Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

The sheltering sky June 1, 2012

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 7:22 pm
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When I see a film, there is almost always a reason…. Maybe it’s a novel that has been made into a film, like John Irving’s books years ago; The Cider House Rules, to mention one… Or there is a specific actor that I like, or a theme – India perhaps… But I can’t remember why I went to see The Sheltering Sky directed by the acclaimed Bernardo Bertolucci – and this is years back. The film was released in 1990.

The film made a huge impact. It’s shot on location in northern Africa, and the sequences from the Sahara desert are magnificent. All through, the movie has the colours of the desert.

It was only ten years later I discovered that the movie was actually based on a novel; The Sheltering Sky by legendary and cult author Paul Bowles: A Norwegian to-be author had travelled to Tangier to “kneel” by the author’s feet – and a tabloid newspaper was trailing two steps behind… Paul Bowles had many admirers, and he was a man covered by many myths. He died in Tangier, in 1999.

Inspired by the discovery, I read the book, and saw the film one more time. The film should always be seen on widescreen, the tv screen cannot really justify the beautiful filming, but anyway…. And then I ordered what I could get from Amazon – his novels, short stories… and read them all.

I have just read the book for the second time, I suggested it for my reading group – I have no idea why it came up after all these years. I guess it is one of those books everybody should have a go at.
The novel is – in many respects – cruel. As I read it, I was searching for the one word to describe it, and the feeling it evokes. And by coincidence I found just the right word on a web page called The Book Drum, where The Sheltering Sky was described as claustrophobic. And yes, that is the word. And it disturbs your mind.
In short, the novel tells the story of three young people; the married couple Kit & Port and their friend Tunner – who (post war) travel to Northern Africa. From the very start, the novel makes you feel uneasy… and it takes a very nasty turn two-thirds along the way. It’s a paradox that it is now that the beauty of the film gets really serious….

The movie sometimes takes giant steps in the sense that 100 pages are suddenly reduced to two sentences… But then of course, it is not possible to include every move in the book. Still, the film is true to the novel in almost all respects.

What I really remember from the film, is – apart from the colours – Debra Winger’s dry voice and her utter despair as the story unfolds. Plus the couple’s sunglasses, and the leather suitcases. Rich people definitely didn’t travel light in those days…
I’m not sure if I think that John Malkovich is right as Port (although he plays well), because Malkovich has this drowsy, thin voice that makes him sort of weak, and the novel doesn’t – in my opinion – paint a portrait of a week man.

The last page of the novel made my reading group despair…. and the movie is equally confusing. But that’s the authors privilege; only Paul Bowels – in his grave – knows what happened to Kit Moresby.

Highly recommended……….

 

Updates on my reading… April 29, 2012

I never thought there would be an Indian detective, in fiction. Every time I come to India, preferably Mumbai, I spend considerable time in bookstores – always with a ‘wish-list’. But I have never come across detective stories. Not that I have been looking, I stopped reading crime novels many years ago, having read my share. But then a friend from Finland told med about Vish Puri; an Indian Herule Poirot.  However, the author is British; Tarquin Hall – and so far he has published two books about “India’s most private investigator”, a third is on it’s way. Years in India, and also married to an Indian, he is very much familiar with the Indian lingo. Vish Puri lives and works in Dehli, the books are funny  page turners and yes, I have become a fan.

It’s no secret that i love novels set in Mumbai, that’s probably why I chose Thrity Umrigar’s novel Bombay Time. Also, she writes about the Parsi community – well known from the books by Rohinton Mistry. This is her debut and tells the story of a bunch of people in Wadi Baug. It may not be ‘Nobel Prize material’, but it gives you insight into the Parsi community. The novel has a hint of bitterness, but tells many interesting stories.

Anuradha Roy published An Atlas of Impossible Longing in 2004, and I have been waiting for her next book. The Folded Earth didn’t let me down, especially since it is set in a remote town in the Himalaya. When people ask me, – where should I go in India – I always say; the North. The Himalaya Foothills. The novel is set in Ranikhet in the state of Uttaranchal, and tells a rather sentimental story about Maya who has lost her boyfrind and takes refugee in the mountains. I have been to Uttaranchal and I could easily imagine Maya, Charu, Diwan Sahib and his mysterious nephew an this breathtaking landscape.

The most shocking reading experiene in 2012 has so far been Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarsan. Somehow it reminded me of V. S. Naipaul when he writes about dysfunctional families where men hit their wifes and mothers hit their children – at the same time being able to write in a witty way.  This novel is set in a village in Malaysia, however in an Indian community, the street aptly name Kingfisher Lane. Raju and Vasanthi have three children, all of them neglected – especially the youngest girl: I have never in my life read such a dismal portrait of a child. The novel is an impressive debut. She is able to portray a family where every one is a loser, still – the book has a good portion of humour.

Ali Sethi was a completely new name to me, but I’m curious about literature from Pakistan and was happy to find this debut novel in a bookstore off The Strip in Las Vegas – of all places. The Wish Maker tells the story of “a fatherless boy growing up in a family of outspoken women in contemporary Pakistan” as the back cover of the book says. That made me decide to buy the book, and it definately gave me a taste for more…

At the moment I’m reading Planet India by Mira Kamdar. It’s an analysis of contemporary India, published in 2007 – thus the chapter about cell phones seems utterly outdated…. Kamdar writes interestingly and she has talked to a lot of people, Mukesh Ambani and his likes, for instance. Sometimes she interviews people who has great plans for the future of India, also short term plans – and this makes me rather curios to what has been ahieved in 2012 – if achieved at all. The book has chapters on retailing in India, villages, the cities, power – and more.

 

Summer reading June 14, 2011

This summer has a set goal… I have to get rid of two piles of books in my living room. For a start I’d like to read these books. Secondly, I have to read them in order to justify new purchases on my next travel to Mumbai.

The Indian joint family closely observed by two female writers.

I had a whole week to myself recently, my agenda was full – but that was before I started Manju Kapur’s Home. I had just finished John Irving’s latest novel; Last night in Twisted River – 600 pages full of  John Irving’s peculiar characters – but you tend to get wary of Irving’s many words en route. Maybe that’s way I picked a small pocket book with the modest title Home. Kapur was unknown to me and the story itself might not be “prize material”… Set in Delhi, it tells the story of three generations of an Indian joint family. And the Indian joint family facinates me with it’s tangle of mothers, fathers, in’laws, children, aunts, nieces, nephews…. where everybody has his/hers place in a distinct hierarchy. The novel centres about the female members of the family; like Rupa who is unable to conceive and Nisha who is a mangli (bad horoscope) and her struggle to get married after a love-marriage was denied her. Instead of doing all the things I had planned, I found myself constantly curled up in the sofa – hours after hours – together with Rupa, Nisha, Rekha, Raju.. a cup of tea, a glass of pepsi or an espresso…..

India is on my reading list this summer...

Even before I had finished the book, I had decided on the next one: Desirable daughters by Bharati Mukherjee. From the title I could tell that this was another novel about Indian family life. And from the author’s name I knew she was a Bengali writer. The book is mostly set in California, but tells the story about three sisters from upper class Kolkata (Calcutta) – and the many flash backs paint an interesting picture of a Calcutta nowhere near the misery of Mother Teresa’s Calcutta. And constantly reminds me that Kolkata is number one on my “travel-to-another-city-than-Mumbai” list…. From a literary pont of view, this novel is more substantial than Kapur’s Home. The three sisters have a complicated relationship, and the fact that the eldest has an illegitimate child that appears on the scene after being a family secret for 25 years, gives the book a certain tension and moves the story forward. Being just half way through the book, I know that this is an author I will explore further.

So what should I read next… Normally I read two books at a time. One fiction and one non-fiction. Fiction is on my bedside table, the non-fiction by my side in the living room. – So what do you read in the kitchen, a friend asked… Certainly not cookery books…

I have several non-fiction books ready to read; the legendary City of Gold – The biography of Bombay by Gillian Tindall. A bit outdated perhaps, nevertheless a much quoted book. Secondly; Calcutta by Simon Winchester – because I’d like to go there during the literary festival in February every year. And then After the Raj by Hugh Purcell – because The British Raj has intrigued me ever since I saw the TV serial The Jewel in the Crown a lot many years ago. The adaption of Paul Scott’s novel is brilliant, and reminds me that I should read the book – not only watch it which I did again a year ago. I can’t help it but I could have died to step back into history to be a part of The British Raj – no matter how horribly wrong it seems…. This is a feeling I have been fighting against for many years, still, it remains after many trips to India. This particular book tells story about the Britishers that didn’t escape India, after The Raj ceased to exist.

When I have left the Indian joint family (at least for now) I will go on with Herman Koch’s Middagen (The Dinner) and then In the Kitchen by Monica Ali. I had never heard about Herman Koch, but my most valuable source of book reviews; Norwegian financial paper Dagens Nærlingsliv praised it highly some months ago. Most of the time, there is only one book review pr week, on Saturdays, but their taste for books is great and I have bought many a book on their recommendadtion and thought; where else would I have read about this book….

Hopefully Monica Ali won't let med down!

Monica Ali is famous for her novel Brick Lane, and her latest novel In the kitchen is supposed to be a follow-up to Brick Lane. A multi cultural hotel kitchen seems like the right place to be on a cool summer day in Stavanger because right now I can’t envsion myself lightly dressed with a book on my veranda! More so under a rug with a hot cup of tea….

 

Too many books. Only one life. June 19, 2010

Filed under: Indian literature,Literature — benjamuna @ 2:06 pm
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Some years back I told my friend Dagne that I always finished a book once started on it, no matter how bad I found it.  Did I feel I owed it to the author, in some peculiar way? Dagne found it outragous, and I eventually admitted that life is too short to bother about bad books. Since then I have been terribly choosy, every book I read has a purpose behind. I only rarely read a book on impulse.

First of all I quit reading crime novels. I have read a lot of them, – and enjoyed, but it strikes me that there is nothing much to learn from a crime novel. When people ask me how I have come to know so much about India; about culture, politics, geography, demography – whatever, I always answer; from novels. My number one source whatsoever.

My Indian books have a bookshelf of their own! This is but a few....

So how do I chose my books and where do I find them? Some authors I follow closely, year after year – American Alice Hoffman being one of them. I guess I have every single novel she has published, most of them in the original language. There are two reasons I buy the American edition. For a start I can’t possibly wait for a translation. Moreover, Hoffman’s language is worth reading as she wrote it. Nobody can descibe the elements of nature as Hoffman describes it; a soaring heatwave in small town America, or a bitterly cold night, the overwhelming smell of a flower or the intense buzz of a bee… Nobody is able to paint those pictures with words like Hoffman does, and no translation can ever justify it. Her novels are a garden of delight! A few years back she came down with cancer. Then followed a  couple of novels where she obviously was writing her way out of this trauma. Half way through her last novel; The Story Sisters, I told a friend that Hoffman was out with another novel. Any cancer, she asked. Not yet, was my immediate answer, although we have one drug addict. The day after, hell broke lose in The Story Sisters. Leukemia. Heroin. Death. A fatal accident. It was overwhelming, I decided to finish the book in one go and felt totally drenched afterwards. But the book also paints a picture of two beautiful old, eccentric and forgiving women, who made up for all the grief.

Alice Hoffman - a long time favourite!

I went from Hoffman to Chowringhee by Sankar, for me a totally unknown Indian author. The book was published in 1962. Indian literature is a passion, no doubt. I search for new titles and new authors everywhere. In January I picked up the 2009 volume of India Today at the library, given to me for 50 kroner. Some of those issues I already read last year, but the reason I asked for them was to look more closely at the book reviews. I go through every issue and add books of interest to my list.

India Today is an important source when I'm looking for Indian novels out of the main stream.

 
Last year, in Delhi, I found a small bookstore crammed with books, in Connaught Place. The sales personnel was obviously impressed with my list and criss-crossed the floors in order to fulfill my wishes. (Lurking in the back of my mind was of course weight…. books are heavy and KLM make no concessions for book addicts).
Indian bookstores are great, whether small or big. I could spend hours. But books are also sold on the street as well, sometimes laid out on the pavement. Dusty books wrapped in plastic, impossible to pass by…… Impossible not to listen to the vendors advice.

My favourite book seller in Colaba, Mumbai, last year.

Sometimes people tell me – oh you should read this or that book…. I hardly listen. I panic. First of all, I have my own constant mental list. Of authors I follow closely. Of books I’m thinking of buying. Of books I should read (Knausgård for example – I have only finished volume 1). But I mostly panic because of the various piles of books at home. Everywhere. My own favourites and my own research is keeping me more than busy, other people’s advice must have me excused.

One of many piles of books I should read before buying more….

The web store Amazon is an important source of information, annoying though it might be. The system is “intelligent” in the way that it remembers your buys and feeds you with more of the same. In my case; mostly Indian literature. The danger is that when all these offers pop up  – one tends to buy on impulse…. Anyway, at the moment I’m jotting down any interesting suggestions and await my visit to Mumbai in November. I dont know what is worst though, paying postage through Amazon or overweight on the plane…..

Today's offer from Amazon.....

Although I’m very serious about books, I have one flaw…. and he is called Douglas Kennedy. I sometimes wonder how I got to know about him in the first place, and when. It’s tempting to call his novels trash. Undoubtedly we can use the word page turner. Once started, you’re completely hooked. ‘That’s why I’m saving his latest novel Leaving the World for either USA in August or India later this year. It’s perfect for a lang haul air ride. He has titles like The Big Picture, The Job, Temptation. Tells you everything, really…. But to make up for all those negative wibes, after finishing the one called State of the Union, I was not able to start a new book in several weeks. I was thinking of the main character night and day. I was seriously worried about her future, thinking of her as a real person, wanting to know more…… Which must mean that the author has managed create a character of flesh and bood…

Good or bad... Douglas Kennedy shortens a long journey for sure!