11. The White Tiger

Balram Halwai alias Munna is a driver – sarcastic, humorous, critical, angry, and a wealth of information on modern-day India.  He becomes a wanted man after murdering is master.  At no point as a reader was I sympathetic towards Balram.  I believe this was done on purpose.  In spite of everything, Balram does weave interesting tales, which keep you reading to the end.  The White Tiger is an in your face gritty, realistic novel revolving around the tragic life of Balram Halwai and particularly the harsh, slavish life in India.  Weak stomachs abstain.  The White Tiger is full of audacious, enticing, and repulsive smells.  One’s imagination is heightened to the max.

India is painted as a place riddled with poverty, violence. corruption, and contradictions; although universally speaking I think most countries are contradictory and contain degrees of these things.  Reading The White Tiger is like having your face shoved in wet, gooey mud and then having to clean it with a kleenex.  It sticks to you like a second skin.  Some may find it an ongoing complaint of 276 pages and will say it’s one big bore, but I felt I was being instructed about what it is to be an Indian trying to maneuver through this  unkind, violent, corrupt and unforgiving place.  The book carries a lot of themes throughout such as socialism vs. capitalism, family ties, master servant relationships, life in developing countries and its economic effect on their citizens etc.  I guess if I analyzed from an academic point of view you’d have the three conflicts: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself.  I can’t decide which theme is the strongest.

Aravind Adiga’s main desire was to write a book that would entertain readers, not necessarily to make some political statement.  The novel is absolutely brilliant!  It’s a must read.  I understand why Adiga won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.  The White Tiger was so well constructed that I really believe it is a work of art.  On the front cover is written, “One of the most powerful books I’ve read in decades.  No hyperbole.  This debut novel hit me like a kick to the head — the same effect Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had.”  – USA Today.  When Adiga was asked who were his literary influences he cited Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright.  This is very clear while reading.  They are some of my favorite writers too.  Their novels contain such power and harsh reality that almost makes you feel slightly voyeuristic, but mostly enlightened.  I bought this book a year and a half ago because I had read quite a few articles on this prize-winning novel and it sat on the shelf unfortunately until now.  Wish I would have read it sooner, but I’m delighted that I finally got around to this five-star wonder!

My book club this afternoon had one of the best discussions in a long time.  Seems as if almost everyone enjoyed the book.  We had a few who weren’t so sure but the overall majority was a thumbs up!  One of the book club members stated, “I loved the book but I don’t want to go to India.”

Aravind Adiga and his family emigrated to Australia where he continued studying in high school.  He later studied English Literature at Oxford and Columbia Universities. He went on to a successful career as a financial journalist having written articles for the Financial Times and Money. Subsequently, he worked for Time magazine and went on to write The White Tiger while he was on freelance.  In 2008, Adiga joined the prestigious group of Indian born writers, Salmon Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai in winning the Man Booker Prize.

I read, You read, We all read for……

People are always asking me what my book club is reading and how we’ve managed to last so long.  I put it down to mutual respect and sharing the same passion – reading, not to mention loving talking about books.  It doesn’t matter whether they are intriguing, not so interesting, classics, historical, etc..  The main goal is to enjoy discussing books.

We are quite a large group now about fifteen and we are some very passionate, opinionated women when we discuss books.  Things wouldn’t be so interesting if that wasn’t the case.  Really I wouldn’t have it any other way.  We started with eight members and as the years have gone on more people have joined and some have left.  There are about five of us left from the original group.

The principal strengths of this reading group are that we are all different ages, nationalities (British, American, and French) and interests.  That leaves a lot of room for discussion.  How do things work?  We choose our reading list towards the end of the school year in June.  So we read seven books each year.  Each member comes to the second to last meeting with two suggestions.  I compile a list and yes at the moment it’s colossal.  I send each member the complete list and that gives them time to research and decide what titles they want to vote for at our last meeting.  The last meeting, we discuss our last book, vote for next year’s list, and try to decide which book we will start with in October.  The thickest novel usually gets put up as choice #1 for October.  This process allows everyone to acquire their books over summer in the UK or USA or maybe even arrange to borrow them from friends.  In the future we may have to limit how many suggestions we put in because the list is starting to get just a little too long.  So that’s it!  Everything is organized, democratically voted on, and most of all a moment we all look forward to.  Here are the choices for 2011-2012:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next time we meet, April  14th, it will be to discuss The White Tiger.  It was the 2008 Booker Prize winner.  That always makes some members nervous.  I’m assuming it’s going to be a challenge but that’s fine.  I’m up for it!  We’ve already read The Help, Sarah’s Key, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and The Slap. I’ve done posts on The Slap, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and The Help.  Check them out if you want to know what I thought.  Sarah’s Key – 2 stars  The first half was extremely interesting and very moving but the second half was boring, stereotypical, and badly written. It’s really a shame because she did such a good job on the first half of the story.  The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim – 4 stars the beginning of this book depressed me to no end, but by the time I reached the middle of the book I started to find it more interesting and even more so after the book club discussion.  It was a little disappointing that he didn’t explore more closely certain episodes but all in all it was a good read.  It is Jonathan Coe after all.

As for the rest of the books that we’ve read since 2005, here’s a long list and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few.  The list is extensive but they are all interesting and engaging in their own words.  I’ll put a few of my favorites in bold.  Who knows maybe you’ll find something you’d like to read, reread, or that you just plain forgot about.

Suite Française – Irène Némirovsky

Wash the Blood Clean From My Hands – Fred Vargas

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown – Couldn’t finish this book.  It was like a history text-book. Argh!!! It was like a giant sleeping pill to me, but it is one of the most exhaustive narratives recounting Native American life.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Water For Elephants – Sara Guen

Blue Angel – Francine Prose

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie – Couldn’t finish this book.  I couldn’t figure out who was who.  He kept changing the characters’ names. A little too pompous for my taste!

The Bastard of Istanbul – Elif Shafak

The Memory Keepers Daughter – KIm Edwards

Skinny Legs and All – Tom Robbins

The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The Darling – Russel Banks

How to Be Good – Nick Hornby

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

An Equal Music – Vikram Seth

The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot

Saturday – Ian McEwan

Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck

I am Charlotte Simmons – Tom Wolfe

Lignes de Failles – Nancy Huston

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

What I Loved – Sylvie Hustvedt

A History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

The Stone Diaries – Carol Shields

The Other Boleyn Girl – Philipa Gregory

The Alchemist – Paulo Coello

The Lady and the Unicorn – Tracey Chevalier

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffennegger

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

My Life in France – Julia Child

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer/Annie Barrows

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

The Virgin Blue – Tracey Chevalier

The Ginger Tree – Oswald Wynd

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

The Comedians – Graham Green

6. The Slap

Well finally finished last night very late!  Frankly I didn’t think I would get through it.  The beginning had so much cursing and bad sex, I couldn’t believe it.  As the story advances, the principal themes start to become more clear.  It’s basically a story of friends and is set in Australia, specifically Melbourne.  The main characters are Hector, Anouk, Harry, Connie, Rosie, Manolis, Aisha, and Richie. The writer has given a section to each character.   You learn about the characters’ background and how they are related to the other characters mentioned.  Some of the themes are parenting, “being” Australian, alcoholism, domestic violence, aging, motherhood, family loyalty, homosexuality, drug abuse, marriage and fidelity.  I may have forgotten a few but it’s a very vast list, too vast.

Actually, I think there are too many themes running through the story.  I think it’s for this reason that things are often exaggerated.  It’s all in your face!

Tsiolkas tells the story from eight points of view where the characters question their desires, fears, and expectations.  In the beginning of the novel, there is a family barbecue which turns into a disaster when an adult slaps an indomitable three-year old. The slap and its consequences force the characters to evaluate their family life and the way they live.  The slap is the commencement of much retrospect which in turn brings out much jealousy, lying, and mistrust among the characters.  As things progress, the story becomes more interesting because the scope of the characters is better developed and more interesting to read towards the end.  I think my favorite sections are Aisha and Anouk.  The majority of the characters are far from likeable because they sometimes do such despicable things but the core and themes of the story are what keep you reading.

Christos Tsiolkas has written Loaded (was turned into a feature film called Head-On), The Jesus Man, and Dead EuropeThe Slap was longlisted for the Man Booker and was adapted for television on ABC 1.  Tsiolkas is also a screenwriter, essayist, and playwright.

I’d recommend reading The Slap if you’re interested in a bite of Australia.  The lifestyle is very much alive in the novel.  Although the  first 150 pages are probably the most difficult.  You will either hang on for dear life, which I did because I was reading it for my book club today or drop it like a hot potato. I finished it at 10pm on Friday.  I started counting how many times the f—-word was used.  When I counted up to 50 and I was only at the beginning it started to get on my nerves.  Someone mentioned that this was probably the way this class really speaks in Australia, but I’m not so sure.  Someone else today mentioned that a lot of the cursing was what the characters were thinking.  A lot of us found that the dialogue of these eight characters sure sounded alike, whether man, woman, old or young-not ver realistic.  I remember my Australian friends from Egypt and they are nothing like the men described in The Slap, nor do they speak the way they do in this book.  Then I thought could it be that they are not from the same class!  It’s really too bad there are no Australians in our book club.  We could have then got a better idea of what was realistic and what was stereotypic.  Despite all the bad things we said about The Slap, we did find a few redeeming aspects to the story.  I won’t get into details because I don’t want to write any spoilers.  We did have a good laugh and extensive discussion.  I’d give it about three and a half stars out of five, but I most definitely won’t be reading it again.

I don’t know much about Australian literature and the only other Australian I’ve read is Kathy Lette. I guess her writing would be considered Chick Lit, but it’s a funny and relaxing read.  Someone suggested that I read Peter Carey, so I’m going to check him out.  Hope to get one of his novels on my 50 read books list of 2012.  I’ll keep searching for more examples so that I can maybe finally come to some conclusion about Australian literature.  For the moment it’s a bit of a mystery…..

Check out the trailer for The Slap!  It seems to follow the book quite closely.  I can definitely see how this will keep audiences glued to the television in the evening.

The Slap – ABC 1 Trailer

3. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

As I was reading this novel I realized how little I had learned about Japanese Americans being confined in “internment” camps.  I do remember that it was mentioned but certainly not dwelled upon.

This is a love story between Henry Lee, Chinese American and Keiko Okabe, Japanese American set in 1942, with a shift between the past and the present 80s.  The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and anti-Japanese sentiment was on the rise.  So much so that Henry was told to wear a button on his jacket “I am Chinese”.  The back drop of the story is Seattle with its Japanese (Nihonmachi) and Chinese neighborhoods.  All of this with a sprinkling of jazz music to tie it all together.

Reading along you will discover the hatred of Americans towards Asians in general, but specifically towards Japanese no matter how integrated they were in the community because of the Japanese’s participation in World War II.  The wounds of the war trickled down to the depths of the average American – refusing to serve them in shops, confining them to their neighborhood with strict curfews, firing them from their jobs,etc.  All this until they were finally rounded up and bused off to “relocation centers”.  Beyond these hostilities an unlikely friendship was made between young Henry and Sheldon, a black man who is twice Henry’s age and who plays the saxophone on street corners for pocket change.  This life long friendship was a constant for Henry and was a sort of second family for Henry. Sheldon was full of wise and helpful advice for Henry.

I won’t go into anymore details because it’s tempting and I feel as if I’ve told you too much already.  It’s just a beautifully written story that you must experience for yourself.  It encompasses many various themes of literature like immigrating, loyalty, honor, the roles of mothers and wives, but particularly the father-son relationship. Moreover, Jamie Ford’s remarkable debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has had much recognition since it was published in 2009. It’s been on many selections:  IndieBound NEXT List,  Borders Original Voices, Barnes & Noble Book Club, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller, and named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.

“Sentimental, heartfelt….the exploration of Henry’s changing relationship with his family and with Keiko will keep most readers turning pages…A timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don’t repeat those injustices.”

— Kirkus Reviews

“Jamie Ford’s first novel explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut.”

Lisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I didn’t see the fab critics when I decided to read this book, but hope the ones above and mine will win you over..  This was one of my book club’s picks for 2011-2012.  I’m very delighted that I had a chance to read this book.  It left me feeling like the title “bitter and sweet” and taught me some more about my American history.  My book club met up yesterday to discuss the book and for once we were a full house and all in agreement with a lot about the book.  That was an amazing first too. I can tell you with all the different ages, backgrounds, jobs, and likes in general in the room a big thumbs up from everyone tells you that you will love it too!  Look out for Jamie Ford’s second novel in 2013.

Check out the link below for some pictures about World War II on the internment of Japanese Americans.

World War II: internment of Japanese Americans