30 May 2009

A concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Me no speekee Eengeeleeshee

I was drawn to this book by its bright cover and interesting title, and the easy flow of words carried me past the first few chapters very soon. The story is told by a 23-year-old Chinese woman who comes to spend a year in London learning English. To start with her language is broken but easy to understand and the narrative is quite engaging. At first I felt that there were glimpses of a higher understanding and better command over the language showing through, somewhat like a put-on accent slipping. But after I’d finished reading, I looked through the first few pages for this and couldn’t find it so maybe I had just imagined it, perhaps as a result of some kind of prejudice against an assumed or put-on voice, before I got properly engrossed in the story and began to admire the construction and the way strong characters had been developed using the broken language, and how creatively it had been used. In fact, as the months pass, her language does improve in a gradual and significant way.
English life is described and even with few words and poor grammar, there is beauty and poetry in the narration. Zhuang introduces herself as Z because no one can pronounce her name. She lives at first in a hostel, but soon looks for cheaper accommodation: “I checking all cheap flats on LOOT in Zone 1 and 2 of
London and ringing agents. All agents sound like from Arabic countries and all called Ali. Their English no good too. One Ali charges Marble Arch area, one Ali charges Baker Street area. But I meet different Alis at Oxford Circus tube station, and see those houses. I dare not to move in. Places dirty and dim and smelly. How I live there?
London, by appearance, so noble, respectable, but when I follow these Alis I find London a refugee camp.”
People shout at her, but they also avoid her, considering her very rude – though this is not innate rudeness but just a manner of speaking perfectly normal in her culture.
As a result of a misunderstanding (he says to her, “be my guest”) she moves into the home of a man she has just recently met and they become lovers. He is much older, and wants her to learn to be independent, so convinces her to travel to
Europe alone, and her observations and experiences there are interesting. In Tavira she writes, “They got a real sun here in their sky, not like in England. English sun is a fake sun, a literature sun.”
This book is rich with feeling. But more than just showing the difference between the feelings of an English man and those of a Chinese woman, their different expectations, habits, ways of thinking and so on, the book also gives a glimpse into their differing political views and, most interestingly, their differing philosophies. And it is the English man who believes in “living IN the moment” while the Buddhist woman who wants to plan for the future and who, having by now developed a far greater grasp of the language, accuses him of “living FOR the moment.”

28 May 2009

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Freud, Shakespeare and murder in early 20th century New York

This book was shortlisted by Richard & Judy’s book club in 2007, and I’d wanted to read it since last year when I first noticed it. Jed Rubenfeld is a professor of Law at Yale University and is an academic with published work on Freud as well as Shakespeare, both of whom make appearances here – Sigmund Freud is actually a character in this book, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet features as a platform to discuss the Oedipus complex.
The scholarly depth of the book does not interfere with its flow, and it is a superb detective story – fast moving and with many ups and downs, twists and turns, which keep you turning the page and in the end the villains are not necessarily the ones who have seemed most villainous. I did find that the second half of the book lost pace and became slightly disappointing.
One of the things I most enjoyed about this book are the descriptions of
New York city in the early 1900s. It was a rich and powerful city, and its various aspects, including its architecture, transportation, social and business life are described as background to the story and are absolutely fascinating.
In those days, the
New York police force was extremely corrupt – it reminded me of the situation here in my country, and made me wish that the flow of circumstances would improve things for us.
I also learnt a little about some perceptions of Jung (who also appears in the book), and the weaknesses that those in the mental-health profession are susceptible to.

My Friend Sancho by Amit Varma

Journalists, policemen and religious bias in Bombay

The first chapter of this book was available on-line for months – the book was longlisted for the Booker, and I had read this chapter on the Booker site long before it was published. The chapter is well written, fun, and has a promise – perhaps only by virtue of being situated on the Booker site – of something deeper in store. Abir Ganguly is a young crime reporter and he is witness to a scene which gives us a glimpse into crime journalism, police functioning, and religious bias in Bombay. I waited for it eagerly, anticipating a complicated book with brooding and even ominous twists.
Instead, the book lives up to its promise of frothy wit, perfect idiom and lots of fun, but turns out in the end to be only cynical, not sinister. It shows us how young professionals live in urban
India these days – with quite different standards and values than they did ten or even just five years ago. It is also a good journalism primer, taking us into the head of a bright young writer and showing us how to prepare for an interview, construct a good report, always have a balanced view,choose good words, avoid clichés, and so on.
The chapter titles are like tabloid headlines (Commerce is Very Boring; Sunday Bloody Sunday, and so on). Abir’s mother is someone big in advertising but she made her mark on him as a youngster with priceless one-liners of the kind I imagined my children would remember me by (“Never eat with your mouth full. I mean speak. Never speak with your mouth full.”)
A pleasant read ...

21 May 2009

Unlock your ESP potential by Deepak Rao

Deepak Rao the ESP expert … and just happens to be my cousin …

Deepak is one of the few people I've always known. So most of the examples in this book of what he achieved in his own life through sheer mind power are already familiar to me and I know they are true because I've seen them happen - perhaps without really noticing before what exactly they signified.

I've also seen Deepak perform unbelievable feats of various kinds - from anticipating what others are about to do or say, to bending a solid metal key, reconstructing a burnt rupee note (one that he'd got me to burn myself), materializing ash and many more - which most of us really couldn't do.

His new book has 21 chapters which cover various topics of ESP including telepathy, clairvoyance, aura, levitation, meditation and "the unexplainable". These are explained in simple language along with illustrations.

Is any of this true? As Deepak puts it: "To those who believe, no explanation is necessary. To those who do not, none is possible!"

16 May 2009

The Associate by John Grisham

The Case of the Disappointed Reader

John Grisham is not just a best-selling writer, he's a social activist. In this book, he's focussed even more than in others on his world of high-billing lawyers without a real personal life of their own. There's an intense bitterness right through it that big business is all about senseless greed, perversion and hypocrisy, and big money has its own syndromes and sad stereotypes. The enemy is even more greedy and perverted - and much more organized, better connected, and technologically even more advanced. One of the thought-provoking issues this book deals with is that of rape. If a girl consents to sex, can she change her mind once things get under way? Or if she consents and then blacks out half way through the act, is it possible for her to later claim that she had changed her mind? And how does this change when that girl is one well known for her indiscriminate sexual behaviour?

This book is not as gripping or as well constructed as some of Grisham's others - like The Runaway Jury, The Pelican Brief or even The Client. About half-way into the book, it become more engrossing but then tapers off and the ending is quite predictable.
However, Grisham has shown that he's a writer over 50 who can still weave the newest technology into his plot in a casual and effective way.

10 May 2009

Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks

A hero, but self-indulgent and confused

Tim Parks comes to India and does a pretty good job. He knows that you're going to have to carry your woollens because the airconditioning is often desperately wintry. He knows that we can put away a whole lot of starters before we actually get to table. He knows exactly how things look and feel and smell. His description of the burning ghats shows that he spent some time out there watching. But he really should have got his manuscript vetted by a local because there are tiny goof-ups that give the game away like a put-on accent that falters at every strain. He has a bathroom attendant plug a basin and fill it with water so that a guest can wash her face - little knowing that no one in this country would dream of doing such a thing when all kinds of people have spat in the basin before her. We wash our faces with running water, right, especially at basins! He has his hero order lamb at a dhaba - he probably didn't notice that most of us here haven't yet started pretending that our mutton wasn't mutton.
Anyway, none of this is really important, because this is a very British book and is a little insight into British culture, relationships, values and concepts. Albert James is an anthropologist and his wife Helen a doctor who is devoted to the service of the wretched in
India. Albert is now dead and their son John arrives in India for the funeral. John is a bit of a tortured fellow - self-indulgent and confused whether he's in India or back at home trying to get money from his grandmother though he's at an age when he really should be funding his own needs. Does he want to marry his girlfriend or not (and does she want to marry him?) What's he going to do when he's done with blowing up his grandmother's generous gift? How does he feel when he learns the awful truth about his parents' weird relationship? Yawn.