Monthly Archives: January 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid : The Ugly Truth by Jeff Kinney

After all the heavy and so-called intellectual reads, it was now time that I jumped into some light reading and no better book to do that with than the new installment of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid – The Ugly Truth. I had chanced upon this book on a book-lending website and since then I have read each and every installment and also passed it on to my nieces and nephews and I am one happy uncle for doing so as they have immensely enjoyed the series.

Greg is just starting to deal with the onset of puberty (although it hasn’t hit him yet), and between his eternal search to be cool and trying talk to girls, he has lots of misadventures along the way. There’s the attempts at fooling the new “maid”, who turns out to be a lot harder to fool then he thought. There’s the upcoming family wedding, full of family “fun”. His immediate family is surprisingly absent from most of his big problems, but the rest of his family has no problems filling in for him. “Health” class and its new birds and bees lessons are just as awkward for Greg as they are in real life. And of course, there’s the big school sleep-over that eventually all goes down the toilet (I loved the flushing the cheesies down the toilet bit).

Compared to the other books in this series, I think this is the best one since the original. From a kid’s perspective, I was told that I should warn that there is a picture of a boy’s butt in this book. It’s not pretty, but it is funny. Beyond that, the humor here is a *little* bit more mature in general, but still accessible to the average child reader.

I suppose the strongest recommendation is that the kids I know who read it were sorry it ended so quickly (i.e., the roughly 200 pages went by too fast!). Kids wanting to read more is as good a recommendation as you can get, so maybe I’ll leave it at that. If you’re a fan of the series, this is a good read.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth; Kinney, Jeff; Puffin; Rs. 250

All and Nothing by Raksha Bharadia

I am not a fan of first books. In fact there are times I get scared reading firsts as I have had no reading experience with the particular author earlier. Call it a judgmental issue or a perceptive one, however that is how my reading gene works and we all have that reading gene somewhere, which works differently for different people.

So I was quite surprised when my gene acted out of the ordinary and read a first and actually enjoyed it. Well there you go! I managed to break into my gene just a little bit. And now to the review.

Human nature has always been the centre point of most novels and this one with that regard is no different. I think understanding human nature and its existence is one of the major quests for any novelist. It exists in almost all books written and read. All and nothing also sets out to do that at some level.

All and Nothing is about life – the travails, the small joys and the disappointments we sometimes face as we go along the way. It is about five individuals (seems familiar, doesn’t it?) who are somehow connected – but obviously, these guys are friends. Everyone is on the edge of their lives – either broken or on their way to being broken – issues ranging from domestic violence to discontentment to a marriage souring – the link that binds them.

Tina (one of the individuals) then summons them one fine day to share their stories from the beginning – from when it all started and that is where the story begins.

The plot is not very unique, however the way it has been told is. The characters at some point in the book grate to you, and there are times they are endearing and that is primarily because of the writing.  I did not love the book, nor did I dislike it. I liked it. There is no sense of closure towards the end which I personally liked. Some of it is left open for the reader to decipher and that is the beauty of the book. The layers are taut and do not give way easily. Would I recommend this book? Yes I would, however do not expect to read something extraordinary. Read it with an open mind and see what you discover. That is what reading should be, right?

All and Nothing; Bharadia, Raksha, Rupa and Co; Rs. 95

Mango Mood by Sharmila Kamat

The great French dramatist, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais once wrote, I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep. On going through the book, Mango Mood, one gets the impression that the author, Sharmila Kamat, too, subscribes to the same philosophy.

Indeed, Sharmila Kamat has an inborn flair for light satire. She has wielded her pen with ease to depict the foibles and weaknesses of human nature without hurting the feelings of the subjects of her pieces. From her writings, one gets the impression that she would like to see a change for the better from those entrusted with the destinies of the common man.

Her pieces on our society are lighthearted on the surface but, on closer observation, serve as pertinent comments on the way of life in our country. Besides making us chuckle, they arouse our conscience and set us thinking about what we would have dismissed as everyday realities.

From her articles, one concludes that human behaviour is the same everywhere. The vagaries of human nature are, and will continue to be, a fertile ground for humorous pieces by persons like Sharmila Kamat who possess an observant eye and a witty turn of phrase.

Today’s world is full of turmoil and tensions. A casual glance at a newspaper makes us realise that murder and mayhem reigns supreme across the globe. Internecine conflicts, regional tensions and the threat of terrorism have combined to make world peace a distant dream. We are fortunate, therefore, to have writers like Sharmila Kamat who, through their witty writings, make us laugh despite all these depressing realities.

Jean de la Bruyere, a seventeeenth century French essayist and moralist, once wrote, One must laugh before one is happy, or one may die without ever laughing at all.

Those who will read Sharmila’s pieces need not have this fear. It gives me great pleasure to recommend MANGO MOOD to the reading public.

Mango Mood; Kamat, Sharmila; Rupa and Co; Rs. 195

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

The Skating Rink begins as one kind of book, an awkwardly plotted ‘crime’ novel with a self-consciously literary narrative structure. The three narrators are plausible enough as characters but their narrative voices are not natural, not recognizably ‘themselves.’ This is especially so in the English translation, in which they have no syntactical fingerprints. I found myself wondering, as I read, how I would have reacted to the first half of The Skating Rink if I hadn’t already read some of Bolaño’s later novels. I might well have tossed it aside. In short, the first half – make that the first two-thirds – isn’t very good. I doubt that I’d have recognized the ‘promise’ in it.

Those three narrators are all men, writing about their involvement with women. The women remain phantom obsessions in the men’s minds. Two of the narrators are what Bolaño calls “hardened poets,” a sub-species unknown in most northern climates but endemic to Bolaño’s later writings as well. The third is a self-important obnoxious bureaucrat; Bolaño struggles, I think, to make this character psychologically credible. Someone will get murdered, readers are told early in the story, and all three narrators will be involved, but there isn’t precisely a mystery. The murder occurs late in the book, and the victim isn’t who one has been led to expect. The main action takes place in a sleazy beach town on the Catalan Costa Brava, where decomposition rules.

Social and individual decomposition would become Bolaño’s overriding theme in his later books, along with despair and depravity. Don’t expect beauty, joy, or lyricism in this or any other novel by Roberto Bolaño! Somewhere around two-thirds of the way through The Skating Rink a seismic shift occurs in Bolaño’s style, and the characteristics of his mature writing begin to emerge: his sinister cynicism, his queasy indirectness, his nightmarish sense of impending horror, above all his terrifying moral ambiguity. Nothing is ever not subjective, not merely one mind’s partial perception; every thought skates on the edge of madness. Even the eventual ‘murderer’s confession’ seems doubtful, possibly only one illusion in one debauched and damaged mind.

On the other hand, and as a solid recommendation, The Skating Rink is a much ‘easier’ book than Bolaño’s later novels. It’s short, the plot exposition is forthright, the syntax is uncomplicated, and there are few of the obscure allusions to Latin American literature and history that make his work challenging for anglophone readers. Bolaño was a major talent, the most interesting Latin American writer since Julio Cortázar, and his premiere novel might well serve to teach Americans how to read him as effectively as it taught him how to write.

The Skating Rink; Bolaño, Roberto; Picador; £14.99

So Cold The River by Michael Koryta

I strongly suggest you go to a bookstore and pick up SO COLD THE RIVER, Michael Koryta’s latest novel, and read the first sentence. I assure you that you’ll be as hooked as I was — and the rest of the novel is every bit as good and imaginative as that opening line.

Koryta has gifted us with literary crime and suspense novels that twist and turn into unexpected plot nooks and crannies while remaining highly believable and credible. Once again, he brings his exquisite craftsmanship to the table with SO COLD THE RIVER, though he is serving up an entirely different feast this time. Nominally a crime novel and somewhat of a mystery as well, his latest effort is primarily a tale of the supernatural. If you want to make comparisons, it’s a bit closer to Peter Straub than to Stephen King, but it’s closest of all to Koryta’s past work. Think of it as taking place in that fog-laden field that he has driven past in his other books and looked at without commenting on it. The man has a style of his own, and it really can be appreciated when he steps outside of — or expands — his zone of familiarity as he does here.

And what is that, exactly? Koryta sets SO COLD THE RIVER smack dab in the middle of the real world, within the West Baden/French Lick, Indiana area and a real landmark, the West Baden Springs Hotel, a magnificent building that is breathtaking in its design. Koryta’s descriptions of this resort, along with images of the hotel you can find online, will rock your world. But this is not a return to the Overlook Hotel, transplanted to Indiana. This is where Eric Shaw, the star-crossed protagonist, stays as a guest while planning the film that will hopefully revitalize his movie-making career. Eric is a would-be filmmaker who came so close to achieving fame. When he missed the golden ring, he left Hollywood with his beautiful and supportive wife and returned to their native Chicago, full of disillusion. Now estranged from his wife, he is making what money he can producing tribute films for funeral presentations.

It is while presenting one of these movies at a wake that he meets Alyssa Bradford. Campbell Bradford, Alyssa’s father-in-law, is 95 years old, a fabulously wealthy man whose past is cloaked in mystery and whose future is surely counted in weeks if not days. Alyssa retains Eric to make a tribute film about Campbell as a present for her husband. There is little that she can tell Eric about him, other than that he was from the French Lick area and had saved a bottle of the Pluto-brand mineral water that at one time had been produced in the area and was reputed to have restorative properties.

Eric’s research is uphill, to say the least. There are but a few locals in the area who remember Campbell Bradford, and all of them insist the Campbell that Eric is researching could not be the same man, given that the Campbell of their memory would have been much older — and more notorious — than the millionaire whose remaining days are few and numbered. That bottle of Pluto Water, however, is behaving very strangely. The bottle itself has been cold to the touch ever since it got within spitting distance of West Baden. And, worse, Eric took a sip from the bottle. It is evident from the start that Eric isn’t quite right and may never be right again if he keeps drinking that water. Yet he can’t help himself.

Eric is not without allies. He meets a levelheaded graduate student named Kellen Cage, who is in the area doing research of his own. There is also an octogenarian named Anne McKinney, a storm watcher who senses that something big is coming. That something is Josiah Bradford, the last living descendent of the original Campbell Bradford. Josiah feels he is owed, and old, long-dead and long-gone Campbell just might feel the same way. Something is coming to West Baden — and when it gets there, nothing will be the same.

Those who enjoy crime novels and/or ghost stories will love SO COLD THE RIVER. Everything you could want is here in spades — romance, mystery, revenge, violence, and yes, redemption — and Koryta’s fine wordcraft and attention to detail make it even better. Set aside a night or two for it, and you will not be sorry.

So Cold the River; Koryta, Michael; Back Bay Books; $14.99