Tag: Review

The Inheritance of Loss – Book Review

Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 –

Kiran Desai has written a novel of depth and complexity, filled with multiple characters and beautiful, lyrical prose which explores such themes as colonialism, illegal immigration and political strife.  I will admit to being somewhat overwhelmed at times due to my ignorance of Indian history, class systems and politics. In fact, this book forced me to do something I seldom do – research the history of the time and geography of the area. What I discovered is a country which is vast in its scope and complicated in its history. For those readers with extensive knowledge about this region, Desai’s book will resonate. For those like myself who do not have that knowledge base, this novel will lose some of its power, but is worth reading anyway.

Desai artfully weaves together the stories of several characters, moving from the present day (1980s) to their past histories without a glitch. She examines life in the town of Kalimpong, a hill town nestled in the lower Himalaya of West Bengal, where cultures collide. Kalimpong has a rich history and was the site of violent riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the West Bengal government between 1986 and 1988. Desai’s novel drops its characters into the midst of this chaos and allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the vast cultural rifts between the people.

The novel centers around a retired Judge, his granddaughter Sai, the cook, the cook’s son Biju and Gyan who is Sai’s tutor. All these characters are flawed and seeking fulfillment, and all experience loss as the tale unravels. The Judge, a surly and unhappy man, has little love in his heart for anyone except his dog, Mutt. He is filled with hatred for other Indians, wishing instead he had been born English. Biju also experiences this ambivalence for his own people which seems spawned by his experience of rejection and racism as an illegal immigrant living in America.

The habit of hate had accompanied Biju and he found that he possessed an awe of white people, who arguably had done India great harm, and a lack of generosity regarding almost everyone else, who had never done a single harmful thing to India. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 86 –

Biju’s father (the cook) has sent his only son to America to seek a better life. The cook hopes for contentment and dignity which he believes will come with Biju’s success.

He imagined sofa TV bank account. Eventually Biju would make enough and the cook would retire. He would receive a daughter-in-law to serve him food, crick-crack his toes, grandchildren to swat like flies. Time might have died in the house that sat on the mountain ledge, its lines grown indistinct with moss, its roof loaded with ferns, but with each letter, the cook trundled toward a future.
– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 20 –

Sai, having come to live with her grandfather after her parents die, imagines a life of love.

Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 –

Finally, Gyan who tutors Sai longs to be part of the political changes. A Nepali who feels torn between his attraction toward Sai and his cultural roots, Gyan is perhaps the saddest character in the book.

He wasn’t a bad person. He didn’t want to fight. The trouble was that he’d tried to be part of the larger questions, tried to become part of politics and history. Happiness had a smaller location, though this wasn’t something to flaunt, of course; very few would stand up and announce, “Actually I’m a coward,” but his timidity might be disguised, well, in a perfectly ordinary existence situated between meek contours. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 299 –

As The Inheritance of Loss unfolded, I was struck by the depth of the prose. Desai reveals the rigid adherence to the class system in simple ways, such as when a maid tells her employer the story of falling in love with a Rai although she herself is a Sherpa.

Before one knew it one could slide into areas of the heart that should be referred to only between social equals. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 75 –

Desai uncovers the pain of being an illegal immigrant by allowing the reader to see through Biju’s eyes as he struggles to find work, sleeps in a basement with rats nibbling on his hair, and longs to return to his homeland.

The issues of colonialism and globalization are constant themes in the novel. It speaks to Desai’s gift as a writer that she tackles these immense issues with ease using eloquent prose.

Tenzing was certainly the first, or else he was made to wait with the bags so Hilary could take the first step on behalf of that colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours.
 
– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 171 –

This Sai had learned. This underneath, and on top a flat creed: cake was better than laddoos, fork spoon knife better than hands, sipping the blood of Christ and consuming a wafer of his body was more civilized than garlanding a phallic symbol with marigolds. English was better than Hindi.
– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 33 –

I found myself falling into the rhythm of this novel, absorbing the flavors and sights of a foreign land and striving to understand its people. There are so many facets to The Inheritance of Loss, it is hard to categorize it.  I believe Desai has written a novel which fully encompasses the Indian experience. I was touched by how the characters sought out their dreams and futures by looking outside their culture, religion and country when perhaps the answers lay closer to home. Desai touches on this as well at the end of the book when Biju, who is now far less innocent, contemplates the steady stream of immigration from India to America.

This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 342 –

Kiran Desai has written an exquisite novel which is deserving of the Booker Award and its place on the New York Times Most Notable Fiction list. This is a novel to be savored for its stunning prose, complex characters and finely captured sense of place.

Recommended.

To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.

Beasts of No Nation – Book Review

So I am joining. Just like that. I am a soldier. – From Beasts of No Nation, page 11 –

Uzodinma Iweala set out to tell a universal story about terrible violence and brutality. It is a story, set in an unnamed African nation, about a child soldier named Agu who is recruited by a ruthless commandant The novel unfolds through Agu’s unique voice, which is at once both  foreign and difficult to understand as it is poetic.

“His language is a construct, loosely based on Pidgin English, inspired by voices of ordinary Nigerians, and of course by such writers as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Tutuola.” – Uzodinma Iweala, 2005 –

I must admit to some ambivalence around Agu’s voice. Initially, I was put off by the lilting choppiness of it – but as I read, it took on a lyrical and rhythmic quality that seemed to suit the subject matter. There are times when the reader feels almost as if she is watching a dream unfold.

The novel flows from past to present to a boy’s fantasies of an uncertain future. It gives the reader glimpses into Agu’s life before war came to his tiny village, and then reveals the numbing and harsh realities of his present life. Agu’s friend, Strika, is equally haunting though we hear his voice only once. When Agu sees Strika drawing a picture in the dirt of a man and woman with no head he begins to understand his friend’s silence.

His picture is telling me that he is not making one noise since they are killing his parent.
From Beasts of No Nation, page 36 –

Beasts of No Nation is a devastating novel about a boy’s shattered life. It is a demanding book which although slim, packs a huge punch. Sorrowful and stunning in its simple narration – this book will weigh heavily on the reader’s heart.

Passages from the Novel:

My thinking is like the road, going on and on, and on and on, until it is taking me so far far away from this place. Sometimes I am thinking of my life far far ahead and sometimes I am thinking of all the life I am leaving behind. – From Beasts of No Nation, page 93 –

…but I am knowing now that to be a soldier is only to be weak and not strong, and to have no food to eat and not to eat whatever you want, and also to have people making you do thing that you are not wanting to do and not to be doing whatever you are wanting which is what they are doing in movie. – From Beasts of No Nation, page 31 –

To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.

Tortilla Curtain – Book Review

The coyote is not to blame – he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him…The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable.
 – From Tortilla Curtain, pages 214-215 –

T.C. Boyle has created a novel about social injustice which is stunning in its simple yet eloquent language. Two couples inhabit the land just outside of the urban jungle of Los Angeles…Kyra and Delaney, wealthy and comfortable within the confines of their gated community, and Candido and America, illegal immigrants struggling to find a better life far from their native Mexico. Boyle crafts these characters carefully, contrasting the vast gulf between the wealthy and the poor.

He and Kyra had a lot in common, not only temperamentally, but in terms of their beliefs and ideals too – that was what had attracted them to each other in the first place. They were both perfectionists, for one thing. They abhorred clutter. They were joggers, nonsmokers, social drinkers, and if not full-blown vegetarians, people who were conscious of their intake of animal fats. Their memberships included the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the National Wildlife Federation and the Democratic Party. They preferred the contemporary look to Early American or kitsch. In religious matters, they were agnostic. -From Tortilla Curtain, page 34-

After a week and a half of living on so little that his stomach had shrunk and his pants were down around his hips, the effect of all that abundance was devastating. There was no smell of food here, no hint of the rich stew of odors you’d find in a Mexican market – these people sanitized their groceries just as they sanitized their kitchens and toilets and drove the life from everything, imprisoning their produce in jars and cans and plastic pouches, wrapping their meat and even their fish in cellophane – and yet still the sight and proximity of all those comestibles made his knees go weak again.
 – From Tortilla Curtain, pages 122-123 –

Boyle’s novel reveals the harsh realities of survival among desperate people. Simple things, like a roof over one’s head or food in one’s belly, become pivot points upon which this story turns. I found myself wondering, what would I be willing to do when faced with wretched circumstances or the simple fact of starvation?

Churning through the novel are questions about the political quagmire of illegal immigration. Boyle deftly reveals the human side to the immigration issues, forcing the reader to grapple with this problem and wonder about the solutions. Might illegal immigration be merely a symptom of a larger, more difficult problem?

When Delaney’s ordered world intersects with Candida’s, the normally liberal minded Delaney is forced to address his own racism.

“…Well did you ever stop to think what happens when they don’t get that half-day job spreading manure or stripping shingles off a roof? Where do you think they sleep? What do you think they eat? What would you do in their place?” Jack, ever calm, ever prepared, ever cynical, drew himself up and pointed an admonishing finger. “Don’t act surprised, because this is only the beginning. We’re under siege here – and there’s going to be a backlash. People are fed up with it. Even you. You’re fed up with it too, admit it.” -From Tortilla Curtain, page 146 –

Boyle uses symbolism skillfully, employing the natural landscape as a backdrop to the conflicts between the characters. The desolate country haunted by wild and evasive coyotes conjures up a world of fear where survival of the fittest becomes the law of the land. At times deeply disturbing, Tortilla Curtain ultimately leaves the reader with a shadow of hope.

Recommended.

The Book Thief- Book Review

Poignant, gripping, compelling, lyrical and tragic – The Book Thief is all this and more. Death narrates this tale of a young girl, a stealer of books named Liesel, who is growing up in a small town outside of Munich during Hitler’s reign of terror. Markus Zukas – an award winning author of children’s literature – pens an original novel which explores (among other things) the tragedy of war, love and hate, the power of words, and that tenuous space which separates life from death. The characters who people this amazing book come alive on the page:

Rudy Steiner – Liesel’s best friend and a boy whose dreams include being an athlete as great as Jesse Owens.

“Papa” aka Hans Hubermann – Liesel’s foster father, an accordion player who honors a long forgotten promise and whose kind spirit repeatedly brought tears to my eyes.

When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father’s eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.          – from The Book Thief (page 34)-

“Mama” aka Rosa Hubermann – Liesel’s foster mother, a woman who loves as fiercely as she curses.

Max Vandenberg – The “Jew in the basement” who discovers the friendship of a girl and the healing power of words.

Ilsa Hermann – The mayor’s wife who has lost and grieved and punished herself, and yet makes room in her heart for a young girl with a hunger for words.

And finally, Liesel herself – a girl whose courage and wonderful spirit of life shines through on every page.

At one point, Liesel writes: I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right. (from The Book Thief – page 523-) Markus Zusak makes the words right. His novel will resonate with book lovers. It is a story larger than life; one that touches the reader’s heart and never lets go. Death’s voice, at once both playful and profound, delivers the ending of this novel with a flourish that will break your heart.

There were many favorite passages from this book. Below are just a few.

About the colors or life (as narrated by Death):

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.        -page 4-

About Trust and Love (as narrated by Death):

***A Definition Not Found In the Dictionary*** Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.      -page 37-

About the horrors of war:

It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did. Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls. The Star of David was painted on their doors. Those houses were almost like lepers. At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain.         – page 51-

A horizon of Nazi flags and uniforms rose upward, crippling her view every time she attempted to see over a smaller child’s head. It was pointless. The crowd was itself. There was no swaying it, squeezing through or reasoning with it. You breathed with it and you sang its songs. You waited for its fire.
– page 110-

(As narrated by Death) They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: “Get it done, get it done.” So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.      – page 309-

“‘My heart is so tired,'” the girl had said. She was sitting in a chapel, writing in her diary. No, thought Liesel as she walked. It’s my heart that is tired. A thirteen-year-old heart shouldn’t feel like this.
 -page 427-

(As narrated by Death) I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They’re running at me.          – page 175-

About the power of words:

After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book. She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time. Liesel could see it on her face. Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips. Her eyes had been blackened. Cuts had opened up and series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from the words. From Liesel’s words.     -page 263-

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