romance

“Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world?”

After the failed attempt at reading a Nobel laureate, I turned to the work of another author who was in the running- Haruki Murakami. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, for his very readable, yet insightful, urban fiction.

Sputnik Sweetheart was published over a decade after Norwegian Wood, but has a very similar feel. I read the English translation by Peter Gabriel. It did not disappoint- classic Murakami through and through.

If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll recognize the tropes- Manic Pixie Dream Girl, average but well-meaning and hard-working male protagonist, some weird sex and supernatural occurrences. Luckily no cats here. What I liked about it was the simple, straightforward storyline, and a relatively believable supernatural event that could easily be ascribed to a variety of commonplace (and not-so-commonplace) causes. It’s open-ended without being a letdown.

K is a 25-year-old Japanese schoolteacher. He is infatuated with his best friend Sumire, who is an aspiring writer. Sumire behaves and dresses eccentrically, to channel the feel of Kerouac. One day, she falls in love with an older woman called Miu. She begins to work for Miu’s business and travel with her, taking on a more adult and responsible lifestyle. Out of the blue, Sumire goes missing in Greece and K receives a panicked summons from Miu. Mysteries are solved and more are revealed.

A quote I particularly liked:  “Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it’d lose even its imperfection.”

One complaint, though, was that the English translation seemed clunky at times. As a non-American native speaker, some blatant old-fashioned Americanisms really stood out and broke my immersion. I understand that many Japanese idioms may not translate well, but using a literal translation or replacing it with plain phrasing would be a better way to convey the true spirit of the book.

It’s odd, to me, how Murakami’s male heroes are always the romantic ‘victims’: either they wallow in unconditional love, or they are loners, or they cannot impress the object of their affection. In literature written by women, men are always heartless or absent and heroines are strung along and left heartbroken. A good reason to branch out and make sure I read work by authors from all walks of life.

3.5/5, from me. Don’t hesitate to read it if you like the Murakami style, the story is tame enough for me to recommend this book unconditionally.

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Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

One Day

This is my review of One Day, by David Nicholls.

Nicholls is a well-known screenwriter, and wrote the screenplay for  Starter for 10 (and the novel on which it was based), which is a charming indie-ish comedy about quizzing. One Day has also been adapted for the big screen, but does not translate nearly as well.

One Day is a stereotypical romance novel, except it’s not. Nicholls seems to revel in de-romanticizing relationships and situations.

The story is almost simplistic. Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley are two university graduates who meet by chance on the day of their graduation. Despite a brief attempt at romance, they decide to remain friends. The book follows them and their relationship over nearly 20 years, from 1988 to 2006.

By necessity, the whole novel is made up of a series of vignettes from Dexter and Emma’s lives over the years, always on St Swithin’s Day (don’t worry, no-one knows what that is). It’s fairly obvious what the outcome is going to be- the DexAndEm EmAndDex best-friendship is clearly a cover- but the journey is long and winding and riddled with obstacles. Emma is stuck in a dead-end job despite her academic brilliance; Dexter’s career is threatened by his alcoholism; both have serious relationships.

What I liked was the brutal insight into romantic cliches. Like turning on a tubelight behind an Instagram-filtered selfie (poor analogy, but you know what I mean.) Picture this: a man and woman lie together in bed on the morning after their graduation party. In Nicholls’ version, the man has just realized that the woman is not as good-looking in the light of day. The woman is terribly nervous, and terribly pleased that she has caught the eye of this handsome, popular boy. Awkwardness ensues. Another interesting observation is that the poor, plain Emma must become well off and attractive before she finds love.

What I didn’t like was the overwhelming clichedness. We only see the characters’ personalities via dialogue, served in witty anecdotes. Each of which is repeated in two points of view. It gets tedious, but it’s still a very light, quick read.

3/5 from me. Read Love Story by Erich Segal if you want the original, classic version of this story.

The Rosy Project

This is a review of The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

It famously featured on Bill Gate’s recommendations. Contrary to what Bill Gates says, this book did not keep me up for hours into the night to read it.

Firstly, The Rosie Project is a short novel. It’s written in simple language, sans much depth (say, like Dorian Gray). Secondly, it’s predictable, so I sort of guessed how it would end by the time I had read one fourth of the book. Lastly, The Rosie Project reminded me of TV characters, something that was highly off-putting. So I finished reading it in a total of four hours, was not very curious, was not enraptured, and was slightly irritated.

That said, the book is hilarious if you can get past the (odd) ways of the protagonist, Don. Plus, it’s a pleasant chick-flick-esque story. It’s a happy and rosy book; a “happily ever after” kind of storybook. As an added bonus, it also makes you chuckle every five pages or so.

Don is an extremely smart person who teaches genetics in a famous university in America. He is also fit, has a favourite chair in his house, has a fixed meal system, times his appointments to the minute etc (remind you of anyone?). He is on a quest to find a wife. He calls this his “Wife Project”. While he’s at it, he meets a woman, Rosie, who is unconventionally awesome, beautiful, etc. She tells him that she’s looking for her biological father. So Don tries to help her in what he calls “the Father Project”. In the process he does a lot of entertaining off-beat stuff. In the meantime, he also meets a super-hot super-nerdy woman, as she ‘applies’ to his “Wife Project”. But he eventually figures out that he loves Rosie. Ergo, The Rosie Project, to win Rosie over.

It’s a 2/5 from me. The movie adaptation (duh!) starring Ryan Reynolds might fare better. Might.

On Racism and Identity, and Romance

This is a review of Americanah, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

americanah

Americanah has been my introduction to Adichie. It’s a romance novel, but it is also much more than two people falling in and out of love. And I think that was what won me over.

Reading it gave me the kind of pleasure that a friend would only associate with fresh cake and warm coffee. A wholesome indulgence. It deals with issues – racism, identity, prejudice, migration, alienation.

One of the protagonists is Ifemelu (I loved the name!), who migrates to America from Nigeria, discovers racism, and tries to understand it through her successful blog. She’s a strong, smart, vulnerable and honest woman. And then there’s her ex-boyfriend in Nigeria, Obinze, whose past which is entwined with Ifem, is as captivating as hers. They were deeply in love, until one day, without warning, Ifem cut him off from her world. (The ease with which she did so was disturbing). He did not know why she did it. He might never. Obinze slowly picks up the pieces, and eventually becomes a successful man of reckoning in Nigeria. A family man. About 12 years after she moved to America, and after an existential crisis, Ifem plans her move back to Nigeria. Ifem might meet Obinze when she does…

The story flits easily to the past and back to the present. It is fast paced, but does not bore you with lack of detail, or tire you with too much.

It’s a book that will resonate with most migrants in America. Especially those from “third world” countries. It will also reach out to people whose friends have migrated to the USA. Especially if it’s someone they love.

Race is a subject that is quite significant in the book. It’s neither apologetic not too radical. I speak, though, behind the tinted glass of not having experienced racism first hand. But from what I have been witness to, caste based discrimination which is somewhat similar, I can say that such deprivation can easily be fed to obesity or be repressed further. But Americanah does the issue justice. As an bonus for me, there’s also a tinge of feminism to the book.

What dampened it for me, though, was that the protagonists were almost perfect, albeit with imperfect encounters in life. They were what one would like to be – moralistic, hardworking, successful. But, thankfully, at the same time, they were also anti-heroic – cheating, unreliable, conflicted, self righteous.

I cannot wait to read my next Adichie. I’d also recommend that you watch her TED talk before you pick up a copy of Americanah.

4/5