The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Bonus Entry

Der Weltensammler - Ilija Trojanow  Collector of Worlds, the - Iliya Troyanov

I blacked out my card on Dec. 19 using the “activity” entry for the Kwanzaa square, but since thereafter I did read a book set (partially) in Africa, too, here’s my “bonus entry” post … sorry for reporting in belatedly; blame it on BookLikes posting issues and a surfeit of things going on all at the same time in my life at present. 😦

Not that it still seems to matter greatly to begin with, alas … (sigh).

Der Weltensammler (The Collector of Worlds) is a novelized biography of 19th century polymath and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, who traveled widely in India, the Middle East and Africa, visiting Mecca (disguised as an Arab) and seeking — partially successfully, though he didn’t know it — the source of the Nile (he did make it to Lake Victoria, but failed to confirm that the Nile actually does originate from there).  He is best remembered today for his translation of The 1001 Nights.

Interesting, though quite obviously largely fictitious insights into a fascinating life, and a voyage back through time to the Orient, Africa, and British Empire of the 19th century.

 

Snow Globes: Reads
Bells: Activities

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1512708/the-twelve-tasks-of-the-festive-season-bonus-entry

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Summer Splurges (AKA: Be Good to Yourself)

The Colour of Poison: A Sebastian Foxley Medieval Mystery (Volume 1) - Toni MountWars of the Roses - Charles RossLast White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors - Desmond SewardBlood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses - Sarah GristwoodMary Tudor: The First Queen - Linda Porter

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen - Anna WhitelockThe Sugar Planter's Daughter - Sharon MaasThe Princes of Ireland - Edward RutherfurdThe Rebels of Ireland - Edward RutherfurdThe Chronicles of Narnia CD Box Set: The Chronicles of Narnia CD Box Set - C.S. Lewis, Kenneth Branagh

Largely inspired by Samantha Wilcoxson’s recommendations following up on my read of her books Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen and Faithful Traitor – as well as looking forward to book 3 of her Tudor Women trilogy – I’ve been on a minor shopping spree lately. Not all of these are Samantha’s recommendations, but that’s the way book browsing goes … one thing leads to another!

  • Toni Mount: The Colour of Poison – actually ordered already before my exchange with Samantha on which books she recommends in connection with her own novels, though another recommendation of hers, too; what a pity I probably won’t be receiving it before the end of its “book of the month” status in More Historical Than Fiction.
  • Charles Ross: The Wars of the Roses – though I’ve already got Trevor Royle’s book on the same subject, but it can’t hurt to get another one just for comparison’s sake;
  • Desmond Seward: The Last White Rose – since, after all, the Yorks didn’t just die out all at once together with Richard III at Bosworth in 1485;
  • Sarah Gristwood: Blood Sisters, The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses – since women played an important part during that period and it’s time we finally took note of them … and not just Margaret of Anjou, either (which is why Samantha’s books on Elizabeth of York and Margaret Pole are such a welcome read);
  • Linda Porter: Mary Tudor, The First Queen – since there’s more to Mary I than is hidden behind her epithet “Bloody Mary”;
  • Anna Whitelock: Mary Tudor, Princess, Bastard, Queen – ditto (and two books are always better than one, see above)

 … and while I was at it, I also did a bit of wish list cleanup, ordering:

  • Sharon Maas: The Sugar Planter’s Daughter (book 2 of her Winnie Cox trilogy; fresh from the publisher’s press);
  • Edward Rutherfurd: The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland;
  • David Suchet: Poirot and Me (since my reviews of some of the Poirot dramatizations starring Suchet are up next for copying over to my WordPress blog)
  • … and then I also found a dirt cheap (used, but near new) offer of the Chronicles of Narnia audiobook set read by Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Michael York, Alex Jennings, Lynn Redgrave and Jeremy Northam – which I of course had to have as well.

 And look, the first lovely books already made it to their new home, too:

 

But anyway, I obviously also needed to make space on my wish list for all the other books I found when following up on Samantha’s recommendations:

  • Lisa Hilton: Queens Consort, England’s Medieval Queens (which I hope is going to live up to Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth I);
  • Dan Jones: The Hollow Crown (since I’ve already got his earlier book on the Plantagenets …);
  • Charles Ross: Richard III (by all accounts still the standard biography);
  • Chris Skidmore: Richard III (the most recent incarnation of Richard III biographies);
  • Amy Licence: Richard III, the Road to Leicester (I guess there goes my resolution not to give in to the publicity craze of the recent[ish] discovery of his bones);
  • Amy Licence: Elizabeth of York, Forgotten Tudor Queen (and really, I swear it was this book and the RIII bio by Charles Ross that led me to Licence’s book on RIII in the first place);
  • Alison Weir: Elizabeth of York, the First Tudor Queen (one of Samantha’s major “go-to” books for background information on Elizabeth; also, I own and rather like Weir’s bio of Eleanor of Aquitaine);
  • Hazel Pierce: Margaret Pole, 1473-1541, Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership (on which Samantha says she relied substantially in writing Faithful Traitor) and
  • Susan Higginbotham: Margaret Pole (brand new and due out in August 2016).

And then … well, there’s this absolutely gorgeous and super-nice tea and spice store in Frankfurt that my best friend and I discovered when I was living in Frankfurt way back in 2003.  Shelves crammed with goodies from all over the world and an amazing staff … even after I moved to Bonn, we just kept going there; and we still try to make it down there at least once or twice a year.  So last Saturday we decided another splurge was overdue, took to the road – and returned home late in the afternoon laden with delicacies.  This was my share of the bounty:

  • A small bag of Nanhu Da Shan Qinxin Oolong (the prize catch of last Saturday’s shopping trip; and yes, they do actually let you try all of their products in their store);
  • * A foursome of Kusmi tea blends (Kashmir tchai, ginger lemon green, and a double serving of spicy chocolate);
  • One of their homemade rice & spice mixes (in this instance, a blend of Indian basmati rice with currants, cashew nuts, coconut flakes, lemon pepper, cinnamon, sea salt, cardamom, ginger, and pieces of dried mango, apricot, papaya, and cranberries, going by the fanciful name Maharani Rice … one of my absolute favorites);
  • A bottle of Stokes Sweet Chilli Sauce (my kitchen just isn’t complete without this stuff, it goes on practically everything);
  • A bottle of Belberry Spicy Mango Ketchup (new to me, tried it in the store and instantly loved it);
  • A duo of Sal de Ibiza (green pepper and lemon, and ginger and lemon grass);
  • A lidded Chinese dragon tea mug that will go well with the two (differently-colored) mugs in the same style that I’ve already got
  • … and a collection of their very own recipes, all of which they also serve up (though obviously not all at the same time) for tasting purposes in their store.; this particular collection being recipes created by a charming lady from Sri Lanka named Rajitha who has been part of their team since practically forever.

 Alright, so I guess I did splurge.  In my defense, though, I’ll mention that I won’t be able to travel at all this year, nor actually take a whole lot of vacation time or other time off work, so I’m having to make to with what’s available by way of compensation … and is there any better compensation than books and food?

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton – A Memoir

Joseph Anton: A Memoir - Salman RushdieDear Mr. Rushdie,

Belated Happy Birthday. I don’t know how much satisfaction there is to you, these days, in having reached an age which the Ayatollah Khomeini and his acolytes never wanted you to reach, but anyway, since I happen to have been reading your memoir of the fatwā years while you were celebrating your 69th, wishing you well on the occasion of your birthday just seemed in order.

 Now having said that, could you please enlighten me as to just what the flying f*ck is up with that third person narrative voice of Joseph Anton? The book is subtitled “a memoir,” for crying out loud, and that’s precisely what it is – the memoir of one Salman Rushdie, author, of the years when he had to deal with a death order issued against him, for having written a book allegedly offensive to Islam, issued by the supreme religious leader of Iran (notice my not putting that in caps, as a title is wont to be) and loudly propagated throughout the entire Islamic world. It is not, in other words, the would-be memoir of one Joseph Anton, like the characters of the much-maligned Satanic Verses a figment of their author’s imagination; an alias composed from the names of two of your own favorite novelists (Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) and slipped on like an ill-fitting glove that you couldn’t get rid of again soon enough, or would have, if Special Branch and the Home Office had let you. It is not the memoir of “Rushdie,” the maligned author, separated in public opinion – who for obvious reasons were widely ignorant of the mere existence of Mr. Anton – from the Salman you were privately struggling to remain. It is the memoir of precisely that last person: You, Salman – Salman Rushdie –, proud bearer of a last name that your father had intentionally styled on that of the 12th century sage Ibn Rushd (Averroës) for his enlightened views on religion, and on the world in general. And that being the case, the third person narrative voice of your memoir startled the hell out of me right from the very beginning and remained the one jarringly discordant note until the very end.

 Oh, I get it:

“When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, read them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”

 

Very astute: Once a book has been published it no longer belongs to its author alone, but to all of us readers, too. (I actually wish there were more authors, particularly these days, who share that feeling.) But that’s not really the point here, is it? Because the story doesn’t change. And the story isn’t that of Mr. Anton, publisher of vaguely international extraction (as his landlords in London would be told by his representatives), nor of “Rushdie,” the first-nameless author of “that terrible book,” but – pardon me for harping on it – it’s your own story. And to be told that story in the third instead of the first person just didn’t feel right, however much you may be distancing yourself in your own mind from the “Joseph Anton” as who you had to accept being addressed even by the protection officers with whom you interacted daily, so as to make it easier for them to think of you as Joe and not accidentally slip in a “Salman” when speaking of you. It seems to me that writing this book actually played a large part in your personal reconciliation with those years. Even more so would it have made sense, then, to be written in the first person: which I suspect (and conjecture from at least one instance of a perceivable slip-up in the transition from “I” to “he”) it actually has been, initially. Then why, in the name of everything that is precious (I won’t use the word “holy” around you), the switch back to a third person narrative perspective that is so clearly in discord with the narration itself?

 It’s a heartfelt book, full of the wit, sense of humor, passion and irony, and the trenchant analysis that I’ve come to love in everyone of your works, fiction and nonfiction alike. I won’t even try to imagine what daily life during those years must have been like for you, because I’m pretty sure whatever I can conjure up will still be woefully short of the real thing. (For some reason, probably because of the framework setting of The Moor’s Last Sigh, I’d always vaguely imagined your hiding place to be somewhere in Spain. Should have figured it had to be somewhere where the British authorities actually had the power to protect you, which obviously meant somewhere right in Britain.) It was also tremendously enlightening to read about the important role that some of the leading lights of the British and international literary scene have played in, variously, shielding you and supporting your cause for well over 10 years; even if I do admit to considerable envy of your ability to name-drop the likes of Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Bruce Chatwin, Günter Grass, Václav Havel, Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Robyn Davidson, Carlos Fuentes, Ian McEwan, John Irving and plenty of others, not merely repeatedly but sometimes even in the same sentence or paragraph. My envy is even greater, though, for the fact that you actually have read, and are able to discuss in the most everyday, matter-of-fact tone, more than half of the literary masterpieces that are still languishing on my TBR shelf, which I know I should have read ages ago, too, and am promising myself to do just that on a regular basis – without however actually making much progress in the matter.

 So yes, I certainly am glad I have read Joseph Anton: It answered a lot of questions I would have had of you if I ever had the privilege of meeting you in person, it shed light on plenty of things that wouldn’t even have occurred to me but for your discussing them, and it reinforced my belief that, albeit on the grounds of circumstances that I personally wouldn’t wish on my very own worst enemy, yours is one of the most important voices to be heard these days, on the issues of religious fundamentalism, racism, and freedom of speech, as well as the state of the world at large.

I still would have wished for your memoir to be written in the first person, however. That third-person distancing, to me, made the experience just that tiny fraction of a degree less than it could, and absolutely should have been.

 

Favorite Quotes:

 “Nobody ever wanted to go to war, but if a war came your way, it might as well be the right war, about the most important things in the world, and you might as well, if you were going to fight it, be called “Rushdie,” and stand where your father had placed you, in the tradition of the grand Aristotelian, Averroës, Abul Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd.”

“This was what book reviewing did.  If you loved a book, the author thought your praise no more than his rightful due, and if you didn’t like it, you made enemies.  He decided to stop doing it.  It was a mug’s game.”

“This was the literature he knew, had always known.  Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.  Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before.  Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them.  Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back.  And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes of their lives.”

“When a book leaves it’s author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, reads them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1430390/dear-mr-rushdie

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Lorenz Books: Around the World Cookbook

Around the World in 350+ Recipes

“Holidays in far flung places have increased our awareness of different foods, and restaurants on every street corner now offer dishes that no so long ago would have been unfamiliar,” the editors of this volume say in their introduction. And indeed: This is nothing less than a lavishly illustrated and marvelously edited culinary trip around the whole world, with stops in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, India, the Middle East, Italy, Spain, France, North America, the Caribbean and Mexico.

All recipes are broken down into small, easy to follow steps, demonstrated in numerous photos. Ingredients are listed with quantities given both in the American and the metric measuring system, thus making the recipes easily accessible wherever you live. Numerous cook’s tips add to the cooking experience and ensure its success. Most of the ingredients are easy to come by, although some may require a trip to a specialty food market. You’ll find plenty of now well-known favorites from the regions represented here, as well as rare and new creations you might not have thought of yourself.

All in all, the book includes more than 350 recipes. If you’re interested in one regional cuisine in particular, you may want to get specialized cookbooks from that particular country or region in addition. But as an introduction and a primer, this volume is very hard to beat.

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Highlights
Regional and International Classics
  • Avgolemono/Aarshe Saak (Greece and several Middle Eastern countries)
  • Baklava (Iran)
  • Boreks (Turkey)
  • Boston Baked Beans (U.S.)
  • Chateaubriand with Sauce Béarnaise (France)
  • Chicken and Prawn Jambalaya (Cajun)
  • Chicken Tikka Masala (India)
  • Chilaquiles (Mexico)
  • Chimichangas (Mexico)
  • Chocolate Profiteroles (France)
  • Chorizo in Red Wine (Spain)
  • Coleslaw (U.S.)
  • Couscous (Morocco; several recipes)
  • Crème Caramel (France)
  • Crêpes Suzette (France)
  • Curries (several recipes from Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and India)
  • Deep-Fried Bananas (Indonesia)
  • Falafel (Egypt)
  • Fried Plantains (Caribbean)
  • Frijoles Refritos (Mexico)
  • Hot and Sour Soup (China)
  • Houmus (Middle East; several countries)
  • Kebabs (recipes from several Middle Eastern countries)
  • Khoresh (Iran; several recipes)
  • Lamb Korma (India)
  • Lamb Pelau (Caribbean)
  • Louisiana Seafood Gumbo (Cajun)
  • Marinated Olives (Spain)
  • Marinated Vegetable Antipasto (Italy)
  • Mole Poblano (Mexico)
  • Mulligatawny (India)
  • New England Clam Chowder (U.S.)
  • Onigiri (Japanese rice balls)
  • Onion Soup (France)
  • Oysters Rockefeller (U.S.)
  • Paella (Spain)
  • Pasta all’ Arrabbiata (Italy)
  • Pecan Pie (Cajun)
  • Peking Duck (China)
  • Penne alla Carbonara (Italy)
  • Pineapple Fried Rice (Thailand)
  • Pizza (various recipes – Italy, of course …)
  • Potatoes Dauphinois (France)
  • Potato Tortilla (Spain)
  • Quesadillas (Mexico)
  • Ratatouille (France)
  • Satés (several recipes from Indonesia and Thailand)
  • Stir-Fries (several recipes from China, Indonesia and Thailand)
  • Sweet and Sour dishes (several recipes from China, Indonesia and Thailand)
  • Szechuan Chicken (China)
  • Tabbouleh (Lebanon)
  • Tacos (Mexico)
  • Tagines (recipes from several North African countries)
  • Tandoori Chicken (India)
  • Tarka Dhal (India)
  • Tiramisu (Italy)
  • Tom Ka Gai (Thailand)
  • Tostadas (Mexico)
  • Wonton Soup (China)
  • Zabaglione (Italy)
Some Unique Recipes
  • Artichoke Rice Cakes with Melting Manchego (Spain)
  • Asparagus with Orange Sauce (France)
  • Baked Fish in Banana Leaves (Thailand)
  • Baked Fish with Nuts (Egypt)
  • Chicken and Pistachio Paté (France)
  • Chicken with Tomatoes and Honey (Morocco)
  • Crab with Green Rice (Mexico)
  • Glazed Garlic Prawns (India)
  • Monkfish Parcels (Spain)
  • Nigerian Meat Stew
  • Salmon in Mango and Ginger Sauce (Caribbean)
  • Sesame Seed Prawn Toasts (China)
  • Stuffed Peaches with Amaretto (Italy)
  • Tanzanian Fish Curry
  • Thyme and Lime Chicken (Caribbean)
  • Tomato and Onion Chutney (India)
  • Veal in Nut Sauce (Mexico)

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George Orwell: Burmese Days

Pukka Sahibs:  Pukkah Sahibs:  British colonial officers:
Pukkah sahibs

Burmese Days: George OrwellAn Assembly Such as This …

Though uttered in much more genteel circumstances than the setting of this book, Mr. Darcy’s timeless put-down of Meryton society in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice can’t fail to come to mind when referring to the characters populating George Orwell’s first novel. Burmese Days is, down to the last man and woman, inhabited by a group of thoroughly disgusting characters: people who are, in the words of Darcy’s famous epithet, indeed so “insupportable” that the reader can’t help but conclude that they, each and everyone, richly deserve one another and everything that they are doing to one another. Reading Burmese Days feels much like watching a train wreck in the making and actually looking forward to the moment of the train wreck, without being able to muster the slightest bit of guilt about such a display of readerly Schadenfreude.

There is a truism to the effect that an author’s first book often serves the purpose of getting their personal feelings and experience out of the way: a personal involvement so strong that it cannot but be overcome by publication – that authors, in other words, first need to get over themselves before they can move on to bigger and better things. This of course doesn’t mean that a first novel can’t be a masterpiece regardless (indeed, these days in particular it often feels like anything short of a monumental masterpiece will fail to make an author even register in the collective conscience of the literary community), but there are plenty of examples, too, of first novels that primarily serve this personal purpose of clearing the way for the author’s true gift to emerge, and for that gift to be rid of any and all overriding encumbrances. Burmese Days clearly falls into the latter category: Stationed in Burma for five years as a British colonial officer himself, Orwell came to loathe the Raj, everything of which it consisted and everything that it stood for – and judging by the evil, almost cardboard caricatures that he created in lieu of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters (not least this novel’s bumbling, weak main character, Flory, who is not exactly hard to unravel as an exercise in ruthless authorial self-flagellation), he obviously also carried a boatload of guilt about having himself been part of the very system that upheld the Raj. Orwell, thus, had a lot to get over before he could move on to bigger and better things.

And yet … and yet. Even in this first novel, Orwell’s enormous talent as a writer already registers clearly and distinctly. What in upwards of 90% or even 98% of all other writers would have resulted in an unpublishable diatribe (or in the age of e-publishing, a self-published diatribe previously rejected by all respectable and established publishers), in the hands of then-barely-31-years-old Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell) became both a scathing criticism of the Raj and a mesmerizing portrait of Burma in the 1920s and 1930s. Burma clearly got under Orwell’s skin in more ways than one, and it will get under his readers’ skin precisely because this is George Orwell writing: The same powerful immediacy of language that makes readers of 1984 experience a sense of chill even at the mere thought of Big Brother also makes readers of this first novel suffer the sweltering, stifling heat, the lush, encroaching rainforest and the terminal boredom of colonial life in a remote outpost of the Raj as if we, the readers, were actually experiencing these same things alongside the characters. Indeed, this book’s masterful use of language and skillful construction alone probably make thousands of other first-time authors go green with envy – at the same time as they are going green with nausea at the novel’s characters.

Ultimately, however, Orwell’s overriding hatred of the system that he himself had helped to uphold in Burma is also precisely the thing that prevents this novel from reaching its full potential. As a piece of criticism of the Raj it certainly stands out; indeed, alongside E.M. Forster‘s Passage to India it is one of the few pre-WWII books written by an Englishman this harshly critical of the very concepts underlying the maxim of “Rule Britannia.” Small wonder, then, that Orwell’s British publisher feared a lawsuit for libel and insisted on numerous changes in order to soften the message (which in turn lead to a rather “ckeckered” publication history; it took decades for the text to be restored and republished as originally written). And of course, part of the roots of 1984 are to be found here as well: The oppressive society that Orwell experienced in Burma was quite obviously, in his view at least, not so very different from the totalitarian system that he later saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union – take class arrogance, the racist oppression that is at the very heart of colonialism, as well as totalitarian dictatorship, a boundlessly powerful and inventive secret police, and the self-enforcing mind control exercised by a society (and a government) operating on strict notions of what is “right” and what is “wrong” thought, blend and shake liberally, and you’ll have come up with the cocktail now known as the dystopian society controlled by Big Brother and Newspeak in Orwell’s final masterpiece. However, the analytical transition (“this sort of thing can happen anytime, anywhere”) only occurs in the later book. Burmese Days itself is too closely and precisely tied to Orwell’s personal experience and to Burma and the Raj to invite, in and of itself, the comparison with other forms of oppressive societies in general. (Indeed, even to the extent that other régimes are mentioned at all, they’re the same type of late 19th century / early 20th century colonial societies as that prevalent in the Raj, such as the German colonies in Africa.) Orwell’s first novel still has a place in literary history, of course, but these days, that place chiefly rests on the light which this book sheds on Orwell’s genesis as a writer and an intellectual, and on its nature as a (fictionalized) documentation of a blessedly now-defunct historical society and way of life.

Katha(r), Myanmar. The British Club Katha(r), Mynmar: Irrawaddy River Katha(r), Myanmar: Street near the river
Katha(r) (the novel’s actual location, though to avoid a lawsuit for libel, Orwell had to come up with a fictional place name – the town is called Kyauktada in the book): the British Club, Irrawaddy River, and a street near the river.

Map of Myanmar

Sharon Maas: The Speech of Angels

The Speech of Angels - Sharon MaasOn music, life, and the healing of torn souls.

“Zwei Seelen, ach, in meiner Brust” – “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,” sighs Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in one of the tragedy’s most famous scenes, torn between love and destiny, between free will and divine providence. And two souls also are tearing apart the young heroine of this enchanting novel, Sharon Maas’s third after the equally compelling “Of Marriageable Age” and “Peacocks Dancing.” For the young woman must make up her mind and find out who she truly is: Jyothi, who was swept off the streets of Bombay by a well-meaning Western couple but, foreign-looking and (on top of that) dyslexic, i.e. in the general view “handicapped,” always remained an outsider in her adoptive parents’ small-town, middle class world; or Jade, child prodigy violinist and international superstar, who overcame poverty and dyslexia to rise to fame, fortune and, it is generally assumed, happiness and bliss.

First told from a neutral perspective, the account shifts gradually to a first person narrative as Jyothi grows older, and as her outlook on music and on life in general changes. And it is music, first and foremost, which guides our heroine’s life; not just because her adoptive mother Monika – brought up with the German middle class’s view that music is a part of the Western cultural heritage and a worthwhile pursuit for that reason alone – has made her practice her violin with as much discipline as ambition once Jyothi’s talent has become apparent. No: Music is one of Jyothi’s earliest conscious impressions; the realization, come to her as she was listening to a boy practicing his sitar in the village where she lived before her family went to Bombay in search of work, that there just might be something other to life than work, marriage and child-rearing. Music also was what first brought her to the attention of Jack, her soon-to-be adoptive father, amid the dirt of a street outside the fancy Bombay hotel where he was staying with his wife: Himself a gifted musician and much more of an artist than his reserved, middle-class wife, he had started to play his guitar for her one day, and had found her singing along in perfect pitch to a song she certainly had never heard before. Thus, without the need for words, a bond had formed between Jack and Jyothi, by virtue of music alone. And so it is only natural that Jyothi soon turns to music as her preferred means of expression; relieved, by her gift to play from memory and intuition, of the necessity to decipher little black squiggles on paper (the letters, numbers and sheet music she is unable to read or write), she can say with music what she cannot express otherwise.

Yet, she always plays for others: for Monika, who first taught her discipline; then for her fans and admirers, then for the man she loves. And then, finally facing the inevitability of having to find out, once and for all, who she really is and what music means to her, she breaks down – in front of her audience, no less. So she goes back to the place where she has first experienced music as a language transgressing physical and mental boundaries a few years earlier; not as the dazzling Western art she herself had been practicing up to then but played by a simple Indian sitar teacher, and becoming synonymous with life itself. And reduced to the shreds of her former self (or selves) by a last fight of the two identities within her soul, she is able to make a new beginning, to rediscover music in a completely new light and to finally become whole.

“The Speech of Angels” – named for a quote from Thomas Carlyle’s essay “The Opera” – is an intensely personal journey, but also a celebration of music, that universally understood language of the praise of creation and divinity; described with an artist’s intuition in a way that almost makes the sound of Jyothi/Jade’s violin, in harmony with that of the Indian sitar, glide from the pages right into the reader’s ears and mind; enclosing him (or her) in sound and emotions, and in all the things which, in the words of Victor Hugo, “cannot be put into words and which cannot remain silent.”

“Sleeping hearts waken – dead souls are resurrected – music brings new life,” reads a short poem by contemporary American lyricist Marty Hansen-Roscoe, quoted at the beginning of “Speech of Angels;” and nothing could better sum up the contents of this book, and the impression that it leaves with its readers. This is one of the great literary finds of the year 2003; and it offers a wealth of beauty and sensual experience to anybody willing to undertake its journey.

Sharon Maas: Of Marriageable Age

Love and cultural heritage, and perfumes from India.

An orphan boy adopted by an English doctor, living near Madras, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu: Nataraj.

A headstrong teenager, daughter of an Indian lawyer in Georgetown, British Guiana: Sarojini.

Back in Madras, earlier, a cook’s daughter, of Brahmin descent but a servant girl in an affluent English family: Savitri.

And a cast of colorful supporting characters: a strong-minded but utterly fallible and therefore most “human” father; several brothers, one mean-spirited, one good-natured but weak, and another one, in another family, loving and mischievous; a willful girlfriend with a penchant for the arts; a mother at times more feminist politician than mom; a busybody mother with a constant need to organize, control and meddle; and last but not least, a wise and patient teacher.

Sprinkle this mixture generously with compassion, humor, love in all its incarnations and that profound understanding of the Indian society which only comes from personal experience; then add the author’s personal secret touch.

These are the ingredients of the literary feast offered to the reader in Sharon Maas’s debut novel “Of Marriageable Age,” bringing together the imaginative powers of a born storyteller with a lifetime’s worth of personal experience. And like an Indian meal, her novel is rich in flavors, slowly and skillfully blending a myriad of exquisite parts into a perfectly tempered composition, leaving enough room for each ingredient to develop its full perfume while at the same time creating a new, perfectly composed œuvre of its own.

We first meet each of the three protagonists when they are children: Nat(araj), whom the nuns running his orphanage have baptized Paul in order to give him a “proper” Christian name; Saroj(ini), on the brink of her teenage years, dreading the day that her parents will find a “suitable” husband for her; and Savitri, who talks to animals, has inherited a secret gift of healing never to be used for personal gain or it will be lost forever, and lives “from the inside out,” as opposed to most other people whose “thought-bodies” make them live “from the outside in.”

Over the course of several decades, we follow Savitri, Nat and Saroj as they make their way into adulthood and as each of them faces their own personal demons. Nat, modestly brought up by his adoptive father in a small Indian village in the hope that he, too, will become a doctor and dedicate his life to helping the local rural population, must learn to overcome the temptations of city life when he is sent to London to study medicine. Independent and willful Saroj fights her traditionalist father for the right to have an education and a profession and grapples with the issue of marriage – arranged and otherwise – supported, it seems to her, only by her African high school friend Trixie and by Trixie’s feminist/politician mother. And Savitri must pay a bitter price for her forbidden love of David, the son of her parents’ British employers, when from a childhood of ease and happiness she is propelled into an adulthood laden with more than her share of hardships. As the novel progresses, slowly the three storylines come together and we learn how the fates of its protagonists are interrelated.

While “Of Marriageable Age,” as the title indicates, deals extensively with love and the concept of marriage, examining it from both the Western and the Indian point of view, it is by no means limited to these issues. Indian society and family life as a whole are under Sharon Maas’s looking glass – families and society on the Indian subcontinent (particularly its southern part), but also in British Guiana and in London. And so are the meaning of cultural heritage and its preservation, nationality, prejudice and racism; British condescension towards Indians, and the contempt of Hindu Brahmins for the caste-less British and Africans. Sarojini especially, feeling after her arrival in England that there is no nationality she can truly identify with and fearing that she will always be an outsider, discovers that it is much more important for her to simply be able to say “I am,” without having to add anything else; to assert herself in her own right, quasi as a nation of her own.

Much of the novel is set against the background of the lush tropical gardens and elegant mansions of Georgetown, British Guiana, and colonial Madras. Undoubtedly its German title, “Der Zaubergarten,” was inspired by this setting (literally, that title translates as either “The Enchanted Garden” or “The Enchanting Garden” – both versions work). Yet, there is also the indescribable poverty of India’s countryside, where one prolonged and severe rainy season is enough to wipe out entire villages, kill their old, their sick and their children, and destroy their houses, fields and livelihood. And there is the chaos, noise and dirt of India’s cities, particularly Madras – a major turnoff for many a visitor from the West and even something that Sarojini has to get used to when she first visits India, searching for her roots and her place in life. Sharon Maas makes us understand that all of these things are parts of India, as germane to the subcontinent as its immensely rich historical, cultural and social heritage; and in the process, she truly does create both an enchanted and an enchanting garden, populated by complex people, beautiful inside and out – a sparkling kaleidoscope of colors, images, sounds and scents. It is a mystery to me why this novel, which has been translated into several languages and stormed French bestseller lists under the title “Noces Indiennes,” has not yet found an American publisher, which would make it more widely available to audiences in the U.S. But I hope that this omission will only be of a temporary nature. Like the best of Indian cuisine, reading this novel is an exhilarating experience, leaving the reader completely satisfied and at the same time longing for more, and regretting that it eventually has to come to an end.

Favorite Quote:

“She might be without country, without nation, but inside her there was still a being that could exist and be free, that could simply say I am without adding a this, or a that, without saying I am Indian, Guyanese, English, or anything else in the world.”

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa LahiriInterpreting maladies.

An Interpreter of Maladies is not, as Mrs. Das thinks (and as the reader of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories may initially be thinking, too), a medical doctor or a psychologist; someone who interprets the origin and meaning of his patients’ various illnesses and malaises and then prescribes the adequate treatment. No: an Interpreter of Maladies is someone who helps them communicate, who speaks the patients’ language and is therefore able to translate their personal representation of their feelings to the listener who then, in turn, must come up with his own interpretation of those representations.

And like Mr. Kapasi, the improbable hero of this collection’s title story, Ms. Lahiri merely gives an account of her characters’ feelings and situation in life at one particular moment – she rarely judges them, nor does she strive to tell the entire story of their lives; even where, as in “The Third and Final Continent,” the narrative covers several decades, it is truly only one brief but crucial period which is important. No sledgehammer is being wielded; Lahiri’s tone is subtle, subdued – like any good interpreter, she talks in a low voice, just loud enough for her listener/reader to understand; and you have to want to listen to her. If you expect her to shout, to force her account on you in bullet points and bold strikes, you will miss the many finer nuances in between.

Jhumpa Lahiris heroes are Asian and American, they live in India, Pakistan, London and the U.S., and they eat (and painstakingly slowly prepare) delicious, spicy and flavorful food. Many of the stories deal with emotions and life situations which, although they happen to be experienced by Indians and Asian Americans here, are truly universal – the slow and unspoken death of a marriage (“A Temporary Matter”), prejudice against the unknown, particularly when it comes in the form of an illness (“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”), the frustrations of a life of unfulfilled promises (“Interpreter of Maladies”), and the multilateral deceptions of marital infidelity (“Sexy”), blunted by the trappings of middle class materialism (again, the title story).

Most of Lahiri’s Asian American protagonists belong to the “intellectual” upper middle class suburbian population of Boston and other East Coast cities. While on the one hand this is a plus, because that is the author’s own background, too, and therefore a segment of society she can describe from personal experience – which also allows her to make these characters particularly accessible – it on the other hand provides for the story collection’s one deficiency; in that it renders her portrayal of Asian Americans (whether recent immigrants or second- and third-generation U.S. citizens) unnecessarily unilateral, to the point of bordering on stereotype – more precisely, the Indian version of the stereotypes generally associated with this part of society. Nevertheless, most of Jhumpa Lahiri’s often unlikely heroes are portrayed in great depth, and many of them with a lot of sympathy for their humanness and shortcomings. In the best sense of her adopted role as an interpreter of her protagonists’ maladies, it is this delicate understanding and empathy which ultimately carries the tone in Lahiri’s writing and which makes her reader want to listen, and to come up with his or her own interpretation of each of these stories.