Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Common Wealth Writer's Prize Shortlists

The Commonwealth Foundation today announced the regional shortlists for the 2009 commonwealth writer's prize. The regional winners that emerge from each of the shortlists will be announced on March 11, 2009.

I am really thrilled to see some of my favorites like Uwem Akpan's "Say You're One of Them, Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" and Mohammed Hanif's "The Case of Exploding Mangoes" on the list. Aravind Adiga is also nominated for "Between the Assassinations" for Best Book Prize. I hope he wins at least one. Preeta Samarasan's first book "Evening of the Whole Day" made it to the shortlist as well. I've been wanting to read it for a long time, I guess I should move it to the top of my TBR stack now.

African Regional Shortlist:

Best First Book
Jassy Mackenzie (South Africa) Random Violence Umuzi
Uwem Akpan (Nigeria) Say You're One of Them Abacus
Megan Voysey-Braig (South Africa) Till We Can Keep An Animal Jacana Media
Chris Mamewick (South Africa) Shepherds and Butchers Umuzi
Sue Rabie (South Africa) Boston Snowplough Human & Rousseau
Jane Bennett (South Africa ) Porcupine Kwela Books

South East Asia and Pacific Regional Shortlist

Best Book
Aravind Adiga (Australia) Between The Assassinations Picador India
Helen Garner (Australia) The Spare Room The Text Publishing Company

Joan London (Australia) The Good Parents Random House Australia (Vintage Imprint)
Paula Morris (New Zealand) Forbidden Cities Penguin New Zealand
Christos Tsiolkas (Australia) The Slap Allen and Unwin
Tim Winton, (Australia) Breath Picador

Best First Book
Aravind Adiga (Australia), The White Tiger Atlantic Books
Nam Le (Australia) The Boat Hamish Hamilton

Mo Zhi Hong (New Zealand) The Year of The Shanghai Shark Penguin New Zealand
Bridget van der Zijpp (New Zealand) Misconduct Victoria University Press
Preeta Samarasan (Malaysian) Evening is the Whole Day Fourth Estate
Ashley Sievwright (Australia) The Shallow End Clouds of Magellan

Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie are among the six contenders for the Best Book in the Europe and South Asia Regional Category.

Best Book Award
Chris Cleave (United Kingdom) The Other Hand Sceptre
Shashi Deshpande (India) The Country of Deceit Penguin
Philip Hensher (United Kingdom) The Northern Clemency Fourth Estate
Jhumpa Lahiri (United Kingdom) Unaccustomed Earth Bloomsbury Publishing
David Lodge (United Kingdom) Deaf Sentence Harvill Secker
Salman Rushdie (United Kingdom) The Enchantress of Florence Random House

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Paperback: 480 Pages
Publisher: Vintage
Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Winner of World Fantasy Award & Franz Kafka Prize 2006

Reading Murakami is more like an out-of-the-world experience for me. Its like my brain going into overdrive mode forming active neural connections after being exposed to all sorts of wacky stuff. I guess it might be a good idea to read his novels from time to time for a good brain workout. An intriguing plot doused with mystery and weirdness, quirky characters, bizarre events, jaw-dropping moments, perplexing endings could pretty much sum up what you could possibly expect in Murakami books. Initially, I used to feel utterly bewildered at why certain things are left the way it is. I needed a proper closure - or a happily ever after kind of ending - when I read novels. To be honest, I used to feel a little frustrated with his stories. But, an invisible magical bond pulled me towards his books again and again. The more I read it, the more I began to appreciate his books. It made me realize that Murakami was different; his books defied categorization; they were unique; unlike any other. I began to enjoy his style of writing. In fact, the very things that put me off in the beginning is what I am looking forward to in his books nowadays.

Kafka Tamura, a 15 year old boy, flees home in search of his long lost mother and sister. Apart from the essentials for his runaway trip, the only memory he took with him was a photo he found in his father's study. More than he wanted to find his mother and sibling, perhaps, he wanted to escape the dark prophesy predicted by his father. He seeks refuge in a quiet, private library in Takamatsu. He befriends Oshima, the assistant librarian and Miss Saeki, the owner. He spends day after day reading books and working out at the local gym. Another parallel story that runs is that of Mr. Nakata. Having lost his ability to read and write due to a tragic event that happened during his childhood, Nakata now in his early sixties lives off of a pension from the government for the mentally disabled people. He brings in some extra cash as a cat-catcher, thanks to his uncanny ability to converse with cats. During one of his pursuits looking for a missing cat, he meets Johnny Walker, another bizarre character. And what happens between Johnny Walker and Nakata changes his fate forever. He finds himself on the run but not before he makes more weird things happen. With the aid of Hoshino, a truck driver, he leaves town with no idea of where he is heading. Nakata and Kafka's fate are linked to each other and when their paths converge towards the end, as it is bound to happen, more and more unbelievable events begin to unfold.

I couldn't believe what I was reading; And I was propelled by a strong desire to know where the story was heading. I couldn't comprehend where the reality ended and where the fantasy began. Sometimes I couldn't make a head or tail out of it. But, it was hard for me to put down. I don't know if it could get any weirder than this. Fish and Leeches fall from the sky; You meet someone who can talk to cats; Living spirits and ghosts make the most bizarre appearances and do wacky things; his quirky characters walk in and out of dreams like its no big deal; Yet, there is something equally bizarre about this book that drew me towards it. I was totally captivated by the strange plot and I found myself racing through the book. I couldn't wait to finish the novel, but when I did I wanted to read it again. It was totally mesmerizing, utterly perplexing and a purely magical experience!!

My Rating: 4.5/5

Monday, February 2, 2009

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Title: Say You're One of Them
Author: Uwem Akpan
Genre: Short Stories
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Little Brown & Company

Life in Africa is not easy. Especially for children. The basic necessities of life like food, clean water, medicine and shelter is hard to come by if you live in Africa. Infant mortality rate is higher than ever. Even if they do survive, malnutrition, hunger, malaria and AIDS threaten their lives. About one fourth of African children don't live to see the age of 6. If they do, they don't go to school, because their parents can't afford the school fees. They live in shanty houses, pick street fights and do drugs. Child labor, trafficking, prostitution are extremely common. They live under perilous conditions fighting off hunger, illness and abuse. Life is merely a question of survival to them. We all know that. At least, that's what I thought. But, no newspaper clippings or video footage in the media prepared me for what I was about to encounter this in book.

Set in war-torn Africa, this book is a collection of five extraordinary stories (two of them the size of a novella) narrated by the African children. In "An Ex-mas Feast", 8 year old Jigana lives in a ramshackle hut with his parents and two siblings outside Nairobi. His mother sends out her younger ones begging for money and the eldest daughter of the household, Meisha (12 years old) turns to prostitution to make ends meet. Jigana's mother could only offer shoe glue (a substance you sniff to kill hunger) for meal after meal as they await Meisha to bring home their Christmas feast. But, What Jigana wants is not a Christmas feast after all. He dreams about going to school. Will she be able to afford his school fees? If she could, what would she have to lose after having lost everything?

Child trafficking in Africa is extremely common. Boys and Girls of very young age are trafficked to wealthier countries like Gabon primarily for labor. The children undergo a perilous voyage in the sea often traveling in unseaworthy vessels. They are smuggled across the borders with and without the knowledge of border patrol. Sometimes, they are even thrown in the sea for a brief period of time to cheat the guards. Often, the children don't realize what awaits them during and after their journey. Once they reach their destination, they are forced to work under brutal conditions without any wages or food. "Fattening for Gabon", the second story, focusing primarily on child trafficking tells the story of a boy who is prepped up for one such treacherous journey. Kotchikpa, a 10 year old boy and his little sister were entrusted in the hands of their uncle Fofo Kpee, after his parents were sickened by AIDS. Lured by the prospect of good wages, he decides to sell them into slavery. And, how they fatten up for their trip to Gabon is what this story is all about. When their uncle reneged on the deal, they get hunted down. And, Kotchikpa had to take matters in his own hands for his survival.

"What Language is That?" is the shortest story of all. It revolves around the religious clash in Ethiopia. Two girls were told not to speak to each other because of their different religions. Houses were burnt by angry mobs and Christians and Muslims killed each other. But, the two girls had to find a way to communicate with each other. After all, they are best friends forever.

"Luxurious Hearses" is another story about the Christian-Muslim conflict, but its even more harrowing than the previous one. Jubril, a teenage Muslim boy, flees from north of Nigeria to the south in one of those luxurious buses. Christians were fleeing the north as they were rounded by Muslims. But, When Jubril (born to a Christian father and a Muslim mother) was threatened about his religious loyalty, he begins a perilous bus journey among a horde of Christians hoping to seek refuge in his father's hometown. He has one hand amputated which he must hide at all cost, and an accent which would give himself away too easily. What are his odds at making to the other side of the country?

"My Parents Bedroom", chosen as a finalists for Caine Prize for African writing, is about the tribal conflict in Rwanda. It is narrated by a young girl Monique, who is born to Tutsi mother and Hutu father. In order to escape the dangerous situation, her mother disappeared one night after leaving her 2 year old baby in the hands of Monique. "Say, You're One of Them" was the last thing she said to them. But, little monique never realized what it meant until a group of hutus came pounding at the door looking for her mother. They eventually hunt her mother down and her father's hutu relatives force him to kill his wife. Will he be a loyal husband or a loyal Hutu?

Each story affected me in a profound way, but the last story is the most heart-wrenching story of all. Luxurious Hearses is a bit dragging and the local slang slowed me down a bit. But, it makes the stories more authentic. I think the author has made a tremendous effort in bringing out the horrors of ethnic wars and its impact on the African children. The stories are depressing, unforgettable yet too powerful. I would love to read more of his books in the future.

My Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

Title: The Age of Shiva
Author: Manil Suri
Genre: Fiction
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 451

1955, India. The political unrest caused by the India-Pakistan partition had barely abated. The country was still recuperating from the loss of hundreds and thousands of Hindus and Muslims who got killed by angry mobs. The lawlessness that prevailed in the country during the Hindu-Muslim riots was seemingly under control, despite the efforts of Hindu and Muslim extremists who were carrying out clandestine operations to implant the seeds of hatred and revenge in people's minds. Thousands of people were still struggling to find abode, after having lost everything.

The story begins around this period when Meera, the protagonist, in her late teens fled Rawalpindi (now part of Pakistan) with her parents and two sisters Roopa and Sharmila. Meera's father had successfully managed to establish a printing business which eventually helped them settle down in Delhi. During her school years, Meera was constantly vying for her parents attention, as they doted on Roopa and swooned and squealed in delight over everything she did. When Roopa fell in love with Dev, a singer from her college, Meera felt it was time to avenge her for all the unfairness she was subjected to. Luck favored her by causing a rift between the lovers and Meera seized the opportunity to marry to Dev, much to her father's disapproval.

While Dev was still heartbroken and sulking about his breakup, Meera struggled to move on with her life. Her mother-in-law's oppressive ways and brother-in-law's covert glances only worsened the situation she found herself in. With her father's help, Meera pulled herself out of this mess, by relocating to Bombay where Dev could pursue his career in music. But, her freedom came at a terrible price. It took more than 5 years for her to finally have her wish fulfilled, to quench her thirst for love. The birth of her son, Ashvin filled the void in her life. She loved him like no mother would love hers. She pampered and protected him from everyone, including Dev. But, where would that blindfolded love lead her? And, what was the price she had to pay then?

The story almost spans over 3 decades and captures all major historic events like the India-Pakistan war, Emergency declared during Indira's period, China war and so on. The writing was so elaborate, painstakingly detailed and exquisitely beautiful. The author shows his adeptness at writing all the way through, but the most astonishing part is the way he has written from the perspective of a female protagonist. Its not easy pulling off something like that and he needs to be applauded for his efforts.

However, the book has many negative characters such as an overbearing father, a haughty sister Roopa, irresponsible husband, drunkard father-in-law, pervert brother-in-law and to top it all a selfish, unforgiving and vulnerable protagonist. I could hardly empathize with any of them and probably that's why I didn't enjoy this book much. Also, the portrayal of a mother's love for her child seems a bit exaggerated, sometimes even unbelievable. To add to that, I wonder how much the snippets from the Hindu mythology would appeal to the western readers either. Compared to his previous novel, this book was a bit of disappointment to me but not quite enough to refrain myself from his future books altogether..

My Rating: 3/5

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Almost Single by Advaita Kala

Title: Almost Single
Author: Advaita Kala
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
Edition: Paperback

I do read chick-lit novels. Every once in a blue moon. Perhaps its due to the fact that I get my own share watching Bollywood movies. When it comes to books, I mostly stick to literature, fiction and non-fiction types. However, an occasional chick-lit can do wonders for me. An alluring front cover and an impressive blurb on the back is all I need. And this book just perfectly fitted the bill.

Aisha Bhatia. 29. single. female. India. Upper middle class. Desperately seeking a groom. Well, you get the picture. But, how could it go wrong with a promising start like that? The protagonist just rambles on and on about her philandering boss, sucking job, gay friends, cocktail parties, single women friends and her adventures in pursuit of love and marriage. As far as the story goes, there is nothing more to it. You can probably fit it in a post-it note.

I don't know how it all ended. I never really bothered to finish it. It is noteworthy to mention that the first half of the book had a few hilarious anecdotes I enjoyed. But, the author fails to keep up with her pace in the latter part and it is all downhill after that. However, I won't dismiss the novel as a sloppy piece of work altogether. I just feel that the book appeals to a niche audience and I don't belong there.

My Rating: 2/5

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Q & A by Vikas Swarup; Slumdog Millionaire

Title: Q & A
Author: Vikas Swarup
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 361
Edition: Paperback
Movie: Slumdog Millionaire

My bookshelf is teeming with books of literature, fiction, and non-fiction all neatly stacked waiting to be read. Quite often, I pick one up run my fingers down the spine, weigh the book in one hand, flip through the pages, catch a phrase or two in the process wondering if it should be my next book. Some books get picked up again and again. Some books just gather dust over time. Q & A falls in the second category. I believe I have had it on my shelf for over a year lying untouched. I never thought about it much until one day I ran into a friend who bragged about a movie called "Slumdog millionaire" and how its based on the book "Q & A". It sure did ring a bell. I dashed back home, headed straight to my bookshelf and dusted off my copy of Q & A. With a little over 350 pages, what I once thought would be a boring book turned out to be just the opposite.

Ram Mohammad Thomas, an eighteen-year-old boy hailing from a slum in Mumbai wins a whopping one billion rupees in a quiz show "Who Wants to Win a Billion?". Before he could bask in the glory of winning the most coveted prize, he was accused of cheating and arrested. He pleads his innocence, to no avail. A lawyer comes to his rescue and what he recounts with her forms the compelling story of Q & A.

The book has 12 chapters one for each question from the show. In every chapter, Ram narrates an event from his past and ends with a question from the show. By the time you finish a chapter, you would realize that the question is a no-brainer for Ram. In quiz shows like this, the questions increase in complexity as you plow your way through. And since each chapter spins a tale around the question, the events don't follow a chronological pattern..or any pattern at all. This makes it a much more difficult read. I was trying to puzzle several pieces together the whole time, as Ram (the protagonist) goes back and forth in time. The author does seem to realize this predicament, yet the challenge remains.

He touches several topics like Ram's upbringing in a christian home, his experiences from doing odd jobs, his love with a prostitute and such. Some stories are well written. A few rather seem to be forced. But, it was a great effort overall. What I found to be profoundly moving was the day-to-day life of people in Dharavi (a renowned slum in Mumbai). I have seen slums whenever I used to travel by train or bus. But, never up close. Now I begin to understand what life would be like for those people who live on the brink of extreme penury.. what it would be like to line up in queues for everything from water to public spend endless nights without an pilfer food from trash toil everyday for pennies.. to live under appalling conditions. Thanks to Vikas for reminding me how grateful I should feel for the happy and privileged life I lead everyday.
My Rating: 4/5

Now, a little bit about the movie "Slumdog Millionaire". Directed by Danny Boyle, the movie has earned 4 Golden Globe nominations already including the best motion picture - drama. The trailer looks very appealing and hopefully I would watch it someday.