The Madonnas of Leningrad – Debra Dean

“What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death; death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world”

Marina, suffering from Alzheimer’s finds herself living more and more in the past with the present is being eaten away. While unable to remember her children and grandchildren with much clarity, she finds herself roaming the Hermitage, where she was a tour guide before war years and helped pack it all away, and recalling the paintings from her “memory palace” with greater lucidity. The book opens in 1941, where erstwhile Soviet Union is getting ready to fight the Germans with high optimism at Luga. Marina says goodbye to her childhood friend Dimitr with agreement to getting married when he is back.

As the war forces draw closer to Leningrad, Marina finds herself putting more and more knowledge of The Hermitage away into her memory palace, while fighting the cold and hunger and despair which is pervasive all around her. The details about 250 grams of bread lasting a person through the day is beyond heartbreaking. Amidst this calamitous world, Marina finds herself pregnant, which provides her with a reason not to give up.

The story is written in present, when Marina is over eighty years old and surrounded by her family, and her mind keeps taking her back to the past that must be preserved. Marina and Dimitri (her husband) have locked up the war years into deep recesses, so much so that their children are unaware of why mother insists on no food being wasted at all. When Marina, inadvertently mentions living in a cellar with hundreds of people and eating glue, the knowledge is shocking to them.

At the end, we find everyone searching for Marina, since she seems to have disappeared in her quest to bring chocolates over to those who are fading away from hunger, and is found hiding in a fireplace of a building under construction. She is discovered by a worker who arrives at work on a Monday morning, where Marina goes on to show him the beauty in nothing and everything around him “She was showing me the world”

This book is a pleasure to read. If you enjoy art and the old masters, this book helps you visualise some of the famous works. It helps understand the everyday life in Soviet Union during war and of course, engages the emotions of the reader with heart wrenching loss of memory, while your dear ones can only stand by, helpless, watching you fade away, gradually.

I Saw Her That Night – Drago Jancar

Written by one of the most well known Slovenian author, Drago Jancar and translated by Michael Biggins, this book “I saw her that night” is set during the turbulent period in Slovenian history.

Veronika – or rather where is Veronika is the question? The writing is ingenious, since the book is not in first person but the character is built based on other people’s memories and perceptions. The reader finds that each persons account adds a bit more colour to who Veronika is.

As Veronika’s lover, a cavalry man and a horse riding instructor remembers when he fell in love with a married woman and who, unpredictably, decides to elope with him when he is reassigned. After a brief period of time and another reassignment later, Stevan finds the aura of the new affair fading away and cold distance creeping between them. A part of it can be assigned to Veronika’s mothers visits, where she brings news of the cuckolded husband – who has bought a manor.

Reader then finds the mother berating herself for making Veronika go back to her husband and regretting. This is when we stumble upon the knowledge that one night Veronika and her husband Leo left with some people and have not been seen again. Mother spends her time glued to the window waiting for them to show up.

Then story moves to a German doctor, who has just received a letter requesting for information about Veronika’s whereabouts. In his recollections, we see Veronika as kind, social, empathatic person, who befriends people irrespective of their politics, which is of no interest to her. German doctor burns the missive, since the very thought that something might have befallen his friends, due to their association with him, is enough to cause him chest pain. He is fairly certain that Veronika and her husband had been taken away by Slovenian rebels “Partisans” and are no longer alive.

Jozi, who works in the house, then remembers the fateful night when the event took place – the chaos, the fear, the mayhem. The life has gone on for some and some others are still missing.

Fifth narrator is the key in bringing the story together, for he is the one, who in his ignorance and jealousy, betrayed those who were kind to him and led them to their brutal death at the hands of their own countrymen.

This book is not so much about the story or the war crime, but more about the language, the character building and the way author step by step reveals Veronika to the readers. The story does not take us right into the heart of the war but remains on the fringes, where people are trying to stay alive, live a life as best as they can. They are willing to put their faith in the illusion that they will come out of the war alright.

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Spoke Snakish – Andrus Kivirahk

This fantasy fiction novel is an enchanting piece of work written by an Estonian author, translated by Christopher Moseley. I haven’t checked it out, but a board game is also available based on the book 🙂

The tale is set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia. The story is of a boy named Leemet, who can speak “Snakish”. “Snakish” (which auto correct does not recognise as a legitimate word) is the language taught by snakes to the humans, to converse, command and interact with animals. Leemet finds this language quite hard to learn from his uncle, and manages to be last man who spoke Snakish. It is the time of transition in Estonia – when pagans and forest dwellers are moving to villages and discovering farming and bread. As more and more people move away, they forget the language of the forest and start living by strange rules of foreigners and Christianity. Leemet, along with his family, is a few who resist the allure of village and try to uphold the old ways as best as they can. There comes a time of conflict between villagers and forest dwellers – when their individual beliefs are in conflict – as per villagers, snakes personify devil, whereas, Leemet knows that snakes are the friends.

As Leemet realises that the world around him is changing and never to go back, it also makes the reader think about how evolution over the centuries must have taken place. “where there was once dry land, the sea now splashed, and i had not had time to grow gills” perfectly describes who hold out against the change and are swept away by the sheer force of it. Its interesting to read, how the change is sometimes based on blind faith into the unknown and fascination towards what is new – not necessarily good or bad. The people who moved from forest to villages simply did that because they were fascinated by the various tools used in farming, new type of food and later from sheer need to be in a society and not left alone. Leemet, at the end is left alone ” was used to the knowledge that i was the last. Everywhere and always.”

The ending is a bit disappointing. The book starts with the legend of “Frog of the North” who is asleep and can be waken up in times of need, if lots of people call out to him in Snakish. In the end we see that Leemet has found the “Frog of the north” and spends the remaining life taking care of him.

It is a very interesting read, philosophical in way, if you dwell deeper into the story. There is a lot more in the book – friends who change once they move to a different way of life, bears who salivate after young women and seduce them, snakes who invite humans to hibernate with them in winters, Primates who think people of the forests are modern – thus depicting a transition between three stages, grandfather who can fly with the help of wings made from human bones and wind bag and wolves that are milked and ridden. The reader will find humour in the beginning, however, darker side is revealed as the story progresses.

Smilla’s sense of snow – Peter Hoeg

The title intrigued me. The back cover synopsis described a regular thriller, i was intrigued since the book is based in Greenland and Copenhagen. I have read tons of thrillers, including those by Eric Ambler and P.D.James with their rich language and intriguing plots. This one is a bit boring, to be honest. The book goes into long paragraphs (pages, even) of mathematical details and scientific facts, some of which are extremely technical and ultimately, to figure out where the author was leading to, i had to skip over them.

The plot is based on a murder of a child, ruled accidental death by the police, which a neighbour (Smilla) does not agree with. Isaiah (child in question) had fallen off the roof of a tall building and as Smilla explained to whoever was willing to listen – Isaiah was scared of heights. Though always describing herself as emotionally detached and even cold, choosing single life over marriage and children, she is disturbed and takes it upon herself to discover the truth. As thriller goes, there is a villain (or rather a set of them) who try to intimidate her, threaten her and even kill her into abandoning her research. The book takes us into the deepest parts of Greenland in quest for a large piece of meteorite and certain living organisms (worms) which could make some people very rich and powerful.

Being single myself, i am not sure i totally agreed with authors portrayal of Smilla’s single life, but i will give him the benefit of doubt since he did make the character complex due to childhood trauma of losing mother and brother and a father who is largely absent.

The book goes on to elucidate the life in Greenland which i found very educational and strengthened my resolve to visit at some point in future.

The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

Extraordinary
Devastating
Extraordinarily Devastating!
An author who can create a character so invisible (and yet visible), so forgettable and yet evocative, so ordinary and yet remarkable is an artist, no a celebrated, distinguished artist in my humble opinion.

Leo(pold) Gursky from Poland has only ever loved one woman in his life – Alma Merminski – he lived for her and will ultimately die with her thoughts as his sole companion. Leo and Alma are childhood sweethearts, who impression each other over the growing up years and share experiences – first kiss, first intercourse….Alma is sent to US from Poland and Leo, post losing his family in holocaust follows her to the US. When Leo finds her, he discovers, she had a child by him and believing him to be dead is married to another. Leo walks away from his happiness, his love, his child to ensure his sweetheart is happy with the new life.

Leo lives the rest of his life vicariously – watching his child from a distance, trying to find pleasure in things his child likes. He writes a book “History of Love” to immortalise his love and sends them to Alma from Poland while she is in US. The manuscript is entrusted to a friend who moves to Chile during war years and believing (again) Leo to be dead publishes it in his own name, under marital pressure. Leo writes another book, which he sends to his son (who doesn’t know about Leo) and is later shown to be considered as the last manuscript of Leo’s son (Issac) post his death.

The story revolves around the first book “History of Love” – a copy of which is purchased and gifted by an engineer to his wife, who then name their daughter Alma based on the character in the book. Post the engineer’s death, the daughter in her quest to connect with her father, and trying to find happiness for her mother, begins searching for Alma from the book.

The book ends with a meeting between Leo and Alma and the reader is astounded by how the two stories come together and in the most beautiful way.

There are sub-themes in the book related to Holocaust (since all characters are Jews) and plagiarism, but for me, the story is simply about Leo and nothing else. He, who was forgotten by everyone – his love, his son, his readers, his life….He who had to carry a note in his pocket saying he has no family and where his burial plot, if he is found dead. The one who has “word for everything” is rendered speechless in the end.

Glass Houses – Louise Penny

Glass Houses is the 13th book in Chief Inspector Gamache series and the latest release. I have been reading / following this series since it was first published in 2005 (well! when you read 300 plus books a year, there are a lot of series to follow). It is based in Quebec, Canada and as obvious from the title, is a thriller novel series with murder, mystery, mayhem and beautiful poetry (unusual, i know)

Who hurt you, once,
so far beyond repair
that you would meet each overture
with curling lip?
While we, who knew you well,
your friends, (the focus of your scorn)
could see your courage in the face of fear,
your wit, and thoughtfulness,
and will remember you,
with something close to love. (Bury your dead)

As per me, the poem above symbolises the sensitivity and care with which each book is written. Glass Houses – i think tops all of it. It is so beautifully written, drawing the reader towards the ending the author is driving at, with suspense, conviction and interest.

Cobrador – the debt collector, first started in 1300’s is dressed in top hat and tails and he follows debtors. He is the central figure or the trigger to this entire book. Day after Halloween, cobrador appears in the Three Pines village, where Inspector Gamache resides. He makes the entire population of the village uncomfortable, just by implication of his presence. Presence leads to a murder, murder to an investigation, which in turn leads inspector and his band of loyal followers to discover the notorious drug cartel operating at a large scale under a shadow umbrella across Canada and America. It sounds pretty standard, but trust me – its anything but stale story. The beauty is in the writing, the book lies in between the lines that author has so well crafted.

It almost makes you wish, real life was as uncorrupt, challenging and loyal (for lack of better word – easy). As the author wrote in her acknowledgements – “Three Pines is a state of mind. When we choose tolerance over hate. Kindness over cruelty. Goodness over bullying. When we choose to be hopeful, not cynical. Then we live in Three Pines”

Three Daughters of Eve – Elif Shafak

Spellbinding! the only way i can think of describing this book. It is discursive with attention paid to each digression. It was hard not to find myself thinking about multiple things all at once, while reading. The theological debate about existence of God, the religious question on what is right vs wrong, the social difference between rich and poor, the female – male predicament all adroitly woven into a tale that keeps the reader on their toes yearning for more.

Peri has a divided family – a father and a brother who are liberal in their thinking and a mother and a brother who are devout. She is the referee, so to say, neither a believer nor the one to doubt – somewhere in between. Her need to be the peace keeper develops her personality into a complicated, self critical and self doubtful being. At Oxford, she encounters multiple personalities and begins to discover herself away from her family and home. She finds herself attracted towards Professor Azur, who teaches “God” at the university, primarily because she feels he might have answers to the questions and confusions and uncertainties in her mind. Always neutral Peri takes one step in her life, which impacts everyone around her. The story is narrated alternately in past and present, where past is unforgotten and remorse colors the present.

In a way, its a simple book to read and yet poignant. There are theological questions raised, which makes a reader pause and look for/at their own beliefs. The cultural differences amongst east and west, known yet alien require questioning our perceptions – are the answers really that easy? or perhaps not?

“We can find our true selves only in the faces of the Other.”

A Tiny Bit Marvellous – Dawn French

If you have aversion to regular British style profanities – this book is not for you. Supremely funny, a page turner and an absolutely perfect airport / airplane read. If you have teenage kids, you might even find it relatable with a bit (or many goose pimples) and nightmarish moments of “is it similar….nah!”

The story revolves around a mother – who being a child psychologist considers herself an authority on her own children – not, teenage girl with usual insecurities about beauty and self-worth, teenage boy experimenting with his own sexuality and way too precocious (very adorable) and a loving rock solid dad taking care of all of them, even though a bit in the background.

The book is written in a diary format from everyone’s point of view, so a chance is provided to all characters to unleash their inner paranoia and language is quite relatable to everyday life – though i am not sure, i can ever imagine using F word in front of my parents or (horrifying) attributed to them – oh well! what do i know about the current generation.

It is, in all honesty, a marvellous family – fun to read about and filling you with a warm affectionate feeling. If you are looking for an easy read and few laughs – this one sure fits the bill.

Sandstorm – James Rollins

Ever since i discovered the “historical genre”, i have been trolling the bookshops for any author who might fit the category. I discovered James Rollins at the airport and within a few months, i had read all the books in the “Sigma” series. They are entertaining, lots of fighting and always a historical mystery to save the world. Reading James Rollins books without wikipedia can often be frustrating (at least for me) since the more involved you get into the history, the more you want to find out and read about it.

Sandstorm is the first book in the Sigma series – and at the onset itself, the team is betrayed by the boss. Post a mysterious bomb blast at British Museum, Painter is assigned to discover the cause and contain any discoveries / materials that could lead to the destruction of the world. At the museum, while escaping the villainous group, who is always one step ahead, he saves the life of Safia (historian) and hence on they embark on the earth saving journey. First half of the book deals with the travel arrangements, lay out of complicated relationships and past and identification of the antagonist.

The story revolves around the discovery of keys to the lost city of Ubar (which i googled and read about, obviously) and why the city was sealed by Queen Sheeba long time ago. The story is set in the desert sands of Oman and the historical places referred to in the book do exist in the modern times. We also encounter a group of Parthenogenesis females – who are genetically capable of giving birth without any contribution from the male species and are the descendants or part of Queen Sheeba herself. The book comes to head with the confrontation of the good and the bad guys. It ends with the death of the treacherous Sigma head.

The main plot is predictable, however what makes it super interesting are the historical details and much trivia thrown in. The authors effort shines through the book and apart from weaving the history into the story line, most of the discovered facts remain as close to the truth as possible. The lineage of various words, beliefs and events are described as are common and yet different from tribes, regions, religions etc.

If you are a historical fiction fan and have the patience to go through a regular thriller for the joy of reading about unusual history (since the author has already done all the hard work for you) this series will definitely resonate with you.

Book List

Honestly, picking a few books out of thousands you’ve read is insanely difficult (never realised this before). After much deliberation, i am listing out the ones which are my favorites in my mind at this moment, though this list changes by the hour, so dont be surprised if i quote something completely different as my favorite later:

1) Gone with the wind by Margaret Mitchell– recommended by my mom and from where my reading journey and my love for Scarlett O’Hara started and is still going strong “with enough courage, you can do without a reputation”

2) I, Claudius by Robert Graves – Initiation into “historical fiction” as a genre which soon became my favourite

3) From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman – Post Leon Uris Exodus, i did a lot of googling on Israel and its formation, this book helped put things in perspective. I can re-read this book and still get the same pleasure even now.

4) Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak – if you are feeling low, open this book at any page and it infuses a sort of positive energy in you….the pleasure of visiting Rumi’s home town in Turkey was much enhanced for me. “If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough”

5) Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – Looking for a laugh, open this one at any page “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so”

6) Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri – interesting, funny and short…thanks  to a fellow traveler and now a good friend for introducing me to these hilarious yet poignant detective series.

7) Did i say i read all genres, so yeah romance features as well – right? Susan Elizabeth Philips is my favourite romance writer…my favourite being “Fancy Pants” predictable, funny and teaches you a lot about golf

8) The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins – How do i define this book – poignant? “The re-dipping of the dishes was a small matter, but the emotional texture of married life is made up of small matters. This one had become invested with a fatal quality” How would a wife feel when the husband leaves her not for a younger and a prettier woman but for an older and an uglier woman. Which alternative is better – really?

9) The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain – recently read this one and top of mind is high. It changed the way i read Ernest Hemingway….he became human, a man with faults and immaturities and insecurities instead of this super amazing writer i always admired. I truly believe, behind every successful male writer there is a woman

10) Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley  – this not yet teenage girl ( in the beginning of the series) is a precocious child with ediatic knowledge about poison and chemistry, who takes unusual pleasure in playing pranks on her elder sisters when in need of attention. This character is quite a budding detective to the chagrin of the local police. “If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as “dearie.” When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to “Cyanide,” I am going to put under “Uses” the phrase “Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie.”

Get cracking! Its your turn now 🙂 tell me about the books you love.

Chanakya Chants – Ashwin Sanghi

“Politics is far too serious a matter to be left to the politicians” Chanaya’s Chants – Ashwin Sanghi

Since i started reading “historical fictions” a decade or so back, i have been contemplating writing one myself. If a “Da Vinci Code” can be created taking religion as the basis, Hindu religion is full of such instances or episodes which could be converted into a mythical and yet a gripping story line.

Alas, that never happened but i chanced upon this book by an Indian author which at first go promised to be a peek into Indian History. However, what i was not counting on was a well written and compelling storyline drawing comparisons to the “oh-so-old” times” and the contemporary ways. As you read the story you wonder if “Pandit Gangaprasad Mishra” is the modern day “Chanakya” putting into action the learnings and cunnings that Chanakya is known for or is it just a disillusioned world of politics where the author is out to prove that political discussions or media may have changed slightly however, the arena itself is exactly the same as it was 2300 years or more ago.

I do think that author should have dramatised or atleast illustrated the part of story which is entirely based on a curse on Chanakya a lot more – which was coming into action only after a few centuries. Some of the episodes are avoidable and give a Bollywood like feel to the book at times. Nevertheless, the script is witty and well written with no compulsive description of surroundings and atmosphere etc, keeping the readers imagination active along with the book. There are pages in the book which ensure a few chuckles and then at times when you pick up the current newspaper – it makes you wonder if all what we read, is just a game between some politicians and their entourage.

Chandni Gupta the protagonist in the book is portrayed to be a bold and intelligent woman, however at times comes across as a puppet. Pandit GangaPrasad Mishra who seems like the anchor / narrator of the story is portrayed to be infallible. When i finished the book last night for a few minutes i kept thinking if making her the prime minister was panditji’s main aim which he achieved – who is now going to ensure that she stays where she has reached and with goodwill. Chandragupta Maurya, who was in a similar way installed on the throne of Bharat, by Chanakya, was a strong leader and a courageous warrior, who lacked the political acumen of Chanakya but more than made up for it where it came to other qualities

Well, without giving away the entire plot my dear readers, i highly recommend this book to all the fiction lovers – from entertainment value.

in the name of the father (of the son) – Immanuel Mifsud

“Now that the last sentence has been written and i’ve turned the page and found the cover, I can finally take a deep breath and turn out the light.”

Not my usual run of the mill book choice. Well, while going through Facebook at the airport, i came across a national geographic link which said ten books describing / about different countries. Some of the book choices are quite interesting (like the one i am reviewing now).

The book “in the name….” has been translated from Maltese and though, its a skinny 50 page book, i found it hard to read at one go. I would come across a line / paragraph / poetry and it would completely derail my thinking, digressing inwards and deeply introspective. For example, while reading one entire page full of what the author is afraid of, i came up with pages and pages of things/people/situations that scare me. I enjoyed it – my time through the book as much as my time sorting out my thoughts.

“You wanted to write your story so that some day your son would write the story of your story” is an apt summary of this book contents. The son reading the diary of his soldier father, goes through various emotions in this book – childhood / boy hood memories, conflicts, confessions, resentments, admiration and deep, sometimes dark, thoughts. It is sometimes a poem and other times a diary, never truly one or the other.

The language is beautiful and sentiments heartfelt. There is cruel selfishness as only a child can feel towards the parents, there is idolisation and disillusion of it turning into a mundane human, pathos and disdain along with pity and loss.

I did enjoy reading the book, though the end confused me, i did not understand what it implied.