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review 2017-01-10 12:59
The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season -- Bonus Entry
Der Weltensammler - Ilija Trojanow
Collector of Worlds, the - Ilija Trojanow

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

Merken

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review 2016-07-02 15:23
Dear Mr. Rushdie,
Joseph Anton: A Memoir - Salman 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."

 

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review 2015-06-04 17:51
An Assembly Such as This ...
Burmese Days - George Orwell

 

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.

 

Read more on my own website, ThemisAthena.info, and on Leafmarks.

 


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 street near the river.

 

Source: www.themisathena.info/literature/orwell.html#BurmeseDays
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review 2008-11-24 00:00
Love and cultural heritage, and perfumes from India.
Of Marriageable Age - Sharon Maas

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.

 

Cross-posted on ThemisAthena.info and on Leafmarks.

 


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."

Source: www.themisathena.info/literature/maas.html#OMA
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