Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Books Bringing History to Life

Spring Break had me on a reading binge so while I haven't really cooked or baked anything special, I've spent many evenings curled up on the sofa with a stack of books.

History was my least favorite subject in school. Except maybe for PT (physical training) which was downright horrible, thanks to my inherent couch-potato-ness and the ill-tempered PT instructor Miss Ruby. But anyway, history class was tedious and I struggled to get it over with so I could get to the fun subjects like English and Biology. I wretchedly memorized seemingly random dates and wars and treaties without any context to what I was being made to learn.

It is only now, decades later, that I feel like I am re-learning history bit by bit, through books that are not history textbooks at all. Instead, they are novels set in particular historical periods, or mysteries set in foreign lands, or memoirs from a particular era. And thus, through the art of story-telling and the formation of an emotional connection, I am finally beginning to understand historical events and how they relate to politics and world events today. Here are three books I read last week, each of which provided a better history lesson than any textbook could.

Image: Goodreads
I have enjoyed all of Jhumpa Lahiri's books, especially her short stories, so I got into a months-long virtual queue at the library to get my hands on her latest novel, The Lowland. It has all the classic Jhumpa Lahiri features- roots in India, a move to the North-Eastern US, culture clash and a search for identity. All this is woven into a family saga spanning three generations.Two brothers grow up inseparable but their lives branch out as one gets entangled in the Bengali communist party and the dangerous and radical politics of the Naxalite movement while the other brother stays in the safety of academia and moves to the US. I've heard the word "Naxalite" hundreds of times without understanding at all what it was all about. This novel explained a great deal of the history and politics behind that movement. The story, however, was too heavy and sad. The characters too unwilling to change their situation. An emotional read, but I just wish the emotions were not all oppressively negative.

Image: Goodreads
Communism is also front and center in Anya Von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. The title is rich with irony, and the book is a highly personal, searing and funny romp through nearly a century of life in Soviet Russia- in Bremzen's words:  "All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion...Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire. So what happens when some of your most intense culinary memories involve foods you hadn't actually tasted? Memories of imaginings, of received histories; feverish collective yearning produced by seventy years of geopolitical isolation and scarcity..."

This book made me so nostalgic. You see, a few decades ago, India and Russia were socialist allies with a great deal of so-called cultural exchange: Russian book fairs in India and Hindi movie stars idolized in Russia, that sort of thing. The newspapers were full of mentions of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. I grew up with Russian children's literature and a subscription to a Russian magazine called Misha. And their books and illustrations were quite rich and fantastic and very un-Disney if you know what I mean. The Adventures of Dennis (there was no menace with this Dennis, mind you) was my favorite Russian-translated book- and look, I found it reviewed here. My parents who are not known for throwing away things probably still have it. I remember a story where young Dennis asks his friend, "What are your favorite things?" The friend answered with a long list of irresistible food items that goes on for two whole pages. After this breathless menu recitation, the friend asks the same question to Dennis who says, "I like kittens. And grandma". Such a funny-sweet-sad story of children who know quite a bit of hunger and scarcity. Bremzen's memoir explained exactly what the country was going through to produce a story like that.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking has a whole chapter on the favorite Soviet celebratory dish Salat Olivier or what I knew as my mother's Russian salad- cubes of boiled potato, carrot, peas and pineapple chunks suspended in a homemade mayo dressing. Bremzen's book will be one of my favorite reads of 2014.

Image: Goodreads
War and unrest through a child's eyes. This theme comes to life yet again in the graphic novel, A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return by Zeina Abirached. The bold and beautiful black-white illustrations are a contrast to grimy, war-torn Beirut described in the book, which talks about a single evening in the life of young Zeina and her family and their neighbors, huddled from the bombing in the foyer of their apartment. Behind the anecdote was a history lesson in the 15 year long civil war of Lebanon. And by the way, for you time-pressed folks, this is a short graphic novella that you can devour in an hour or two.

This beautiful and touching book reminded me strongly of a friend in graduate school (we've since lost touch) who was born and raised in Beirut during this 15 year period. War was a fact of life for him; after all, he knew nothing else until he was a teenager. He told me that night after night, his mother would serve dinner during the ceasefire. When he moved in his teens to a place where there was no war, he wondered, "If there's no ceasefire, how do people know when to eat dinner?" I remember when he told me this, I felt such a pang of pain in my heart. Please can we stop waging wars?

That's three memorable books and I have several more that I'm looking forward to. What are you reading these days?

63 comments:

  1. Misha! I remember reading those lovely magazines :) so rich and colorful pictures they had. And the first ever recipe I read was of Russian salad. As a 9 year old �� so your post made me really nostalgic! I will keep be on a lookout for these books - I look fwd to your book recos �� thanks for sharing...

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    1. You too?! I guess it was the thing for our generation! I'm glad you enjoy the book chat.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your reading adventures Nupur. The very mention of Misha brought back a whole lot of memories. We used to subscribe to Soviet Union magazine and I also read quite a few Misha books which were available at a local circulating library (literally like a 'paanwala' store). The glossy paper and the unique scent from those books was enough for us siblings to fight over who is going to read them first...LOL
    I've read about 3 of Jhumpa Lahiri's books so far and like her narration skills. Will definitely watch out for Lowland at the library.
    Reading is such a big addiction for me that I tend to slack off and avoid housework if I am reading an interesting book...I read a couple of books in the past week
    Debbie Macomber's Rose Harbor in Bloom - All her stories have Seattle city as the backdrop and are usually women oriented. I liked this one.
    Marty Jo Putney's Sometime a Rogue - This was an impulsive pick and reminded of Mills and Boons novels....this will be my last from this author
    Emma Chapman's How to be a good wife - I abandoned this book midway. It was too depressing and didn't hold my interest even after reading the first hundred pages.

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    1. YES! I remember that glossy paper :) I'm the same way- when I'm reading a particularly engrossing book, I slack off on sleep and housework!

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  3. Forgot to mention. I also read the Hunger Games series...loved all three of them. I am going to remember the name Katniss for a long time.

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    1. I'm not keen on reading that series but I know so many who loved it. Might have to pick it up sometime.

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  4. Didn't enjoy Lowland either :-(, I thought she didn't get to the depths of any of the characters and it definitely was a heavy story. Glad you had a good Spring break!

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    1. I agree- I wish the characters were not quite so one-dimensional.

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  5. You have certainly spent your spring vacation well!
    I liked history, I mean reading not remembering or from the exam point of view.
    And I agree, this is a better way of looking at it.
    I found the last two books thru an inter-library loan and have put in a request. hopefully it will be available soon :)

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    1. Oh and I forgot to add, I used to read Misha too and Sputnik (?).
      The colorful 'foreign' magazines or digests ( my mom would get the knitting ones from Strand in V.T so maybe that was where I first came across these, not sure I remember correctly..) it was also the time when we would get pen-pal forms and things were so exciting!

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    2. Hope you enjoy the books, Manasi! And how did I forget Sputnik- I subscribed to that as well.

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    3. I had to comment here in reply to manasi because I also remember the pen pal forms and I ended up having 2 of them from Germany.

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    4. I had one from Germany too and am still in touch with her after all these years ( found her on fb )

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  6. Ah Nupur, your post resonates with me. Like you I grew up studying history because it had to be done and rote-learning dates and events without connecting them to 'real life'. In recent years I have discovered a passion for history. My favourites are the Mughal era, the Raj (it fascinates me but also makes me gnash my teeth on a regular basis) and British history with all its fascinating eras; the houses of Tudor and Plantagenet and so on. I also read a truly interesting book the other day about the 'The Fishing Fleet' which was the term given to Englishwomen in the days of the Raj who were sent out to India to find husbands for themselves!
    Like you, I remember well, the days of glasnost and perestroika and the influence of Russian culture, the richness of which one tends to overlook in these days of crime and oligarchs.
    I also finished reading The Lowland the other day. I am a big Jhumpa Lahiri fan and bought her book with anticipation (no decent libraries where I live sadly) but while it held my attention the way her books always do, I was left with a heavy-hearted feeling of despair at the end. You are right, too much oppressive emotion all round.
    Right now I am reading the last in Alex Rutherford's Mughal series and have started a new book about Jane Austen: 'A Life in Small Things' .
    The joy of reading cannot be compared.

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    1. I'd love to read more of Indian and British Raj era history, Amber. I'm going to look for The Fishing Fleet. And I so agree about the richness of Russian culture, in spite of a series of terrible leaders who have done much harm.

      I read The Lowland in two evenings (yes, she holds my attention too) but I'm glad I am not the only one who felt that way at the end.

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  7. Hi Nupur
    I read all your posts with great interest and there is always something to take away each time. Jhumpa Lahiri is my favourite too and it all began because of her story about the kid named Gogol, I have always had to repeat my name a couple of times for people to get it. Anyway.
    My most recent read was "Shift" about an epic bike ride to the west coast by two best friends after high school graduation. It is an excellent growing up tale, and my guess is the bike ride is based on the author's personal experiences because they did that as their honeymoon!!
    Do try "The Weight of Silence" by Heather Guidenkampf, it is a very intense story that really touches you to the core.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations- all these books sound interesting!

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  8. I liked the way lowland was written albeit being strong on the emotion front. Now I am reading unaccustomed earth. quite good so far.

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    1. Yes, Jhumpa Lahiri certainly has a way with words.

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  9. I don't bake, no Sir, I am not made that way. Yet, last Saturday a friend and I ended up making almond biscotti. BBC Good Food guide doesn't include oil/butter in its recipe and perhaps, that's why ours turned out a little dry. Not that I complained, mind. The tin was empty before the oven was cool.

    On the reading front, I read Khaled Hossaini's 2nd (A Thousand...) and his latest (Mountains...) for our book club. It's Room by Emma Donoghue (sic) now with a Neil Gaiman waiting in the wings.

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    1. Well- if the tin was empty before the oven was cool, I believe in baking they call that an unqualified success!

      A Thousand... and Room were very memorable books for me. Haven't read any Neil Gaiman. Time to change that.

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  10. Just got "The Lowland" and looking forward to reading it.

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    1. You'll have to tell me what you think of it!

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  11. Although t was not my Spring Break, I still managed to read a lot of books in the last two weeks - maybe because I planned to cut down on TV time.
    I read:
    White Princess (Philippa Gregory) - I love Philippa but this book was a let down
    Shangai Girls (Lisa See) - this book was awesome, I have the second part on hold now
    Gone Girl (Flynn) - I was skeptical about this book was riveted. Not sure if I will read the author again as it is too contemporary and dark for me
    Currently reading Book Thief

    Oh and I used to subscribe to Misha too! Also used to read a lot of Russian fairy tales. Did not realize it was because of the cultural association between the two countries!

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    1. I liked Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Shanghai Girls is on my list! Loved Book Thief. Did not like Gone Girl- totally riveting but oh so icky.

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  12. Bremzen's book was already on my to-read list, so I am adding the other two. I just finished reading 'Marble: Mania, Depression and Michelangelo', which is a great read with particular significance for those who have experience with depression, unipolar and bipolar. For those who don't have first hand experience, I think all those neat graphics will help them understand someone who's going through this.
    This month, I have decided to read books that I own, and not be tempted by the library. I have at least 20 books, some in my native Indian language, that I bought with every intention to read, but somehow the bagful of books I haul from the library take priority every time. I am now reading my own copy of 'The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher'. I am far from completing it, but I can recommend it already.
    Your post made me quite nostalgic, Nupur. As a child, I was a precocious reader and I have memories of my father buying books by the carton at the Russian book exhibition at Pragati Madain (in Delhi). I still have many of the books - I used to favor Russian folklore (remember Baba yaga) and Uncle Steeple. The Russians also made quite fantastic books on space and astronomy - being pioneers in the space age. We don't have those books anymore, nor do we have Enid Blytons which I adored as a child.

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    1. I always do that- reading books from the library while ignoring ones I own (because the library books have a due date!!) Consequently, I have stopped buying books for myself, I just get them from the library. I do buy lots of books to give as gifts though. Thanks for the recos- I will look for Marbles, and Suspicions.

      I do remember Baba Yaga- The skulls on the fence posts et al. Shiver...

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  13. Welcome back Nupur. Glad you enjoyed your break. I have still not received your Mum's book. Maybe it takes longer than 2 weeks to get to us Down Under. Guess what I will be reading! Shubha

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    1. Hi Shubha- I'm crossing my fingers that it gets there soon! International post can take weeks or months.

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  14. I am trying to finish up "The Prodigal Daughter" interesting indeed! But liked Kane and Abel way better.

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    1. Jeffrey Archer! Haven't read him in decades.

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  15. Hi Nupur. Have the Lahore book on my TBR pile but will push it further back- this New England winter is bleak enough without more added desolation.
    I've been engaged in reading Dodie smith's I capture the Castle. It starts off rather well and has probably one of the best opening lines but it's losing it's pace a little in the middle I feel. I cheated and watched the film version of the book before I finished ( terrible thing to do) but I will definitely finish this book.
    Also reading Richard scary books with Meli- I read them as a kid- love the illustrations.
    Arpita.

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    1. I Capture the Castle has been on my TBR pile for a while! I know what you mean about this long bleak winter and wanting some cheerful reads to brighten it a bit.

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  16. Hey I remember Misha... I don't think we had a subscription, but I think we had a few magazines and I vaguely remember those. I'm currently reading The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, and just got The Lowland last week after waiting for over 4 months.

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    1. I'd like to read The Siege- putting it on my list!

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  17. I was the same with history. I somehow used to day dream through the class and dread exams. Loved science math and all my languages.
    I visited you blog after I put lowland down for the night. So funny that I ( and I know so many of your readers) find so many things in common with you. It's so easy to relate to you like a dear close friend. I hated namesake and the immigrant desi cliches but I'm enjoying the characters of lowland. And finding that I share some of those dark thoughts and fears as them.

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    1. We all grew up in more or less the same time and place (and mostly in middle class families) hence the shared experiences, I think.

      The Lowland had me gripped- I so wanted things to turn out OK for the characters. I read it in two evenings. You'll have to tell me what you think after you're finished with it :)

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  18. What bugs me is that the Enid Blyton books have now been updated to suit the modern child and have been made more politically correct. Can someone tell me why the 'modern child' cannot handle reading any book that was written in a different era and respect it for that instead of wanting it changed?

    But why am I blaming children? It is adults who insist on these changes!

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    1. I'm in two minds about this, Amber. I agree that a book is a product of its era and can be a great starting point for a conversation about how society's norms change (one hopes for the better) and old prejudices fall away. But this requires a responsible and thoughtful adult to be available for discussion and that's not always the case. Otherwise, I can imagine a child being bewildered and/or hurt by some of the casually hurtful things about people of color, women and other groups. But I so agree with you that sanitizing and censoring books can easily be taken too far.

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    2. I just got some Enid Blyton books for my 5 year old daughter - most of them used but some new - and while reading some of the short stories to her I find myself censoring what I think to be the bad stuff. Like there's one story about a lazy girl who cant be bothered to apply herself at school and her teacher calls her 'stupid'. I flinched when I came to that part. As a kid I heard my teachers in school saying that to some students and looking back, I realize how bad it was to do to kids. Nobody deserves to be called stupid, period.

      Same with the golliwog series that Enid Blyton wrote. I had that book and loved it very much but knowing the racist overtones behind it I'd skip it for my kids any day.

      I like to think times were different in England back then when Enid Blyton wrote her stories (and also Agatha Christie who's also had the racism allegations thrown at her and for good reason, check out 'And Then There Were None' for example) and what was ok but not right back then is no longer ok right now and thats a good thing.

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    3. I think it is perfectly legit and in fact, necessary to censor some things while reading to kids, especially young ones where it is hard to explain why something is OK and not OK (and how what's OK can change with time). Books and the concepts they contain should be appropriate for the child's emotional level. I don't think Christie and Blyton were any more or any less racist/imperialist than anyone else around them. Most of us conform to the mores of our time. I still know people who talk about the "servant class". It makes me flinch.

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  19. Hi Nupur:

    Love Jhumpa just like you.. And 'the lowland' is currently sitting on my bedside table. Ever since I read Mahaswetha Devi's 'Mother of 1084' (made into the Govind Nihalani movie in Hindi 'Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa' which was absolutely Gut wrenching BTW ) I always pause whenever I see books with Naxalite themes... bracing for the heavy emotional impact. Perhpas this is why the book continues to sit there and I haven't made a dent in it..


    I can related to the Russian books too. My favourite was this one about a kid who ate a whole bunch of cherries including the cherry pits and was scared of being found out. There was another series the adventures of Vanya I think which had lovely illustrations. And then once I grew up I spent many memorable hours lost in the worlds of Tolstoy, Doestoevsky et. al.

    Yeah as someone else mentioned, its amazing how much those of who grew up in middle class urban India of the 80s and 90s who went to some form of convent schools tend to have in common !

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    1. Janani- It definitely happens to me too. There are books that I want to read but I know they will depress me and sometimes I need to brace myself before I dive in. With The Lowland, I knew I couldn't renew it at the library (too many people waiting for it), and once I started reading the story swept me along.

      I do remember Vanya! But I haven't read any adult Russian novels, just the kid lit ones.

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  20. I gave up on The Lowlands after the first 50 pages or so. I feel Ms.Lahiri should stick to short stories, I find her novels a slog to get through but maybe thats just me.

    I read Anya Bremzen's food related memoir last year and it had to be one of my favorite food memoirs ever, the writing was so good!

    Definitely want to check out 'A Game of Swallows.' On a related note I'd highly recommend Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo. Its a food memoir too, the author who's American ends up marrying a Lebanese American who grew up during the war himself and still has his parents living back there. She talks about her travels there and food experiences with some recipes at the very end. This was my other favorite food memoir read of last year besides Ms.Bremzen's book.

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    1. I like Lahiri's short stories much better too! This novel was not a slog only because I was dying to know what happened in the end. So glad you like Bremzen's memoir too. I will definitely look for Day of Honey- thanks for the reco.

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  21. And I have yet to come across someone (regular reader not a critic) who has liked "Lowland". Here's my take on it:
    http://mobiustext.blogspot.ca/2014/03/of-this-and-that.html

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    1. Yeah- got to agree with you- it is competently written but the story lacks something.

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  22. Hi Nupur, Even I slack off on food and house hold work while reading. BTW check out "The SUSU PALS" by Richa jha for your daughter.
    Regards,
    Madhavi.

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  23. Read the Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia - the untold stories of the women and children affected by the Indian Partition

    Read Wonder after my daughter finished it and loved it. Now waiting to read Fault in Our Stars.

    The last book I read in one sitting was Mr. Penumbra's 24 hour bookstore - highly recommended.

    As for Lowland - my husband read it and said he needed a dose of Devdas to cheer up!

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    1. LOL at your husband's comment on Lowland- he nailed it!

      I just read Fault in Our Stars last week and it was heart-breaking but funny and cute at the same time. I will look for the others, thanks for mentioning them.

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  24. Loved reading about these books..thanks for being my window of unusual reads..In India I miss a local but rich library :(
    I am reading - happiness project - by Gretchen Rubin.
    As the name suggests it is a one year project practiced by the author on different aspects of life to enhance happiness in her life...
    It is a nice book..with lots of connecting moments. Although I don't agree with the 'have to get legitimated by others bit'..

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    1. I understand- I wish there were many many more libraries in India. I read the Happiness Project a couple of years ago and it was a nice read.

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  25. About the Lowland..it is standing there on my shelf..and have to read it being a Jhumpa Lahiri fan..but lets see :)

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    1. It is certainly worth reading if you're a Lahiri fan- just don't read it when you are already in a low mood :)

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  26. Wow, looks like you had a joyous book-filled spring break! I had the exact same impression about lowland. I have always enjoyed Lahiri books but this one felt not quite upto her usual mark. All the characters were very one dimensional and as you unwilling to change their situation or look for positivity or happiness in their lives at-all. Worst of the book when they extended the same them in the next and next generations. It was quite an okay book for me. Another disappointment recently for me was and the mountains will echo by Khaled Hosseini. It just could not catch my attention - was so here and there with no consistent theme. Admittedly I have only reached may be 1/3rd in the book, so may be it gets better later.

    On positive note, I really liked a couple of Phillipa Gregory books I read recently. They cover tudor dynasty of UK. A very unique window into the lives of kings and queens and all the politics of the time - a bit dramatized at times but a catchy history read.

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    1. PJ- I got Mountains Echoed from the library but had to return it before I had a chance to read it (the new and best selling books have a long queue so could not renew it). I know what you mean though- there's a difference between serious lit and seriously depressing lit! I've heard of Phillipa Gregory but haven't read anything by her. Would be nice to know a bit more of UK history.

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  27. heyy I also used to subscribe to 'Misha'! .. had forgotten all about them but for ur blog post .. thanks for that trip down the memory lane :)

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    1. You too?! Seems there were many of us.

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  28. I love historical fiction! I guess it's the best amalgam of both worlds- fiction and nonfiction. I steer clear of Lahiri books after the first couple I read. I found them too devastating to my mood although well-written....Some good ones I have read recently are Catherine the Great, A little history of the world, A short history of nearly everything, (these are not fiction but still wonderful books), The People of the Book, Wolf Hall, Midnight's Children....

    Have you been to the Appalachian Trail, Nupur? I'm reading this gem of a book, A Walk in the Woods (also by Bill Bryson). It's hilarious in many places - laugh aloud funny- but also extremely informative about the trail, National Forests in the US in general, ecology, etc. (For instance, I was sad to read this morning that mature American Chestnut trees, once very common in the Smokies and elsewhere and supposedly huge and gorgeous, were wiped out by a blight from imported lumber in the last century....) If you find the audiobook, I definitely recommend it! R

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    1. I did read Bryson's Walk in the Woods a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. You're on a reading spree, lady. Will look for the books you recommend!

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  29. Hey Nupur: So I finished 'The lowland' last night.. I did find it gripping and unputdownable and read it nearly straight through.

    Lahiri is an exceptional talent. Her writing technique is so translucent as to almost fade away so you are hardly aware of it. For instance, I loved how she crafted the dialogues/conversations between the characters without using quotation marks. To me , that technique felt like the characters were almost having an interior monologue rather than conversing verbally. It drew me even deeper into their inner terrian...

    Subash's portrayal was also masterful. She was inside his head inhabiting his insecurities and his ambiguities fully. Her refusal to idolize Subash's arguably heroic levels of selflessness by fully describing his many flaws made him so real

    But , like you, I too felt that the landscape of this story was just so oppressive and negative. Along with the characters we got so drawn into their loss...reeling from the enormity of what happened to them. Unable, like them, to reconcile with it. Feeling so stuck and helpless.

    I think what she also did well was kept our allegiances shifting towards the characters. For instance, her portrayal of Gauri just destroyed me! The price she has to pay for her choices, how trapped she was and how much she trapped herself.. it was all just too sad.

    I'm glad that she gave Bela a happy closure though. She made us worry and care so much for that kid that I could not have taken any more Bela related heartbreak!

    I don't know still if I loved the book.. I don't think you can. But it engaged me quite deeply for sure.

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    1. Hi Janani- You wrote a beautiful review right here and it is funny how similar our thoughts about the book were. Subhash kept being called the "fake father" and I almost wanted to scream that he was not fake. He was an adoptive father, someone who stepped in when the biological father lost his life. The way things are framed- in novels and in real life- color our attitudes towards situations and circumstances.

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