Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #3, 2009

The year's almost half over, and I have only finished 6 books in as many months. I have a feeling 2009's going to go down as a very bad year for this bookworm (not to mention my blog post output for June is alarmingly low-- what the heck have I been doing?).

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There's something about the way Indian authors write that lends their words a lyrical, almost rhythmical quality. Their manipulation and mastery of the English language are uniquely beautiful, and it's why I enjoy reading novels by Indian writers even if, quite frankly, I'm not really all that interested in their culture. Kiran Desai is one such author. I liked her novel The Inheritance of Loss primarily for her distinctly Indian writing style, which effectively immersed me in the atmosphere and lifestyle of the small town at the foot of the Himalayas. Desai also had me seeing her characters with a clarity both natural and startling: the stubborn old judge who shuts out everyone, including the ghosts from his past; his young orphaned granddaughter, who in the process of discovering love discovers herself; their cranky cook, whose devotion to his master, mistress and above all his own son, is both comic and tragic; and the cook's son, who struggles to forge a new life for himself in America, even as his heart pines for home.

I may not have been able to fully appreciate the socio-cultural and socio-political underpinnings of Desai's story (set against a Gorkha uprising in northern India in the 80s), but as a tale about family and home and the ties that bind, I did find it engaging and moving. I particularly liked how Desai depicts the life of illegal immigrants in the US, which, while possibly exaggerated for maximum effect, struck me as very poignant and real, even more so than the descriptions of squalid living conditions in India. I'm just not sure if I would consider this novel worthy of the Man Booker Prize in terms of content, and even stylistically Desai is no Arundathi Roy (author of The God of Small Things, one of my favorite books of all time). However, I'd still call The Inheritance of Loss a good read, and certainly deserving of a place on this bookworm's shelf.

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There's something comforting about reading a favorite author, a familiarity with her style and language that makes the reading experience richer somehow. Whenever I pick up an E.L. Konigsburg book, I know I'm headed home. I love how I seem to get an intimate knowledge of even her new characters right from the get-go, how I recognize Konigsburg's "voice" in the narration of the story, how I get that bittersweet feeling of writer's awe/envy as I think to myself, "Now THIS is young adult literature!" In Konigsburg's latest, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, she tackles multiple themes of friendship, family, art, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the meaning of true heroism. 2 boys helping a retired opera singer pack up the belongings in her mansion stumble upon something that unspools an interwoven history marked by much sadness, but also tinged with beauty, and touched by love.

Konigsburg is excellent at creating young protagonists who are wise beyond their years, and Heroic World's Amedeo and William are no exception. The friendship that unfolds between the 2 is developed wonderfully, as only Konigsburg can: subtly, serenely, with a sense of wonder and warmth that makes it almost magical (and isn't friendship magical indeed?). In turn, the larger-than-life personality of Mrs. Zender, the diva formerly known as Aida Lily Tull, plays off the boys nicely, as she becomes a source of amusement and affection, and a quirky commonality for them. But the best part about Heroic World lies in the secrets the boys unearth, and without giving anything away, there is more than one potential tear-jerker part in this book. Closet sap that I am, I came dangerously close to tears myself.

I might be just totally biased in favor of Konigsburg, but I really enjoyed Heroic World, more than I did her The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, which I read 2 years ago (incidentally, some characters from the latter were also in the former, following Konigsburg's penchant for overlapping storylines). Konigsburg's best work is still by far The View From Saturday (my favorite book of all time), but Heroic World has a lot of the soul that made Saturday so brilliantly beautiful. Not Newbery Medal material, this one, but it comes pretty darn close.


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