Monthly Archives: July 2011

Book Review: The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road: Edited by Paul Theroux

Title: The Tao of Travel: Edited by Paul Theroux
Author: Paul Theroux
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241145258
Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel,
PP: 256 pages
Price: Rs. 499
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have read many of Theroux’s previous travel books, have enjoyed all of them, and have learned something from each of them. Therefore it was with considerable anticipation that I read this book. I knew before I read it that it would be a compendium or compilation of travel musings from Theroux and others, and I was not sure whether I would enjoy it. I am happy to say that I enjoyed the book thoroughly and that it quite exceeded my expectations.

It is true that there is very little that is original in this book. So what? What is there is marvelous, and even though Theroux quotes from himself a good bit, it is also quite true that it is highly unlikely that I would ever have come across most of the reflections on travel by other authors that Theroux includes here. That alone makes this book a gem. For example, here is this pearl from Hans Christian Andersen, right on page 1: “Homesickness is a feeling that many know and suffer from; I on the other hand feel a pain less known, and its name is ‘Outsickness.'” Is there any true traveler with whom that quote won’t resonate? I am very much like Theroux in that, like him, I have felt a wanderlust, and urge to travel, at least from childhood or early adolescence, and it is exactly that wanderlust that Andersen is referring to when he mentions “Outsickness.” For me the urge to travel began when I read Richard Halliburton’s books as a teenager, and I was happy to see that Theroux mentions and quotes from Halliburton here. This is especially gratifying because, although Halliburton is remembered and revered by people of a certain age, he is almost forgotten today.

Theroux does not shrink from differentiating between travelers and tourists. I had to chuckle at one of Theroux’s own comments: “Choose your country, use guidebooks to identify the areas most frequented by foreigners–and then go in the opposite direction.” This is very similar to something I have always said to acquaintances that I consider serious travelers–if, when you tell people where you are going and their response is “what the hell do you want to go THERE for?”–then you know you’re going to the right place. Theroux also mentions other essentials of travel if it is truly going to be the learning experience or epiphany that you want it to be: travel alone, don’t overplan, and above all, leave your electronic equipment at home.

This book is unlike anything that Theroux has written before in that it seems to be a distillation of everything essential to be said about travel–hence, I suppose, the title. But it also caused me to wonder, given that Theroux recently turned seventy: is this Theroux’s swan song? Is this his goodbye to travel writing? Is this his way of saying “that’s all there is; there is no more?” Will we be seeing any more travel books from Paul Theroux? If that is indeed the case, then this book is a very worthy ending to an illustrious career. If you love travel, and if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to buy a copy posthaste.

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Book Review: Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner

Title: Jerusalem Maiden
Author: Talia Carner
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0062004376
Genre: Fiction
PP: 464 pages
Price: $14.99
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Spanning the 20th century from 1911 through the 1968 epilogue, “Jerusalem Maiden” is a fascinating story which focuses on the life of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman. Talia Carner draws the reader into the life of Esther Kaminsky, the “Jerusalem Maiden”; and, in doing so, provides insight into the history of Israel and the cultural differences among its diverse citizens. On a deeper level, the novel presents the reader with dilemmas that many individuals face. That is, whether to follow your own dream or whether to follow cultural dictates and the expectations of your society. Further, the heroine, as do many individuals, experiences deep turmoil with respect to her faith as she strives to ascertain the direction Hashem (God) would have her choose for her life.

“Jerusalem Maiden” highlights the internal conflict that Esther experiences as she struggles between those choices. In developing the storyline from Esther’s perspective, Talia Carner opens a view of Jewish culture and world history that may be unfamiliar to many readers. However, the novel never loses the focus on Esther’s conflict – whether to pursue art, effectively abandoning her religious upbringing and her family, or whether to follow the path of marriage and motherhood as is expected of young Haredi women. Seeking to know God’s will, Esther must make choices that conflict with her upbringing.

Talia Carner has developed “Jerusalem Maiden’s” characters with rare skill. One finds they are drawn into the characters’ personal conflicts, caring deeply that the outcome will be favorable for a particular individual. The women are very much alive in the pages of this book. The male characters are as well drawn as the female protagonist, her sister Hannah, or her friend Ruthi. Nevertheless, the men’s lives and personalities are not as fully described as those of the women. However, Carner does furnish sufficient detail to provide the reader with insight into the male characters’ mindset – which exacerbates Esther’s conflict between fulfilling personal desires and bowing to the dictates of societal expectations.

I recommend “Jerusalem Maiden” to any reader who is looking for a fascinating read. It is a well written, deeply personal portrait of a young woman struggling to follow her dreams without sacrificing her family or the principles by which she has been raised. You will find yourself hoping that she can do so.

Book Review: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

Title: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
Author: David Eagleman
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847679383
Genre: Non-Fiction
PP: 272 pages
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

An unremarkable looking man is walking by a bakery, looks through the window, breaks it with his fist, and grabs a chocolate éclair. As the offending hand draws the stolen éclair towards the horrified man’s mouth, his other hand grabs the arm with the éclair grasping hand and tries to force it back. It’s a ridiculous scenario, a man fighting with himself on a public sidewalk, one arm struggling with the other as the poor man screams at the offending hand over which he seems to have no control. Something out of a Jim Carey movie? Perhaps. It could also be an actual manifestation of alien hand syndrome, a side effect of split brain surgery in which one hand has a mind of its own. Alien hand syndrome is one of many brain conditions detailed by David Eagleman in his heady book about the brain, Incognito.

This writer has no science or medical background yet even he could understand (mostly) Eagleman’s text about our most current understanding of the human brain, a marvel of the universe that has begrudgingly revealed some its secrets to investigators and kept hidden so many more.

Incognito is a book of answers and a book of questions. We learn that 15% of women have four color receptors, not three like the rest of us. These tetra chromatic women actually see colors that others can’t. Then again because of the variations in our individual brains, reality can be subjective. When we look at something red, are we seeing the same thing? Are our perceptions of size, color, and light universally the same? According to Eagleman our brain constructs our reality. We may think that we’ve just had a brilliant inspiration, but our subconscious had already come to the realization minutes before sharing it with our conscious mind.

I did enjoy reading Incognito and found it understandable and for the most part well paced. Eagleman introduces his chapter topic immediately, develops and elaborates it and then reviews it at chapter’s end while making connections to what has come before. He then foreshadows the next chapter’s topic while connecting it to the preceding topic.

The author presents some interesting and intriguing questions about the culpability of those with brain disorders or chemical imbalances. We are not all equal – our judgment influenced by experiences, toxins, or drug use by self or by one’s mother. A latter chapter about determining criminals’ punishment based on what we know about that person’ brain and degree of culpability becomes tedious at times and more about the criminal justice system than the brain.

A person interested in the workings of the brain should enjoy this book. Eagelman concludes that the brain is a perplexing masterpiece still full of mystery and magic for those seeking to unlock its secrets.

Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Title: Ape House
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, Hachette
ISBN: 978-1444715996
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 320 pages
Price: $15.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This book inspired me to do something I haven’t done in a long (long) time. I stayed awake! Until 3 in the morning! I can’t remember the last time I did this, it’s been a while since a book has grabbed me like Ape House. In fact, I think the last one may have been Sara Gruen’s much applauded Water for Elephants. This woman just has a way of pulling me into a book that makes me never want to let go.

Anyway, the blurb would have you know that this “is an absorbing, heart-warming and ultimately uplifting tale of how six bonobo apes change the lives of three humans”. Isabel Duncan works as a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, a scientific research facility which examines language acquistion in primates. She clearly has a better rapport with the bonobos than with humans and she is devastated when the facility is blown up, allegedly by animal liberationists and her beloved animals end up being used in a particularly sick reality tv show named Ape House. John Thigpen is a down at heel journalist who finds the bonobo story fascinating. His fiancee, Amanda, is trying to carve a career as an author but she’s not handling the rejection letters very well. Throw in a briefly appearing green haired vegan, a pink haired animal rights supporter named Celia who becomes Isabel’s ally, some lapdancers, a salivating pit bull terrier named Booger and you have a extremely quirky backdrop. What ensues is a madcap race to save the bonobos with many plot twists and turns along the way.

Ape House is simply an amazing novel! It tells the story not so much of a group of individuals, but the story of a family who manage to influence everyone around them. These apes are awesome and I loved that Gruen let the bonobos be the center of everything, even while we were worrying over John’s crumbling world and Isabel’s injuries. The apes were there to give everyone something to love and to save. Actually, they gave the book its entire purpose! (Obviously…moving on…) I thought it was great that we got to see into their (the apes) lives and were even treated to glimpses of the strange human world from behind their eyes. I loved how much I learnt from this book! Gruen did a fantastic amount of research and I could definitely feel that coming through in the stories, the actions and the descriptions of the apes.

Alongside the apes we have Isabel and John. Now that I’ve had some time to think about their characters, I actually don’t think I actually liked either of them very much. They were nice, but they were just… a bit boring to be totally honest. Luckily, Gruen placed an eccentric and fun cast of supporting characters alongside these slightly bland protagonists. First, we have Isabel’s vivacious intern/research assistant Celia, who added some needed oomph to Isabel’s chapters and who I adored! She even comes armed with a group of nerd minions who were very entertaining. Then we have my favorite random character, John’s upstairs neighbour, Ivanka the Russain stripper who watches the opera singing meth lab dog while John was off doing some reporting… you’re intrigued now, aren’t ya?!

Final thoughts: Ape House kept me turning the pages into the early morning with a gripping and unique plot that my sleep muddled brain didn’t manage to work out until practically the last chapter! It’s one of those books that had me flipping the pages, desperate to find out how it would all end, and then made me mourn the loss of the characters for days. Can I go meet some signing apes now, pretty please? Overall, another great book from Sara Gruen and I would recommend it to everyone.

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Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury, Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1408818596
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 368 pages
Price: Rs. 1000
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I found this review quite difficult to write, much as I found parts of the book hard to read. The strange thing is that I’m not sure why I struggled so much with the beginning of this book.

I have read Ann Patchett’s famous ‘Bel Canto’, which I thoroughly enjoyed although I was a little frustrated by the ending. Yet State of Wonder was exactly the opposite. I have seen so many glowing reviews of it over the last few weeks, many of which were by readers whose advice I almost always take. Everyone, it seems, loves this book. So when I picked it up I had high expectations and was looking forward to getting sucked into the world of the Brazilian jungle. Fifty pages later I was getting frustrated, and it felt as though the book was still going nowhere fast.

Although it took me a few days, I persevered, simply because of all the good things I had heard about it. Then, about halfway through, something just clicked into place, and I found myself reading faster and faster as I became engrossed in the story at last. I think part of the problem is that so much of the beginning of the book is taken up by waiting. You know that Marina (the main character) is going to go to Brazil in the end, and that she is eventually going to reach the jungle. The problem is that it takes so long, and while she is bored and irritated, it is all too easy for the reader to echo her feelings. In a way this is testament to Patchett’s talent at drawing you into the world of the book, but it does slow the story down.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointing opening, I am so glad that I carried on and finished State of Wonder. Why? Because the second half of the book more than makes up for the first. There is real emotion in the writing, and the characters are well-drawn and more than a little real. The interaction between scientists and members of the local tribes is fascinating, and Easter, a young deaf boy, is my favourite character by far. The story revolves partly around the science and discoveries that Marina is sent to check up on, and partly around the death of her predecessor Anders Eckman, who was her friend and colleague. She has promised his wife that she will find out exactly what happened to him, and the emotion of this storyline was what made the book all the more special.

Soon after his wife hears of his death at the beginning of the story, a letter arrives that he wrote a long time ago in the jungle, and these letters, which it becomes clear he wrote with increasing desperation as he became more ill, keep surfacing due to the slow and unreliable post. These letters from a dying man to his wife and young sons at home are so poignant that it is impressive that the scientific side of the story managed to be equally compelling.

Knowing that I hadn’t really liked the ending of her previous book ‘Bel Canto’, I was wary of how this one would end. But in fact I thought it was as close to perfect as it could possibly have been. The last quarter of this book in particular was a masterpiece, so my advice is to read this as soon as you get the chance. If you find the opening as tough as I did then please hang in there – the pace picks up later on, and it’s well worth your while to continue to the end. I’m just glad that I had read all the positive reviews and had the courage of my convictions to stick at it all the way through!

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State of Wonder