Tag Archives: religion

7 Secrets of the Goddess by Devdutt Pattanaik

7 Secrets of the Goddess by Devdutt Pattanaik Title: 7 Secrets of the Goddess
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Westland Books
ISBN: 9789384030582
Genre: Mythology, Religion
Pages: 270
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Whenever Devdutt Pattanaik writes a book, it is to be marveled on. Not because of anything else, but because of the way he makes mythology readable. In fact, according to me he is perhaps one of the first mythological writers who made readers, go out and pick up books on The Mahabharata or The Ramayana.

And this time he is back with his latest book, “7 Secrets of the Goddess”. This follows in line with his earlier books, “7 Secrets of Shiva” and “7 Secrets of Vishnu”. This time it is about the Goddess. It is about all of the Goddesses and this is what led me to read the book. I loved the concept of it not being restricted to one Goddess, after all each of them is a manifestation of the other, so there cannot be one without the other anyway.

Devdutt explores mythology and religion differently than how his counterparts do. While the book is heavy on the names and incidents, the reading is lightened by the fact that not at one single moment, you feel that the writing is pedantic. What the book also manages to do is reveal the sides of humanity and nature. There is always a balance there or perhaps it should be there and that is what is hinted at throughout.

“7 Secrets of the Goddess” has all the nuances of Devdutt’s writing. From his illustrations to easy-to-understand narrative, the chapters break-up in fact help the reader comprehend the book better, without it seeming to be an academic read. The book speaks of male and female domination. It explores gender quality and rituals of Hindu Mythology like never before. To a very large extent, this read will not only open your mind to mythology and its various aspects, but perhaps will also make you see humanity in a different light.

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The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunninghamm Title: The Snow Queen
Author: Michael Cunningham
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374266325
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are books that charm you from the first page. That take your breath away and you know you are in love from page one. There is nothing you can do about it. You give in to the book’s beauty and hope and pray that you savour it and not devour it. You must as a reader respect the delicacy of words and sentences, of emotions that strike you, that jump, unbeknownst at you, changing some perceptions, making you question your life and such books will be gone back to, in time, for sure. “The Snow Queen” by Michael Cunningham is one such book.

I always thought that “The Hours” was his finest work. I was proven wrong. It is not “The Hours” but, “The Snow Queen” is probably the best till now in his line of works. I was aware that the book will be good, but not aware that it would completely take me by storm. The book is about everything I guess – the way we live now, the way we love and the way we die, and almost forgot about the way we believe and what we believe in or not, at the core of the novel.

The book starts with a vision which one of the main characters Barrett sees in the sky, as his boyfriends breaks up with him over a text message. He shares a Brooklyn apartment with his older brother Tyler and Tyler’s ailing girlfriend Beth, who is dying of cancer. This sets the pace of the book. In this, new characters are introduced – Liz, the common friend of Beth and the brothers and how she brought them together to Andrew, Liz’s much-younger lover and some more. Essentially, the book is about Liz, Beth, Tyler and Barrett.

There are so many moments in the book that stun you and take you on a whirlwind. Sickness is also spoken of graciously in the book. I have yet to come across another writer who can do this. Cunningham takes topics are difficult to tread on and sails on them, with grace and ease. The city of New York is another character that is in the background, silent and watching over all the protagonists.

Barrett’s religious turn to the dilemma of a sighting to unrequited and requited love. Tyler’s conflict, using Beth’s illness as a crutch, the marriage in the wake and a song that he must write and the strong connect he shares with his brother. Beth, at the center of the brothers’ guilt, love, and affection. Liz, almost the crux of their relationships and trying to struggle with her own.

Michael Cunningham’s writing is sparse. He does not need to run into pages to say what he wants to. He follows the lives of Meeks brothers and everyone is searching for their own meaning to survive and understand the human soul. The writing as I have mentioned a number of times is just marvelous. It is heartbreaking, tragic, moving and above all just about the human soul.

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Book Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

Title: Honour
Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670921157
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Honour by Elif Shafak has to be one of my best reads this year. I loved everything about the book. Elif Shafak no doubt has to be one of the very few writers who can infuse a lot in one book – and that too sometimes using sparing language and length to communicate what she has to.

Honour is a story of a family and everyone connected to it. Stories of families fascinate me the most. I guess because at most levels you can picture your family – both immediate and extended in the characters and that is when the co-relation takes place. All the dysfunctionality is clear and sometimes the motives as well.

The book opens with Iskender’s (a man) release from prison. The book from then becomes an intermingling affair of the present and the past, chronicling the lives of the members of the Toprak family – Pembe and Adem, their children – the ever charismatic Iskender, rebellious Esma, and reserved and thoughtful Younus. All emotions are rolled into the book, as their lives alternate from November 1978 to the early 90s. This is not the only timeline. There is also the history of this Kurdish family way before this and how did Iskender commit the crime and why, whose justification is, “In the name of Honour”. As the reader gets involved in the book, more is revealed for sure and the plot is clearer.

Initially the book is confusing – there are too many names and it is difficult to keep track of time and generations that pass by. The narrative leap from a rural community on the banks of Euphrates to Shrewsbury to London is overwhelming. I was amazed at how beautifully the cultures were described and merged throughout the book.

The book is told from multiple viewpoints – the voices work well and the reader gets insight into almost every major and minor character. Honour is nuanced and the cultural backdrop is perfect, without being too much in your face. It is subtle and that is what is required of such a novel – the ability to relate but in small doses.

Shafak’s narrative is very different from her earlier books, “The Bastard of Istanbul” or “The Flea Palace”, both of which had multiple characters. She manages to isolate herself and let the voices take over with great ease. The text is multilayered and the differences in culture are stark – which I enjoyed the most about the book.

The ending is unusual unlike what was expected. I enjoyed the book and everything it had to offer. Yes it took me some time to get my teeth into this one; however I liked the writing and the plot. A good read if you want to read something heavy and thought-provoking.

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Book Review: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

Title: The Land of Decoration
Author: Grace McCleen
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0-701-18682-1
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 291
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The Land of Decoration starts off as a strange book. About a girl, her father and their staunch religious beliefs. At the core of it, it is a battle of good and evil at times, about the choices we make and how we can pretty much differentiate, and the times when everything clouds over and we aren’t able to make the right decisions.

Judith McPherson is a 10-year old girl raised by her widowed father to believe they are living the end of days. They go out canvassing neighbourhoods, passing out religious pamphlets, wanting to educate people about the coming Apocalypse. They read the Bible every night and ponder over it. Judith’s father has no time for her besides these set activities. They visit Church and that is that. Judith is lost in her own land of questions and answers. She builds things from garbage and scraps, almost a whole new town she calls, “The Land of Decoration” in her room, as there is no access to TV or books, as laid out by her father. The entire made-up town represents where she lives and people she meets. The only solace she finds from school bullies and a life without her mother is in this land.

One day, due to the scare of a school bully Neil Williams, Judith prays and hopes it snows in the middle of October. She prays against all hope and creates snow through paper and glue on her made-up land. She wakes up to snow next morning and school is cancelled. She continues this for another day and believes God is speaking to her. Is God really speaking to her? Or is it just her faith? Things take a severe turn for her at school and at home Judith exacts revenge (or teaches Neil a lesson). Neil and his friends’ tyranny reach Judith’s home. Judith’s father has problems at work that involve Neil’s father Doug.

Judith has choices to make: Should she listen to so-called God that speaks with her or give up her so-called magical powers to set things right?

The constant struggle of faith and doubt is the crux of this book. Judith’s beliefs or not form the structure. It is interesting how Grace McCleen takes us in the head of a 10-year old and makes us explore her thoughts and emotions. Questions like, What about faith? What does it mean to you?, and more enter the reader’s mind.

I could not believe it was Grace McCleen’s first novel. The writing is descriptive and sets the tone of the book in almost every chapter. The novel is delightfully inventive and unusual. Judith’s voice sometimes is sad but honest. The book more or less reminded me of “Room” by Emma Donoghue which also had a child as the narrator and was set in unusual circumstances as well.

The Land of Decoration is a fresh and original debut, which definitely will keep you wondering about certain elements of faith and religion. An interesting read for sure.

Here’s my favourite part in the book:

“Miracles don’t have to be big, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places. Sometimes they are so small people don’t notice. Sometimes miracles are shy. They brush against your sleeve, they settle on your eyelashes. They wait for you to notice, then melt away. Lots of things start by being small. It’s a good way to begin, because no one takes any notice of you. You’re just a little thing beetling along, minding your own business. Then you grow.”

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Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 9780670086092
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 280
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

When I first started reading, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo, it didn’t strike me as a different book. I mean I had read the similar story in Suketu Mehta’s, “Maximum City” (Honestly I didn’t think much of it), though it was in brief. It was still more or less the same – Mumbai and its dichotomy (like every major cosmopolitan), its slums, its smells and sights and the hidden side to the city, which we ignore or pretend doesn’t exist most of the time. Then what made this book so different that I finished in almost a day?

The difference lies in the way Katherine Boo has written the book – from providing a perspective on the what, the why and the how to experiences that will sometimes warm the heart and sometimes break it, knowing that this is the condition of a city that never sleeps. Having said that, there were also gaps in the book – the way it jumped from one story to another and how that was written almost in a haste which at times provided some disconnect with the overall structure.

The book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is essentially about “Annawadi” – a slum in Mumbai next to the International airport and close to the luxury hotels there (again another facet of the caste and class division). The Annawadians are full of hope as the Indian Economy rises without any realization that nothing is going to change for them. The parity will exist if not widen itself. The under-city and over-city are explicitly portrayed in the book and that makes the reader think: Is this my city? Or could this be any booming cosmopolitan in the nation? The story (I call it that because it reads like one at times) is essentially about these people and their lives – some more and some less.

Abdul, a teenager sees a future beyond counting the recyclable garbage that the city’s rich throw away. He is quick at sorting waste. He is almost there in fulfilling his family’s dreams of moving out of the slum. Asha, a woman of the world and witty at the same time, opts for a different way out of this misery: political corruption. She wants her daughter to become the first female graduate of the slum and will not stop to make that dream come true. And just when all seems to fall in place, there is global recession and Abdul is falsely accused of a terrorist attack and the dream-world they are hoping has crashed to pieces.

Boo’s writing is stark and in your face. There is no pretense and cannot be when one is writing life-stories. The people in the book may seem stereotypical but they aren’t. Each of them is as different as you and I and with their own story to tell, which Boo captures beautifully. There are times when she appears disjointed in the book and fragmented, however in the larger scheme of the plot and writing, the reader tends to easily overlook that.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a depiction of our times and where we live. It represents the societies we create and how we take advantage of those to fulfill our selfish ends. The book removes masks that we sometimes wear and compels readers to take a better look at their worlds and surroundings. A disturbing read at times, however quite stark and impactful in its essence.

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Book Review: Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Title: Jerusalem: The Biography
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Publisher: Weidenfeld And Nicholson, Orion Books, Hachette Book Group
ISBN: 978-0297866923
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 696
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Jerusalem: The Biography is one of the great reads of the year for me and you should not miss out on reading this one. I have always loved reading anything by Simon Sebag Montefiore. He writes with honesty and passion that is hard to miss. Whether it is about Stalin as a boy and adolescent to Monsters and Heroes, Montefiore does a remarkable job of it.

Jerusalem is a true masterpiece – a biography of a city and yet so much more. It is not easy to write about a city – and also considering that the city is so old and ravaged by the brutalities of time. The thing about the book is that the reader feels as though he is stepping back in time and experiencing the history of Jerusalem first hand.
Jerusalem the book has been written in a very colourful manner – full of anecdotes, how the city came to be what it is today, the rulers, the ones who squandered and looted its riches, the ones who hold it in high regard – its Kings and its Prophets. Montefiore does not leave any stone unturned.

Having said that, there were times I would tend to disagree with the author and yet could not put the book down. There is not much in terms of guidance or analysis by the writer, and yet the book shines. What got me started was the role Jerusalem plays in the apocalyptic vision of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, and how that has been brought to light in this book. The other aspect that got me going was the deep-rooted connection between Christians and Muslims is made so evident and clear throughout the book and the way it is done is marvellous.

Sparkling and profound, the book is written keeping in mind the most terrible things that have happened behind her walls and also the richness of its land. The book does not take sides. It is an unbiased book and at the same time lays the facts as they are which should be the case while writing about a city. My favourite chapter in the book is, “Sunset of the Byzantines” which truly captures the essence of the book – its timeline and charisma in drawing historical references.

To review a book of Jerusalem’s stature would definitely require a research paper. It is that intense and deep. What I can say is that this is not one of your airport reads. It requires the time and attention that a book of this kind deserves. It however makes you turn the page and wonder at the scale and scope of Jerusalem’s place in history.

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Book Review: The Hindus – An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

Title: The Hindus: An Alternative History
Author: Wendy Doniger
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 9780143415343
Pages: 800
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

An extensive work on Hindus and Hindu Mythology isn’t something which I would’ve read a couple of years ago. Why? Because I would in all honesty find it boring and I am glad that was just a phase when I felt this way. I was introduced to Hindu Mythology and ancient culture by a friend, and I am glad that it gave me a different perspective and at the same time made me want to read more.

Wendy Doniger’s, “The Hindus: An Alternative History” is a big book about The Hindus. She has through extensive research almost dwelt on every topic in the book concerning religion and caste. However, the alternative history angle comes from the fact that the book is centred mainly on women and the lower caste.

The book isn’t about philosophy. It is more about a social history and of course that would involve various Gods and Goddesses. There are tribal tales as well, which are a totally different take on the regular epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata. I loved how Ms. Doniger brought these to the surface.

There is nothing new about the book per se. There are tales and facts and legends that most people are aware about. What is different is the way they have been documented. Wendy Doniger knows how to write and she does so without it being complex or difficult to read.

A beginner can read this book and understand The Hindu culture better. Each chapter has several textual examples – which are intended to communicate the beliefs and traditions in the form of myths and legends to the reader. This kind of writing always works with readers who may find the subject boring.

There is a lot of imagery in the book which probably could have been cut down on and yet that is one of the ways of better understanding while reading a book of this nature. At almost 800 pages though it does get tiresome to read. I for one had to put it down and pick it up several times before I could finish it completely.

Hinduism is an entire universe so to say. It isn’t easy to comprehend or chronicle and Wendy Doniger has done a reasonably good job in merging the old with the new. There will be times when an experienced reader will be tempted to argue with the writing, which is fair enough. At the same time, the book has a quite charm about it despite its flaws. I left taking in a stronger sense of how diverse a tradition Hinduism is and how it evolved over a period of time. There are many ways to represent Hinduism and how the world views it, and yet Doniger has given us another view – which is refreshing and conflicting at the same time.

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