The Hundred Foot Journey–Richard C Morais

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This book was recently made into a movie starring Helen Mirren, but I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not sure I even want to, because although everyone loves Helen Mirren, it seems like the movie only covers part of the book and does it in the sappiest way possible.

The book is about an Indian boy and his family. They have a restaurant in India, but after a riot that left the mother dead, they moved to England and a few years later to France. They find a place to settle in France and they open a new restaurant. There’s a high-end French restaurant just across the way. The owner of that restaurant resents the presence of competition, even though the restaurants are vastly different and cater to different clienteles.

The French chef realizes that the Indian boy has a gift for cooking and eventually seeks to have him come intern in her restaurant so she can train him properly. From there, he builds a glittering culinary career over many years, becoming one of the most highly decorated chefs in France.

It’s a sweet story, but I’m not sure there’s much depth to it. It’s fluffy and probably good for a beach read, since beach season is coming right up.

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Winter’s Bone–Daniel Woodrell

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Many of you have probably seen the movie that they made of this book, but there might be a few of you out there that, like me, are so far behind on movies that there’s no hope of ever being current. It’s ok. There are more things in life than being current on movies and TV shows.

This is an incredibly sad book.

The main character is Ree, who is a 16 year old school dropout, tasked with keeping her family alive and functioning. They live in the rural Ozark valley, and her mom is drugged senseless for her mental health issues. Her dad, who participates in the local common trade of meth manufacturing, is often gone. It’s on her to keep the younger kids alive and in school.

Her dad is currently gone again, awaiting a court date on a meth manufacturing charge. The sheriff comes to warn her that he put the house and land up to secure the bond, and if he doesn’t show they’ll be homeless.

She doesn’t trust him to show–understandably, since he’s clearly a flake–and goes looking for him.

I live in a warm climate, but the imagery for the cold that she suffers made me shiver. Her hood freezes into a sheet of ice at one point. I can’t fathom that kind of cold. Terrible and scary.

As it turns out, her neighbors (who are either part of her extended family or rival families) are dangerous people as well. She begins to suspect her dad has been killed, but that’s not her biggest problem. Her biggest problem isn’t to mourn, but to prove he’s dead so they don’t lose the house.

This is a beautiful, haunting book. Sad, of course, but beautiful.

The Revolving Door of Life–Alexander McCall Smith

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I love Alexander McCall Smith.

He’s best known for his Number One Ladies Detective Agency books, but he has several other series. This book is the latest in the Scotland Street series, which follows the lives of a group of people who initially all lived in the same building on Scotland Street in Edinburgh. In the course of the series, some of the characters have moved out and others have joined the cast.

In this book we have several different threads going. The most popular character, I suspect, is Bertie, a 7 year old with a ridiculously overbearing mother. She won a trip to the Middle East in the last book and mistakenly got adopted into a harem and in her absence, her family is doing much better. In this book, his paternal grandmother comes to help out and everyone gets happier. Unfortunately, the state department eventually gets the mom free.

Matthew, who had triplets last book, moves into a new house where he discovers a hidden room with some seriously valuable artwork and has to decide if he has a moral obligation to give the art to the previous owner.

Patricia, who has a close relationship with her father, hatches a somewhat underhanded plan to demonstrate to him that his new fiancee is a gold digger.

These books are so much fun. They’re fast reads, but sweet and playful in execution.

Things Fall Apart–Chinua Achebe

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This is a beautiful book. It’s considered a classic and for good reason. It’s also a very sad book, as indeed most classics seem to be.

Considered the best example of modern African narrative, this story follows Okonkwo, a leader in his village, at the time of colonization in Africa.

The colonists and the missionaries do not come out of this well, which is not a huge surprise.

Regardless, this story is aptly named. Things really do fall apart for Okonkwo. He’s a fierce man, trying to overcome the issues and memory of his weak father. To this end, he sometimes makes bad decisions in the name of being tough. For example, at some point his village takes a young boy hostage and the boy lives with him for three years and thinks of him as his own father. And then, counter to the advice of the village elder, he participates in the boy’s execution.

Then during a funeral his gun explodes (unreliable firearms are a feature of the time) and accidentally kills someone. Per the rules of his village, he’s banished for seven years. So he goes to his mother’s village and during this time the missionaries come.

His son joins the missionaries and moves away, which creates yet more resentment in his heart against the missionaries. And the stories of the new colonial government are distressing to all the villagers.

When he gets back to his own village, things get worse. One of the Christians unmasks the sacred dancers representing the gods, which is a big no-no. The village leaders, including Okonkwo, retaliate by burning the church to the ground.

The colonial government calls the village leaders in for a “discussion” which turns out to be a trial, and the leaders are kept in humiliating and terrible conditions. This does not improve the quality of the situation when they return to the village.

There’s plans for war, but when the messengers from the government come to see what’s happening, his village settles down. In frustration he kills one of the messengers. The penalty for this is death, as he well knows, so to prevent having to be shamed by the colonial government, he hangs himself.

It’s all incredibly tragic and sad. But it’s beautiful, beautifully written and executed.

 

The Ground Beneath Her Feet–Salman Rushdie

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I recently got the opportunity to see Rushdie speak live, which is amazing and awesome, especially when you consider how many years he had to hide from the world. He was, as you might expect, a lovely speaker. He was clever, thoughtful and funny.

This book, not one of his more famous (the 1001 books to read before you die list suggests “Midnight’s Children,” “Shame,” and “The Satanic Verses”) is, like all of his work, dense but playful.

As everyone in the world who reads this book instantly sees, it’s a variation of the Orpheus myth, but with the typical Rushdie flair.

In this book, the action centers on a beautiful and charismatic woman, Vina. There are two men who love her, Ormus (read Orpheus) and Umeed, familiarly known as Rai. It tracks the childhood of all three of them, with their assorted family dramas, and the transitions that bring them out of India, into England and then later to America, and make Ormus and Vina the center of the rising world of rock and roll.

There are scenes in this book that stay with you. Rai in the barn with the dead photographer that preceded him on an undercover sting for a news story. Vina’s childhood experiences, almost all of them.

Rushdie has a firm grasp on what provokes a visceral response in his readers. All his books stay with you, but first time readers should realize that his style is not straightforward. Expect to take a few chapters to get used to it and then go back and re-read from the beginning.

But Rushdie is always worth reading. He says deep, meaningful things about some of the biggest questions of our time, from the role of religious leaders to the plight of immigrants.

An Obedient Father–Akhil Sharma

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One word summary: Intense.

This book is told from two main viewpoints. The first is the titular father. At the open of the book he seems like a reasonably average man, one who engages in some minor bribery as part of the job he does fairly poorly, but one that likes to be nice to his granddaughter who lives with him.

By the end of the first section, that ideal is shattered as he touches that granddaughter inappropriately.

When the book switches to his daughter’s viewpoint, you find out that this isn’t the first time he’s sexually assaulted a child.

The book unfolds with him trying to get ahead in the world by helping his boss run for political office while his daughter relives the abuse she suffered at his hands and tries to prevent it from happening to her daughter. ¬†You can see her frustration and anger because there is no place for her to go, no other way for her and her daughter to live, so she’s trapped with her abuser.

She uses her father’s guilt over what he did to her and her daughter–and he is guilty, but not enough to stop–to get additional money and concessions from him to improve their lives.

In the end, there are no winners. Even though she largely protected her daughter, the stigma of sexual abuse follows the girl through her life. It’s a sad book, but it is an excellent one. The writing is tremendous and the characters all feel real and sympathetic, despite their many foibles.

The Good Earth–Pearl S. Buck

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Aha, I bet you thought I only read pulp fiction. Au contraire, mon ami, I do indeed read real literature as well.

This is the best known book by Pearl S. Buck, and it won the Pulitzer. She also won the Nobel prize for literature, so you know she’s good.

This book, oh boy. I didn’t have any idea what was happening when I started it, I didn’t go online and look at discussions about it or anything, I just read it cold.

It is really something.

The writing is exquisite. I wish I had the lyricism to describe it more extensively than that, but I don’t. It’s just beautiful, achingly beautiful.

The plot, too, is intense.

It follows a family of Chinese peasants in the time before the Communist Revolution.

At the beginning, it’s a man and his old sick father, living alone in a little house on the edge of their land. Aside from an uncle and his family the next town over, they’re alone in the world.

But it’s all about to change because he’s getting married. They worked a deal with the rich family in town to give them one of their ugly female slaves. They wanted ugly so she wouldn’t expect much. Lovely.

They get her and she spends her wedding day cooking the wedding feast for his friends, eventually falling asleep in the kitchen with the ox.

She spends the next several months fixing up the house, cleaning and repairing and just generally improving the quality of life for them both, while caring for the old man and doing all the cooking and cleaning. When the house is done, she starts spending her days working in the fields with her husband.

When she has children, she’s back in the field that same day or the next day.

Still doing all the cooking and cleaning. Never complaining. This woman is a freaking saint.

Then comes the terrible drought. They’re all literally starving to death. She stops her husband from selling the land and they move to a bigger city down south where they survive living in a hut made of mats, the wife and kids begging on the streets while the husband pulls a rickshaw.

Eventually the revolution hits the rich family in that town and their home is thrown open for looting. The husband gets a hefty purse of gold and the wife gets a handful of jewels.

Thus enriched, they return home and use the money to get themselves set up again, new seed and oxes and whatever else they need. With the jewels, they buy more land.

All except two jewels. She begs to keep two pearls, not to have made into earrings or anything, just so she has something beautiful.

The lands prosper. They hire workers, they build a bigger house, they have enough money that they can survive a couple of bad years. It’s everything the husband has ever wanted.

He educates his two older sons, and trains the youngest to be a farmer and stay on the land.

Then there’s a terrible flood and there’s no work to do. He starts visiting the brothel in town and falls in love with one of the women there. He spends endless money on her, even taking his wife’s two precious little pearls for her. Eventually he builds an addition on his house and moves the whore into his own home.

Still, his wife bears it without complaint.

Then she gets sick. The doctors can’t save her. She mutters in her fever that she knows she’s too stupid and ugly to be loved, and her husband, sitting with her, agrees that he never loved her.

I think it bears noting that his entire success was built on her. Her hard work, the jewels she found that bought the extra land, her ability to produce strong children. I cry even now thinking that all of that is not enough to compel love and affection from her husband.

She dies.

His kids convince him to buy the big house in town and move them there. They marry daughters of town people, they live a merchant’s existence. The youngest son refuses to be a farmer and goes away to be educated.

Eventually he gets old and moves back to his small house on the land while he waits to die. And overhears his two older sons talking about selling the land when he dies. He begs them not to, reminds them that the land is what cushions them from droughts and famine, but of course, as soon as he dies, they sell the land anyway.

*sigh*

There are other things, relationships with servants the courtesan and his uncle’s family who are total jerks, but that’s the main story.

Beautiful. Sad. But terribly beautiful.