Monthly Archives: December 2007

Two Lives, by Vikram Seth

Two Lives, by Vikram Seth…I give it Five Stars!!

This beautifully written memoir is one that you will remember, long after you have finished the last word, on the last page. It is one of those memoirs that stay in your heart, in your mind, for a long time.

“When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England. He was an Indian by origin, she German. They were both sixty. I hardly knew them at the time.”

And, with these opening lines begins the journey through the lives of Shanti Behari Seth, Helga Gerda Karo, and, the author, Vikram Seth, which culminates in an emotional ending. Vikram Seth, chronicles the lives of his great-uncle and great-aunt, with exacting details, which some might find over-reacting, or over-zealous in his endeavors. But, we must remember, this is a memoir, a factual story of lives, and all the details need to be relayed and interwoven into the family fabric, the family quilt of their lifespans. This is not a novel, or fictionalized account, but, rather an actual documentation of their lives.
We watch the friendship and love grow between Shanti, who was born in India, and studied dentistry and medicine in Berlin; and Helga, a German Jew. Two very different cultures, and two lives, lives which receded and ebbed within The Holocaust, Auschwitz and Israel, in an ocean of torment, hate, persecution, and, love. From 1908 India, to 1908 Germany, and the years that follow, in a Germany ruled by Hitler, we follow the journey of Shanti and Helga, to England, and also the journey of the author, Vikram Seth, into the lives of this childless couple.

These two lives couldn’t have been more different, yet more alike, than either of them could have imagined…overcoming racial and ethnic hatred, and genocide, their lives become fulfilled and realized, with the inclusion of Vikram Seth into their family. This is a memoir weaved from cultural threads, threads of understanding and love, woven into a quilt of unconditional love, compassion and the overcoming of adversity.

It is a must read for everyone who is interested in World War II, The Holocaust, India, England, and a love that crosses all the cultural boundaries. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down.

~~Book Diva

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Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer…I Give it Five Stars!

Into the Wild is a non-fiction account of a Chris McCandless’s journey to Alaska. This will not be a review, as such, as the events described in the book are taken from McCandless’s journal, his photographs, writings, postcards sent to people he met along his travels, his letters and postcards to family and friends, family members’ conversations, interviews with those he kept in touch with, etc., Krakauer’s thoughts and feelings on McCandless,
and then Krakauer’s compiling all of the information into the book, in which he is the narrator.

McCandless hitchiked from Georgia to Alaska in April 1992. This book details what might have prompted McCandless to leave and intentionally not have any contact with his family (he estranged himself from them) for over two years, and ends with him being discovered dead and decomposed inside a sleeping bag (sewn by his mother), in an abandoned bus, off the Stampede Trail, Denali, Alaska.

Was he naive and ignorant of life in the wilds of Alaska? Was he stubborn and strong-willed and unyielding in his attitude towards the government and towards his parents outlook on life? Was he blinded by his strong love of classic literature and stories by Jack London, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Pasternak, etc., and a romantic vision of life lived off the natural environment of the land? Was he arrogant and narcisstic? Was his mind filled with fantasies and of stories written of the wild and nature, by some authors who didn’t experience what they wrote about? Did he not know reality from fantasy? Did he inadvertently ingest a poisonous plant without realizing it, or did he eat seeds that contained an alkaloid (undefined in the plant book he carried with him)? All of these questions and more are left for us to ponder.

Alaskans will fault him for being arrogant and ignorant, others will fault his age and lack of preparedness, some will find his journey to be a noble one, some will say that without a compass and map he didn’t stand a chance, and there are those who have found him to be the cause of his own demise. The fact remains that he did survive in the wild, off the land, independently, for sixteen weeks, and not too many can attest to achieving that. The author tries to find the answer to McCandless’s death in an unbiased accounting, and admits he crosses the line at times, as it was impossible for him to be totally impartial, having made a similar journey himself as a young man. The parallels are quite similar.

McCandless chose to venture into the wild on his own and in his own way. He was on a quest for Self, and on a journey he had been envisioning for several years. He made choices, his own choices, and stuck to them, whether through stubbornness or lack of understanding. He knew that once he trekked in, he might never get back out.

Autopsy reports show he starved to death, and notations in his journal show that he knew he was starving and was aware that he was in dire need of help, but was too weak to trek back out.
The narrative is poignant and difficult to put down, and I read it straight through in a matter of a few hours. Krakauer is insightful in his depiction

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The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer

Dalia Sofer’s first book, The Septembers of Shiraz, is an excellent novel, written with colorful and detailed word imagery, covering a one-year period from September 1981 to September 1982.  Sofer was ten years old when her own Jewish family escaped Iran. That fact might just be the event that gives her insight into the Jewish condition and also sensitivity regarding the plight of the oppressed and the poverty stricken during the post Iranian Revolution years.

“When Isaac Amin sees two men with rifles walk into his office at half past noon on a warm autumn day in Tehran, his first thought is that he won’t be able to join his wife and daughter for lunch, as promised.”

Isaac Amin is an Iranian Jewish gem dealer. His office is stormed by two Revolutionary Guards, as he is suspected of being a spy due to his wealth and frequent trips to Israel, and also due to the fact he has ties to the Shah. He is  arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and in constant fear for his life, living under stark circumstances, and within the confines of Anti-Semitism. Armin has nothing but time on his hands to think, and he is fearful about his wife and nine-year old daughter, who do not know of his whereabouts. He thinks about his son, Parviz, who is a student, living in Brooklyn, with his own set of insecurities and problems. Within the prison walls is one humane guard, who takes it upon himself to be Amin’s caretaker, during Amin’s darkest hours and days. Armin knows he can rely on him.

Imprisonment gives Amin time to think about his life, and what is meaningful to him, and how he wishes he could take back time and do certain things differently (not work as hard, be more attentive to his wife and family). He realizes he has worked his entire life with valuable jewels, but has not put as high a value on his family as he should have. Amin wishes he could be set free so he could try to redeem himself with his family.

Meanwhile, Farnaz, his wife, is in constant distress, trying to cope with the situation and run the household without knowing where her husband is (telling her daughter that Amin has gone on a trip). She searches for him to no end. Farnaz thinks that her housekeeper has turned Amin in. This mistrust gives her to contemplate her relationship, with those who work for her, wondering if she has been misguided, and wondering if she has treated them as well as she thinks she has. She has been a self-absorbed person, to some degree, throughout the years, and is now realizing what is most valuable to her, and wishes things could be different.

The family is used to the finer things in life, and Farnaz has time to reflect upon what is important to her…possessions or her husband…material things or familial relationships. She too would like more time with her husband in order to make atonement and redeem herself.

Sofer brings us a strong story line, bringing us glimpses of life after the Iranian Revolution, and her characters are extremely believable. She infuses emotional estrangement, Jewish identity and assimilation with the bravery and humanity of souls,  bringing us sympathetic characters within a harsh and cruel environment. Her first novel is a page-turner, a definitive with descriptive images, a realized, poignant and thought-provoking historical work of fiction, reading more like non-fiction.

I personally own and have read this book.

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The Reluctant Tuscan, by Phil Doran

The Reluctant Tuscan, by Phil Doran…I give it Five Stars!

I am not so reluctant, after reading The Reluctant Tuscan, Phil Doran’s memoir. In fact, more than ever, I am eager for my trip to Tuscany to begin. The end of March can’t come soon enough for me.

The book is filled with humor, crazy moments, poignancy, and filled with the thoughts and emotions of a man on the edge, stressed beyond stress, who travels relucutantly to Tuscany, yelling, kicking, and fighting every minute of every mile of his journey.

What begins as a journey from Hollywood to Italy, turns out not only to be a journey to foreign soil, but also a journey towards inner peace, and a journey of the soul and heart. We laugh and we cry with Doran, we scream out in pain, and scream out in joy with him.
Doran reminds us of the anxiety and the reluctance of experiencing the unknown, of how we view change, and how we react and survive, emotionally, when being thrust into different situations that we are not familiar with.

Doran’s words and experiences dance on the pages, and his days don’t often blend smoothly, much like vinegar and oil, don’t go together. We see the sweetness along with the tartness in his poignant and hilarious book.

Reading this book is like being on an elevator, one minute you are up, the next minute you are down. But, the majority of the time, you find yourself laughing out loud, and glad to have taken the journey with Doran, if only through the pages of his fantastic memoir! His prose has whet my appetitie for everything Italian, and I am anxious to begin my own journey.
~~Book Diva

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The Zahir, by Paul Coelho

The Zahir, by Paul Coelho…I give it Four Stars!

Paul Coehlo has managed to capture the emotions of a man in search of his missing wife, but, in the end, realizes that he was searching for his own Self.

“Zahir, in Arabic, means visible, present, incapable of going unnoticed…someone or something, which once we come in contact with, gradually occupies our every thought until we can think of nothing else, considered a state of holiness or madness.”

The narrator is obsessed with finding his wife, and wonders if she ran off on her own, was she kidnapped, has she been murdered, etc. He is also obsessed with his own independence and freedom, and will do almost anything to be free, including having affairs, and going out of his way to make sure that what he considers his independence is not hindered in any way.

The narrator meets the man, named Mikhail, who his wife disappeared with. Being a man of privilege and celebrity, and a man used to getting and having his way, the narrator wants Mikhail to lead him to his wife, immediately. This does not happen, and in a series of meetings, and talks, we see the narrator begin to realize the substance of life, the emotional and spiritual substance of who we are, of who and of what he is comprised of.

The narrator, obsessively, yet slowly, finds his way towards his wife, and in an almost parallel way, finds his own sense of independence. He is both a man who journeys through madness and obsessiveness, towards love and spirituality.

Bravo to Coelho for always searching and questioning.

~~~Book Diva

© Copyright – All Rights Reserved – No permission is given or allowed to reuse my photography, book reviews, writings, or my poetry in any form/format without my expresss written consent/permission.

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I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron

I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron…I give it Four Stars

This wicked and divine book, which is a cross between poignant/serious and outright hilarious, brings much comic relief to women who are aging. With Ephron’s sensible, yet comedic style (after all, she did bring us When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle), we are infused with scents, creams, lotions and bath oils, and see her state “I’m as smooth as silk”.

Her book chronicles the downfall (literally) of a woman’s aging body, from sagging breasts and chins, to thinning hair and thickening necks. Each page is crammed with ounces and pounds of laughter and tears, each story/piece a gem of its own, causing smiles to form on our faces…adding a few more wrinkles with each smile.

Ephron is not getting older gracefully, and admits it. Nothing she does can slow the process down…and she is fighting back at it every second and hour of the day.

If you want to feel bad about yourself, this book is a must read, and if you want to feel good about yourself, and laugh your way through those bad feel

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