The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany was originally written in Arabic. The novel is translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies. The Yacoubian Building centres on characters that live in the old and quaint Yacoubian Building. Their lives intersect and connect in so many different strands that are unknown even to them.

The Good

The many characters that weave in and out the narrative of The Yacoubian Building is the highlight of the novel. These characters show the city’s diversity, its class divisions and the problems the different classes face because of belonging to that particular class. Their narratives touch upon the history of the city, particularly its colonial past and how Cairo became a city that was open to several communities and people of different ethnicity. The building itself has a unique history of its own. It was constructed by an Armenian millionaire, Hagop Yacoubian, to mimic a kind of colonial European grandeur.

Among the colorful characters are Zaki Bey, who is the oldest resident of the building; Hatim Rasheed, a closet homosexual who is also the editor of a French language newspaper, Le Caire; Hagg Azam, Taha el Shazli, Busayna and many others.

Hagg Azam is a businessman who ventures into politics.

Taha el Shazli is a hardworking student who aspires to join the police but his aspiration is thwarted because of class: his father is a doorman which is unfairly used as a yardstick to judge Taha’s ability. Thwarted by an unfair system, Taha gets demoralised and influenced by extremist movements which leads to his bitter end. Taha’s story was a nuanced criticism of the failure of the systems that allows young ambitious individuals to perish by providing space to terrorist elements to mushroom.

The depiction of the homosexual relationship between Hatim and his partner along with showcasing the underground gay scene depicts Cairo in a different light: a city that is trying to free itself from the shackles of strict religious morality.

The Bad

The opening of The Yacoubian Building reveals that Zaki Bey is the oldest resident of the building and speaks of him as a legendary figure. But by the third page, the novel depicting him as a womaniser was a complete let down of the cosmopolitan and nostalgic opening. This could be overlooked too as being only one character’s flaw. However, majority of the male characters are shown lusting over women (except the homosexual couple). The women also are shown as considering this male lust as a norm, accepting it as how things are between men and women. This deprives both male and female characters of any humanity or individuality.

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The Hussani Alam House

The Hussain Alam House is about the changing life of Ayman’s (the narrator) house in the Hussaini Alam area of Hyderabad in Telangana.

Ayman speaks of each of the female relatives in her house who were dear to her and played a significant role in her life and her upbringing. These included her great grandmother, Qamar un Nissan or her Nanima; her grandmother, Meher un Nissan; her own mother, Naghma Soz; her sister, Mariam and her foster bua (which means a father’s sister, though in this case it was her grandfather’s adopted foster sister), Khudsia or Khalajaan.

The Good

A chapter is devoted to each of these members. By outlining their importance or her bond with them, Ayman also throws light on the house and the Nawabi culture they followed and on the festivals they celebrated. This also gives a small peek into Hyderabad’s old city and its lanes, buildings and bazaars.

The chapters speak of declining culture and fortune (and the decline in one is related to the decline in the other), of cheerful evenings of storytelling in the courtyard, of a mournful series of deaths, of arguments, secrets and the family drama within. The novel recreates a bygone era.

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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. The Reverend also slowly cultivates Devanna’s love for botany and education. Simultaneously, Devanna falls in love with Devi. But he aspires to become a doctor and then 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 view of so many aspects of the various 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 and the two World Wars etc.

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Red Sorghum

The opening of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum – a child of fifteen setting out to join his foster father’s mission to ambush the Japanese – sets the tone for the rest of the novel: not only violent but intensely detailed violence.

Within that violence is embedded the story of three generations of a Chinese family that lived before and through the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Cultural Revolution up to the 1970s.
The part which is most emphasised on is the first one: the life of the family before and through the Second Sino-Japanese War.

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Historically brilliant, but storytelling wise, not so.

The book ‘ The Historian‘ was hailed as a thriller, a splendid debut by Elizabeth Kostova. Every time I read a review of this book, I felt I would adore this book which was steeped in history with apparently a daughter in search for her roots. The summary appealed to me but unfortunately, the book did not live upto my expectations.

Taken From sodahead.com

The story begins with the daughter proclaiming about the legacy her father left her behind. Then the 1st chapter goes on to how she stumbled upon this legacy. The story then continues with the father, Paul, narrating stories from his past that are connected to his horrific legacy. Paul had happened to come into possession during his university days, a book with only a single woodcut of a dragon. His curiosity led him to his academic adviser, Barthlomew Rossi, who infact had the same book! Rossi’s curiosity and his own book had led him deeper into a mystery of vampires, of Vlad Dracul, the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s novel, ‘Dracula.’ Rossi’s disappearance, soon after this meeting plunges Paul into a wild goose chase across most of Europe where he is being watched and followed by either vampires or communist party members. The story keeps shifting from past to present as and when Paul narrates. In the present, Paul’s daughter, after Paul is finished narrating his story, sets out to find more of this intriguing brutal, medieval legacy.

Firstly, the book’s exploration into history is brilliant. It is obviously well researched. Of course, not all of it is true. But simply the fact that Elizabeth Kostova has put history in the forefront of a way to delve into past mysteries makes the subject, often hailed as redundant, quite relevant. This historical aspect that suffuses the book is superb. One of the few good points of this novel.

The negative points however are a long list. Firstly, the story is rather slow paced. For a thriller, such a pace can do nothing but disappoint the reader. The pace picks up only after 200 pages or so and then slows down again.

Secondly, the book seems more like a tourist magazine in the initial pages. Kostova spends many pages describing each place that Paul goes to in great, rich detail. While there is nothing immediately wrong with this, it however does hamper the story’s pace.

Kostova tries hard to use shock tactics to enchant the reader. They do work initially but later on she reiterates the same tactics- like ending the chapter with an appearance of a man who looks gaunt, scary with fangs or having Dracula’s or the dragon’s image at the end of the chapter. These do elicit shock in the beginning but they soon become monotonous and the shock wears off. The reader can even easily predict when she will use those same tactics.

Another disappointment was the discrepancy in the simultaneous narration of the father and daughter’s story. Kostova tends to run away with the former’s story as if she has forgotten about the latter completely. She also seems to have a penchant for libraries and librarians because there are descriptions of several of them and form a major part of the story but somehow it seems a bit inappropriate. The book should have been called ‘The Librarian’ instead of ‘The Historian.’

To conclude, ‘The Historian‘ is not a completely pathetic or ridiculous book. It is worth reading once. It has a unique scholarly touch to it, a great historical novel but in terms of literature or writing skills, ‘The Historian‘ could be a great disappointment. It is also not exactly a thriller, does not pump the reader with jabs of excitement. It is a rather careful narration of a different perspective on one of the most cruelest rulers of the middle ages and his alluring legends that draws writers to pen down stories about him!