Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Reading a Nobel Laureate February 18, 2018

Shame on me, I thought when I read that Kazuo Ishiguro had been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature. I couldn’t name a single of his titles, which made it obvious that I hadn’t read any of his books. To my relief, I recognised a film title; ‘The Remains of the Day’, which I saw when it was released in 1993, but I had no idea it was based on Ishiguro’s novel by the same title.

One should, shouldn’t one, read a Nobel Prize winner. ‘Never let me go’ seemed like a passable start, it’s not a very voluminous book and much acclaimed. It takes quite a few pages before one understands the full extent of the story. The ‘what’s it all about’ is both unexpected and unpleasant. So I wouldn’t in any way reveal the plot, that is Ishiguro’s job – only that I found the book profoundly sad. Some people label ‘Never let me go’ science fiction, but I don’t. To me, it’s a novel about identity, fate and choice. Although it’s a very disturbing book, it left me with a serious book hangover and stayed with me for a very long time.

The movie was released in 2010. It’s a general opinion that ‘the book is always better than the film’. In this case, I disagree. The film is by no means better than the book, but I appreciated it much in the same way. The film is very true to the book, and the subdued colour scheme underlines the story. And yes, it’s just as heart-breaking as the book.

My next Ishiguro was ‘When we were Orphans’ (2000). It is elegant, entertaining, at times it almost reads like an old-fashioned crime novel. Set in the 1930s, in England and Shanghai, it tells the story about a renowned detective, Christopher Banks, who goes back to Shanghai to track down his parents who disappeared when he was a child. A vast part of the book is a flashback where Banks’ childhood is told in a very enjoyable way although the book has its sad and dark undercurrents.

‘The Unconsoled’ (1995) is told to be “advanced Ishiguro”. I read somewhere that the book is “either a masterpiece or an incomprehensible wreck”. The number of pages of the books I was reading were steadily increasing, and since I had enjoyed the latter two so much, I thought The Unconsoled’s 500 + pages would be share joy! After 50 pages, I thought I’d either leave it with that, or promise myself to finish it. The only reason the book didn’t put me off completely, was the writer’s language. More of that later.

‘The Unconsoled’ has neither head nor tale. The book jacket reveals that, “Ryder, a renowned pianist, arrives in a Central European city he cannot identify for a concert he cannot remember agreeing to give.” So, it might have a head (slightly unsettling though), but certainly no tale. As the story unfolds, confusion arises and steadily increases. People seem to float around in a world where all normal perceptions of time and place have ceased to exist. Mr. Ryder is surrounded by an absurd bunch of people, and as they move around there is nothing else to do than go with the flow. The book is simply bizarre. (And what’s more, I tried to read a review in The Guardian, and realised I would simply need a review to understand the review …).

Back to his language; I also read somewhere that you never need a dictionary while reading Ishiguro. True. Not that his language is simple (yet it is, in a way), but words and sentences are floating seamlessly from page to page. It’s like reading velvet. So, no matter how odd the book is, how long the monologues are, how irksome the story is – one cannot remain unaffected.

I went to the library in order to pick up the rest of his work, not quite put off by Mr. Ryder and his quirky crowd. The librarian admitted to have given up ‘The Unconsoled’ only after one chapter – which makes her one of the many drop-outs this novel seems to produce – and subsequently admired my stamina.

I’m not at all able to decide if it is a masterpiece or not. But it is without doubt the most original peace of writing I have ever read.


Notes on two book-towns January 23, 2018

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 9:55 am
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HAY-ON-WYE | WALES | JUNE 2017 | For many years, I kept a scrap of paper with the words Hay-on-Wye. I must have read about the Welsh book town, mentally put it on my want-to-visit-list, but kept a note in case I should forget. Last summer, I thought it was high time to put that scrap of paper into action.
I flew to London and worked my way to Hay-on-Way by train and bus. Hay is a small town, I could tell from the way the bus driver smiled at me when I asked him if there was more than one bus stop. The place looked deserted and I remembered one of the guide books warning its readers about not to expect a heavy night life. The town would be dead in the evenings, all the tourists probably tucked up in their lodgings browsing through new books.
A couple of young girls came to our rescue, they knew nothing about taxis, but pointed us in the right direction. It took us less that ten minutes to locate our B&B.

One bookseller sorted the books by colour, this is the blue section.

Hay has loads of charm; the town is a little hilly – but you won’t exhaust yourself – and within an hour you have been just about everywhere. At present, there are some 30-ish booksellers scattered around the town, with over a million books for sale. There is a variety of shops selling new books, you’ll find second hand and antiquarian booksellers, as well as those specialising – like ‘Murder and Mayhem’ (the theme should be pretty obvious …) or ‘Rose’s Books’ selling rare and out of print children’s and Illustrated books.

But the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly ‘Richard Booth’s Bookshop’, a beautifully restored building, the shop front is hard to miss. Booth’s is the cultural hub of Hay; in addition to three floors of new and second-hand books, the shop also hosts a café and a cinema. The atmosphere is one of a kind, the interior and sign-posting beautiful.

Hay books (4 of 6) Hay books (2 of 6)

Hay has a number of other small and interesting speciality shops and should you need a rest, food and drinks are within easy reach. Find yourself a nice café corner, preferably out of doors, and over a coffee you realise that you keep seeing the same people again and again. As I said, Hay is small.

Hay books (3 of 6)
Hay hosts a famous literary festival every summer, but accommodation is hard to find. According to our hostess at the B&B, festival visitors keep booking ahead year after year (in surrounding villages and towns far afield as well), unless you have a tent or a camper van you might just forget about the festival.

Hay books (6 of 6)
I spent three days in Hay and never tired. In between books and coffees, there are some beautiful river walks, and paths up on the moors are signposted although a little overgrown. Before you know it, you are touring among sheep, and more sheep!

Hay books (1 of 6)

FJÆRLAND | NORWAY | JUNE 2017 | To be honest, Fjærland is nothing more than a stretch of road in the Norwegian fjord land. It must be said though that Fjærland hosts The Norwegian Glacier Museum which I should think attracts a fair share of tourists. But some of us visit only for the books!

Another Honesty Bookshop!

Contrary to Hay, Fjærland offers only second-hand books. The many characteristic shops are mostly abandoned buildings and some of a creative kind; a bus stop shelter has become a self-service shop based on honesty, we visited old barns and quaint houses brimming with books, we spotted a book shelf in the midst of Willow Herbs. The blue shelf facing the fjord has aptly been equipped with a bench should you need more time to decide, or just admire the view.

The perfect place for a coffee – and new books. Mundal hotel.

Would you rather prefer the indoors, you can sink down in old chairs and sofas with a pile of books and let time pass. Some of the booksellers are quite big with an impressive selection. Everything is neatly sorted, order prevails!
The atmosphere in Fjærland is muted. There isn’t a rumbling cappuccino machine in sight. Or maybe just about one, in Fjærland’s one and only stately building; The Mundal Hotel. The café shouldn’t be missed and for two reasons; the beautiful interior and the yummy cakes!
Hay-on-Wye and Fjærland is two of a kind, although both with a distinctive stamp. Hay is obviously more commercial than Fjærland, and bigger. Fjærland is quaint and the surroundings are very rustic. I wouldn’t miss any of them!


… with a view!

Mundal hotel has a look and a feel. Not among the less expensive though!



Two reasons why I couldn’t stop reading… March 28, 2015

I have just finished two books. I came back from Delhi in the middle of February and when I did my packing, collecting all the books I had bought, I squirmed… One, two, three and many more. I let one go in my hand luggage, the rest in my suitcase.

I picked up Mirror City by Chitrita Banerji at Bharison’s Booksellers, quite a famous book seller at Khan Market. And a good place for bookaholics. I knew I had read about the book somewhere, and that it most likely was on my to-buy list in my notebook. Having finished Mirror City a few weeks after I came home, Jumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, was next in the pile. I bought it at The Delhi World Book Fair; a very intense experience. The grounds were enormous, the halls likewise, crowds, heat, confusion… I picked up Lahiri, a few more and fled…

Now that I have read these two books I realise that I wanted to finish both books fast, but because of different reasons.


Mirror City is set in Bangladesh just after independence. The cover summarises the book in words like “the turbulent early days of Bangladesh”, “the slow breakdown of a marriage”, “a woman’s search to find herself”. I should have read it like a warning, still, novels set in Bangladesh are hard to come by and I bought it because of that. After a few pages I knew I’d label the book as simple. An easy read, rather shallow… Very easy language, one-dimensional characters. Still I read on, just out of curiosity because I wanted to know who Uma fell in love with, if Nasreen really was a traitor and – having swallowed even more pages… if Uma would leave her husband and escape with her lover. I wanted to finish the book fast, because in a sense I felt that I was wasting my time.

And then I moved on to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland. After 50 pages I was hooked, the story seemed promising, but most important; the language was music to my ears compared with Mirror City. As a “foreigner”, meaning that English is not my mother tongue, I’m sensitive to language. A few years back I picked up Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I wasn’t able to turn the first page, I read the first few paragraphs again and again and I hardly understood a word. It might as well have been Urdu. Defeated, I searched my book shelves and found a Norwegian edition. It was a relief though, to realise that Rushdie can be rather unattainable also in your own language, he writes long and complicated sentences. Concentration is a part of The Rushdie Reading Experience…
I experienced almost the same a while ago, while reading Neel Mukherjees The lives of others. I enjoyed the story, but more than that, he writes in a very sophisticated language –  I must admit I had to concentrate as well as enjoy….but I never gave it up!

Whereas Mirror City tells the story from Uma’s view and within a restricted time span, The Lowland moves back and forth in time and follows the main character almost from the day he is born until he is a man in his 70s. Moreover, the story is told from all the three main characters points of view. Which makes the story even more interesting.

I knew from the very start that I would like the book to last. That I’d get a book hangover after the last chapter. Still, I couldn’t stop reading, I wanted to finish the book because I wanted so badly to see how the character’s lives unfolded. I read before going to work in the morning, after dinner (which in Norway can be as early as 4.30…), when I was watching the news, in bed – at length… And now it’s over…

My present pile...

My present pile…


A book and a bestseller January 31, 2014

What makes a book a bestseller? Obvious?! It sells many copies. But what actually makes one book a bestseller – and another not?
My reading group recently read Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s bestseller Secret Daughter although I was very reluctant, I guess I was simply curious. When we took stock, two persons read it through and found it “OK”. One person read it on “fast forward”, one person gave up after 50 pages – and myself? – I left it when there was 50 or so pages left. The book is on display in whichever bookstore I enter and you can read it in more than 20 languages. To me, that is a mystery!


My reading group, concentrating on Indian and other Asian literature, ended up discussing not the characters in the book or the plot – but rather; is this a good book or not? We reached some sort of consensus.
Secret Daughter has roughly six main characters; An American couple with an adopted Indian daughter. A poor Indian couple who has “lost” one daughter, put one daughter up for adoption and well, there is one son. So the main plot of the book? It goes without saying.  My main objection to this book is the way the writer gives life to the characters. There simply is no life, as if they’re made of cardboard. And it’s not a story, it’s a rigmarole of events.

We left the book and moved on to the next: The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah. After only a few pages I felt I had a gem between my hands. It’s a family saga and the back drop is Iran, and moreover – the story leads up to the revolution in 1979. Secret Daughter told you a lot about Indian culture, but it was as if the author had a list of events that she wanted to include in her story. And then, check….
Abdolah tells a story and at the same time manages to include Iran’s bitter history in a very natural way. But it is the characters that most and foremost makes the book such a good read. They stand out as real, rise from the pages, and come to life. The book makes me curious, I’d like to step into the house, and the mosque; take the stairs up to the roof, sneak into the minarets… Go downstairs, get a glimpse of the “grandmothers” keeping the kitchen ship-shape, down to the pottery in the basement…. The book is about characters who give life to an environment, and vice versa.

Huset ved moskeen


A story from Iran October 13, 2013

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 6:42 pm
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I was 16 or 17 years old, preparing for a history test. I was reading, turning one page after another but unable to remember a single word. Panic grew….drama… My father entered the room, sent by my mother. While leafing through my text-book, he started to tell me about the 2nd world war in his own words. Exit panic.

I have always found it difficult to read in order to pass a test.  History and geography never were my best subjects at school. So I don’t know much about – for example – Iran. But of course I remember Farah Diba from my childhood. She was the beautiful celebrity from somewhere far away, married to the Shah of Persia. Together they represented some sort of a  sparkling fairytale. The fairytale ended though – and my interest in Iran never really exceeded Farah Diba.

This summer I picked up a book by Iranian Dina Nayeri: “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea”. The story takes place in the 1980’s and tells the story of Saba who at 11 was left by her twin sister and mother. In Saba’s imagination they fled to America, Saba’s Shangri-La. Saba grows as I’m turning the pages. Her family is Christian converts and Saba is a free spirit who buys American films and books from a pusher. She smokes hashish together with her best friends Ponneh and Reza. At one hand she leads a care free existence. Saba’s distant  father is wealthy, but struggles to cope as a single father. On the other hand, Saba constantly grieves the loss of her twin sister and mother and nobody really knows their whereabouts.


But this is also about the post-revolution, the morale police (the pasdars), the chadors and hijabs, the mullahs… beating and harassment. It’s history. The book also tells me a lot of another culture. About the strong, energetic women around Saba, her “surrogate mothers” who is hiding various unspoken bottles in their voluminous chadors.  The sofrehs, the khastegaris, the parties behind closed curtains, the opium… the fun. In the midst of it Mullah Ali, a family friend who sleeps and snores through the hashish smoke and whatever else taking place that a mullah would never approve of – unless he was a true family friend.
It’s a story about arranged marriages, where Saba marries a very old man and becomes widow-in-waiting because everybody tells her that a married woman, even a widow can indulge in a freedom an unmarried student in Tehran can not even dream of. Besides, she will eventually get very rich.

I’m always thinking… if I had been a history teacher I would use literature as a teaching method. How can history ever get boring through the writing of – for example Dina Nayeri.


Reflections on some muslim writers… September 20, 2013

In my part of the world, muslims are looked upon in a very one dimensional way. We associate muslims with women in burkas, the Koran, mosques, eid, fast, Ramadan. And…. terror. Does people from, say Pakistan, drink alcohol? do they read Shakespeare? do they have any sense of humour??

I always turn to the books, novels in particular, in order to learn about foreign cultures, and have lately read quite a few books by Pakistani authors. My favourite might possibly be Kamila Shamsie. Highly acclaimed “Burnt Shadows” (2009) is translated into Norwegian, but all her previous novels (which I read in succession) are really worthwhile to read. Maybe more so than “Burnt Shadows”…


Shamsie, and many other Pakistani writers, describes a muslim world we seldom hear about in the news. They describe the elite…. the intellectuals. Those who dance and drink and sing… Those who are in opposition to the establishment. Those who quote Shakespeare… Yes, poverty is there, in glimpses.  But those of us who has read say Indian literature extensively, is more than ready for a more differentiated picture of countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Which leads me to the novel I just finished; “A good Muslim” by Tahmima Anam, born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Anam lives in London and has received several UK prizes for her first novel, “A Golden Age”. “A Good Muslim” is a good read. But it’s also tells the story of “the good and the bad” muslim and thus calls for reflection. (It also has a beautiful cover, which I’m always drawn towards…)


Most of the muslim authors I’ve read travel between their homeland and the US, or other western countries. Shamsie has won prizes both in her homeland and UK.

Last but not least I should mention “How it Happened” by Shazaf Fatima Haider. Born in Islamabad, based in Karachi, this is her first novel. Haider has taught me all I need to know about arranged marriages…. besides, her book is absolutely hilarious. In the western world we despise arranged marriages, failing to see it’s part of a totality. It doesn’t fit in our culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I wouldn’t say I’m now in favour of arranged marriages, but the novel gave me both insight and understanding – and a good laugh. Haider writes well and a difficult topic is handled with humour!


The beauty of books October 5, 2012

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 7:43 pm
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Sometimes you come across things by pure chance….

As always I was looking for a good bookstore when I was visiting Edinburgh a while ago. I hadn’t expected to find The Golden Hare. It’s a rather anonymous little place from the outside, and I probably hadn’t ventured inside if it wasn’t for a sign saying something about beautiful books. It’s a small place, close to tiny, with a quiet but not unwelcoming woman behind a desk. It didn’t take me long to “crack the code”. In addition to shelves lining the walls there was a table in the middle with quite a few books on display and all had extraordinary book covers. Which made me curious about all the other books on the shelves, and yes – all book covers were out of the ordinary. Which is also the idea of The Golden Hare. In a world, now flooded by gadgets with absolutely no beauty attached to them, this tiny bookstore is nothing less than a jewel.

I bought two books; Anjali Joseph’s second novel Another Country. Quite recently I read her first novel set in Mumbai, Saraswati Park. Might not be Nobel material, but her new one had a beautiful book cover (!) so I decided to give it a chance… (And it proved to be quite good).

The other book I bought was Amitav Ghosh’ sequel to The Sea of Poppies, much awaited River of Smoke – and yes, yet another beautiful book cover.

A few days later we were on our way to The Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, on foot. It was Sunday morning and it took a while; it was a long walk through many residential areas – but suddenly we found ourselves outside an antiquarian book shop. Not a surprise really, there are many of those in Edinburgh – but the window display caught my attraction.

The display of the books was clearly not accidental – it was beautifully set up. Of course it was closed on a Sunday morning, but I knew what we had to do after the botanical garden because fortunately it opened later. This was no ordinary second hand bookstore, it was an antiquarian bookshop with carefully chosen books. You could tell that the owner had a real passion for books.

The last of my paper money changed owner because he had a few interesting Indian books, but some a bit on the expensive side which I left behind.

I made some remarks about the display in the window and yes – the owner admitted he put a great effort in it and he already had great plans for Christmas. Wish I could be there to see….