Monday, May 21, 2012

Guest Review: Deep Focus, Reflections on Cinema

Reviewed by: Purvi Shah

If you are looking for a walk down the lane of black and white movies, or some anecdotes on the making of films, there are few things that you will come across in this volume of collected essays by Ray. Its not a story of how films were made or a documentary on cinema of age. If you feel you can flip through the pages and find some exotic pictures of identifiable old movie stars, wrong again, unless of course you are a 50 plus Bengali. 

What it reflects at is much more than all of that as the title goes: it is indeed a DEEP FOCUS. The book identifies Satyajit Ray, as a thinker, an analyst and writer apart from being a film maker. You come to know about the evolution of Regional Bengali cinema and what the artists of those times used for inspiration. Not much of a guess work there, it is also a reflection on the works of parallel Hollywood movies and the competition it posed to Bengali cinema.
The  book brings alive the award winning movie " Pather Panchali" which has been made from a Bengali classic and the trilogy that followed. Ray describes in depth, how the movie was conceived and made . It comes forth as a living representation of the person Satyajit Ray himself, not to mention that it seemed to be his pet project , a much loved brain child. He highlights everything from ground work, to camera work  to the trials and tribulations that come along with an acclaimed international award for the movie. The still black and white pictures of the movie make the reading experience enchanting and so does the thought process Ray mentions he goes through while working. 

It also appears from his essays that he indeed is in love with the instrument of the camera as he appreciates detailed aspects of using the device in various ways and the technology that follows and is adapted. This love for evolving technology is evident and understandable as we are talking about the time when silent cinema transforms to sound and still pictures to continuously moving images. As any artist or technician would appreciate the ease in work which technology brings, Ray cannot hide his passion and enthusiasm for the instrument.

Included also are chapters on the research done by Ray on older than the old years of how the moving picture came into being and is where it is today. He compels the reader to think about cinema as an art and not a mere way of entertainment or story telling. He takes the pains to bring the average movie goer to go through the nuances of camera angles, light focus , background music and slow scenes, converting the reader into somewhat of a critic.

The revelation that Satyajit Ray was an artist, designed the lobby cards and film posters himself and was amongst one of the best story writer for children of times is astounding. We all think about our work and have our own way of describing it but putting it into such elaborate language with ample metaphors and deep insights requires commitment. His passion for his work outlives the commercial success. Ray has made a film called " The Adventures of Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne" , a comedy without a love story or a central character. Wow. 

Post read, it makes me go out in search of a DVD of " Pather Panchali" , "Apur Sansar" and "Aparijito". Though I don't know whether I would be able to follow anything without subtitles, but worth a try. The language is rich, the content clear and the sketches made by Ray speak volumes. A slightly different but profound experience put together.

A must read for a student of cinema or any art, it is a delightful experience for any movie lover. I for one was not aware of any of his works or any work of that age for that matter, but the book came as a pleasant surprise with its multiple metaphors and lovely language. Since it compels the reader to think , it is not a book you cannot just keep down. It is a slow read, but extremely well compiled and edited. The flow is maintained throughout and though it can be a little monotonous on some notes, it is a wonderful book. 

Guest Review: The Yellow Emperor's Cure

Reviewed by Shantanu Bhattacharya

This is a remarkable book in many ways - ambitious, layered, dense with characters, and obviously the product of a lot of research. It spans two countries in terms of geography, but references a dozen others. It has a singular plot, but a plurality of digressions, lending it the air of a putative epic novel. Kunal Basu has been writing for some time with a fair amount of success and it is fair to say that he has a pretty sure grip over the language and the milieu he writes about. He knows a lot about the orient and his best success previously has been a story based in far East - The Japanese Wife, later made into a eponymous arthouse movie.

The Yellow Emperor's Cure is set primarily in China in the era between the Opium wars and the Boxer rebellion. The protagonist, Antonio, is a brilliant Portuguese libertine and surgeon, whose charmed, and charming, life is rudely jolted by the news that his famous, hugely admired father has contracted a deadly form of syphilis. That one fact changes him completely, starting him on an obsessive quest for finding a cure for the deadly disease and save his beloved father. He soon realizes that there is no cure in Europe or America - just a few hints and rumors of a almost magical cure in China guarded by their inscrutable doctors and medicine men. This is based on anecdotal information that the Chinese seemed not to be as affected by syphilis as the Europeans. The European sailors came back racked by the disease after visiting the fleshpots of the Far East regularly, while the Chinese seemed to fare better overall.

In his desperate quest for the "Yellow Emperor's Cure", Antonio leaves his both his best friend and betrothed behind and sets sail for China. Luckily for him, his father's fame, and his own stature and connections ensure that he's welcomed and given royal treatment wherever he travels. Even in Peking, he is provided bed and food at the Dowager Empress' palace with the empress' personal doctor Xu teaching him the Chinese systems of medicine. His native European arrogance frequently causes him to dismiss the esoteric methods the Chinese use, while his desperation to cure his father makes him an impatient student. 

That is, till the doctor's beautiful assistant, Fumi, arrives as a replacement teacher. 

The mysterious Fumi turns his world upside down, acting as both teacher and lover, friend and maddeningly exotic adversary. Her dark past and incomplete back story consumes Antonio, who now wants to know everything about her and her earlier, murdered paramour. In fact the book now takes a turn towards a mystery novel where Antonio now wants to know more about Xu, Fumi and the Empress, but his quest gets more and more dangerous, because the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion has started. Whose side are the Chinese on? Are they friend, or foe? What will happen to Antonio and hs quest for the cure? These answers take up the last third of the book.

In the middle of all this there are a host of characters, mostly European, some with important and many others with bit parts to play - most of them representing various nationalities who stay in closed walled communities, gotten rich because of the opium trade, but now scared for their livelihoods (and lives) because of the incipient and inevitable Boxers' "spirit army" revolution. Add to these eunuchs, prostitutes, soldiers, beggars, thieves, and you have a cornucopia of characters that should make for a rollickingly colourful and exciting book.

The puzzle then for me was - and there is no way to put it delicately - with all these elements mixed in, why is so much of the book such a crashing bore?

There were stages in the book where I could barely will myself to turn the next page, so somnolent were the words, so static the story. Of course some parts are interesting and informative, but nowhere while reading the book could I ever use the word "excited" to describe my experience. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe that it's my failing. My tastes might have been corrupted by reading too many Steig Larssons and not enough "literary novels". But the truth is, as I reread my comments above, they seem to promise a book more interesting than the one I actually read. 

This is not to say it's a bad book. It is obviously is the product of an enormous amount of research. I just wish Mr. Basu had resisted the impulse to put it all in this one book - the number of characters is immense - at least 5-10 could have easily been cut out. Some details are redundant - used only to prove Mr. Basu's research rather than contribute to the book in any tangible way. I get the feeling there is a more interesting book hidden within this one - one that is only 250 pages long instead of the current 350 odd pages.

For people who like arcana and milieu-based novels, this book might yet be a good read. I suggest they go for it. People who prefer shorter, snappier, faster reads should probably skip this one.

About Shantanu: I work as Chief Learning Designer with Tata Interactive Systems. I hold a Masters in Literature and love reading and movies - though I have very little time for either nowadays. I am active on social networks like Facebook and Twitter (@shantanub) and am a complete news and current affairs junkie. Currently though, my most satisfying job is being father to a 5 and half year old girl.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Guest Review: Urban shots – Cross roads

Edited by Ahmed Faiyaz

Book details:
Name: Cross roads
Editor: Ahmed Faiyaz
Publishers: Grey Oak in association with West Land
Price: Rs. 199
What this book is about?
A collection of Indian short stories (30 urban stories by 26 authors) edited by best-selling author Ahmed Faiyaz.
It is very difficult to write review for a short story collection, because you cannot judge if book is good or not. If one story is excellent and another story is not good, you cannot give an overall rating. So, in this post I recommend some good stories in the book leaving behind the not so good ones.
What I liked?
My favorite is Rajasthan summer by Ayesha Heble -  It is a simple ghost story with a twist at the end.
Everyone has a story by Gayathri Hingorani – Minu bai, a maid walks through us to different homes, different lives, different problems and different stories from where she works. Rich or poor or liberated or neutral or joint family everyone has their share of problems.
Cross Roads by Ahmed Faiyaz – Excellent story narration and un-predictable climax. This is my next favorite pick from the book.
Plummet by Avnee Rajesh & Pranav Mukul – A close up on a student’s life, his perspective on everyone around him. Story is very realistic as we see many parents in India who compare academics of their children to their neighborhood kids without realizing the potential of their children in other fields like sports, arts etc., This also shows how much pressure is put on those children which sadly leads to suicidal tendency.
Baba Premanand’s Yoga class by paritosh Uttam – One of a kind humorous story and we can expect such an excellent story from Paritosh obviously. Story shows how circumstances play with us some times and make things out of control.
Look how far we’ve come by Shreya Maheshwari – An emotional story of a divorced couple with a child. It shows how couple copes up with things and also shares a good bond with child. Dad meets his son every weekend and spends time with him, while his son is taken care by mother Rhea. Kid is happy that he can share their love without listening to their parents shouting at each other daily. But, last 2 lines from dad say a lot
It felt odd, realizing that it wasn’t so much that my eleven-year-old son needed me, but that I needed him.
Mind games by Manisha Dhingra – It’s a complex story of a person with some mental illness because of which he is in a hallucination that he married his college love even after breakup. We just feel pity of the character.
Wrong strokes for Deepalaya – A motivational story dedicated to many soldiers who lose their lives to protect us and our country from invaders.
Jump Didi by Sharath Komarraju – It’s about a mysterious baby sitter with her own dark secrets. It highlights the issue of child sexual abuse.
Pasta lane by Siddhartha Bhaskar and The Gap by saritha rao are also worth a mention.
There are also some stories which are not good at all and I felt boring to read. But, overall collection is good. When compared to other short story collection ‘Urban shots – bright lights’ this collection is not that great.
Final say:
A time pass read best for a train journey.

(Mahathi Ramya is a software tester by profession, but an artist by nature. She loves travelling, reading books, blogging, dancing, singing and painting.You can check her book reviews, travel experiences and other ramblings on her blog )

Guest Review: The Alchemist's Secret

Dan Brown started this trend of writing authentic versions of inauthentic histories, and making them believable. We loved all the conspiracy theories that he cooked up and he had a few bestsellers on his hands. Now that the goldmine had been discovered, every author who could spell c-o-n-s-p-i-r-a-c-y came up with his own half-baked or fully-baked theory of the untold secret in the past, which can change the way we see the world, and the evil forces out to keep it a secret. Scott Mariani continues this glorious exploitative tradition with 'The alchemist's secret'.

Imagine for a moment that you know what is alchemy. You have read Dan brown and "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." And you have the internet as an ally. Now you are given a contract to write a book on 'The Alchemist's secret'. What theory comes first up in your mind???

Scott Mariani did not bother to dig beyond the first theory that comes up in everyone's mind. The hidden 'Elixir of life', 'Philosopher's Stone' and the quest for it by some lunatics, was enough for him to go on and write 300 pages, give or take a few. Bundle in a tough hero with a secret hidden in his past, a pretty female scientist to give it the ring of research, a hidden secret journal and a few catholic bad guys with a penchant of beating themselves up at the slightest provocation. Some mention of the Nazis. And you have 'The Alchemist's secret'.

Is it readable? Yes. Is it fast? Yes. Is it unputdownable? No, you can put it down on any page, and pick it up from any page after a year, and you will not have missed the story. But, the trouble with such books is the same as with watching an episode of CID. However tiresome it is, you HAVE to finish it completely to know how it all pans out in the end. Even if you can predict every scene, you still have to finish it, and keep up the hope that the author will produce a cat out of the hat. 

Another problem with the book is that you don't fall for the characters. You don't root for them to not die, or fall in love with each other. However, since so much action has to be covered in so few pages, this is a common problem with fast-paced thrillers, and probably will not bother you if you like the genre. 

It could have been so much more. Alchemy has a glorious tradition associated with it. Some of the best names like Newton and Bacon were alchemists. It gave birth to modern chemistry as we know it. It has had its share of real lunatics, and secrets. If the author had bothered to go beyond the first page of google search, or clicked on the links on its wikipedia page, he would have produced a much more nuanced version of the same story. Sadly, he must have been working under a deadline. 

Will I recommend it? If you are a fan of conspiracy theories, like authors like Ian Caldwell, Daniel Silva or are a fan of Scott Mariani, go for it. Parts of it are enjoyable, and to be honest, I did not feel like quitting it or picking up another book as a diversion. Reading it does not seem like an ordeal. It might serve as a fast read in a train or bus journey, with the book to be left there itself after finishing. But if you are looking for some fulfilling conspiracy theories, I'd suggest pick up Elizabeth Kostova, Katherine Neville or even Daniel Silva.

Otherwise, I suggest you give this one a skip. There are a lot of good books waiting to be read.

(Dr. Pinak Kapadia is a periodontist who loves to read science non-fiction and fiction books as well. He blogs at

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books up for review for the month of May

A reminder: If you would be interested in reviewing the books and joining this book review programme do send us a mail to bookwelove(at)gmail(dot)com. The following books are up for review:

  1. The Last Kestrel- Jill McGivering- VISHAL KALE
  2. The Hypnotist- Lars Kepler
  3. The Fifth Witness Michael Connelly
  4. Embassy Town- China Mieville
  5. Confessions of a Serial Dieter- Kalli Purie
  6. Beyond Religion Ethics for a Whole World- His Holiness The Dalai Lama
  7. Differential Diagnosis- Doctors on the Job Edited by Leah Kaminsky
  8. Tin Fish- Sudeep Chakravarti
  9. Karma Sutra Adventures of a Street Bum- Rajender Menen
  10. Mumbai Noir- Edited by Abbas Tyrewala
  11. Black Ice- Mahmadul Haque
  12. The Sufi Courtyard- Dargahs of Delhi- Sadia Dehlvi
  13. Flame- The story of my Mother Shahnaz Husain- Nelofer Currimbhoy
  14. The Inexplicable happiness of Ramu Hajjam- Taj Hassan
  15. Micro- Michael Crichton
  16. Inspector Singh Investigates A Curious Indian Cadaver-Shamini Flint
  17. The Forest of Stories- Ashok K Banker
  18. Tamarind City- Bishwanath Ghosh
  19. The Monk, the Moor& Moses Ben Jalloun- Saeed Akhtar Mirza
  20. Artist, Undone- V Sanjay Kumar

Guest Review: Calcutta Exile

Calcutta Exile by Bunny Suraiya

Reviewed by Meryam E

The most haunting, magical and ephemeral character in Bunny Suraiya’s debut novel is the city of Calcutta. Set a decade after India’s independence, the novel brings to light a Calcutta not yet shorn of its British finery, still teeming with various different layers of British, Anglo-Indian and Indian customs and identities. M J Akbar called the novel “a haunting, exquisite serenade,” which I readily agree with.

Suraiya has done a wonderful job of ‘show, don’t tell’. Calcutta is brought alive by her characters, their favourite restaurants, coffee shops and clubs, their routes to work. Most of the description in the novel comes through the eyes of her characters; there is little purely descriptive text. This only serves to draw the reader further into the world inhabited by the Ryans and their friends. For someone who has never been to Calcutta, Magnolia’s, Flury’s, New Market and so forth are places that have been added to my go to list. The reader is further drawn into the narrative by each chapter being dedicated to a particular character. This style also helps in moving the story along quicker than a chronologically written plot.

Central to the novel, the Anglo-Indian Ryan family consists of the father, Robert, his wife Grace, and their two daughters Shirley and Paddy. Their long time Ayah and her husband also feature, with their own marital story as well as their response to the newly created Bangladesh, as do several other well developed and (largely) attractive characters. In fact, one of the best aspects of the novel is that there is something to be gleaned from each character, each encounter, no matter how small, due to the concise and well developed plot and prose. The characters’ relationships with each other symbolize the relationships between Anglo-Indians, Indians and the British, as well as the political realities emerging at the time. The contempt with which Indians view Anglo-Indians is seen in Robert’s interactions with his Indian colleague Ronen Mookherjee, as well as in teasing remarks made to Karambir regarding his ‘dalliance’ with ‘fresh A-I meat’, Paddy Ryan. Robert’s British boss Peter Wilson is genuinely confused by Robert’s yearning to go ‘home’ to an England he has never set foot in, while Robert wonders why he is not called ‘Indo-English’ if his home is in fact India.

It is only at the very end that Robert questions his decision to leave everything, to leave a “life he had so carefully constructed for himself during the last twenty-odd years”. 

This is a novel that will resonate with anyone who has ever left home and built a new life somewhere else, anyone who has hankered for the many layers of ‘home’ in another place.

(Meryam E is passionate about all things pertaining to books, literature and human rights.)

Guest Review: JD Salinger A Life Raised High

Kenneth Slawenski  founded a website devoted to the life and works of J D Salinger. This book took seven years of research and the hard work is evidentas you turn the pages of this wonderful volume on Salinger.Difficult for me to say who intrigued me more,the author of this book or the subject ! An excellent story teller,Kenneth Slawensky takes you effortlessly through the various stages in  the life and times of Salinger. Born to middle class Jewish parents, Salinger was a reclusive writer who devoted his life to Zen Buddhism,Catholic mysticism and Sri Ramakrishna's teachings and of course ,writing.

The far from ordinary life of J D Salinger has been depicted with great sensitivity and respect by Slawensky. Salinger had abundant self confidence but on those occasions when his confidence ran dry,his ambition kept him going. He had amazing tenacity to drive him through lean periods before he tasted success and achieved literary recognition.

Not many would know about Salinger's romance with Oona O'Neill who later  married Charlie Chaplin.Similarly,his association with World War II,the deep impact that the war had on his life and on his writings has been vividly described .

The Catcher in the Rye,published in 1951 was a phenomenal success after Salinger's earlier work For Esme-With love and squalorwhich was also well received .John Updike had remarked that J D Salinger wrote a masterpiece in that book.By virtue of Holden;s character being so absorbing and because the novel allowed the readers to interpret the novel in many ways,it created sensation of sorts and that is how Holden became a  legendary character.It was said that many Holdens can be created but   no two Holdens can ever be the same.

With great respect,Slawensky describes Salinger's need to be alone as he penned his thoughts on paper.He mentions about Salinger's den,a bunker which was built only so he could create characters which became as real to the author and his readers as flesh and blood people.

Slawensky talks about the death of the reclusive author at the age of ninety one and the impact it had on ordinary people,his readers. The internet was flooded with increasing frequency,with readers talking about how,Salinger and Holden had touched their lives.Two interesting facts come to the fore through this book;
Mark David Chapman,who shot the legendary singer Lennon was arrested from the side walk where he sat reading The catcher in the Rye immediately after pumping bullets into Lennon

A copy of the same book was recovered from the room of John Hinkley Jr.who shot Ronald Reagan.This finding created a media uproar of sorts in those days.

Slawensky talks about the death of Salinger at the age of ninety one .The internet was increasingly flooded by readers and fans who spoke about the great author,his characters and how they were affected by the writings of Salinger.

The story of an extra ordinary writer told brilliantly by another,makes this a treasure trove of information on the shy man .

Highly recommended as a leisurely read.You may not want to rush through this one.

(Dr Sharmila Kulkarni is a Mumbai based Prosthodontist,who is as passionate about reading as she is about bringing smiles to people's faces )

Monday, May 7, 2012

Guest Review: Civil Lines 6

Now famous for its intermittent existence,Civil Lines was the brain child of Delhi based  Dharma Kumar.After that,from 1994 till 2001,four issues were published by Ravi Dayal .The publication was dedicated to new age writing from India and the publishers were not at all in a hurry to come out with regular issues.After  the death of both Ravi Dayal and Dharma Kumar,this latest collection has seen the light of the day after ten long years.The editors offer an explanation to the readers and attribute this  elephantine gestation to them being unsure of their editorial judgement. What we see in Civil Lines 6 is a collection of stories from various authors like Anand Balakrishnan,Rimli Sengupta,Benjamin Seigel,Manu Herbstein and others.

Great Eastern Hotel is an extract from Ruchir Joshi's novel in progress.Set in crowded maze of Calcutta lanes the story has the backdrop of  Tagore's death. 

The ocean of peace lies in front,
Launch the boat O helmsman...  the song written by Tagore for his own funeral and being sung by a strong voice at the funeral creates an imagery of sorts.
Itu Chaudhuri's flight is a short composition about the secret of being able to lift off and take a flight ,literally.The thrill of the flight,never quite being sure where you will land,the delicious suspense of it all...
Erazex by Achal Prabhala takes you through the corridors of a boarding school in Dehradun where a typewriter correction fluid provided a hallucinogenic escape to the boys.A tragic incident turns the life on campus upside down both for the boys and the teachers.

Mumbai readers will connect with Naresh Fernandes and his story set in bandra.'Skeletons' opens with a newspaper account of a pair of skeletons found in the quiet neighbourhood of Bandra,those of a doctor and his faithful dog. Lonely in life and in  death in the metro city.

Manu Herbstein talks about building bridges in his account of the same name .Bombay appears prominently here too, when he describes the cartoons of Mario Miranda depicting Bombay in myriad hues.I loved this piece but then, I am partial to anything that is connected to  Mumbai any which way.
Fashil -Arabic for failure is the nidus around which Anand Balakrishnan weaves his words while Nilanjana Roy makes you travel with a few ghosts and her Shamla Mashi in  a carefully crafted, Sugarcane.
The book ends with a photologue by Gauri Gill .Nizamuddin in the dark, the sufi saints,the railway station,the durgah,the night times of old Delhi captured through the lens, makes an interesting end to this collection called Civil Lines 6.

Just one point that crosses my mind after reading this volume..How long before  Civil Lines 7 goes in print? How about a web edition,will it be able to bridge the gap and present few more new age authors from India?

(Dr Sharmila Kulkarni is a Mumbai based Prosthodontist,who is as passionate about reading as she is about bringing smiles to people's faces.This is her first of hopefully many more reviews for the blog! )

Guest Review: The Moonstone Legacy

Book details:

Name: The moonstone Legacy
Authors: Diana De Gunzberg & Tony Wild
Publishers (in India): Hachette India
Price: Rs. 250

What this book is about?
Inspired by the classic ‘The moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins, this novel brings the mystery and intrigue of the past into the 21st century. Story is about ‘The moonstone’, a precious and sacred stone which was stolen by George Abercrombie from Gujarat, India and the curse which follows their family because of it on creepy full moon day.

The Plot:
Story is about Lizzy Abercrombie, a 14 year old girl, who discovers that there is a mystery behind her mother’s death and finds that there is a curse on Abercrombie family. She takes help of her Indian friend Ravi Chandra, travels to India, finds a chronicle of her ancestor George Abercrombie, and finds that the moonstone is stolen by George from Somnath temple in Gujarat. She deciphers each and every detail written in chronicle to find out where the precious stone is hidden in exotic mansion called ‘Shalimar’ in Yorkshire moors in England. She risks her life to save the diamond from famous Indian writer Shankar pujari to return it to the temple back. Will she succeed in this process?

What I liked?
Author impresses us with perfect characterization. We can actually feel and understand Lizzy’s mind set by reading the book. The way landscapes of India and Shalimar are explained with every detail is excellent. Unlike the novel ‘The moonstone’, where the emphasis or focus in much on British, this novel also covers Indian cities, history, the mindset of Indians when British conquered etc., Excerpts from novel like below about cricket show author’s humorous touch to the storyline and novel is interesting to read throughout.
“When India threw British out of Independence, we kept your bats and balls. Now we are better at it than you are..”

It really is a good thriller with gripping story line and page-turner for sure. Climax is simply superb.

Final say:
An enjoyable read throughout.

My rating:

(Mahathi Ramya is a software tester by profession, but is an artist by nature. She loves travelling, reading books, blogging, dancing, singing and painting. You can check her book reviews, travel experiences and other ramblings in my blog : )