A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part Two)

This is a remarkable book, and big, so big in fact, that I am taking up a second post for all my remaining remarks. Starting with a quote that I really love:

“She paused by the science shelves, not because she understood much science, but, rather because she did not. Whenever she opened a scientific book and saw whole paragraphs of incomprehensible words and symbols, she felt a sense of wonder at the great territories of learning that lay beyond her – the sum of so many noble and purposive attempts to make objective sense of the world.”

There are a whole slew of characters to meet in A Suitable Boy, yet I didn’t feel confused with them at any point.  Partly this is due to my reading a little each day, retaining the thread of who is who, but the four family trees provided, and side characters who are easily associated with certain characters or places helped, and I was rarely troubled placing a character  who was returning after 200 pages in the wilderness.

Seth is a big fan of poetry and his playful rhyming couplets are seen throughout, most noticably describing each chapter, and then through the incessant creations of the Chatterji family.  There are also myriad references to various Indian mythological works which encourages a deeper reading into Indian mythology.  Sprinkled throughout are bits of the local language which was a nice touch, especially when I started to recognise what was being referred to, or which familial names were used to denote relationships.

The plot is unhurried and slowly expands to include all of life and society, it really allows the world to be shown in richness and depth.  Whether the reader thinks this much detail is relevant or not, it is certainly worth the exploration and gives the book a much more authentic feel.

There is plenty of conflict, whether it be class, religious and political divides, or generational.  Everybody has a prejudice of some sort, whether conscious of it or not.  Seth explores all sides of these, offering plenty of insight which has the capacity to bring out both sympathy or revulsion at various times. Continue reading “A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part Two)”

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A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part One)

Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.

When faced with a wall of paper such as this (1474 pages), a choice inevitably presents itself.  Will it be worth the time and effort taken to read this, or would it be more productive to read a few shorter books in the same time span? Luckily choosing this Indian epic was the right option, and the time spent savouring this novel was well worth it.

When reading, I loved how it harked back in style to works of earlier ages. It was easy to draw comparisons with the Russian epics, and War and Peace in particular, as well as Moby Dick for the sheer level of detail that the reader never realised they wanted to know.

Although the story takes place in less than two years, and with its vast array of characters, it is very much in the spirit of those classics, treating the reader to a glimpse of life in post independence India. With the upheaval of the partition with Pakistan as a backdrop, social and religious tensions are explored but at the heart of the story its the family spirit, and myriad connections that gives the book its flow. An India, and a young generation trying to find its own way. Continue reading “A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part One)”

Man, Myth, Messiah – Rice Broocks

Did Jesus really exist? Is there real historical evidence that demonstrates that he lived and actually said and did the things the Gospels record? Is there any validity to the speculative claims that the Jesus story was a myth borrowed from a variety of pagan cultures of the ancient world?

In this follow-up to the book God’s Not Dead (which inspired the movie), Man, Myth, Messiah looks at the evidence for the historical Jesus and exposes the notions of skeptics that Jesus was a contrived figure of ancient mythology. It also looks at the reliability of the Gospel records as well as the evidence for the resurrection that validates his identity as the promised Messiah.

Recently I watched God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, the third film in the franchise and surprisingly watchable compared to the cartoonish nature of the first two films, but they are a subject for another post, should anybody want it (comment below!).

I have a lot to say on this book.  I chose to read this as a neutral in order to be fair to the material and ideas shown.  Whatever debates the reader chooses to engage with in his or her short life, there should always be challenging questions asked and the sources for any position should be scrutinised for veracity.

For that reason I had a lot of problems with this book, which was also adapted for a film God’s Not Dead 2, and like its predecessor (which I watched twice) and accompanying book (God’s Not Dead), the art of misdirection in the text is as amusing as it is offensive.

In the introduction about a Newsweek article he read which said we knew little about Jesus historically, Broocks states:

It was predictably written from a skeptical perspective with little pretense to hide the bias. 

I hoped that this book would be an open look at both sides of the debate, weighing evidence against challenging argument, however the opposite was true and clear after not too many pages.  Page ten to be precise.  My problems with this work were numerous. Continue reading “Man, Myth, Messiah – Rice Broocks”

The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow

Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon.  Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.

If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.

These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world;  through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces.  The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.

The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat.  To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.

It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive.  The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives.  It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era. Continue reading “The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow”

A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

What is archaeology? The word may bring to mind images of golden pharaohs and lost civilizations, or Neanderthal skulls and Ice Age cave art. Archaeology is all of these, but also far more: the only science to encompass the entire span of human history—more than three million years!

This Little History tells the riveting stories of some of the great archaeologists and their amazing discoveries around the globe: ancient Egyptian tombs, Mayan ruins, the first colonial settlements at Jamestown, mysterious Stonehenge, the incredibly preserved Pompeii, and many, many more. In forty brief, exciting chapters, the book recounts archaeology’s development from its eighteenth-century origins to its twenty-first-century technological advances, including remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery techniques that have revolutionized the field. Shining light on the most intriguing events in the history of the field, this absolutely up-to-date book illuminates archaeology’s controversies, discoveries, heroes and scoundrels, global sites, and newest methods for curious readers of every age.

Part of the Little Histories series, A Little of History of Archaeology is a good overview of the discipline.  As befitting of the subject, Fagan slowly uncovers the beginnings of the pursuit from King Charles of Naples, at Herculaneum, up until the present day.  The enthusiastic introduction sets the book up nicely, throwing in some choice, lesser known facts to hook the reader and begin a globe-trotting journey through time.

We start the journey proper in Egypt, and travel all the way through to the present day, seeing the gradual honing of the archaeological craft, from haphazard digs chasing treasures – real or imagined – to the more careful, professional approach which has led us to a deep and ever-changing understanding of the past.

Throughout we meet some fascinating characters; adventurers, vicars, museum curators, army officers, and the like who all contribute in some way to the learning of an art and the teasing of knowledge, quite literally out of the ground, through their failures successes and frustrations.  The writing style is very light and everything is set out in a simple manner giving the reader an engrossing narrative that can be dipped in and out of at anytime without undue confusion. Continue reading “A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan”

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the scavenger Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he has created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses its path.

To the backdrop of post Iraq war Baghdad, with all its daily acts of terrorism and political sects vying for power; life goes on as usual for the inhabitants. To this perilous way of life, is added a modern take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

With a strong start I was looking forward to following the lives of the various inhabitants of Baghdad.  Sadly, after the initial forty or so pages, the story soon started to wane and, although it kept me entertained – especially with the role superstition plays in people’s lives – it never really hit the heights which the early pages promised.

On a basic level it’s an easy read but below the surface – should you wish to delve into it – there is the strong sense of chaos of infrastructure and the political (and by extent religious) failures (and upheavels) both inept and corrupt which show through. The tone of the book is one of a sense of needing to believe things will get better without much evidence to support it happening anytime soon.

There is a diverse range of characters from all walks of life, a good mix of likeable and odious but all are well written with a decent amount of depth for such a big cast, in relation to the size of the book. The structure of the story overlaps events, keeping the story compact and allowing the reader to see a range of reactions to the same circumstances.  Although this firmly sets characters and details into the mind, the overall time frame of the book is harder to pin down and makes the story feel a bit nebulous as the relation of events to each other wasn’t too clearly defined. Continue reading “Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi”

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Picking this up at the airport was always going to be a risk. as bestsellers always seem to be these days when it to comes to quality.  As expected it was an easy book to get into and a quick read, I enjoyed it to begin with, reading 132 pages in one sitting. Further on there were a few problems that niggled me and ultimately the book became distinctly average.

The first part of the book is superior to the rest by a country mile (or indeed a mile of any sort).  The depiction of Afghanistan and the life as seen through Amir’s eyes was interesting and his relationship with Hassan was one worth investing in .  Seeing the distinctions of class and race, as well as the influence of religion and the day-to-day life rituals of Afghans was something new and refreshing to read about.

I didn’t like Amir at all, he does nothing to endear himself to the reader but I appreciated that, it gives the writing more impact when I did feel sympathy for him.  His relationships with friends and family are decently done, enough to keep me caring about the characters throughout but never overly so.

There is some good prose – again mainly in the first part – and for a time I was totally engaged with the novel and the characters, sadly that ended with the first part of the book and it became more imprecise in its focus before descending into generic bestseller fare.  That is not to say that there wasn’t anything good to speak of in the latter ha;f, I found the nod to a lack of integration or acceptance of older immigrants, into new countries and cultures to be a good topic to approach.  Similarly the intolerance of Islam and the hypocritical way some have of applying religion, which stretches to all religions is a timely topic to write about. Continue reading “The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini”