MAINE by COURTNEY SULLIVAN

How is it possible to finish reading such a marvellous book like “Maine” and then be able to come up with nothing but clichés when trying to describe it?

Sweeping, dramatic, epic, saga – oh dear, oh dear, such hackneyed terms, and yet they all fit the bill.

For “Maine” is indeed an epic, sweeping tale of a family over the generations, and it is a fabulously good read to boot.  At the literal and physical heart of the story is a holiday home on the beach in Maine, where Alice, her late husband Daniel, their children and now their grandchildren traditionally spend the summer months.  The cottage occupies a central part in the psyche of Alice’s adult children, who bring to their holidays in Maine (regulated now on a roster basis, by bossy Pat and his super efficient wife Ann Marie) memories of childhood holidays, and the accompanying emotional baggage of secrets and jealousy and resentment.

Alice is the matriarch of the Kelleher clan, a family that still prides itself on its Irish heritage, which they celebrate in noisy, alcoholic fashion whenever the occasion permits.

As summer approaches, and the families once again begin to make their preparations for the holidays, we are drawn deeper and deeper into their tangled web of memory and truth, of stories and lies and deceits and secrets. For this family has secrets aplenty, which eat away at them.

We keep changing perspectives, seeing life through the eyes of the main female protagonists –  Alice, her daughter Kathleen, her daughter-in-law Ann Marie, and Kathleen’s daughter Maggie.  Each of these women has a secret, and our privileged-and-changing perspective allows us to know what the other women do not.  We see how they understand each other, but also how they wilfully misunderstand each other, too.  We see clearly, whilst they cannot, how closely love and hate are intemingled, and how easy it is to misunderstand someone’s words and motives for many years.  They all perceive each other quite differently, often with sad consequences.

Alice makes a decision about the cottage which will affect everyone, for this is a home that keeps drawing them all back, year after year, despite their disagreements and differences.

I have said in other book reviews that one doesn’t have to “be” of, or from a place, to enjoy a story, even though insider knowledge definitely adds to one’s enjoyment of a book.  The insider knowledge I enjoyed in this book, was the strong Irish Catholic leitmotiv, that both binds the family together whilst often repelling them at the same time.

There were passages that rang so true:

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The writer has a brilliantly keen ability to observe people and describe them perfectly :

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I loved this vignette of a foreigner living in New York:

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Family, secrets, the cottage, the church, marriage, alcohol – all these themes flow through the book, binding and also separating these women (for the book is essentially about the women of this family):

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The men of the family are there, present and correct, but you always feel that the real burden of the business of keeping families going, and of the cottage, and of keeping the secrets hidden safely away, falls always to the women :

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This is a lovely long read, to be devoured.

Personally and very enthusiastically recommended.

 

If after reading this review, you wish to buy this great novel, nothing could be simpler.  Simply click on the link below : 

CRY HAVOC by SIMON MANN

If ever a book needed to be a biography rather than an auto-biography, it is Simon Mann’s “Cry Havoc.”

What could have become, in the hands of a writer, a rather exciting derring-do, gung-ho type of book about white mercenaries trying to stage a coup in Africa is, instead, a badly written, profanity-laced, confusing story.

Not that I have any sympathy whatsoever with white mercenaries trying to stage a coup in Africa, you understand.

No sympathy whatsoever.

But I used to live in Africa, and was there all during that rather bizarre time when Simon Mann and his band of merry men were captured and put on trial.  Given the South African angle, the fact that the coup-implicated Mark Thatcher was living in Cape Town, the whole drama played out to a slightly bemused African audience, including us.  It was even rumoured, gleefully, in South Africa that Mr.Mann’s Equatorial Guinea coup plot was lifted from Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 thriller “The Dogs of War.”

So I was prepared to be open-minded.

Also, since the copy of the book I read was loaned to me by an old and dear friend of Mr. Mann, I was also possibly prepared to be a tad more sympathetic than usual.

But so alienating was the tone and style of the book, so utterly confusing was the narrative, that any flicker of sympathy was extinguished almost as soon as the book started.

This is his opening page acknowledgment, for goodness sake :

 

Confused ?

Mr. Mann tries, through his staccato, verb-less, effing and blinding style to portray himself as some kind of ethical saviour of the poor oppressed African blacks.

A word of warning, Mr. Mann mentions race and colour and being white a lot.

This saviour of the poor oppressed African blacks etc etc is how he talks up the previous mercenary coups he led in Sierra Leone and Angola.  Yet the opening sentence of his prologue actually says it all.

“This is about oil. Oil wars. In Africa mostly”

Precisely.

On the dust cover of Mr. Mann’s book is a quotation :

“When I set out to overthrow an African tyrant, I knew I would either make billions or end up getting shot…”

Precisely.

The book goes back and forth between the earlier coups and the preparations for the disastrous coup to Equatorial Guinea.  A straight-line narrative would have helped clear the murky waters of politics, confusing acronyms, top-heavy descriptions of weaponry but Mr. Mann prefers to swing back and forth, rapidly losing the reader in the swirl of events and the random introduction of characters without any explanation.

The one constant in the book is his liberal use of the f word.

No-one is a prude these days, but the f word is not a consistent substitute for vocabulary :

I’ll spare you more quotations.

Mr. Mann sneers openly at the people he meets, be they African politicians :

 

or potential coup-backers and contacts, be they foreign :

or British :

Nor does he spare his former chum and investor, Mark Thatcher :

 

His dislike of his former friend knows no bounds :

“Loves to play the officer and gentleman” –  harsh words from Mr. Mann, who tries to shield Mr. Thatcher later on, when he is being interrogated, because –  well, because, Mr. Thatcher has connections :

 

The book covers in great detail Mr.Mann’s imprisonment in Zimbabwe, where the effing and blinding style gives way  – just a little – to a searingly graphic account of the life he leads in prison.  Mr. Mann is definitely a more sympathetic character in this section of the book, surviving what is clearly great deprivation, cruelty and terror.

And then the book stops.  Just like that.

The Equatorial Guinea part of the book simply doesn’t happen.

One minute he is on a plane on the way there, terrified of facing torture and almost-guaranteed death, and then the next moment he is out, back in England with his beloved Amanda.  Of his trial, he tells nothing.

Why ?  Legal reasons, one presumes.  Must be for the same reason that we never hear about the trial.

I never worked out who the Boss was.  I thought it must be Tony Blair for a while, but am not so sure now.

Perhaps, one day, someone else will write the story of this failed coup attempt and fill in the blanks for us.

“Cry Havoc” is published by John Blake and the hardback costs £19.99.

If you wish to buy it, you can click on the link below to order straight away :

 

 

DELHI 14 HISTORIC WALKS by SWAPNA LIDDLE

Having gone on several heritage walks in Delhi led by the historian Swapna Liddle, I was particularly interested in this book, which is a welcome and very worthwhile addition to any Delhi lover’s library.

As the title implies, Ms Liddle takes you, the reader, on 14 historic walks through the city, in which she describes in great detail the sights and sites, “guiding” you and allowing you to wander on your own using her book as your companion.  The walks she has chosen include lesser known areas such as Janahpanah, as well as absolutely classic Delhi must-see places such as the Red Fort and Qutb Minar, which are on every tourist’s itinerary.

The author’s reason for including these better-known Delhi sites is disarmingly frank :

This is the sad reality of much of the (non) signage at Delhi’s monuments, making this book even more useful.

Ms Liddle’s approach to choosing each of her chosen walks is practical.

Again, quoting her own words :

” It should be a fairly pleasant walk – I have left out the particularly litter-strewn or overgrown paths.”

Given the parlous state of much of the city, I couldn’t agree more with her pragmatic approach.

Each chapter starts with a simple but detailed map of the walk (more on the maps in a moment) followed by an eminently practical listing of such information as the opening times, the cost of entry tickets, the closest metro stations and, very sensibly, the difficulty level of the walk.  And, super sensibly for Delhi, Ms Liddle also provides details of what amenities are available – water, snacks and that all important loo.

So, armed with these practical details, the author then describes in great detail but in clear, easy prose, the main things to see as you wander through, say, Mehrauli Archeological Park, or Hauz Khas, or through the Lodi Gardens.  Each main monument, or vista, or church or tomb has a number which refers back to the map. The maps are clear and simple to follow, and provide names for places which many a better guidebook has failed to do. Thanks to Ms Liddle, I now know that those two tombs opposite Aurobindo Place Market, the outliers of the wonderful Hauz Khas complex, are actually called  the Dadi-Pito or Biwi-Bandi.

The author explains architectural terms simply, for the layman, and wears her obvious scholarship and knowledge lightly, and in a charmingly un-stuffy way. The book is easy and pleasant to read, with an easy-going style, not like reading a standard guide book at all. Rather, you feel as though you are wandering through Chandni Chowk, or the Red Fort, or Safdarjung’s Tomb with a knowledgeable friend, who is gently pointing out things you might otherwise have missed.

If it doesn’t sound silly, the book is also quite light to hold, making you much more likely to pop it in your bag when you set out to on a walk.

I know I certainly shall.

This book is going to go with me as I re-explore the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk, and take another walk down Rajpath from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhawan, learning more at the Lutyens Baker relationship as I stroll.

Published by Westland, “14 Historic Walks” costs Rs 495.

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THE FORGOTTEN AFFAIRS OF YOUTH by ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH

Reading an Alexander McCall Smith novel, from any of his many series, is both a delicious pleasure as well as a masterclass in elegant prose.

His stories unfold slowly, at a natural pace, with ample time for his characters (and readers) to allow their thoughts to wander, to think about the coincidences of life, to reflect on puzzling incidents, to think funny irreverent thoughts…

Oh, yes. Back to the review.

This wandering of thoughts is contagious.

“The Forgotten Affairs of Youth” is the eighth in the Isabel Dalhousie series, and we pick up (with great delight) the calm life of Isabel Dalhousie, a professional philosopher ; Jamie her younger, good looking partner, who is a kind, gentle man, a musician, and father to their boisterous toddler Charlie, who issues imperious commands to his loving parents – “Olive!” is his favourite word throughout this book.

We meet up again with Grace, the opinionated, séance-loving housekeeper, and so the threads of life in this Edinburgh society weave another delightful story.

As ever, Isabel gets involved in the lives of others, always trying to help, always curious about their problems, and so it should come as no surprise to the reader that Isabel takes up the search for her new friend Jane’s birth parents with great gusto and commitment.

As Isabel and Jane try and track down her parents, and Grace communicates in her weekly séances with those have passed over, who are sometimes not averse to giving stock-market tips, we watch the ripples of these lives reach out and affect other people.

Isabel Dalhousie remains the calm, intelligent heart of these tales, as much in love with Jamie and the charming little Charlie, as she is with Edinburgh, for which she (and Mr. McCall Smith) clearly share a great affection.

As befits any self-respecting philosopher, Isabel likes to reflect upon things that may seem quite mundane to the rest of us, but such is the author’s skill and obvious delight in Isabel’s musings, that we happily wander off with her, and indeed the sedate pace with which she lives her life is restful to the reader.

You also seem to slow down and savour that glass of wine she shares with Jane in her twilit garden. You relish with her the coffee and crossword puzzle. You enjoy watching Brother Fox, for whom Isabel has a definite weakness, and when he shyly allows her a glimpse of his cub, the reader is every bit as enchanted as Isabel.

Isabel’s is a gentler, slower world than the one we all increasingly inhabit : hers is a world where people don’t seem to have mobile phones, or use email or Skype. They call each other on the phone, and leave messages which are sometimes not delivered, or are delayed, which allows the plot to be much more interesting than if every piece of information were to fall immediately into place. As an editor, Isabel doesn’t read PDFs but typed manuscripts that come in the post.

There is an old-fashioned-ness to the world in which Isabel and Jamie and their friends live. People reflect upon good and evil. They think through the consequences of their actions. They recognize that sometimes the truth may not always be the solution. There is also a palpable sense of Scottishness that comes through in Mr. McCall Smith’s writing. His characters are definitely and proudly Scottish, but in a very low-key way. No flag-waving, no chauvinistic hype : rather a quiet pride in their country and their beautiful city, which makes the book as much about Edinburgh as about the lives of Isabel and her circle.

I do so hope it’s not a plot spoiler, but when Isabel and Jamie get married, right at the end of the novel, I had tears in my eyes, so romantic was the scene.

I can’t wait for the next chapter in the lives of these good, eminently likeable people. I am curious to know where Charlie’s imperious vocabulary will lead him.

What will replace “tiffin” and “olive” as his preferred commands?

Will we see more of Brother Fox’s cub?

Will Isabel’s niece, the difficult Cat, find love and happiness ?

 

Personally, unhesitatingly recommended.

Published by Little Brown, the paperback costs £13.99.

If, after reading this review, you would like to but the book, it couldn’t be simpler.  Just click on the link below :

 

THINNER DINNER by SHUBHRA KRISHNAN

I was the perfect choice to review this book, though I say so myself.

I seriously need to lose weight.

I cannot cook to save my life.  Really & truly.

I usually avoid cookery books like the plague.  Have never knowingly sat down & read a cookery book.  Before this one, that is.

And so when I say I love this book, you know I am speaking the absolute truth.

Intrigued by the title, and inspired by New Year’s resolutions to shed those extra kilos, I found the author’s cheerful style and honest self-truths about her own weight refreshing.  The book is an easy, entertaining read, combining tips and recipes and general observations about food.

Divided into 14 chapters, the author starts off her quest for slimming but tasty food with that ultimate Indian comfort food, dal-chawal (lentils and rice, for non-Hindi speakers) sharing a recipe of Shahnaz Husain which peps up the dal in a brilliant way.

Tried it, and it is delicious.

Chapter 2 tackles soups, under the title “Life is too short for bland soup” and Shubhra Krishnan shares all kinds of tips using spices which (in her own words) “sex up soups.”  It’s that kind of book.

Salads, bread, rotis, vegetables, paneer, potatoes, rice, pasta, pizza –  there isn’t an aspect of a meal that the author doesn’t discuss and analyse in her irrepressibly cheerful style.  Never once does she make you feel you have to cut down completely on the good things in life.  Rather she tweaks old favourites, and gives you ample scope to eat well, with taste and comfort and –  for this is essentially an Indian cook book – lots of spice.

As the blurb on the back cover says ” Learn smart ways to shave off those calories” –  and that is exactly the approach Shubhra Krishnan takes.  You eat pretty much as you usually do, but by dint of substituting leaner foods, and adding and tweaking the use of spices, the final result is less calorific.

The book is visually pleasing with nicely styled food photos, plus drawings and cartoons.  The recipes are written as though they are on torn-off pages of a notebook –  a nice touch – and the author takes you stage by stage through the recipes, in simple, layman’s terms.  Perfect for the culinary-challenged, like me.

So, for example, a recipe for Rosemary Roast Potatoes which the author disarmingly admits “is a dish that takes my breath away, along with my adjectives” has a photo + recipe + stage by stage instructions + extra hints as to how you can jazz the recipe up further.

She starts her chapter on rice with a beautiful quotation from a Japanese chef :

“Rice…is beautiful when it grows, precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun.  It is beautiful when harvested, autumn golden sheaves piled on diked, patchwork paddies.”

Then she wryly adds :

“The Dietician’s Opinion : Rice is fattening. Sigh.”

She shares great pasta recipes, includes pizza and dessert recipes.

Seriously, how can you not love a cookery book like this ?

Published by westland ltd (with a small W) the book costs Rs 395.  Although it is very much an Indian cook-book, it is not exclusively an Indian cook book.  Readers who might not be familiar with Indian food will not be put off at all by the recipes –  the whole approach is inclusive.

If you feel like buying the book, after reading this review, then just click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier !

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THE STRANGER’S CHILD by ALAN HOLLINGHURST

The first review of a shiny new year, and it has to begin with a confession.

“The Stranger’s Child” was the first book by Alan Hollinghurst that I have read, which must therefore make me rather a literary lightweight, I imagine.  But what a first meeting with someone who will certainly become a favourite author.

This gorgeous, lush, oh-so-beautifully written book was a wonderful read, and one that I really and truly didn’t want to put down –  however clichéd that may sound.

At the novel’s centre lie a solidly middle-class home in Stanmore and a poem that is possibly not actually all that good, yet is known to every character in the novel, over several generations.

The book opens in 1913, with the visit to the Sawle’s home “Two Acres” of their son George’s Cambridge friend, Cecil Valance.  There is a distinct Edwardian country house party feel to the writing, all shimmering summer heat, simmering sexuality, and awkward class distinctions.

Yet the scenario is a cleverly inverted one.

It is the aristocrat who is visiting his solidly middle-class friend, throwing the comfortable little world of Two Acres into confusion.  Cecil is clever, and outrageous, and out to make George fall even more in love with him than he already is.

When Cecil leaves, after a few days’ visit, George’s younger sister Daphne, who is rather taken with Cecil, asks him to sign her autograph book.

Instead, he writes her a poem, “Two Acres.”

The action then moves forward to 1926.

As we read, pieces of this clever literary jigsaw puzzle fall into place, after Alan Hollinghurst has made us wait awhile – perhaps in case we figure it out for ourselves.  As we realise who makes up this new generation of characters, we discover that Cecil was shot in 1916, and that his poem has entered public consciousness, rather like the writings of Rupert Brooke.  Not quite Rupert Brooke, but every bit as romantic for having died so young, for having been aristocratic and charming.

And thus the mythology of Cecil  and “Two Acres” begins.

The novel moves forward again, through several more generations, right up until 2008.

The story line can be Wikipedia-ed, should you wish, though I wouldn’t want to spoil all the plot for you, which is skilfully woven, with each generational shift cleverly tightening the hold Cecil (or Sizzle as he is later described) and his poem have on everyone.

The book explores many themes. How we remember our history and our own memories of our past.  How things enter our consciousness for ever –  there isn’t a person in the book who doesn’t know the opening lines of “Two Acres” by heart, indifferent though the poem may well be.  There is, of course, love and sexuality, especially homosexuality.  Don’t expect graphic writing about sex – just powerfully evocative writing.

There is a wonderful description of growing old, and the dimming of passion, when the now-married George sees the marble effigy of Cecil in Corley Court, the Valance family property that is a parallel universe to George’s Stanmore.

“Had Cecil lived, he would have married, inherited, sired children incessantly. It would have been strange, in some middle-aged drawing-room, to have stood on the hearthrug with Sir Cecil, in blank disavowal of their mad sodomitical past.”

In the late 1970s, when the gauche and rather unlikeable Paul Bryant is writing his biography of Cecil, he is reading around his subject matter.

Alan Hollingurst’s description is perfect :

“…the royal-blue jacket of his huge biography, covered with praise from the leading reviewers, was now among those features that make all second-hand bookshops look inescapably the same.”

Interviewing a man who had known Cecil in his youth, Paul looks at the old man’s file of papers and letters :

“Some brittle and sun-browned newspaper cuttings, words lost at the corners and folds…”

The nature of people’s memories  –  especially once they have been consigned to the written word – is teasingly queried.  Daphne, whose autograph book has become part of literary history, is being interviewed for Paul’s biography.  She, too, has written her memoirs.

“Daphne was supposed to have a good memory, and this reputation sustained her uneasily in face of the thousands of things she couldn’t remember. People had been amazed by what she’d dredged up for her book, but much of it, as she’d nearly admitted to Paul Bryant, was – not fiction, which one really mustn’t do about actual people, but a sort of poetical reconstruction.  The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight : she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6.45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.”

Writing and books and diaries and, of course, That Poem are  threads linking the generations in the book.

In a rare moment of critical lucidity, towards the end of the book, Daphne’s already old-man of a son is reading the poem “Two Acres” for her.  She doesn’t like his rather pedantic style of reading, and tells him so, in one of my favourite lines from this all-round wonderful novel :

“Poetry…you have no idea how to read poetry.  It’s not the football results…

The curfew tolls the knell of passing day : one.  The plough-man homeward plods his weary way : nil.”

Delicious.

 

Published by Picador in 2011, the Indian edition of the paperback costs Rs 499.

Should you wish to buy this truly wonderful book, just click on one of the links below. Couldn’t be easier.

DELHI DURBAR by SUNIL RAMAN & ROHIT AGARWAL

This week, New Delhi officially turned 100 years old.

On 12 December 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, in front of maharajahs, rajahs, princes, and thousands of British and Indian citizens, King George V made an announcement that would have major repercussions for India.

The capital city was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

And thus New Delhi would come into existence as an imperial city.

Fast forward 100 years, and New Delhi 2011 chose virtually to ignore the centenary.

Mutterings about the rights and wrongs of celebrating imperialism masked the plain fact that the venue for the 1911 Durbar, Coronation Park, is a shambles, renovation work incomplete, deadlines missed.  This is not the place to discuss how a city can be years behind on deadlines, with no outcry and no accountability – but just remember that some projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are still languishing unfinished.

So, Delhi, thank goodness for Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal.

They have written a lavishly illustrated book about the 1911 Durbar, which as a stand alone event –  with or without the moral issues of colonialism – deserves to be commemorated.  The Durbar happened.  It is a fact of history. It brought New Delhi into being.  It was an event of long-lasting historical importance.

And more than anything else, it was an utterly fabulous, glorious expression of all that was best in royal and imperial India  –  ceremony, pageantry, clothes, jewels, titles, fanfares – and this lovely book brings out the full flavour of it all.

The authors, both passionate, hands-on historians, do not debate the rights or wrongs of spending a mind-boggling fortune on the Durbar.  They do not  enter into the politics of Delhi vs Calcutta.  They simply recount the amazing, dazzling story of how a dusty area of north India was transformed into a tented city, and became home to one of the most fabulous gatherings ever in India – the first time all the ruling prices came together.

The scale of the Durbar is staggering, even 100 years later :

“A temporary tented city was to be set up, spread over 45 sq miles. It was to last over a week, see around 150 ruling chiefs, feudal lords and zamindars in attendance, along with officials, and witnessed by at least 100,000 ordinary people. The 1911 Durbar was to be the most expensive and the most ambitious Durbar ever organized and, as it happened, over 900,000 pounds sterling were spent on it…

…Spread over 25 sq km, the Durbar Camp was to have 475 separate camps, with a total of 40,000 tents. Each camp was to be a city in itself, with arched entrances, gardens and enclosures. Apart from the King’s Camp, there were provincial camps headed by British Governors or Lt. Governors, camps of the Maharajahs and Princes, and the Government of India Camp.

All the tents were carpeted, furnished, warmed with stoves, and lit with electric bulbs.
Every Indian chief was to have his separate camp, which was like a mini city with all amenities, including a bazaar.

Clear directions were given to officials that nothing be done that was contrary to Indian customs. Cows managed by Brahmans ensured the supply of fresh milk to each camp. separate hospitals, a separate magistrate, and a separate police system ensured the independence of each camp under the overarching control of the British administrators.”

This is the story of a unique event, and the authors tell it with unbridled enthusiasm and love for their subject matter.  There are plans and drawings, articles and ads from the newspapers of the day, bills, receipts, and wonderful, absolutely gorgeous photographs to accompany the story of how the Durbar was conceptualised, planned, and carried out.

The ruling Indian princes needed careful handling, so that there would be no clash of egos in their comings and goings and dealings with the King Emperor.  There were sensibilities galore to be accommodated.  There were logistics on a massive scale to be handled.

And so the days of spectacle and pageantry flowed on smoothly and almost perfectly choreographed.

But there was the occasional headache.

The durbar tent burned down a few days before the event.

Her Majesty the Queen didn’t want the King to ride an elephant in procession – “Elephant Snubbed” was the wonderful newspaper headline.

And then there were problems with the tent for a royal dinner one night :

“The banqueting tent offended against the elements of sanitary science in the matter of ventilation; and it must be added as a warning for future occasions that being very long, very narrow and low, it presented neither a dignified nor an inviting appearance.”

For me, though, the biggest treat in the book is the photography.  Wonderful black and white photos  –  and even a startling, very early colour photo – bring to life the sheer gorgeousness of this extraordinary event.

Delhi, and every lover of history, can thank Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal for this well-written, super well-documented book.

Published by Roli Books and just Rs 495 for an attractively bound hardback.

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UNLEASHING GENIUS by DILIP MUKERJEA

This fat, distinctly jolly looking book is just crying out to be placed under the Christmas tree, waiting to bring fun and new skills to children of all ages.

Although the target audience is, I suspect, school children and teenagers, there are so many useful skills to be learned from this book that everyone should enjoy leafing through it.

Dilip Mukerjea has already written several other books which teach you how to acquire, in his own words, “brain skills for the 21st century.”  In “Unleashing Genius” the author takes us, chapter by chapter, on a journey where we learn how to remember better, how to solve problems, how to read more efficiently, and all done in a fun, easy way.  There are masses of brightly coloured illustartions, most of them comic-y in feeling, which gives the book more of a child feel than an adult feel, but this reviewer found plenty to think about.

The first chapter “The Brain” leads naturally to a chapter on “Memory Boosting” and then “Mind Mapping.”  It was when I read the section on meeting people, that I realised that the author is definitely writing for all ages, since everyone of us can benefit from useful tips on how to meet and greet people for the first time and, most importantly, remember their names afterwards.  The trick is, apparently, to repeat the person’s name and to look for an outstanding feature on their face “to make them effortlessly recognisable’

We learn about the Major System for numbers, which was developed as far back as 1648 by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein, but is here explained with cartoons and fun mnemonics such as shining frisbee and pregnant goalkeeper.  In a world where increasingly we all have long lists of pin numbers and log in codes to remember, tricks to help are always useful.  By the end of the section on recaling numbers, the author has helped the reader remember a 20 digit sequence, which should safely see us all through the most complicated of on-line log ins.

There’s a cute memory test which the author tells us is for adults.  It’s the recipe for a Singapore Sling.  We are supposed to memorise it for 5 minutes, and see if we can recall it a day, a week, a month and even a year later.   He then converts the recipe, using the Major System for numbers, to help recall what it takes to make the perfect cocktail – 30ml Gin becoming 3 mice, and 15ml Cherry Brandy becoming a towel.  yes, I know, it sounds as though I;ve had too many Singapore Slings, but it will all make sense once you learn the mnemonics.

From working the brain and the mind, the author moves onto reading dynamics, which help people to read faster and more efficiently.  As Dilip Mukerjea says in this chapter “The people who get ahead in the Information Age are those who are able to assimilate large chunks of information accurately and swiftly.”  Even if you have always thought you can’t draw, the chapter on Creativity will soon rid you of any artistic inhibitions you might have by teaching you how to draw circle doodles.

I got slightly carried away when reading my review copy of the book, when I came across 6 pages in the middle of a chapter that were printed upside down and back-to-front.  “Ah,” I thought, “a new learning technique.  A new way of viewing problems” – but I hink the banal truth was that those 6 pages were nothing more than printed upside down and back-to-front !

Conclusion?  A fun book for youngsters which will be read with equal enjoyment by their parents.

And the recipe for a Singapore Sling is…?

Published by Westland, this big far-larger-than-usual paperback costs Rs 1195.

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THE SUBMISSION by AMY WALDMAN

A book that makes you think, makes you evaluate, makes you unsure of your own perceived views is a rare and precious thing.

If you haven’t already read Amy Waldman’s utterly brilliant “The Submission”, then you have a serious intellectual treat in store.
The book documents the deliberations and then the resultant turmoil, when the winning (anonymous) design is chosen for a memorial for Ground Zero to commemorate 9/11.  Because the winning architect is a Muslim.

Mo Khan is American by birth, and education, and training, and intellect, and instinct.

He is only nominally a Muslim.

Articulate, clever, talented, low key, he is a likeable man who has won an immensely prestigious competition.
His design for a simple, elegant soothing garden was selected, anonymously, by a committee comprising art luminaries, city grandees and the fiercely committed Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and the representative of the families who were bereaved in the attack.

Claire loves the design and the concept of the garden, which she finds soothing and perfect, and she unflinchingly sticks to her principles, even when the identity of the architect is known and the furore starts.

For this is no ordinary civic archeological project and the pressure on the committee members is intense.  The pressure is, quite simply, to select another design.  One not submitted by a Muslim.

The pressure on everyone concerned with the project is extreme, from Claire still grieving and trying to help her young children heal, to the chairman of the selection committee to Mo himself.  Family and colleagues line up on either side of battle-lines that are drawn up.  Should he withdraw ? Should he change his design ? Should he continue, amidst the maelstrom of publicity and outrage and polarisation that engulfs him, his family, and then the city at large.

It is this angry, vicious polarisation of an emotionally scarred city that is so brilliantly portrayed.

Ignorance on one side vs hostility on the other.

Pain and outrage vs a determination to stand one’s ground.

There is hardly a moral conflict that isn’t evoked during the course of this powerful book.

Mo himself has to face up to the meaning of being a Muslim, of being an immigrant, of being American, but, well, not quite American in the dreadful aftermath of 9/11.  His journey of self-awareness is painful and traumatic.

We see a good, decent, likeable man buffeted by pressures that he is helpless to control.

You cannot read this book without being moved by the passion and argument, and by all the ancillary tragedies that result from that one huge tragedy.

“The Submission” makes you think about identity, and assimilation, and community, and influences, and cultural roots, and religion.

It is, quite simply, a wonderful, thought-provoking, fabulously well-written book.

 

Published by Heinemann, the paperback costs £11.99.

If after reading this review, you wish to buy the book (and it is a compelling read) then simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier.

THE HABIT OF WINNING by PRAKASH IYER

“The Habit of Winning” is a self-help motivational book but with a distinct Indian masala twist, which will most definitely appeal to the Indian reader.

Prakash Iyer has written an easily readable, crisply written book, divided into handy bite-sized chapters.

He draws on his years in corporate management to pass on his own tips for success, for self-actualisation, for motivation, all done in a concise, snappy style.  He uses the technique of a story-teller, making each of his points about positivity, perserverance, confidence building via a story or an anecdote.  Each short chapter has its own piece of advice, which is then summarised in a one or two sentence conclusion, almost like a mantra you can memorise and carry with you.  There is a variety of stories, each one forming a chapter : inspirational anecdotes about the likes of Ratan Tata and Winston Churchill, Gandhi-ji and a newer icon, Michelle Obama, about NBA basketball players and even the legendary story of Dastur Neryosang Dhaval, who led the first group of Zoroastrians to India in AD 755.

With his cosmopolitan mix of stories, some Indian-themed, some are global stories, and some are personal anecdotes, Mr Iyer keeps reiterating his mantra that everyone can become a winner.

There is a nice story about the legendary Michale Phelps, who won eight gold medals for swimming in the Beijing Olympics.  After an injury in 2007, we learn how this determined, focused young man continued to practise in the pool, despite having his arm in plaster. Unable to swim using his arms, he worked especially hard on his leg muscles. Analysis of his 7th gold medal win, by the heart-stopping 1/100th of a second’s margin over his rival (poor fellow, by the way) would show that in the final 5 metres, Phelps’ super strong leg actions clinched the race and the gold medal.

The moral of this ultimate feel-good story is clear : “When you are down and in trouble keep fighting. Don’t give up.  Keep kicking.”  Literally.

A story like this is easy to relate to, and it’s also easy to extract Mr. Iyer’s message.

I particularly liked Mr. Iyer’s own personal story about flying kites as a 6 year old little boy in Jaipur.  He loses his kite because he doesn’t tie a knot around the tin of Cherry Blossom shoe polish which he uses to wrap his kite string around.  Rather endearingly, he tells us that he didn’t actually know how to tie a knot at that young age.  He uses this anecdote as an illustration of how to handle people in a team –  just as you (apparently –  I didn’t know this) make a kite fly higher by pulling it towards you, so you let people working for you soar, by pulling them towards you with care and interest.

If it doesn’t sound odd, one of the things that I like about the book is the fact that the chapter are short and to the point.  You can dip in and out of the book, read one or two chapters, and then take time to think them over.

I also love his chapter titles, some of which entice you to read them simply because they are so quirky sounding : “Who stole my cookies ?”  “Lessons in survival from frogs and Phelps.”  “Don’t change your rabbit.”  And my personal favourite : “Catching fish with strawberries and cream.”

A feel-good read.

Published by Penguin, “The Habit of Winning” costs Rs 299.

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