Daily Archives: August 15, 2011

Book Review: Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

Title: Saraswati Park
Author: Anjali Joseph
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Genre: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-8172239947
Pages: 400
Price: Rs. 399
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Saraswati Park is about a middle class family in Bombay. Husband Mohan is a professional letter writer. This is not a growth field. He gets some work putting pen to paper for divided lovers and families and the occasional check but he spends more and more of his time pursuing his real passion. He buy old novels from the secondhand stalls and scrawls away in the margins. His dream is step out of the margins and be a novelist. Mohan’s wife, Lakshmi, is in crisis. She is in mourning for the death of her only brother and maybe for her marriage as well. The couple takes in their nephew Ashish. Ashish is troubled by his sexuality, unhappy romances and having to repeat his final year of college.

It’s just a lovely book full of the minor domestic dramas that we all live through, and an all too rare instance of a well-written book that suggests family life isn’t there just so the young have something from which to escape. There are very, very few false steps in the prose and that credit goes purely to the writer and for conjuring up this world.

This is a kitchen sink kind of novel. The dramas and the humorous moments are small, intimate and happening to ordinary people. Most of the Indian novels I have read have been big multi-generational affairs with a cast of thousands ranging all over our history. What a welcome change Saraswati Park is to my usual Indian writers’ diet.

Joseph carefully introduces us to everyday quiet. The lives she examines are not eccentric, not flashy, not starting a dynasty or representing the history or future of a nation. These people are trying to find their way and with Anjali Jospeh’s skills their journey is an exulting experience that must be cherished word for word.

Book Review: The Proof of Honey by Salwa Al Neimi

Title: The Proof of the Honey
Author: Salwa Al Neimi
Publisher: Europa Editions
Genre: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781933372686
Pages: 160
Price: $15.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This is a sliim, beguiling novel that reads like a memoir. The author, an Arab woman living in Paris, writes about an Arab woman living in Paris who is reflecting on her relationships with men and with sex itself. The story draws on ancient erotic Arabic literary texts as a context in which the narrator views herself and her encounters.

The reader, by the way, is never quite sure which of those adventures are real and which imagined. But drawing a distinction when it comes to sex between “the real” and “the imagined” is one of the things this novel challenges: “He was just as my words had shaped him. The image belongs to me; it has nothing to do with him” (p138). No writer I have read blends so successfully sexual frankness, human insight, and poetic delicacy. Moreover this remarkable sensitivity, Al Neimi argues, derives from an extraordinary tradition of Arabic erotica that leads to, rather than away from, that God who both creates and blesses our desires.

The author, through her narrator, propounds an extreme feminist view — with curious spears of male chauvinism protruding in some passages. Using this short volume as a barometer, the sexual revolution that shook the Western world in the 1960’s and ’70’s may be, for good or not, edging farther into the Muslim consciousness now.

The sensual cover suggests a novella of refined eroticism and lyricism. One cannot, upon finishing the book, be entirely satisfied, however, because the thin plot is really veneer for mini essays, the thoughts are often confused and partial, and, although sexual honey and seductive lower backs are embedded (pun intended) in certain passages, for the most part, one needn’t fan oneself from embarrassment. Much original English-language erotic literature is arguably far more developed and arousing than this translation.

“The Proof of the Honey” is an important book because it dispels cultural stereotypes while transcending the local to make all of us think more deeply about the realm of the senses. What her lover tells the heroine of this novel is what we might say of its author: “I love two things about you. Your free spirit and your Arabness”.

Book Review: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory

Title: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day
Author: Ben Loory
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0143119500
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 224
Price: $15.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is a strangely compelling little book. Contained within it are thirty-nine short short stories (one is only three sentences long) and a longer fortieth story, grudgingly appended by the author.

Usually with short story collections I want to read the stories one at a time, to savor them. I couldn’t do that with Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day though. Loory’s stories–the publisher calls them contemporary fables and I think that’s apt–are compulsively readable. They are poignant and unsettling, simple and profound. And I wanted to eat them all up!

So of the stories I liked better than others. For example: The Book, a story that teaches you to use your imagination. The Octopus, a story that shows you that you can always return home. Also there was the story, The End of It All, about a husband and a wife, where the wife is taken by an alien. The man searches all over to find her to no end. Though, the man never finds his wife, he would not trade anything in the world for the time that he did get to spend with her. Of course, there were some stories that I did not like as well. Than there were the dark stories. Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day has a little bit of everything for everyone to enjoy. Don’t be fooled by the title of this collection of stories and the stories can be read any time of the day or night.

I think saying they are reworked versions of age old stories is doing the collection a disservice, but my brain made connections to The Ugly Ducking, The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes among others, enough to feel that Loory was inspired by them.

I suppose this is one of those books you’re either going to love or hate. It brought a smile to my face and I was reluctant to put it down so it’s safe to say I loved it. I’m sure there’s lots of analysis that could be done but I’m going to leave it at that.

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Book Review: Berlin Syndrome by Melanie Joosten

Title: Berlin Syndrome
Author: Melanie Joosten
Publisher: Scribe
ISBN: 9781921844140
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 246
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5/5

While travelling in Berlin taking photographs of architecture, Clare meets the charming Andi, a German English teacher. What seems to be a tale of holiday romance quickly turns sour, as Clare comes to realize that Andi is not what he seems and finds herself being kept captive in his apartment. During her captivity she submits to Stockholm Syndrome, simultaneously hating and desiring her captor and her situation. Most interesting about Melanie Joosten’s debut novel Berlin Syndrome is that the story is told from the perspective of both characters.

Told mainly through internal monologues of the two central characters, we become aware of the ambivalence of both: Clare wanting to escape and not wanting to escape, Andi knowing what he is doing is wrong, but not knowing how to stop it. There seems to be a very vague suggestion that the situation in Andi’s apartment is meant to mirror the experience of the divide in post-war Berlin, a similarity between feeling trapped in by the walls and The Wall. I don’t yet know enough about the history of Berlin to sense if this is applicable here, but I did pick up on a parallel being drawn.

Berlin Syndrome is a fast-paced novel told with claustrophobic tension. You feel as though you too are trapped in the apartment, staring aimlessly through the window at the television tower. As the violence, both emotional and physical, escalates, their relationship and Clare’s entrapment becomes more complex, almost seeming impossible to resolve. Though the ending works on a thematic and symbolic level, I’m not sure if it is narratively satisfying. However, Berlin Syndrome is a powerfully taut examination of the psychology of captivity from both the captor and the captive perspectives and the tension and suspense created is more than enough to keep the reader hooked.