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There Once Lived A Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Vanishings and apparitions, nightmares and twists of fate, mysterious ailments and supernatural interventions haunt this book of otherworldly power by Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer, heir to the spellbinding tradition of Gogol and Poe.

Blending the miraculous with the macabre, and leavened by a mischievous gallows humor, these bewitching tales are like nothing being written in Russia – or anywhere else in the world- today.

Twisted, ghostly, and apocalyptic describe these tales, with characters that are on the brink of madness or despair. Most start out like simple, but slightly off folk tales – There once lived a woman whose son hanged himself, There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life, There once lived a girl who found herself in an unknown place, on a cold winter night.

Then suddenly the stories take us out of ordinary existence and into strange, nightmarish worlds, described by the author as “orchards of unusual possibilities.” Some recognizable tropes appear, but the landscape is completely unfamiliar and disconcerting. Instead of a child lost in the woods, we have a father with no children, a husband with no wife. He has no memory of who his family is and yet he keeps searching for them.

There once lived a father who couldn’t find his children. He went everywhere, asked everyone—had his little children come running in here? But whenever people responded with the simplest of questions—“What do they look like?” “What are their names?” “Are they boys or girls?”—he didn’t know how to answer. He simply knew that his children were somewhere, and he kept looking.

What starts out seemingly as a ghost story, There’s Someone in the House, becomes something quite different. Who or what is the woman in the house battling against? A ghost, her daughter or herself?

…Someone is secretly, soundlessly creeping from room to room. That’s how it seems.

The woman doesn’t tell anyone about her poltergeist: It’s still hiding, not knocking, not causing mischief, not setting anything on fire. The refrigerator isn’t hooping around the apartment; the poltergeist isn’t chasing her into a corner. Really there is nothing to complain about.

But something has definitely moved in, some kind of living emptiness, small of stature but energetic and pushy, sneaking and slithering along the floor…

A mother frets over her Thumbelina-sized cabbage patch child. Profound illumination comes to a woman lost in the woods with nothing but matches to light her way. A family quarantines itself when a disfiguring infectious disease ravages their town.

In these realms of the unusual, nothing is ever straightforward or neatly wrapped up; like disturbing dreams from which one awakens, they are not easily explained or forgotten.

There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill her Neighbour’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales; Petrushevskaya, Ludmilla; Penguin Classics; Penguin Group; £9.99

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

I bought this book on a lark. Under normal circumstances, I would have probably not read this type of a book. Parenting and I do not come close – sometimes I feel like being a parent and then there are times I think that I may not make a good parent. There is always this doubt that creeps in and stays there. It is not easy being a parent. The balance between authority and leniency is needed and only a parent would know how to work around it or so it seems.

The book is more of a memoir than a handbook on Chinese vs. American Parenting styles, though that was the intent of the author. It is about the author’s way of parenting – The Chinese Style and how it impacts her two daughters – Sophia and Lulu. Amy Chua is a Chinese American, born in the USA to middle-class Chinese parents who had immigrated to the US from China via the Philippines.  A very attractive, intellectually bright, hard working young woman she studied at Harvard Law School. She broke with her family’s expectations when she married a Jewish American who was also a lawyer (Jed Rubenfield, author of the run-away best seller ‘The Interpretation of Murder).  Both she and her husband are Professors of Law at Yale.  They have two daughters, Sophia and Lulu (Louisa), and this book is about her views on parenting and how she has brought them up.

She opens by declaring herself a ‘Chinese’ mother, and by that she means someone who is extremely strict with her children, who demands academic success from them and will make them work for hours on end to achieve it. Second place is never an option, getting an A- is not good enough, straight As are the only thing that counts.  Western parents, she says, even when they think they are strict, never come close and as a result their children never achieve their full potential and become super-successful.

From the moment her daughters were born, she had mapped out a parenting style from which she did not waiver until the girls had reached the targets she had set for them.  She had determined that both girls would play musical instruments, Sophia the piano and Lulu the violin, and what is more, they would be the best at it, and would win awards and accolades.  Simultaneously they had to be top in all academic subjects, no excuses would be tolerated.  This meant a punishingly hard schedule, not just for Sophia and Lulu, but for Amy herself, as she juggled her career as a full time lawyer holding seminars, flying all over the USA, writing legal books, then as an academic, whilst driving the girls for hours from teacher to teacher and then standing over them as they practiced late into the night. Any of the normal aspects of modern childhood in an affluent western society were ruthlessly jettisoned. No sleepovers, no play dates, no TV, no video-games, no joining after-school clubs, Girl Scouts, ballet or drama classes. No participation in the school play or in sports of any kind – all these were considered rubbish by Amy.

Chua doesn’t mince words as a mother. Reading her honest confession, it sometimes comes across as harsh in the ways she addresses her kids. She justifies some of the more painful interactions with proof of the success of her children. Both musiclally gifted, they achieve high honors early in their careers. Chua wouldn’t accept anything less.

It was also clear to Chua to distinguish between “Western” style parenting and Chinese parenting. Here is probably the harshest part of the book, and ultimately why I reduced my rating down a star. Clearly, Chua’s disdain over Western style parenting techniques shows up on many of the pages. She needed to do so to justify her choices as a Chinese parent. However, it runs the risk of alienating some of the audience that would have reacted more kindly to the book. However, Chua is merely being honest. Still, it doesn’t always make for a comfortable read.

One other thing that many “reviewers” miss is the parts of the book outside the realm of parenting. Chua writes lovingly of her decision to allows dogs in the family, which is funny and surprising. Also, the painful recounting of her sister’s fight with leukemia is harrowing and real. I appreciated her putting some of these elements in her story to round it out.

Chua’s voice is hilarious, intelligent, human, aggressive, and insanely blunt. This combination makes her offensive to many people but the way she mocks herself endears her to me. She’s self aware enough to know that she can be wrong and that she can be overly obsessive. I liked the book mainly because it was an entertaining, touching, well written memoir. It also contains insights into Asian culture and values, and into human nature in general. I don’t think it’s intended to be instructional or preachy- she’s not trying to use her memoir as an “Autobiography of Malcolm X”-like call to action. Although I do think Chua thinks she’s right about almost everything and her daughters are amazing, I don’t think she thinks everyone else should strive to be like her, nor do I think her “we must be the best / we are the best” attitude is the message of the book- it’s just her personality. The sheer amount of time and energy she put into the upbringing of her kids and into every project she approaches is staggering (even for an Asian person!), and I think she acknowledges that she’s atypically obsessive and anal, for example when she relates funny anecdotes about how she tried applying her Chinese parenting methods to her fluffy, clueless dog.

As a memoir, Chua’s book is great. Because of her writing, she makes me interested in her life even though she’s not an important historical figure or anything. Her use of language really pushes the humor into the laugh out loud zone for me (for instance she describes the discovery that her dog ranks low in intelligence as “nauseating”). In addition, I relate to a lot of what she’s saying as a Chinese person. For example she proudly asserts for the record that she is the only Asian her husband has ever dated, and she has funny anecdotes about how first generation asians are so frugal they worry about using too much dish detergent. I think her bluntness will offend a lot of people because they take it to mean she is cruel or rude- she’ll use words like “fatty,” “lazy,” and “loser,” words that white people do not use casually in the presence of their children. In contrast many Asians are very ready to use those words and it isn’t meant to just insult for the sake of hurting someone’s feelings. It’s a cultural difference that Chinese people are less tactful and more blunt in their language, particularly when they are talking to family.

One of the best passages in the book is when the author describes her view of where TRUE confidence comes from. She believes that TRUE confidence cannot just be externally given(through repeated praise etc) instead it comes from working hard and persevering at something until you not only pass it, but MASTER it. This is exemplefied in the most controversial part of the book where she forces her daughter to practise the piano for hours without a break until she masters a musical piece. She did go too far here; however the point was that her daughter truly believed she was INCAPABLE of playing the piece. So her confidence grew mountains when she not only made a breakthrough and played it correctly, she mastered it and played it with ease and came to love it. She learned through experience as opposed to the ‘mantra method’ of you can do/be anything you want to be with perseverance and hard effort.

I finished the book in a day and loved the insights. I for once wished that my mother had raised me that way – to be an over-achiever. I somehow and totally agree to Ms. Chua’s style of parenting. It is much needed in the times we live in. Parenting is not easy. The choices we think we make sometimes may or may not always be right, however one has to make them, even if they change or tilt the balance. But then again it is each one to his own. All in all this is a book you should not be missing out on.

I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

I Am Number Four By: Pittacus Lore – aka James Frey – is a thrilling sci-fi story that once I picked up, I found it hard to put down. With characters that you’ll remember long after reading and a whirlwind plot that’ll leave you ready for more, Lore/Frey has created an alien series that many will enjoy and love.

Throughout the book we learn about John Smith – Number Four – and how he and eight other children and their guardians came to earth. With their planet and its entire people lost to a war with the evil Mogadorian race, the Nine and their guardians fled to Earth to hide in hopes that someday they will be able to return to their home planet of Lorien and rebuild.

With the nine children connected, each given a number as a name – they can only be killed in numerical order, so when John gets his third scar, it’s a warning that he’s next on the Morgadorian list. Being in constant danger John and Henri, his “Keeper” or Cepan must move from place to place to not only stay alive, but to help keep the other five alive as well.

I found myself eager to learn more about the aliens and the planet Lorien. Lore/Frey does a pretty good job of painting a picture of a foreign world that was easy to imagine. With visions of the past laced throughout the book, it was not only significant for John, Henri and their character growth, but also for understanding just who and what this humanoid alien race was all about.

John and his struggles to understand his people and his planet and to learn more about the powers or Legacies he begins to develop. just added so many layers to an already likeable character. And Henri and his want and need to teach and protect John shined through making Henri appear more as a father to John and then anything else. And I can’t forget to mention Bernie Kosar. He may have been a little dog and companion to John, but he was such a key character throughout that it takes you until almost the very end to see just what this dog was made out of. I wish I had a dog like Bernie.

All in all, the writing was smooth, the characters likable and the story highly entertaining. The twists and turns from the first to the last few pages, and boy what a last few pages those where, made me extremely eager to read the next installment. I, for one am more then looking forward to finding out just what happens next for Number Four and the other aliens still left alive and hiding in plain site on earth. Enjoy!

Here is a trailer of the film:

I am Number Four; Lore, Pittacus; Penguin;

The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

Fractal designs, such as used to be popular twenty years ago, have the property that any part of them replicates the whole in miniature. If you zoom in on even the tiniest detail, you can reach an understanding of the entire shape. This analogy occurs to me after reading THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe, a late work by the Japanese Nobel Laureate, and so far the only thing by him that I have read. Where most novels have a linear narrative behind them, this one reads as a series of one-sided conversations, thoughts about literature and other arts, buried memories, and some bizarre incidents — all generally minor in themselves, but each seemingly endowed with immense hidden significance, each a clue to some overall design that only gradually emerges as the various details replicate and mirror one another.

Despite its abstract content, the book is easy to read and its framework simple. Kogito Choko, a celebrated writer, is listening to some tapes sent him by his brother-in-law Goro Hanawa, once his childhood friend and now a famous film director. At the end of one of the cassettes, Goro remarks “So anyway, that’s it for today — I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Immediately after, Goro throws himself out of the window of his high building. Kogito (an obsessive thinker, aptly named by his father from the phrase “cogito ergo sum”) engages in months of conversation with the dead Goro, playing snatches of the tapes, stopping them for his own response, and then continuing to hear his friend’s answer. When his wife suggests he needs to get away, he accepts a guest professorship in Berlin, where Goro had himself lived a few years back.

As an example of Oe’s method, take the chapter in which Kogito is being interviewed on television in connection with the Berlin Film Festival. There is a long section about how he gets to the interview, or almost doesn’t get to it: crossed wires with the person picking him up, confusion at the hotel where this is taking place, description of the technicians setting up the equipment in the hotel ballroom, the physical arrangement of the chairs, backdrop, camera, monitors, all in obsessive detail. And then, without further preamble, Kogito is shown a number of film clips on the monitor: samurai fighting off a peasant army, and a modern game of rugby football. He recognizes it as scenes from a book he had written, entitled RUGBY MATCH 1860. In the novel, he had used the battle and the game as metaphors, but he intrigued by the decision of these filmmakers to film them literally, with an acute feeling for the Japanese atmosphere. He is told that what he has just seen is the only footage from the project so far shot, but the young filmmakers have run out of money; would he be willing to concede them the rights for free? Kogito’s translator warns him that he is being ambushed, but he agrees, and the chapter ends.

The core of this chapter, I believe, lies in one of its smallest details, the samurai film clip. Certain aspects of it reflect other images we encounter involving Kogito’s father, who appears to have been something of a philosophical leader of an ultra-right-wing movement opposing the Japanese surrender to the US. Kogito’s own politics, on the other hand, are liberal, so perhaps he is the Changeling of the title? (Or one of them, along with Goro.) One begins to see that the whole novel is about change. In the background, there is the reconstruction of Japanese society after defeat. But this is worked out in terms of ideas — translation between languages, translation of one medium into another (writing into film or opera), and perhaps (as the example above would suggest) the handing over of ideas from one generation to another.

The fractal metaphor works on the personal level as well. From what I can gather, this novel reflects themes from every other book that Oe has written, and these in turn reflect the author’s life. His brother-in-law was indeed a famous film director, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in a similar way. Like the fictional Kogito, Kenzaburo Oe has a son who was born brain-damaged, barely able to communicate in words, but who eventually found success as a composer. All Oe’s novels contain such a character, and the writer has spoken of his aim to give his son a voice denied to him in life. While the composer-son plays a relatively small role here, Oe shifts the relationship back a generation, as Kogito tries to understand the legacy of his own father and the huge changes between the Japan of his time and that of the present. The themes of rebirth and the passing of the torch between generations become clear only at the very end, but after so much mind-play they bring a lovely touch of simple human emotion.

Changeling, The; Oe, Kenzaburo; Atlantic Books; Penguin Group; Rs. 999

Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

A voice is surpressed because something is written about a particular political party. Is it fair? Is it fair to remove the book from the Arts syllabus by the University of a city by the sea (once known as Bombay and now Mumbai)? The knowledge that political parties and the party in control agreed to it, was further shocking. I do not understand or see the sense when books are banned. I do not get it. Authors like anyone else have a right to express themselves – if you do not like it, then please do not read it. It is as simple as that. Not like anyone is forcing you to. Moreover, a single young man of twenty-odd years can make such a decision, even without reading the book is appalling. I am astounded by the turn of events in the past couple of months and wonder whether would anyone have the freedom of expression any more. To this, here is my review of “Such A Long Journey”, written when we still had a voice.

Sometimes compared to Dickens or Victor Hugo for the strength of his descriptions, Rohinton Mistry uses “ordinary” men and women as his protagonists and fills his novels with the sights, sounds, smells, and color of India. Depicting his characters as neither saints nor sinners, he involves the reader in their lives as they try to survive the complexities of their culture.

In this novel, Gustad Noble and his wife Dilnavaz, living in a congested apartment building in Bombay, try to lead good lives and inspire their children during Indira Gandhi’s rule in the 1970s, with all its political, professional, and social upheaval. India is on the verge of war with the Muslims of Pakistan, and though Gustad, a Parsi, is aware of political chicanery, he is far more pre-occupied with having his son accepted at a school of technology, doing his job as a bank supervisor, and supporting his family. Constant blackouts and continually deteriorating conditions on the street add to the frustrations of Gustad’s life.

Then Jimmy Bilimoria, an old friend, asks Gustad for help, claiming that he is training freedom fighters in Bangladesh to act on behalf of the Indian government against Pakistani “butchers.” Gustad reluctantly agrees to use his position at the bank to deposit money to a secret account, but he soon finds himself enmeshed in a spiral from which he cannot break out, his life turned upside down.

Throughout the novel, the wall outside Gustad’s apartment building symbolizes the larger world of Bombay and parallels some aspects of Gustad’s own life. At the outset, it is used as a latrine, breeding illness in the neighborhood but keeping the noise and tumult of the street out of the apartment house. When Gustad persuades a sidewalk artist to paint it, he depicts scenes from all the religions of India, and the wall becomes a shrine–until the government decides to widen the road and tear it down. Gustad’s personal crisis and the fate of the wall intersect in a conclusion both moving and profound.

Readers who delight in plot development may be disappointed. There are plots and subplots of sorts in this book — will Noble’s son reject a shot at an engineering degree? will his daughter regain her health? will a former neighbor, now in New Delhi, be found out as a good guy or a bad guy? will a prized homage to spirituality survive the wrecker’s ball? will the bank manager learn the truth about some misguided deposits and spill the beans? will the simpleton get the, uh, girl? — but, to me at least, these stories appear and drift away without careful crafting or much urgency in the telling. Rather, Mistry uses his plot lines more as opportunities to describe modern Indian society, in its complexity, and Noble’s passage through it.

The novel, in short, is comic, melodramatic, and heartwarming, yet its sentimental trappings disguise an unexpected cynicism. Although Mistry’s fictions does not overtly deal with the political scene, both this novel and “A Fine Balance” acidly satirize the corruption, policies, and legacy of Indira Gandhi’s government (the two novels are set in the years between the 1971 state of war with Pakistan and the 1975 state of emergency called by Gandhi to quell internal dissent). All citizens are expected to make sacrifices for Mother India, although “some newspapers reported it as Mother Indira, which did not really matter–the line between the two was fast being blurred by the Prime Minister’s far-sighted propagandists.” The ever-present threats of war and emergency lead Gustad to leave his windows taped up with blackout paper for nearly a decade, the dust and insects accumulating on top of his wife’s nerves and the nation’s fears. Living in the dark, the Nobles and their friends are nothing less than India writ small, a microcosmic reflection of its squabbles and reconciliations, vices and values, calamities and hopes.

All in all, I only have to say one thing: Banning books from university syllabi will not help. Nothing will. People will read if they have to, no matter what and will form their own opinions at the end of the day. After all, we live in a free country, last I checked.

Such A Long Journey; Mistry, Rohinton; Faber and Faber; Penguin Group; Rs. 325