Book: The Inheritance of Loss

The book: The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

The edition: Italian translation by Giuseppina Oneto, as published by Adelphi, softcover, 391 pages with glossary

The story: an isolated house in Darjeeling, a retired judge, his estranged granddaughter, her Nepali tutor/love interest, an Indian Nepali insurrection, and millions of stories cascading from this fulcrum. For a better synopsis, try Goodreads.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I didn’t know what to expect from this, except that I had heard generally good things about it a couple of years ago and that I was curious. Now I can see the charm, it is creatively and exquisitely written, and very well translated. It’s just a bit too bleak (in content) for my taste.

What I liked: the narrative technique: millions of different stories like separate threads that are brought together, or like waves originating from the same source and spreading throughout the world.

What I didn’t like: the complete absence of even the tiniest grain of “nice”: everything is in complete decay, no matter the historical period or the place a given scene is set in. There is absolutely no salvation from decay, not even the tiniest spark of hope.

Links to better understand this book:

Counts as: South Asian Challenge 2012 (wait, what? I never said I intended to participate? Well, I wasn’t sure — it’s the one I failed last year. But I love South Asian literature, and do plan to read more if they come my way… Maybe I can make it to 3 this year? Fingers crossed!); Back to the Classic Challenge – Classic award winner

Book: The Hindi-Bindi Club

The book: The Hindi-Bindi Club, by Monica Pradhan

The edition: Italian translation by Marina Nocilli, as published by Newton Compton, paperback, 426 pages (with recipes!)

The story: of Indian women immigrated to the US, of their daughters, and of the clash between the two generations (or: see the official synopsis)

My experience with the book & my thoughts: this is one more case of misplaced expectations. I expected a novel about the immigration experience and how it is seen differently from 1st and 2nd generation immigrants. I expected something like a women version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Instead, it’s little more than a chick-lit with some Indian spices. I’m not saying that it is bad, actually I enjoyed it for what it is, but I was expecting more. That said (and not being a regular reader of chick-lit, which is “beach books” to me), it’s a nice story, touching (although very lightly) on a number of issues — not only self-evident ones like the clash of cultures, and family, but also things like growing old, malady, the difference between what we are and the way people see us. I even grew attached to some of the characters… All in all it was a fun ride!

What I liked: recipes! And a narrative with many different points of view. Also, I loved the dedication!

What I didn’t like: characters that change abruptly for no reason whatsoever and a “happy ending” that readers can guess as soon as they meet a certain character for the first time.

Language & translation: as I wrote above, I was expecting one kind of book. Luckily I realized quite soon that I was in for a chick-lit, and that was thanks to some turns of phrase. Such as this:

To the west, the cherry lollipop of the setting sun glows between the pine trees.

I’ll admit that I couldn’t restrain myself from calling my husband in order to laugh together at this sentence. *shame*. But it helped put the whole book in perspective, so that I enjoyed it for what it was.
Also, what is it with Italian publishers and nonsensical titles?

Random thought: I wish I could start learning a new language.

Read this if: if you liked Monsoon Wedding, it has the same feeling.

Book: The Glass Palace

The book: The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh

The edition: Italian translation by Anna Nadotti, as published by Neri Pozza (paperback edition), 637 pages

The story: following the life of Rajkumar, a poor Indian boy in Mandalay during the British invasion who will grow to be a rich wood merchant, this novel tells the story of 20th Century Southeast Asian history.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: a sweeping family story, this could be a good read, but it errs on the side of too much historical explanation and digression, which is put in at the expense of character building. It remains a good read (if sometimes a bit crude), but I couldn’t really connect. Which is a pity, because I know Ghosh can do better than that (I loved The Hungry Tide).

The part with spoilers: I just don’t get why Dolly would decide to marry and follow Rajkumar. She doesn’t even remember him!

What I liked: a well constructed narrative and nice sceneries.

What I didn’t like: Dolly. I just couldn’t stand her, she seemed to be a fool all the time, only able to accept everything as it happened, and never able to decide for herself.

Language & translation: I appreciated the translation’s fluency.

In the author’s own words: I don’t have any preferred snippet, so I’ll just share the opening of this book:

There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay’s fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven – not an authority to be relied upon.

The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma’s brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar’s sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. “English cannon,” he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. “They’re shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction.”

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: why call it The Glass Palace if the palace only appears at the very beginning of the novel?

Read this if: if you are interested in the story of the area; if you liked Sea of Poppies or Falcones’ The Hand of Fatima (they have more or less the same ratio between history and fiction)

Counts as: I Want More Challenge; South Asian Challenge

[Old blog rerun] Review: The Hungry Tide

I found a way to recover part of my old blog content, so I decided to rerun some posts from that, mainly reviews of books I liked. The following review was first published in April 2008. (All tagging is new, and I’m afraid I don’t have any means of saving the old blog comments.)


The book: Amitav Gosh, The Hungry Tide

The edition: Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books, 2005. I did neither understand nor like the cover, but all in all this edition carried an Indian atmosphere around it, maybe due to the blue courtesy pages.

The story: it’s not easy to summarize this book without giving away anything, but I’ll try (please beware: spoilers possible!). At the very beginning, Piya and Kanai meet on a train towards the “tide country,” the jungle-and-river-lattice region called Sundarbans. Piya is a caetologist on her way to study river dolphins on the Ganga River. Kanai is a poliglot translator on his way to visit his aunt Nilima: she has recently found a notebook written by her long-deceased husband Nirmal and addressed to Kanai. On arrival they separate, and from there on into about two-thirds of the book, as Kanai reads Nirmal’s notebook, chapters alternate between what happens to Piya and the story written by Nirmal.
Piya starts on her search. On the very first day she falls in the water and a fisherman jumps in to save her, so she decides to travel with this man, Fokir, and his son Tutul. It turns out to be a good solution because he knows the river very well and knows where to find dolphins. Half through the book, they reach Lusibari, where Kanai is, and he too moves on with them as an interpreter, but he was not really needed, as Fokir and Piya understood each other perfectly even without a language in common.
Nirmal’s story is about his involvement with an attempt at resettling on a tide country island by a group of refugees, among them also Fokir’s mother. It includes also parts on Nirmal and Nilima’s story, on Kanai’s own, on Indian history and, more often, on Indian/tide country mithology.
In the rest of the book: a genocide, an encounter with dolphins, a crocodile attack, a rainbow made by the moon’s light, a tiger killing and another one killed, a trial by ordeal, a typhoon (actually, two), some romance, and some cups of tea.

The first sentence:

Kanai spotted her the moment he stepped onto the crowded platform: he was deceived neither by her close-cropped black hair nor by her clothes, which were those of a teenage boy — loose cotton pants and an oversized white shirt.

The last sentence:

“That’s the difference between us. For me, home is wherever I can brew a pot of good tea.”

My opinion: a beautiful story about understanding, about different cultures and how they clash, but also about ways of crossing between cultures. A rich and compelling writing. A very good book. Rating: 8/10.
I liked the reasoning on words, on different languages, and also on how communication can happen without a common language, while it may still not happen when a common language exists.

How do you lose a word? Does it vanish into your memory, like an old toy in a chest, and lie hidden in the cobwebs and dust, waiting to be cleaned out or rediscovered?

On the other hand, I disliked the way relationships were portrayed. Every relationship was considered to be love/romance. I mean, why can’t some people (I’m talking the author, here) understand that there may be a deep understanding between two persons even without a romantic lien? (My only possible anwer to that would be: in a place such as the jungle, relationships have to be more black-or-white than elsewhere.) At the same time I was disappointed by the Nirmal/Nilima marriage: in the opening of the book they are depicted as two remarkable persons, people to look up to with respect, both for what they accomplished in the tide country, and for the ripeness of their own relationship. But then, here’s how Kanai describes them well into the book:

“As I see it, Nirmal was possessed more by words than by politics. There are people who live through poetry, and he was one of them. For Nilima, a person like that is very hard to understand”

Finally, I’d like to share a passage that really disturbed me:

“The worst part was not the hunger or the thirst. It was to sit here, helpless, and listen to the policemen making their annoucements, hearing them say that our lives, our existence, were worth less than dirt or dust. ”This island has to be saved for its animals, it is a part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save tigers, which is paid for by people from all around the world.” … Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? Do they know what is being done in their name?”

You can’t not be an environmental activist, but again, you can’t be one. You can’t not protect tigers, but you can’t leave humans in danger. In a way, it’s a book about helplessness, too.

Book: Ladies Coupé

The book: Ladies Coupé, by Anita Nair

The edition: Italian translation by Francesca Diano, published as Beat (Neri Pozza) paperback, 332 pages.

The story: At 45 and single, Akhila is questioning her life, and because of that she embarks on a journey starting with a night train (do-something-rash-and-foolish style). Traveling with her are five other women, and during the night they exchange life stories.

My thoughts: I picked this book up because I loved the first book I read by Anita Nair – and I wasn’t disappointed. The author is good at creating very different characters and they sound very real. In all, the book is less of a novel than Mistress was, and more like a collection of stories, Decameron-style (I actually loved the idea of a night train as the constraint bringing several narrators together – I kept thinking about an essay I read way back, about Decameron-style collections), but even so it was passionating, much more than a short story collection. On a side note, I kept wondering at the female situation in India, and how sexist the society is described to be, and I kept asking myself how much this would still apply today.

What I liked: the general feeling that the stories were all set in the same society, although the six women and their stories were so far (socially speaking) from each other; the way stories were woven into the journey.

What I didn’t like: the sugary ending.

Language & writing: kudos to the translator! And I loved the feeling of different voices, and I loved the way Indian words were worked in so naturally to make one travel all the way to India.

Read this if: if you like female storytellers, if you like books exploring the female situation in India, if you like novels with several stories framed one into the other and yet independent

Counts as: I want more Challenge book #1 — South Asian Challenge book #1 — Global Reading Challenge – Asia

This review is part of the
Loving the Reviews Challenge Extravaganza
at Sniffly Kitty’s Mostly Books blog