Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (February 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375414495
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375414497

First of all, sorry for the long absence. Things have been pretty chaotic the past few weeks so whilst I've been able to do some reading, I haven't had the chance to write about the books that I've read these past weeks. I chose to write about Cutting for Stone simply because it was a book that completely blew me away. Described by many as 'fiction at its best' I had expectations for the book, but suffice to say, my experience reading it was beyond any expectations. 

If I were asked to choose a book that has had a profound impact on my life thus far, I would have to say that for now, Abraham Verghese's 'Cutting for Stone' tops the list. The story circles around conjoined twins, Marian and Shiva Praise Stone who are conjoined at the head, but separated at birth. If being conjoined and separated at birth under medical conditions in Ethopia that are far from being ideal isn't enough, Marion and Shiva are the sons of famous British surgeon Thomas Stone and a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise. 

The plot is thick with an aura of mystery and mystic, not only from the twins mysterious conception and birth, but the fact that the story is set in Ethiopia lends an air of surreality to this epic book. Narrated from Marion Stone's point of view, the book has an extensive timeline, starting from the meeting of his parents, right till the time Marion returns to Ethiopia after a stint as a successful surgeon in Boston.

Although identical, Shiva and Marion are worlds apart when it comes to character, interests and outlook in life. The twins are raised by Indian doctors, Ghosh and Hema, who stand in as great parents after the death of their mother and abandonment of their father. Rich in setting, and suspenseful in plot, this is a story that's not only a joy to read, but it also highlights the challenges and selflessness of doctors and humanitarians who sacrifice time, effort and emotions to minister to the needs of the people of Africa. I found it particularly heart wrenching reading about the suppression of women, and genital mutilation that's so rampant in certain parts of Africa and amongst certain tribes. When all these are coupled together with the practice of child brides and the mental and emotional torment that these women go through is spoken so clearly through the author's writing. 

I especially enjoy the way Verghese describes emotions : 

"You are so brave." This was my consolation : all was well between me and Rosina. 
If this was what brave felt like - numb, dumb, with eyes that could see no farther than my bloody fingers, and a heart that raced and pined for the girl that hugged me - then I suppose I was brave. 
At times, he writes in a way that is so lyrical it hits me as simultaneously stupefying and beautiful. 

The observer, that old record keeper, the chronicler of events made his appearance in that taxi. The hands of my clock turned elastic while I imprinted these feelings in memory. You must remember this. That was all I had, all I've ever had, the only currency, the only prove that I was alive. 

A book that's based on part fact and most parts fiction, this reads smoothly and is enjoyably engaging. What I love besides the intricate and well thought out plot is the attention to detail and the beautifully crafted language that's used throughout the book. Abraham Verghese is a doctor by profession, but he is also a great writer and has been compared to the likes of literary heroes such as Shakespeare.  

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sophie's World

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley (March 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425152251
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425152256

I've finished reading Sophie's World over the Mother's Day weekend and boy was it a read or I should say ride! The book talks about Sophie Admunsen , who walks home from school one day to find a letter in her mailbox addressed to her from a stranger. The letter starts with a huge question : Who are you? From then on, Sophie gets enlisted onto a philosophy course, one that starts way back from the days of Socrates, Plato right up to modern philosophers such as Sartre and Freud. The book has an element of mystery, as Sophie gets postcards that are meant for a girl named Hilde Moller Knag. This aura of enigmatic mystery sends readers on a quest to not only think about the many philosophical questions, but also to try to unravel the mystery lurking within the plot. 

I picked this book up some time back because I saw that it was listed in many "Must Read List"s around. Besides, who can resist a book that's been compared to a modern day Alice in Wonderland tale, although I must say the context of the book was way better than that of Alice, as much as I loved her and Wonderland. 

This is a perfect introduction to philosophy and the art of thinking. I won't be quoting anything from this book, because if I were to start doing so I'd end up quoting the whole book ! 3000 years of history and philosophy is very cleverly weaved into the storyline, and I particularly liked the twist right in the middle because I certainly wasn't expecting that (now, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise for you!). The intricate, complex world of philosophical thinking is explained in very simple, easy to understand, bite sized chunks, making the book both enjoyable and educational. Well-researched, well thought out, wonderfully imaginative and genius writing makes this a must read book! This is a book that's great for sitting down to read with someone, or for teenagers who are still curious enough to question, evaluate and come to their own reasonings and deductions. I most certainly loved it. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Kabul Beauty School

The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez
  • Hardcover: 275 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400065593
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400065592

After much anticipation, I finally found a copy of The Kabul Beauty School and instantly bought it. Eagerly, I started reading this, in between doses of The City of Joy. The Kabul Beauty School is not so much fiction as it is a memoir of Deborah Rodriguez, an American hairdresser who goes into Kabul, with the ambition of helping the women of Kabul achieve a semblance of independence by opening a beauty school there. 

The book isn't as serious as other stories I've read on Afghanistan, but it cannot be denied that the trials and tribulations that the women in the book face are very real. There is domestic abuse, poverty, desperation and yet there is the triumphant fight that some of the women put up against their circumstances and often abusive husbands. It's a book about friendship and love amongst women and the bond of sisterhood that knows no boundaries ; both geographical and cultural. I have to say though that as interesting and easy to read as this book was, at times I found myself getting irked by her ignorance as to the cultures and ways of life of the Afghans.  

Deborah is married to an Afghan man, Sam, and at times I find their marriage stupefying. For one, they hardly speak the same language. Deborah speaks elementary Dari, whilst Sam speaks a smattering of English, and then there is the huge cultural difference that both of them face. I know it's not uncommon for people from different cultural backgrounds to get together, but the fact that independent Debbie allows herself to be match made the traditional Afghan way to a man she's only known for 20 days just seems a little odd. At times, the conversation between Sam and her is comically cute : 

At one of these parties, I introduce Sam to a guy who was working in the opium poppy eradication program. "He's one of the poppy killers" I said. 
"Poppy killers?" Sam's eyes widened, He almost shuddered as he looked at the guy. " Debbie, I thought you loved dogs!"

All in all, the book isn't about Debbie's personal life so I shan't go too deeply into my thoughts on that, I do find it amazing however how she's brave enough to plunge into the depths of Afghan household chaos and other problems that her students at the beauty academy face.A true champion for women's rights, she seems to have made a difference in the lives of her students, with the help of generous endorsements by beauty products manufacturers such as M.A.C , Clairol and Revlon to name a few. So, have any of you read the book yet? If so, what are your thoughts on the book ?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

CIty of Joy

The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre
  • Mass Market Paperback: 552 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; later printing edition (May 7, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446355569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446355568

I actually finished reading this book a week ago, but due to time constraints,haven't been able to jot down my thoughts properly. The City of Joy refers to a slum in Calcutta, an ironic place to be called "The City of Joy" because this is where lepers, the poor and the outcast reside. The story centers on three protagonists, Hasari Pal, Father Stephan Kovalski and multimillionaire, the young Dr. Max Loeb. Following a drought in his village, Hasari ventures out into the big city of Calcutta in search of better opportunities. With his wife and children in tow, he makes the journey there on foot, only to be shocked by the state of Calcutta. Beggars, prostitutues and poverty fill the streets of the city Anand Nagar, which means City of Joy. It is depressing, reading about child beggars, and little children going through rubbish dumps to look for scraps to eat.Reading about child prostitutes was probably one of the worst parts for me : 

The adolescent girl's face was shuttered, hostile. There were traces of red on her lips and she smelled of perfume. Freeing herself from her mother's grasp and gesturing to her two small brothers, she handed over a ten rupee note. 
"Tonight they will not cry" 

On the other hand, Stephan Kovalski is a Polish missionary, who sought out the poor in order to minister to their souls, only to find himself touched and transformed by their way and philosophies in life. Deciding to settle in the slums with the very poor, Stephan brings a ray of hope to the destitute and abandoned, making life so much more bearable for the leper colonies especially. 

Max Loeb comes into the story bright eyed and bushy tail, thinking that money itself is the panacea to all troubles only to be shocked at the state of life in Anand Nagar. Operating from a 'clinic' which is basically a small room in a rest house, Max comes face to face with living conditions unlike any he has ever been exposed to. There, he goes through life changing experiences that will forever change the way he lives the rest of his young, sheltered life. This is a scene of an amputation, which took place on a pavement, without anesthetics, due to lack of medical care. : 

Neither Kovalski nor Sister Gabrielle had time to catch it before it fell onto the ground. Max put down the saw to wipe his forehead and the nape of his neck. It was then that he witnessed a scene that was to haunt him for the rest of his life : " a mangy dog carrying off in its mouth a human arm".

The beautiful part of this story is the way people are so giving despite being so terribly in need themselves. Reading this book does give you a fresher perspective of life, and if you're like me, you'll probably find yourself realigning your priorities in life. All in all, this was a riveting read, one that will stay with me for some time. I loved this Hindu saying which was in the book, I think it epitomized what the entire book was about : 

If you have two pieces of bread, 
Give one to the poor, 
Sell the other, 
And buy hyacinths, 
To feed your soul.