geetha will do now during her summer vacation?
Read on!

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The Reading Spree: January 2019 was Female Writers Month

No there is no such official thing but there ought to be!

Similar to how I ended 2018 on a unique note of reading The Maharajah’s Household, I had wanted to start 2019 on a diverse note (that being one of my bookish goals in 2019) and I did that with Tiger Hills.

Slowly, January became an all female authors read and I loved it!

Hopefully can carry on this streak but being an English Studies teacher it is difficult to stay away from canonical male authors for long. But lets see how far this female writers’ sojourn goes.

So let’s take a look at the books I read in the month of January:

  1. Starting off first with Tiger Hills, which was a historical saga of love and family set in the 20th century Coorg. Marred only by a few difficult to believe coincidences, Tiger Hills is a lovely and engaging read.
  2. Next on the list was a quick read of Dungri Garasiya folktales collected by Marija Sres and published by Zubaan Books titled, First There was Woman.
  3. Next came Kunzang Choden’s novel, The Circle of Karma, which is a gritty Bhutanese novel of Tsomo and her growth from being a cast out wife to a strong person who chooses to let go and carve her own path no matter how tiring that may be. This is a must read not in the least because it is the first novel to be written in English in Bhutan but also because it gives you a unique glimpse into the Himalayan country.
  4. Jeannette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry will take you on a fluid time ride and make you question all gender assumptions.
  5. The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak was the only bestseller among all the January reads. It was also the only one that disappointed a bit and failed to live up to the hype.
  6. The last two for the month of January were again Indian novels. One was K.R. Meera’s The Gospel of Yudas which told Yudas and Prema’s melancholic tale of love and betrayal amidst Kerala’s Naxal movement.
  7. Annnnnnddddddddd, drum rollllllll, the last one was The Patiala Quartet by Neel Kamal Puri which was a beautiful story of siblings and their trials and tribulations in small town Patiala wracked by its royal past and growing Khalistan movement.

So that makes a total of seven books in the first month! Amazing!

All the links for the books’ reviews are given within the blog post itself.

So those were my January Reads! What books did you read in the month of January? Share in the comments below!

Blurb Appreciation Reviews: The Patiala Quartet

Blurb Appreciation Reviews presents its third review!

The blurb at the back of Neel Kamal Puri’s novel, The Patiala Quartet urged me to buy the novel. Of course, it helped that the book was on sale. But nonetheless, it aided me in understanding what the book is about rather than irrelevant praises that do not allow one to know what the story is about!

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So lets see the blurb, shall we?

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The Gospel of Yudas

Watch out: Spoilers Ahead: 

Set amidst the Naxalite movement during the Emergency in the 1980s’ in Kerala, The Gospel of Yudas by K.R. Meera is a story that revolves around the two lovelorn protagonists, Yudas who is lost in love in the past and Prema who is deeply affected by the Naxalite ideology and falls head over heels in love with Yudas, whom she in her youthfulness dreams of as an ideal Naxalite who will save her.

Yudas’ past looms large in his psyche, affects his movements and his mindset. To try and run away from his past, he moves from place to place and dredges corpses drowned in different water bodies close by to eke out a living. He lives frugally and through his nomadic life attempts to wander away from his past – a past that is marred by betrayal, vicious torture and loss of his beloved. Yudas was tortured for participating in the Naxal movement and his betrayal haunts him much like his Christian namesake, Judas. It is this betrayal that does not allow him to accept Prema’s infatuation. He runs away from her while she keeps searching for him far and wide, trying to uncover the secret that lurks in his eyes and shapes his rejections.

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Translated into English from Malayalam by Rajesh Rajamohan, The Gospel of Yudas is a short and quick read that is flush with depth and metaphors.

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Quick Reviews: Sexing the Cherry

Sexing the Cherry by Jeannette Winterson is out there to thwart all our perceptions about reality be it the concept of time, or stories or strands of history or even how we may be connected to our ancestors.

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What is the book about?

Bordering on the fabulist, Sexing the Cherry, is seemingly about a large woman named Dog Woman because of her fierce love for her dogs and her adopted son, Jordan. Set in London in the 1640s’ with the upheaval of Cromwell’s clash with the Royalists in the background, the story talks about these two protagonists’ views of each other. Jordan develops a love for sailing and travels the world to witness the quirks of the world and the Dog Woman worries about how Jordan cannot save his broken heart.

Interspersed within is a beautiful tale of twelve dancing princesses whom Jordan meets and who each retell their stories and subvert the very idea of the portrayal of a damsel in distress in a fairy tale.

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Top 5: Meena Alexander’s Poems

As temperatures dip, grab a cuppa and enjoy the soothing, balmy poems of Meena Alexander.

Here are my top 5 picks of her poems:

5. Lychees

Terrace deep as the sky.
Stone bench where I sit and read,
I wandered by myself
Into the heart of the mountains of Yoshino.
In one hand a book, in the other, a bag made of newsprint—
No weather-beaten bones here
Just lychees bought in the market,
Thirty rupees per kilogram.
Stalks mottled red tied up with string,
Flesh the color of pigeon wings—
Sweet simmering.
Sunlight bruises air
Pine trees blacken.
Where shall I go?
The Dhauladhar peaks
Are covered in snow.

4. Cadenza

I watch your hands at the keyboard
Making music, one hand with a tiny jot,
A birthmark I think where finger bone
Joins palm, mark of the fish,
Living thing in search of a watering
Hole set in a walled garden,
Or in a field with all the fences torn:
Where I hear your father cry into the wind
That beats against stones in a small town
Where you were born; its cornfields
Skyward pointing, never sown, never
To be reaped, flagrant, immortal.

 

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Tiger Hills

So I began the new year, 2019 with Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna! This was a book I knew about a long time ago! And only recently was I able to get my hands on it.

And what a perfectly divine choice! The novel whisks you back in time and takes you on a flavourful albeit bitter journey across Coorg in the Indian state of Karnataka!

Replete with rich symbolism such as herons, and once in a blue moon blooming bamboo flowers, Tiger Hills, begins in 1878, when Mutthava reminisces about the birth of her daughter, Devi, in Coorg.

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Devi is the only daughter of Mutthava and Nachimanda Thimmaya. She is pampered by all, including her parents and her grandmother, Tayi. She becomes bold and feisty and soon her life is intertwined with the orphaned son, Devanna. They become the best of childhood friends. The story then turns to how Devanna is lauded for his intelligence by Reverend Gundert, who was in charge of the mission there. He develops a fondness for the boy and wants to cultivate in him a deep well of learning. Devanna grows to love this attention and also slowly cultivates his love for botany and education. Simultaneously, he falls in love with Devi as well. But he aspires to become a doctor as well and confess his love for her when he completes his studies. Devi, however, gets smitten by the famous tiger killer, Machu and has eyes only for him.

And alas, like all love stories, tragedy befalls on Devanna and due to that on Devi as well.

The novel however, does not simply capture the love that Devanna has for Devi because it is so much more. Sarita Mandanna’s writing is quick yet descriptive and gives a sweeping gaze across so many aspects of the many events that were occurring alongside the main story. She richly etches out the beauty of Coorg of those days, takes in the historical events that intertwined with the main plot as well such as the British Afghan War, the two World Wars etc.

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The Maharaja’s Household

The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories of her Father is a unique memoir told from a daughter’s perspective. This non fictional account is about Maharaja Churachand, the erstwhile ruler of the current Indian state of Manipur, told from the perspective of his youngest daughter, Princess Wangol or as she is more widely known, Binodini. It is an informal account, based on her own memories of how she saw her father and also based on stories she heard from people that surrounded the Maharaja.

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Binodini is a humble narrator who admits that the book is not a historical account. The key word to remember is also memoir. She admits often that some stories might not even be accurate and that they are based on stories she has heard from other sources or from her own memories. Continue reading

In the Time of the Butterflies

Based on a true story of the Mirabal sisters and their bravery, In the Time of the Butterflies, is a luminous and an imaginative story of the lives of the four sisters and how it was intertwined with the brutal regime of the Dominican dictator, Trujillo at that time.

Julia Alvarez has infused the truth with her own creativity and has skilfully sketched out each sister’s lives and thoughts.

In the Time of the Butterflies has been told from the point of views of the four Mirabal sisters: Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Teresa. Each sister has her own unique personality and way of thinking which shines through when the story moves through their different point of views.

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