Friday, July 31, 2009

The Sari Shop

The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

As I mentioned on Monday, I starting The Sari Shop quite a while ago and put it down when I couldn't get into it. I'm pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did this time around.

The publisher describes the novel as "a cross between Monsoon Wedding and a Kafka short story." I'm not sure I would describe it that way, but it doesn't ring false. Ramchand, the novel's protagonist, is a bit of a Kafkaesque character, in as much as he is profoundly alienated:
Why had he begun to get the feeling that something was wrong? A feeling that the was being told lies--big lies, small lies, by everyone, all the time, day after day after day. Always the horrible feeling, some gap, something missing something that he didn't know, something that he couldn't see, something terribly important. (21)
But the novel doesn't have the surrealism of much of Kafka's work, nor the humor, at least not in the same degree.

I thought Ramchand was a very sympathetic character, though at times his sensitivity was a bit too acute to be believable. Many of the secondary characters and vividly drawn. The story of Kamla, in particular, was heartbreaking.

Bajwa does a wonderful job bringing Amritsar. Locales, foods, fabrics, they are all described in gloriously vivid detail. What permeates this book, though, is a profound sense of hopelessness as Bajwa unflinchingly showcases the class divide in contemporary India.

PS. The copy I read has this cover, which is simply gorgeous.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Katie Chandler series

After reading my post about Enchanted, Inc by Shanna Swendson, my friend Lizzie offered to let me borrow the next few books in the Katie Chandler series: Once Upon Stilettos, Damsel Under Stress, and Don't Hex with Texas.

I'm so pleased that she did because I really love the series. My biggest disappointment about it is that there probably won't be a fifth book to tie up all the loose ends. Swendson explains why in the FAQ section of her webpage. I also read the books too quickly and one right after the other. I should have spaced them out a bit to make them last longer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

word: brio

I came across the saying with brio in Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, a novel by Ernst Weiss (a contemporary of Kafka's).

The OED gives the following definition of brio: "Liveliness, vivacity, 'go'." (honestly I'm not quite clear on the "go" part of the definition)

Con brio is an Italian musical term meaning with brilliance, liveliness, or spirit.

Apparently, when referring to a horse brio means controlled spirit.

Monday, July 27, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Right now I'm actively reading The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa (I remember starting this book quite a while ago and putting it down when I couldn't get into it, I'm enjoying it much more this time around). I also have The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg in my purse for emergency reading.

I have a whole host of books that I've started (but not yet finished) reading including Beyond Black and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Princess by Jean Sasson

The copy that I read (printed in 1995, I believe) had the following text emblazoned across its front cover: "An Appalling Indictment of the Treatment of Women in Saudi Arabia." It's interesting to note the absence of this text on the more recently-printed editions (like the one pictured in this post). I wonder if that is because many of the shocking revelations contained in the book are now almost common knowledge to Westerners (the target audience) and the climate much different now than when the book was first published in the early 1990s.

The story of one Saudi princess' life, Princess is both horrifying and compulsively readable. "Sultana" tells readers of both of her personal experiences of life inside the royal family and those of other women in her milieu. "Sultana" is a keen, if not impartial, observer of her culture. She points out the glaring double-standards of the righteously religious, the problem of wealth and entitlement, and, of course, the brutal treatment of women.

Russell read the book after I was through and it was interesting to hear his take on it and to compare the things that shocked each of us while reading the book.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Absolutely American

I've been wanting to read Absolutely American by David Lipsky for quite some time so I decided to feature it on the student services blog this month. Kind of appropriate for July with Independence Day and all, it would have been better if I'd gotten my act together a bit earlier in the month though.

Writer David Lipsky's first encounter with West Point came when he was given an assignment to write a feature on the United States Military Academy for Rolling Stone. As Lipsky explains,
The initial idea was for me to spend a few weeks on post, follow around a bunch of plebes, write something short. I ended up staying most of the year.
When that time was over, I didn't believe the story was fully told. I decided to rent a house in Highland Falls, [NY] and stayed until the plebe class graduated four years later--the only time West Point has let a writer in for such an extended tour of hanging out.
The result of that 4-year stint is Absolutely American, a fascinating look at life at the Academy and those who live it.

Absolutely American flows well and is eminently readable. Lipsky is a keen observer and thoughtful chronicler. Even those with little interest in the military will find the book compelling reading.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

book clubbing in July

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

We had another great discussion this month with Diane Setterfield's debut The Thirteenth Tale. Well-written and very literary, the book is like a gift to readers.

I have to admit, though, that I didn't enjoy The Thirteenth Tale quite as much as I thought I would. It is very atmospheric and, if I had to put my finger on it, I'd say that I just wasn't in the right mood for a gothic novel. That isn't to say, of course, that I don't think it was a fantastic book. In fact, my only complaint about the book is really a combined grouse about The Thirteenth Tale and Bad Twin (review) and it has to do with the way the two novels mythologize twins, but (without specifying) focus exclusively on identical twins.

My favorite passage from The Thirteenth Tale is this:
Dr. Clifton came. He listened to my heart and asked me lots of questions. "Insomnia? Irregular sleep? Nightmares?"
I nodded three times.
"I thought so."
He took a thermometer and instructed me to place it under my tongue, then rose and strode to the window. With his back to me, he asked, "And what do you read?"
With the thermometer in my mouth I could not reply.
"Wuthering Heights--you've read that?"
"And Jane Eyre?"
"Sense and Sensibility?"
He turned and looked gravely at me. "And I suppose you've read these books more than once?"
I nodded and he frowned.
"Read and reread? Many times?"
Once more I nodded, and his frown deepened.
"Since childhood?"
I was baffled by his questions, but compelled by the gravity of his gaze, nodded once again. [...]
"You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination. Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits. While on one level the crisis can be ascribed to wandering about in the freezing rain without the benefit of waterproofing, the deeper cause is more likely to be found in some emotional trauma [...]" [...]
"Treatment is not complicated: eat, rest and take this..."--he made quick notes on a pad, tore out a page and placed it on my bedside table--"and the weakness and fatigue will be gone in a few days." [...]
I reached for the prescription. In a vigorous scrawl, he had inked: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, till end of course. (301-303)
I simply adore the idea of a literary ailment and a doctor sensitive enough to diagnose it, especially when it plays so well into the self- parody typical of the gothic genre.

Friday, July 17, 2009

word: abecedarian

I'm not sure which book I was reading when I discovered abecedarian. I know it was an audio book because when I first heard it I wondered how it'd be spelled so my educated guess given the timing would be How Nancy Drew Saved My Life by Lauren Baratz Logsted.

Used as a noun, abecedarian signifies:
1. Something or someone obsessed with matters alphabetical (my favorite of the possibilities)
2. One who teaches or studies the alphabet.
3. One who is just learning; a beginner.

Adjectivally (oh, how I love that word!), abecedarian denotes:
1. Having to do with the alphabet.
2. Being arranged alphabetically.
3. Elementary or rudimentary.

Interestingly enough while looking up the word I also learned that Abecedarians were a 16th century German sect of Anabaptists who disdained all human knowledge. They claimed that to be saved one must be ignorant even of the first letters of the alphabet. (a clearer explanation is available in the Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature by John McClintock, courtesy of GoogleBooks)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Bad Twin

Bad Twin by Gary Troup

Apparently this book is a tie-in to the television show Lost, the author being one of the characters from the show. I never watched Lost and had no idea this book was related to the show until I started writing this blog post. A friend gave me an audio version of the book because I like audio books and I just went ahead and started listening to it without looking up anything about it.

Bad Twin has this strange introduction (which is the actual tie-in):
It is with a mix of pride and sorrow that Hyperion presents Bad Twin, the last novel by a wonderful author who was taken from us in the very prime of his writing life. As many readers are already aware, Gary Troup has been missing since September 2004, when the jetliner that was carrying him from Sydney to Los Angeles crashed somewhere over the South Pacific. While nothing is more human than to hope for miracles, reason tells us that the author and his fellow-travelers cannot have survived this disaster...
(It goes on to talk about how sad it was that Troup, a confirmed bachelor, had finally found love, etc.). Beyond this inexplicable (to a reader unfamiliar with the TV show) introduction, Bad Twin is really quite good.

The mystery's protagonist is Paul Artisan, a New York-based private detective. He's hired by a CEO and scion of a wealthy family to find his missing twin brother. As he follows the trail left by the enigmatic twin, Artisan realizes that the case is much more complex than he could have imagined.

Artisan is an interesting and sympathetic character. The secondary characters are in many cases well-crafted. While the story is somewhat formulaic at times and is resolved a bit too quickly at the end, there's a lot of good meat to it: references to King Leer and John Locke, philosophizing about purgatory and the dual nature of humans, and a multi-layered mystery that the reader does not figure out before the protagonist.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson

Imagine that, on the night before she is to die under the blade of the guillotine, Marie Antoinette leaves behind in her prison cell a diary telling the story of her life: from her privileged childhood as Austrian Archduchess to her years as glamorous mistress of Versailles to the heartbreak of imprisonment and humiliation during the French Revolution.

I don't have particularly strong feelings about this book. I like the idea of Marie Antoinette leaving behind a secret diary and I think that Erickson was able to give her protagonist a strong voice (even if the diary format was a bit contrived at times, most notably at the very end). While Erickson does not shy away from obvious character flaws, her emphasis is on Marie Antoinette's better qualities. This seems to be both as a result of the author trying to flesh out her character beyond the usual let-them-eat-cake caricature and the natural tendency in us all to think better of ourselves, to shift focus onto our heroic rather than cowardly actions when speaking or writing about ourselves.

I have to admit, though, that even with this first-person retelling of her story, I still can't see Marie Antoinette as a terribly sympathetic character. A similar book, which I think was much more successful, is The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland. It tells the tale of Napoleon Bonaparte's first wife and maybe because we know so little about Josephine (whose given name was Marie Josèphe) her story is much more compelling.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

God's Mercy

God's Mercy by Kerstin Ekman

In March 1916, Hillevi Klarin, a young midwife from Uppsala, takes a post in the forbidding wilderness of northern Sweden. Hopeful and naive, Hillevi is unprepared for the life she finds there: the ignorance, poverty, and superstition, the unforgiving elements, and the wide expanses of white. After struggling through disappointment and bewilderment, she settles down and finds a place in the community. One unspeakable thing, however, keeps her from feeling completely at home. This is primarily Hillevi's story. But it's narrated by her foster daughter, the enigmatic Risten, who is part Sámi and known as the girl who was stolen by an eagle.

As Risten interweaves Hillevi's story with her own and that of teenage runaway Elis, a broader narrative emerges, concerned with both the far-reaching consequences of a single event and the us-them dichotomy in all its forms. The result is an atmospheric first novel, set in the same area as Eckman's successful thriller Blackwater.

God's Mercy isthe first in the Wolfskin trilogy.

Read the full review at Library Journal...