Book Reviews

Book Review–Ashes, Wine and Dust

“There are no plans, just people fooling themselves by attempting to design their fates and futures. It makes them feel invincible, even if it’s for a transient period of time.”

Ashes, Wine and Dust is the debut novel of Kanza Javed, which was shortlisted for Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013, making her the youngest and the only Pakistani writer nominated for the prize that year.

Set in Lahore and Washington DC, Ashes, Wine and Dust is a journey of a young girl, Mariam, whose childhood experiences of loss of loved ones and memories associated with them make her feel everything a little more deeply. Thus, since her childhood, she feels more connected with the memories of her dada (paternal grandfather) and less with the rest of the family.

Memories of her childhood friends and confidants 10403138_1186536494695904_912160836046943541_nstill haunt her when she decides to leave for the US for further studies and in search for self-exploration. Thus, America awaits her with the mysterious art work of her uncle who had left her family years ago, his family who no longer cares for his work, and an unexpected incident that leaves her vulnerable in an estranged land. And while Mariam is figuring out on how to cope with her current situation, she finds out about the disappearance of her younger brother, Abdullah.

Alone in a foreign country with a brother missing, she blames herself for Abdullah’s disappearance and eventually travels back home in search of clues which might lead her to him.

As the family goes through the trauma of loss of a loved one and ultimately decides to move on albeit slowly, Mariam hangs on to the clues that Abdullah has left and vows to unite him with their family.

Javed’s Ashes, Wine and Dust is an excruciatingly beautiful read with strong characters that are often difficult to find in a debut novel. The story is gripping and engulfed in such an exuberant tone of despair and desolation of the protagonist that it keeps you in the mood even after you’ve finished the book.

The imagery of Lahore with its canals, food, colourful bazaars (markets) and backdrop of Badshahi Mosque in several scenes brings back the love of Lahore for those who have visited the beautiful city and invites those who still haven’t.

While Ashes, Wine and Dust is a powerfully gripping read till the end, it did let me down towards the end. And although the book ends with a closure, tying all its loose ends, I would have been happier had it ended on a brighter note. Nevertheless, the book is a must read of 2015.

Javed has done a wonderful job writing a novel that is unswerving, profound and painfully beautiful till the very end. Ashes, Wine and Dust would be available across Pakistan by the end of November, so get a copy of the book for a reading full of feels.

 

Average rating: 4.7/5

(This review was first published on ETribune)

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Book Review: Their Language of Love by Bapsi Sidhwa

The stories in Their Language of Love are rich and languid, told in a fashion that is engulfed in an affluent and graceful historic aura. Bapsi Sidhwa’s work is not new to me but I fall in love with her writing even more every time I read her. Her short stories are as much witty and sarcastic, vivid yet baffling as her novels. She portrays her characters as people you would meet in your everyday life, and yet they are powerful and inspiring, offering an unpretentious exuberance.

The most attractive part of her work which keeps bringing me back to her is the realistic portrayal of the sub-continental history, before partition and the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, and the depiction of ease with which the local diverse communities would mix. Similarly, Sidhwa’s reminiscence of the roads and streets of Lahore, its nooks and corners, old gates and shrines, with a colorful paint of historical pallor makes one want to go back to the old city and see it with the author’s keen eyes time and again—it never tires you out.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s short stories are based on the theme of reconnection to roots—of culture, background, language and the commonality that brings the sub-continent together—whether it’s Feroza the spoilt American-turned kid, Roshni, the dark Parsi bride on the American soil or Sikander and his family who are trying to adopt the American ways.

The Language of Love (Short Stories) by Bapsi Sidhwa

Rating: 4/5 

Book Review: Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown

I remember the time when I graduated a year and half ago and was extremely depressed about leaving school and coming back home. All of a sudden the world was expecting me to start acting as all grown up, find a job (as if they are offered on a platter) and get settled somewhere, anywhere where they pay excellent salaries, you have a healthy work-life balance and you could somehow manage to meet your friends and family (read all the relatives) on a regular basis. That was certainly too much to ask since I had not even gotten over my graduation and the post-graduation-trip-with-friends nostalgia. I lot of my friends and class fellows were going through the same feelings around that time.

It was during that time that I found the book ‘Adulting: How to become a grown-up in 468 easy(ish) steps’ by Kelly Williams Brown and started reading it. Needless to say, this book is one of the funniest and engaging self-help books I’ve ever read. This book was also nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2013 in the category of Best Humor.

Adulting is Kelly Williams Brown’s debut book and the idea of writing such book came to her after going through the period of Adulting (Adulting describes acting like an adult or engaging in activities usually associated with adulthood—often responsible or boring tasks)–when she started learning the art of acting like an adult through trial and error method.

Even though this book is relatively more suitable for Western kids graduating from colleges, who have to move out of their parents’ house to make everything on their own, I believe it is helpful for our kids as well, as there is has been a growing trend of moving out of parents’ houses (especially for kids from smaller towns to bigger metropolitan cities) in search of better jobs and careers.

Starting from the time one has graduated, and is depressed of leaving school and best friends behind to moving out and finding a place to live on reasonable rates, to learning to cook and clean your part of the house, the book describes in detail, every minor step of these adulting milestones. From tips to effectively packing your stuff and suitcases, to teaching easy recipes to cook, to domestic tips on how to clean your kitchen and bathroom, everything is elaborately discussed with witty monologues and funny diagrams from the author which keep the one-way dialogue interesting. There are even dramatic discussion questions at the end of every chapter which keep the reader engaged.

The chapters progress further to discuss faking etiquettes— the author believes that until you can’t fake it, you can’t make it—to getting in the line for one of the most difficult jobs in the world: getting a job. This chapter provides steps to networking with people (friends, friends of friends, friends of parents, parents of friends, etc.), scheduling your interviews and how not to screw your schedules of interviews to finally negotiating your salary and signing your job offer. There are further steps on how to dress and how to socialize with your coworkers.

Money is another important concern for newly-turned-adults. From politely refusing your work colleagues from hanging out, to splitting your dinner bills and managing to shop cheap but trendy clothes and accessories, Kelly offers easy and doable solutions to saving money and managing one’s budget.

Chapters following money include tips on making new friends at work and neighborhood—who might not be your age, but one of the best things about becoming an adult is that the age range of your friends starts to expand and you begin to enjoy the company of relatively older people—handling emergency situations and most important of all, managing to take out time for your family.

With a growing trend towards moving out of parents’ houses in search of better jobs, readers would certainly find this book helpful and entertaining (and even if it doesn’t help you much, it would make you feel better that you’re not the only one struggling).

One of the drawbacks of the book that I came across while reading was the fact that since it has been written from the perspective of a woman (Kelly Williams herself), it is more catered to the needs of women (or girls as you might want to put it)—especially in fashion trends, clothes choice, etc.

Nevertheless, ‘Adulting: How to Become a Grown up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps’ is a fun read and would get you out of your stressed state if you’re just out of college.

Average rating: 3.5/5

Book Review– The Book of Lost and Found

A story of finding love, losing and finding love again. The Book of Lost and Found revolves around a love story of two young people but doesn’t quite end on a happy ending. But sometimes, love stories do not necessarily have to have a happy ending. It’s the imperfection that makes them striking.

The Book of Lost and Found is a debut novel by British author Lucy Foley. Set in London, Paris, Corsica and New York, the author has beautifully strung together relationships and events which unveil the story of love between two friends, Tom and Alice, who find each other fifteen years after they first met at Winnard Cove when they were six years old.

When Kate—an emerging photographer—is handed over an old sketch of a beautiful woman who resembles her late ballerina mother so closely, Kate decides to find out more about the mysterious woman in the drawing. And that is how she gets to know Tom Strafford, the artist of the drawing. Soon Kate finds out about the relationship between herself and the woman in the dr20150116_212357awing, and Alice’s unfaltering love for Tom, but things are not as simple as they seem. Tom has a bright career ahead of him while Alice doesn’t want to burden him with her own problems. This is when Alice makes a decision for both of them that will change the course of their lives.

While Tom pursues his art career and becomes one of the greatest artists of twentieth century, Alice relocates herself in Paris and chooses a path for her that demands hard work, bravery and courage despite the bleak future that might lie in front of her.

At the same time, in her struggle to find answers to the story of Tom and Alice, Kate not only uncovers answers to questions that have been bugging her but also someone who would make her feel special.

The Book of Lost and Found is a beautiful story of relationships and sacrifices, of relationships and friendships lost and found, of dark times and the will that changes those times into a journey worth remembering.

Lucy Foley, with her debut novel has proved herself as a great storyteller, carrying the story back and forth skillfully without exhausting the reader. The exquisite locations throughout the novel add to the classic frame of reference to which the book itself relates to.

PS: Thanks to Harper Collins for providing review copy of the book.     

The Wish Maker By Ali Sethi (Book Review)

The Wish Maker is a tale of an upper middle class Pakistani family run by strong willed women from the point of view of young Zaki who is observant and silent, trying to search for a place in his family and fit in.

What I absolutely loved about the book was the fact that it was not only a coming of age story of a young Pakistani (read Lahori) boy but also a road down the memory lane of 60s and 70s—when liberalism was at its peak, partying and alcohol was not a problem, to when Bhutto was tried in the courts and people were showing their reactions—and late 80s, when there was strong censorship and Islamization (ban on alcohol and the like); change of governments in 90s and Zaki’s family reactions brought a similar wave of nostalgia (although I was very young in 90s and remember very little, mostly from the discussions of elders).

Other than his witty observance of the political scene, growing up of Zaki and Samar Apa in 90s (along with their friends) brought back sweet wistfulness of 90s when kids would regularly visit each other house, cousins would stay over nights, movies would be rented and watched on VCR, TV antennas would be fixed for channels and then Dish Satellite would replace antenna, one landline would be owned by every house and everyone house member would use only that, and later when the emergence of internet Chat rooms was supposedly the coolest thing in the crowd.

Zaki and Samar Api’s relationship throughout the book is one of the many reasons why one cannot put the book back without finishing. Samar Api is older, condescending and intimidating for Zaki but that does not lessen Zaki’s love for her. Zaki is Samar Api’s minion (no matter how harsh Samar Api could be sometimes to him). He does what she says and does not interrupt or correct her even if he knows she is making a mistake. He accompanies her in all her reckless adventures and decisions and keeps her secrets even if it means compromising the truth. The end does not end well for either of them. But for Zaki, Samar Api changes his life in one way or the other.

The Wish Maker although a work of fiction is a glaring truth of the events that were before partition (in Lahore) and that occurred right after partition (the fleeing of Sikhs and Hindus, killing of Muslims and Hindus on both sides of the borders) to the way politics impacted the life of rich and the poor in 70s, late 80s and 90s (there is a little glimpse of life in Pakistan after 9/11 as well); which makes is closer to relate—something that lacks in a lot of writings.

One thing that makes this book a little foreign for a Pakistani reader could be the that sometimes while reading, it feels like Ali Sethi has probably written this book as if his audience is non-Pakistani and foreign where he has to explain every tradition and every gesture (such as Azaan) in a simpler, comical way which takes away the desi beauty of it. Otherwise the flow of the story is simple yet magical to grip the attention of the reader till the end.

My Rating 4/5

Taboo! (The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area)– Book Review

I remember my freshman year at college when I was first exposed to the knowledge of prostitution culture in Pakistan. I was flabbergasted and awed at the same time. I had not watched enough Pakistani or Indian movies for that matter and did not know about the Kotha culture. I only assumed these girls wearing shiny dresses of silk entertaining men in Bollywood/Lollywood songs as dancing girls. All I had read about prostitutes till then was through English novels—and that knowledge too was limited.

Thus Red Light Area was a new term for me. I remember the shock on the face of my seniors when they found out during a discussion that I had no clue what they were talking about. That is how I was schooled briefly on the prostitution culture in Pakistan and, Heera Mandi and Shahi Muhalla of Lahore came as obvious references. At seventeen, I was disgusted at the practices and the culture of a part of our society that existed and lived amongst us, and yet surprised that people not only hadn’t eradicated such a system but also used the services unbeknownst to the family—pretending to be ‘Shareef’ members of the society. But soon I realized that the game wasn’t so simple. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession after all.

‘Taboo!’ was a gift from a friend, providing me a motivation towards looking into the lives of people who dwell in Red Light Areas.  Authored by Dr. Fouzia Saeed, Taboo takes a detailed qualitative approach to describing the lives of prostitutes. Dr. Saeed’s research extends to a period of ten years where she consistently visits the Shahi Muhalla of Lahore and covers the detailed life stories of people living there, their lifestyles, family system and hierarchy, status of family names and ethnicities.

The book further discusses the history of prostitution in subcontinent and how the elite section of the society had played its part in flourishing the business since the beginning. As Kaisera, a manager tells Fouzia,

‘…they are all hypocrites. Those who speak the loudest are against us are the ones with many children here.’        

It is interesting as well as ironic as Dr. Fouzia points out that the women in this business are considered the lowest of the low in the society, have been seen as evildoers in general and are harassed by the police from time to time but no one questions the men who visit as customers. After all they are the ones helping the business thrive at the end of the day. This argument might also open a battleground for who is worse, the customers or the service providers. But the fact remains, business cannot prosper without either of them.

Similarly, her research also sheds some light on governments’ steps to ban the business from Shahi Muhalla from time to time. The residents of Shahi Muhalla argue that their services are not exclusive to prostitution only rather they produce country’s best musicians and dancers at the same time. As opposed to brothels in different parts of the city (of Lahore) whose sole purpose is sex provision, Shahi Muhalla provides a rounded up entertainment. Evacuating residents from Shahi Muhalla would only make them dissipate to all parts of the city and would be even more difficult to control and keep tabs. This is also partly the reason why brothels have been doing well in recent times according to Shahi Muhalla Naikas (women managers).

While reading it was also very interesting to note the faith these people in God—leaving everything to God in every matter—and their struggle for them to earn ‘Halal ki roti’ (Kosher earning) in their words. They would look down upon begging and stealing and would pride themselves in earning by hard work. It only reflects as to how different people have different ways of looking at things.

Taboo is thorough, well researched and backed by facts and history. In addition, it not only provides insights to the lifestyle of residents of Shahi Muhalla but also narrates the stories of several prostitutes, their dreams, aspirations and the bonds Fouzia develops with the residents along with time, thus keeping you engaged till the very end.

Average rating: 4/5

servants of the goddess – Book Review

Imagine being dedicated to a temple at the age of 6 years and wearing a beaded necklace for the rest of your life. Imagine being paraded in a procession of singing men and women on a high slab with nothing on your body except Neem leaves as soon as you hit puberty and being ‘deflowered’ when you don’t even know the reality of what just happened to41BBnHtsPmL._SL500_AA300_ you. Imagine being a mother of two at the age of fifteen (or even less). Imagine never being able to marry because ‘you’re attached to the temple for the holy duty you have been assigned’. Imagine a life of forced a sex worker, of poverty, of never being able to provide for your kids. And imagine all this while being (called) an ‘untouchable’.

 

Servants of the goddess is Catherine Rubin Kermorgant’s debut book which came out in February 2014, describes the lives and sufferings of modern devadasis in a small village in India.

Kermorgant after researching at Paris about the life of Devadasis, sets out for a small village Kalyana in India in order to learn more about truths and myths regarding the Devadasi system in India after which she is planning to make a film (documentary) sponsored by BBC. Soon (along with her interpreter Vani) Catherine learns about the heart wrenching tales of Devadasis, their stories of being dedicated by their families against their will or simply when they did not even have any knowledge of why they were being ‘beaded’ at a certain age.

Etymologically, deva-dasis are courtesans or dancing girls attached to temples, however the public more or less calls them prostitutes as they are bound by this profession to grand such favors to the visitors to the temple (or anyone else for that matter) in return for money. And hence it becomes a thread of survival for them. These Devadasis are mostly untouchables dedicated to the temple at very young age (mostly before puberty) by their family and live their whole life providing sexual services in the name of religion.

The more Catherine comes closer to Devadasis of Kalyana, the more she realizes the misery of these women: poverty, kids at a very young age, never being able to marry—they can take a ‘Jhoolva husband’ who may or may not decide to leave them after actually getting married—rather, earning money to support their whole family—even bearing the responsibility of marrying off their brothers. Hence, it hardly comes as a surprise to Catherine when she learns that Devadasis mostly die young—in their fifties at maximum—by either committing suicide or living their latter part of lives as alcoholics or falling in severe depression.

The book is divided into three parts: the first part discloses Catherine’s field research where she develops life long bonds of friendship and love with the devadasis of Kalyana, reassuring them that she would tell share story to the world of their oppression and destitution. The second part of the book portrays her journey back to Kalyana along with her film team and the Co-director Dillip—a pretentious high caste Brahman Hindu who is of opinion that Devadasi system is more of an old Indian cultural tradition than exploitation of poor women and is thus adamant on emphasizing upon the pros of the system such as financial stability etc.—all set to document the lives of young Devadasis in the hope that it might bring a positive change in their lives by being noticed internationally.

The second part of the book pours light on the caste and class differences where Catherine experiences firsthand the treatment of low caste—untouchables—by the high caste film crew. It is almost astonishing for the author to witness such cruel treatment of one human being by another just because one was born in a less fortunate household than the other.

The last part of the book I think is basically why Catherine decided to write a book in the first place. Although the devadasis had been filmed for weeks in their village and made to tell their woeful stories in front of strangers for all they knew, Catherine’s Co-director Dillip was resolute on showing Devadasis in the light of nothing but a glamorous culture of Hindu religion.

Whether Catherine wins her battle of truthfully depicting the lives of Devadasis or Dillip succeeds in manipulating the Producer in changing the whole story of the film, one has to read the book to know the full story. The author has nevertheless kept the reader fascinated and captivated throughout the book—one laughs when the girls of goddess laugh, and cries at the injustices that engulf their daily lives.

 

PS: Special thanks to Goodreads for sending me a copy of Servants of the goddess and Catherine Rubin Kermorgant who sent a lovely handwritten note along with the book.

 

 

The Book Thief (Book Review) by Markus Zusak

I think the words that would most certainly describe the book for me would be: devastatingly beautiful.

The author has narrated the story of young girl in the times of war in Germany—a child who grows up watching the death of her brother, abandonment from her mother and restarting of another life at Himmel Street, only to be torn apart again by the death of the people who she has loved more than herself.

Despite the story being narrated by Death itself, the novel is never suffocating with the fear of the inevitable—the death, unlike many of the other wartime books that constantly grip the reader with a constant, uneasy suffocating vibe. Rather, it tells a tale of small acts of happiness—of playing accordion, of rolling cigarettes, of playing soccer in muddy Himmel Street, of friendship and book-thievery, of calling Saumensch and Saukerlto your loved ones, of the wagers of getting kiss for a reward, of secrets of hiding Jews and unveiling it to your best friend on the branch of a tree; of growing up and understanding your emotions and the moment of accepting that your best friend may also be your lover.

The Book Thief is a story of veiled, unspoken expressions that Leisel has for her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubberman; her best friend, Rudy Steinner; the secret of Hubberman household, Max; and Ilsa Hermann—her savior and Frau Holtzapfel—who would listen to her reading.

It is a novel that almost had me crying when Leisel saw the corpses of her Papa and Mama. But it turned almost black when Leisel saw Rudy, lying lifeless. Leisel was late, too late to express her feelings for her best friend, her next-door neighbor, her partner-in-crime and her lover.

It’s a book that one would want to read again—at least once, in one’s life time.

The Almond Tree- Book Review

The book came out in 2012 and my sister won it from the author herself on Goodreads soon after its release. However, I did not know what the novel was about. Later, as soon as I came to know about the subject of the novel, I looked forward to reading it. And I must say, the sincerity and honesty with which the book is written, comes out effortlessly in every page of the writing.

Michelle Cohen Corasanti, (the author) is a Jewish American, who provides a blunt perspective of Israeli atrocities and Palestinian sufferings throughout the book, while at the same time, she presents the other side of the picture where Arabs and Jews can eat, work and celebrate together as human beings. Such a point of view coming from a Jewish author is almost rare these days. With her pen, she has beautifully told a tale of a suffering of a Palestinian family, narrated by Ichmad (Ahmad) Mehmood, a seven year old genius who soon becomes the head of the family and has to make decisions that not change the lives of his family members but his own too, despite the disapprovals of his mother and brother Abbas.

However, it is not just a story of a poor Arab boy trying to help his family. It is a tale of honest love, and compassion, of hard work and devotion for a cause, of fear and hatred and of objects that fuel hatred. It is a book that tells you about the Arab culture, their cuisine and their celebrations, where one cannot help but smile as they celebrate their little ceremonies. It a story of love, that needs no boundaries of race, religion, age or nationality.

History is also a major part of the making of the book. Starting from 1955, the author has genuinely covered all the major events in Arab-Israeli conflict, issue of Jewish settlements (and the indifference of the US and the UN) and the blockade of Gaza.

My favorite part of the book is the heated discussion between Ichmad and his brother Abbas (towards the end of the book) where each one of them is trying to reason as to why he is right and the other, wrong. Ichmad’s point of view is plain, “Think of yourself, Abbas, your family. I can provide you with a nice life, a safe life, one without suffering. A future of your family. Your sons and grandchildren can get the education they deserve.”

But Abbas is right in his own way (and most Palestinians agree), “You’re different from me. I want to do something for my people, but you know as well as I do that Israel wants a Jewish state for Jews only, across all of historic Palestine. And in your country, the Jews determine the Middle Eastern policy. Israel knows it can do whatever it wants because Jews in America will support it.”

Thus, it a battle between choosing better for yourself and choosing a life for the greater good of Palestinians. The odds are high in both circumstances, and one has to see who wins in the end or if, one wins at all.

It is an untold story of Palestine and its dwellers—deserving to be heard—told by a Jewish American, narrated by a Muslim Palestinian, advocating its case for peace between Arabs and Jews, so that the world gets a chance to see a clearer and bigger picture of the conflict and its implications it has had for decades.

 

(April 3, 2014)