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The Inheritence of Loss

The title of this fiction novel by Indian author Kiran Desai states the theme- this is a book about loss, loneliness, separation.  How it has developed over years and generations, how it is nurtured, and how it is eventually (and sometimes inevitably) passed on to succeeding generations.

In The Inheritance of Loss an elderly judge, retired for the British-run Indian Civil Service, lives in a remote manor in the Himalayas with only his granddaughter Sai and the cook.  Their house is large and rambling, and is decaying around them.  Their lives are quiet and small- they primarily interact with other older residents and ex-pats.  The small and insular community are the few wealthy elite left after the Raj has departed.  They wander slowly through life.  All of this changes rapidly and irrevocably when Nepali separatists begin to protest the Indian government, tired of being treated like second-class citizens and wanting to create their own nation.

The situation becomes increasingly tense and eventually violence erupts.  Sai’s Nepalese tutor (and erstwhile lover) joins with the Nepalese separatists, even as he comes to question their methods.  Though many in the neighborhood have resided in the area for years they are harassed by the Indian government and then the separatists, declared enemies of both sides.  The political situation isolates people into separate groups, and tears neighbors and friends apart.

Because, really, who has the right over that little chunk of India, deep in the Himalayas , and abutting the borders of Nepal and Bhutan?  The British declared it part of their Indian empire, but then imported workers from all over South Asia to work their tea plantations and mixed new immigrant with the existing melange of religions and ethnicity already living in the area.  Nothing was resolved with the end of the Raj and the Partition.  The current government of India, and the current people who live there, many of them cordial neighbors for years, have all inherited this problem.  Some are going to lose.

This story in India is juxtaposed with the narrative of the cook’s son, Biju, living in New York City.  He must move from one low-paying restaurant job to another, dodging authorities because he doesn’t have the necessary papers to work in the US.  As he works among other immigrants, struggling for every penny and living in horrible conditions, he begins to lose focus, lose all pride, and eventually lose his feeling of humanity, wondering; “is this all there is”?  The American Dream, what he has left his home and his father and home for, seems an empty pit that he has foolishly thrown himself into and now cannot climb out.  Biju has not only inherited the losses of his Indian ancestors, but has gained the losses of an immigrant as well.

This is a good book, written in a loose, flowing style, jumping times and place but never theme.  Sad, nostalgic, and thought provoking.  Interesting for someone interested in British India and the post-colonial experience- there is no quick fix for the tensions and sectarian violence that continue to arise.  The problem has been inherited from all who have lived before.

The Americas Before Columbus

Charles Mann takes on a subject both wide in scope and laced with continuing controversies in 1491.  He writes in an accessible manner, so one doesn’t notice (as much as you would with a drier historian) that he is covering a monumental amount of material.

It should be a widely known fact that the Americas were very different from the common image of them as pristine wilderness with a few wandering hunter/gatherer tribes.  In actuality the continents played host to very diverse and advanced civilizations.  Mann takes this thesis and develops it, using a few key examples, from well known Aztecs and Incas to lesser known Mississippi Valley dwellers and Amazonian agriculturalists.

Mann also gives an overview of archaeology in the Americas from the earliest European settlers who were interested in their neighbors through to today.  He shows how theories have changed based on newer finds deep in the Mexican and Brazilian jungles and gives a hint of some of the rivalries that develop between proponents of differing theories.  He adroitly tackles the population debate- the ongoing debate of just how many people lived in the Americas before Europeans (and their diseases) arrived.  More recent scholarship has concluded that the numbers were much higher than anyone imagined even a century ago.

I read the book primarily because of my interest in the Amazon and the native populations there.  I enjoy learning about the Amazonian jungle and how, contrary to most historical and contemporary environmentalist opinion, it most certainly is not an untouched primeval forest.  Rather, both the layout of the forest and many of the plants found within are a direct result of centuries of methodical and intensive farming by people who were very aware of both the gifts and limitations of their environment.

Unseen Arabian Nights

Alif the Unseen is a modern tech-centered mystery/thriller set in an Arabian country.  The narrator, Alif (which merely means “A” in Arabic), is a hacker extraordinaire that helps others maintain websites in the face of an oppressive emirate.  He receives a mysterious manuscript of The Thousand and One Days from a former girlfriend.  What happens next, to Alif, the book, and his friends provides the action of the novel.

The premise of the book is very fun, and got me immediately interested.  A counterpart for The Thousand Nights and One Night (which I love), mixed with intrigue, and appearances by mythical creatures such as djinn.

I finished this book very quickly.  It it written in a simplistic style, and seems almost as if it would be geared towards young adults.  Alif is along the same vein as The Golden Compass (which is even mentions in the book- Alif lends the book to his neighbor).  I like that the book is about a country gripped in the spirit of the Arab Spring; the people are beginning to rise up against the strict censorship and repression of the regime.  It is very current, and definitely a subject that should be brought up and discussed.  I am much more interested in the author, G. Willow Wilson- her opinions as an educated American woman living in the Middle East.  She has an autobiography I intend to look up.

I liked this book in the sense of a fun, quick read.  It did not challenge me, but it provided a couple of light afternoons.

The Master and Margarita

Something strange comes to the city of Moscow.  Or rather someone.

Mad tricksters, a foreign professor and his retinue of strange followers (including a larger-than-life sized black cat), spin a web of confusion, insanity, and destruction among the good comrades.  The foreign professor, Woland, turns out to be the Devil in disguise (no, literally).  The Devil has come to Russia to see if the new communist state has transformed society.  He gives a show at the Variety Theater to test his theory – and surprise, humanity is just the same.

Woven into this is the story of an unnamed writer, “the Master”, who has been thrown into a lunatic asylum because he realizes the futility of writing a masterpiece for a repressed people, a work that the current government would censor and the elite sneer at in misunderstanding.  The Master could be Mikhail Bulgakov himself, a writer shunned by the literary elite.  Bulgakov wrote and re-wrote The Master and Margarita over many years, even burning his first manuscript.  The final novel is a treatise in protesting the propaganda and repression of the Soviet state and the empty flattery and pretensions of modern Russian literature.

The Master and Margarita can be comedy, tragedy, allegory, political satire.  The devil is not absolute evil.  No one is absolutely good.

Continuing Books that I “Like”

Related to an earlier post; are we predisposed to choose books we like?  I am conducting an experiment.  I have chosen to read The Master and Margarita based solely on the fact that I like the title and I have a vague impression that I have heard of it.  I chose the book out of the library; it has no dust jacket- that means no blurbs, summaries, or praise from authors/reviewers that could possibly influence my decision to read it or not.

I am halfway through, and so far I am loving it.  The story is definitely keeping me interested.  Unlike some stories I have absolutely no idea what will happen, I cannot predict it.  I am beginning to get inklings about just who is causing all of the lamentable mischief but cannot guess a motive (if there even is one).

So far my experiment is a success.  It makes me feel a bit better that I am apparently not unconsciously steering myself away from excellent/interesting/rewarding books. and that I can still find pleasure in the unexpected.

Vanished Alexandria

The first book in the Alexandria Quartet is entitled Justine.  It is not by a Justine, but it is about her- sort of.  The narrator is an Englishman living among other expats and natives in Alexandria, Egypt between the two World Wars.

The writing is rich and descriptive; the reader wades through the prose as the characters wade through the thick, humid Alexandrian air.  This book takes some time to get through, often making its readers stop to mull over certain sentences and phrases.  But, if you have ever wanted to travel to Egypt (as I do) then Mr. Durrell’s novel is essential- to feel the scorching breeze coming in from the desert as you walk along the ancient and famed harbor, hearing the muezzin’s call to prayer in the distance; all is real and alive in Justine.

The nameless narrator is recalling, through flashbacks and scenes that jump through time and from one character to another, his affair with the glamorous and enigmatic Justine.  The story comes together slowly, like pieces of an elaborate puzzle.

Apparently the story is told from several different perspectives throughout the first three books of the Quartet and all will be revealed only after reading all of them.  This may take awhile…

Ethiopia’s Rocky History

Cutting for Stone is a very popular book now, and justifiably so.  The novel chronicles the lives of twins, beginning before they are born and ending when they are in their 50′s.  The story is told through the perspective of Marion, the elder twin.

Before they are even born the twins cause a stir- they are the result of a secret relationship between a doctor and a nun, both working in a charity hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Their birth results in their mother’s death and their father, who blames them, leaves Africa.  They are raised by two other doctors, and by extension the entire staff of the hospital.

So, the history of 20th century Ethiopia is seen through the eyes of a young man who, despite his Indian/British heritage, considers himself Ethiopian.  Marion’s narrative flows along with his country’s; the Italian occupation, the return of the Emperor, military coups, the Eritrean independence movement.

The author, Abraham Verghese, is a medical doctor.  This is very apparent in his detailed (and sometimes graphic) descriptions of injuries, surgeries, and Marion’s work throughout medical school.  Verghese is a talented writer; Ethiopia is described in loving detail, characters come alive.  This is a book that you cannot put down.

Signifying Nothing…

The title Faulkner chose for The Sound and the Fury indicates the mood and plot of the book; the passage is from Macbeth where the title character philosophizes just how much our lives and actions actually matter.

The novel tells of the decline of the Compson family; once a great Southern land-holding family, slowly descending into poverty and obscurity.  Many of the family members meet tragic ends.

Faulkner divides his treatise of broken Southern gentility in four separate parts.  He gives each Compson brother one part- the readers hears from Benji, Quentin, and Jason respectively- and then concludes with a section told by a nameless narrator but mostly focused on Dilsey, the loyal and aged servant of the family.

The book is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, and freely flows along between past and present; current events, long-ago memories, and deep thoughts.

Many of the characters are not like-able.  But then again, they are not meant to be liked; they are meant to represent aspects of humanity.  Faulkner is at once asking a question and answering it through his characters.  Why does the Compson family fall?  One could stretch this further and ask; What has happened to the ”old South” and why has it decayed?

The book is by no means an easy read.  But it is rewarding.

The Shadow of the Wind

Would you like a mystery novel?  A Gothic romance?  Or historical fiction?  How about all three?

The Shadow of the Wind is a Spanish novel set in Barcelona during and after the Spanish Civil War.  It is essentially a story within a story.  As a boy Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, where he is allowed to choose one book to take away with him.  He decides upon The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax.  Daniel immediately falls in love with the book, but when he searches for more of Carax’s book he discovers that there are none; in fact a mysterious figure has for years been systematically hunting down and burning all of Carax’s books until almost none remain.

Daniel’s quest to find out about the fate of Julian Carax becomes increasingly dangerous and at the same time irresistible.  Daniel and the reader learn about a forbidden romance, dark secrets, and a vengeful foe that have haunted both Julian Carax and his works over the years.  This novel has atmosphere coming out of the very pages of the book!

Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a writer of skill and passion.  Through his words you can feel the heat radiating off the Barcelona streets, the mists creeping around the abandoned mansion on the hill, the chill of being in a room and realizing you are no longer alone.  I only wish I had the skill to read the novel in its original Spanish!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is one of those that you just have to keep reading; the story becoming more compelling as events and history is revealed and our protagonist moves inexorably closer to solving the mysteries.  The novel is the perfect blend of mystery,  a love of books, and historical atmosphere.

Travel to the Victorian Era

A. N. Wilson’s The Victorians is a heavy book; both in depth (attempting to summarize more than half a century of British political and social history) and in reality (a literally heavy book of some 714 pages, including notes).

Wilson’s premise is deceptively simple; summarize the era named after the longest reigning monarch in English history.  The Victorians delves into issues such as industrialization (with all of its advantages and woes), social progress, the expanding Empire, and the various artistic achievements of some of Britain’s most famous citizens.  Wilson deftly handles all of this material, breaking it down by decade.

The book describes in detail British politics of the time, the constant battles between conservatives and liberals, and how both parties continually changed and re-invented themselves.  The details of this section were a bit too much for this American reader possessing only an amateur knowledge of the workings of British politics.  I admit, I skimmed some of these parts.

Wilson has some very good correlations and examples of how the Victorians, their mores, social advances, and newly-minted industrialized culture still remains a strong influence for the world today, and not just in Britain.  As an American, these influences are still to be seen in my own country.

Overall, while very interesting for a student of history, The Victorians can be a slog (especially when Wilson delves deeply into politics) and is more geared toward the (British) historical enthusiast than the general reader.