Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In The Company of The Courtesan: A Novel by Sarah Dunant

# Hardcover: 384 pages

# Publisher: Random House (February 14, 2006)

# Subject: Historical - General






Almost every culture has them. In India, they are known as known as "Tawaifs", in Japan they are "Geishas" and in Europe they were known as "Courtesans". According to Wikipedia, a courtesan is a person paid and/or supported for the giving of social companionship and intimate liaisons to one or more partners.

In 16th-century Rome where the novel opens, a deliciously corrupt Catholic Church was in power in the Vatican. The members of the church had all taken the mandatory vows of celibacy but it didn't stop them from wanting children in order to further their political ambitions. They, ofcourse, could not take wives and nor would it be proper for them to be seen in back alleys with a common prostitute. They wanted a woman proficient in the art of conversation, poetry, dance, literature and painting, who would sleep with them and not demand marriage and thus, the courtesan was born.

25-year old Fiammeta Biancini a famous and much sought after courtesan in Rome is one of the three protagonists of Sarah Dunant's new novel "In the Company of a Courtesan" . When the novel opens, Rome is being plundered by the severe and dour Luther protestants and Fiametta has to escape to Venice with just the clothes on her back to build a new life there and to remake her fortune. She takes only one very trusted servant with her, an ugly dwarf (courtesans were well-known for having exotic side-kicks) named, Bucino.

We readers are treated to Bucino's perspective of their story which I think is brilliant idea on the author's part. Courtesans tended to be vain, self-absorbed, tough-as-nails young women and all these rather unflattering qualities may have shown up had the story been told from Fiametta's perspective. Bucino, on the other hand, is a lovable, delightful, witty and sharp creature. Although he was devoted to Fiametta he was able to see both her faults and her strengths, also, being the servant, he was less conspicious on the roads of Venice - he was able to go places and see and hear things, something that Fiametta may never have been able to do.

The third protagonist of the novel and probably the best-loved by the author since she devotes so much space to it in her novel, is the city of Venice. There is enough descriptive material in there to write a whole non-fiction book on Venice in the 16th-century. But again, Venice is a good choice for the setting of the novel because although it was the epitome of Christianity in Italy at that time, it was also a big trading port and hence, highly multicultural, allowing the author to pack her book with diverse characters, including a Turkish aristocrat, Jewish merchants, a suspected witch named La Draga and so on. Real historical figures also show up in the book with Titian, the famous artist, in a cameo role and the writer Pietro Aretino who also lived in Venice at that time.

I do applaud the author for resisting the urge to write a paen to Venice and its canals as most writers of historical fiction are want to do. Instead, she presents it to us just as it might have appeared in the 16th century - stinky roads, busy, crowded marketplaces, unscrupulous vendors, mystical healers, witches, whores and so on...

In true Sarah Dunant style, there are lots of twists, turns and plots to the story, but I will desist from letting on anything that happens in the book because I am aware that several readers of this blog are hoping to read the book. In closing I will say that "In The Company of a Courtesan" is a fitting successor to "The Birth of Venus".

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

By The Numbers (LA Times Op-Ed)

A member of my online bookclub pointed out an interesting article in the LA Times (April 30, 2006) about reading preferences in men and women.

Read on:

When Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins asked hundreds of British female academics, teachers, writers, publishers and literature students what book had changed their lives, many respondents wondered whether there would be a male version of the survey as well. Jardine and Watkins complied: The results were fascinating in their own right, and more intriguing when juxtaposed with the findings for women. Not only did men and women find different books to be meaningful, but they approached reading in divergent ways.

Men's Fiction
(Top Five)

1. "The Outsider,"

Albert Camus

2. "Catcher in the Rye,"

J.D. Salinger

3. "Slaughterhouse Five,"

Kurt Vonnegut

4. (tie)

"One Hundred Years of Solitude,"

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"The Hobbit,"

J.R.R. Tolkien

5. "Catch-22,"

Joseph Heller

Women's Fiction
(Top Five)

1. "Jane Eyre,"

Charlotte Bronte

2. "Wuthering Heights,"

Emily Bronte

3. "The Handmaid's Tale,"

Margaret Atwood

4. "Middlemarch,"

George Eliot

5. (tie)

"Pride and Prejudice,"

Jane Austen

"Beloved,"

Toni Morrison

Other findings:

No male authors made the women's top five, and no female authors made the men's top five.

Only four books made both top 20 lists.

Six male authors broke the women's top 20, but only one book by a female author made the men's top 20: "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee.

Older men were more likely to cite female authors as influential.

Men were most likely to have read their formative books as adolescents.

Women were more likely to read books to cope with difficult times.

Men were more likely to cite particular authors as "mentors," particularly, among these British residents, George Orwell.

Women liked shared, hand-me-down books; men liked new books and hardbacks.

Women had a more diverse list of favorites — 400 women named 200 books.

Men answered the question of what book marked a watershed moment more reluctantly than women.

Interesting,huh? The apparent gender bias stood out for me - do most women prefer books by women authors and do men prefer male writers? Reading Matters had an interesting post about this very topic...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What Would You Save?


Found this interesting exercise on "A Work in Progress" and Janelle's "Eclectic Closet" and decided I just had to give it a try. Your task is to find "The Ten Books One Would Save in a Fire" (If One Could Only Save Ten)

Ofcourse, as Janelle correctly points out, this raises the question, do you pick out 10 books based on their value and how difficult they might be to replace, or do you pick ten of the ones you love?

I decided to go with the ones I love because, apart from my great-grandmother's book 'The Island Story' which she won as a prize when she was in school some 80 years ago, I don't really have any valuable books.

So here's my list of The Ten Books One Would Save in a Fire (If One Could Only Save Ten)- based on books I love:

1. "Of Human Bondage" by Somerset Maugham

2. "What the Body Remembers" by Shawna Singh Baldwin

3. "Natural History of the Senses" by Diane Ackerman

4. "Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario

5. "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

6. " A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry

7. "The Good Earth" Pearl S. Buck

8. "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert

9. "A Fortune-Teller Told Me" by Tiziano Terzani

10. "The Essential Rumi" Coleman Barks.

I have to say the list surprised me a little. Knowing my penchant for South-Asian literature I expected to see a lot more of those and maybe some more recent books, but to my delight, more than half are books that I read more than a decade ago.

So, C'mon, tell us which books you would save!

The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins

# Hardcover: 272 pages

# Publisher: Viking Adult (March 16, 2006)

# Genre: Fiction

# Author and book website:















This is a compact, sensitively-told love story between an Iranian immigrant (also a carpet seller) and a college-going American student almost half his age.

Ushman comes to America at the urging of his wife Farak after a terrible earthquake devastated their carpet-making business in Tabriz, Iran. She stays behind to look after his invalid mother. The expectation was that she would join him after a short while, but as time went on, Farak seemed less and less inclined to do so. Stella, a 19-year old virgin meets Ushman at the airport where she had gone to see her parents off on a trip to Italy and the two develop an unlikely friendship, finally becoming lovers. As you will tell from reading the synopsis, the plot itself is unremarkable, but the story is moving, giving the reader insights into the lonely world of an immigrant, especially one who has had to leave his family behind; also, you are given the opportunity to look at America from the perspective of a non-westerner.

As I read the book I couldn't help noticing how much Ushman continued to love Farak (even though she was now estranged from him). So why then was he with Stella? Out of loneliness seems to be the most probable answer, but also, Stella was the first person in this new country who geuninely seemed to care for him. It seemed to Ushman that to other people he was barely human, "just a curiosity, an oddity or someone to be stared at". Also, Stella was his guide in this bewildering, foreign land where everything was so strange and alien to him.

For instance, one of the first things to shock and confuse Ushman was the freedom of choice in the US. In his native Iran, there was little ambiguity but in the US, "...everything is negotiable. Everything is possible. These endless possibilities become exhausting." ( I love that insight!)

Also, he couldn't get used to the "dating" phenomenon. In Iran, when he and Farak got engaged they barely spoke to each other; neither one dared to do anything that might compromise their engagement. Only after they were married was Ushman comfortable enough to share his faults and shortcomings with Farak. Stella's openess, candor and the fearless way she revealed secrets about herself and her family's personal strife made Ushman uncomfortable . He was wary of revealing too much about himself without a marriage contract. It scared and unnerved him.

Mullins does such a good job of conveying Ushman's confusion, loneliness and bewilderment in this new country that it summons a reader's protective instinct, making us want to step into the pages of the novel to bring Ushman home for dinner while reassuring him everything is going to be alright; but, making us care for the protagonist is probably the book's greatest achievement. The other characters are not as compelling and the prose, although sweetly melancholy, reminded me (towards the end especially) of how I feel at the end of a long, gloomy,drizzly winter's day - a longing for some sunlight, some cheerfulness!

My feeling is that this story would have had more of a punch had it been presented as a short story rather than a novel.

For a more in-depth and very well-written review, please go to Karma Canyon's review in the NewsObserver.

Booklogged, has an equally good review on her journal here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Creative Writing: The Short Story (some notes from my second Creative Writing class)


The Short Story:

A short story is generally between several hundred and several thousand words long and aims to achieve a single, concentrated effect. The short story achieves its concentrated effect because the length imposes certain restrictions.

* Keep the time frame short.
* Keep the prose tight. You don't have space for wordy exposition.
* Focus on only the most important incidents.
* Begin with action and as close as possible to the climax.
* Restrict the number of characters in your story. Three or four with names and who do something significant are enough for a short story
* But really, in a short story, you have only one character, the protagonist. Your other characters help to illuminate him.
* A short story is essentially about one thing done by one person. It's an account of a key incident (or short series of incidents) that defines the protagonist or changes him in some significant way.
* Often, a short story tells about a turning point in the life of the protagonist. He can choose to turn in the new direction or refuse to change. But the choice is irrevocable.
* The issue or choice the character is facing is of crucial importance to the character.
* For the character involved, the choice is not automatic or obvious. Short stories usually show characters who are torn or who endure a personal trial, a test of character.
* Not only is the change irrevocable once made, but it's also unavoidable. Circumstances, upbringing or personality propel the character toward the choice that must be made.
* Short stories are about the change – good changes, bad changes or the failure to change. The change made or offered may be subtle, but must be definitive. (An exception: the genre story – Hercule Poirot never changes.)

The in-class assignment was to choose one or two concrete starting points and to write a very short story.
A few possible starting points that were suggested those of us in class:
A prisoner - actual or metaphorical
A bouquet - sent with no card or a bouquet of dead flowers or…

A canoe - on a misty lake, or tipped over or …
A hat - on the sidewalk or otherwise where it’s not expected

A clock - broken or stopped or keeping incorrect time…

A thunderstorm
“What the…”


Homework:
Option 1: Finish, rewrite and/or polish the piece you wrote in class.

Option 2: Take a different starting point or two - an object, place or opening line, and use it as the starting point for a new piece.

Option 3: Continue working on whatever writing you have on the go, but bring in a couple pages next week to share withthe class.

I chose option 3. I am working on a story but it's in its infancy yet - will type it up as I can, but remember, it is incomplete.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Eat, Pray ,Love:One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert






Subject:Travel/Personal Memoirs/Women
Publishing Date: February 16, 2006/Viking
Pages:352
Synopsis: (Powells)A celebrated writer's irresistible, candid, and eloquent account of her pursuit of worldly pleasure, spiritual devotion, and what she really wanted out of life.

Here's the scenario: You're 35 years old, you've just been through a very trying time and need some cheering up. Money is no factor, what would you do? I took less than two seconds to come up with my answer - I would travel the world! Travel is the answer to all my woes, and apparently Elizabeth Gilbert agrees with me for that's what she did when she found her marriage was crumbling and her personal life becoming one long, sad story. She then recorded the journey to find herself, in a touching book called "Eat Pray Love".

She started out in Rome, Italy where she found solace in gelatos (and all those foods health pundits tell you are bad for you) and sexy- as-hell Italian men. I had often wondered why so many people chose Italy to start anew, now I know! :) Next she travelled to India where she stayed in an Ashram , somewhere in the back of beyond, renewing her spiritual self. Her quest to learn to meditate and her meanderings on philosophy are actually quite interesting to read. Finally, she ends up in lush Bali where she does the very thing she swore she wouldn't - she falls in love again! Her descriptions of the Balinese people, their culture, society and especially their medicine people are so entertaining and informative.

The book has been uniquely divided into 108 tales to represent the 108 beads of the "Japa Mala" which is a string of beads used by Hindus and Buddhists for centuries to assist them in staying focused during prayerful meditation.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert's writing; her willingness to show her vulnerability along her road to self-discovery and her self-depracating humor endears one to her story. There is a lot of food for thought in this gem of a book and I especially like the argument she makes for doing what you love versus what society expects you to do. Along the way she meets a whole host of interesting people whose conversations she records in her book, making for very interesting reading.

For instance, on page 103, her friend Luca Spaghetti (isn't that a great name?) explains to her that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there.

"...if you could read people's thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be- that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don't really belong there."

According to Luca, SEX was Rome's word and for the Vatican it is POWER. In New York City the word is ACHIEVE, in Stockholm its CONFORM, in Naples it is FIGHT and so on. I tried to think of a word that might define Ontario, where I live, and I think an accurate one for it might be CIVIL. People are so awfully polite and well-mannered here that as a visitor you might be prompted to think an outbreak of "sorryitis" has hit the province!

What's the word for your city?


And, if you're having fun with that, we can extend it to ourselves - what is the one word that would describe you completely? I have realized I am a lifelong learner, but I also like to inform, so I am not sure if there's one word that would describe that for me. If you think of something, let me know! :)

Update: For another review and a take that is slightly different from mine, please refer to Zee's Space where my friend and fellow blogger, ml, has done an excellent job writing down her thoughts on the book.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Whitney Otto on Kaavya Vishwanathan


If you've been following the news over the last two weeks you will have heard of Kaavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student who has been accused of plagiarism.

Her book "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" has been withdrawn by the publishers in the US but still available here in Canada, and from what I have gathered from the article I linked to in my first para. will be available in the UK.

There has been a swarm of articles on Kaavya and the issue of plagiarism, but Whitney Otto's op-ed in yesterday's NYTimes resonated with me the most when she stated that (and I paraphrase) Ms. Viswanathan was more motivated by being a writer than actually writing. She went on to say Kaavya may have had more success at fiction if she didn't bear the burden of the overachiever(so determined was she to get ahead that she hired a college admissions consultant, someone who, for a nice chunk of change, will get you into that Ivy League college of your choice.) Overachievers don't generally become writers because the skill set is so different.

Whitney Otto says (and I love this)

"...As I tell my writing students, if you want to be a writer work on the finer points of gossip, eavesdropping and voyeurism; basically the pastimes of the underachiever, ways to while away the hours."

With this statement she has made my 'doing nothing but people watching' seem legit! Hooray!

But she does have a point, doesn't she? If you're an overachiever with a desire for instant success, you would want to follow the "paint-by-number" approach and produce something that has already been successfully received so there's no window open for failure.

"...It would take an underachieving, gossipy, voyeuristic, bit of a slacker to write a genre novel capable of pulling away from the pack. In the writing life you can't avoid failure. Or, to put it another way, someone who is driven to write is usually not the same sort of person who would work with an expensive college counselor to ensure admissions success.

That's a little like expecting a claustrophobe to take up a career in a coal mine. And you can't trade on your youth because being young isn't enough to even know your own story, let alone tell it. Some of the best books ever written about youth are by writers long past those dewy days."

Yes, Whitney, you've got me nodding my head in agreement here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chris Hawkey Power Play

Pay attention folks, a new band has come to town and I hope they wow you as much as they have me! I'm talking about "Chris Hawkey Power Play" and their latest album is "The Pursuit". As the yummy lead singer Chris Hawkey explains:

"...The record is called "The Pursuit' for many reasons. We are all in pursuit of something - dreams,a lost love, a better life for your children, closure or the cure of a terrible disease"

So true, Chris!

There are two good reasons for adding this CD to your collection - the first, ofcourse, is the music ( a wonderful blend of rock songs and ballads) which you can sample at www.chrishawkey.com and the second, but equally important reason for investing in this album is that all the proceeds go to The Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance! You'll have to go to the website to find out more about the actual cause and how the sale of the disc benefits it.

My favorite tunes? The introductory song, "Rockstar" because it's brimming with energy and Hawkey delivers it with such an infectious vibe. I also love "Little Dance" - it's one of those tunes that compels your feet to take on a life of their own, so be careful while listening to it in the car, try to remember to bob your head instead! (btw, Chris wrote this song for his young daughter, Abigail) ;) "Steal A Moment" has radio-single written all over it and I just LOVE Hawkey's rendition of the Bread megahit, " Everything I own". "Just Like Everyone" is particularly poignant because it was written after Chris met a family whose son suffers from Tuberos Sclerosis.

In my humble view Hawkey and his band have created an album that the music industry should sit up and take notice of; I so hope they can just get the exposure they need and deserve...

Much thanks must go out to Brent for sending me the disc to listen to. Thanks, B!

Monday, May 08, 2006

My first day at the Creative Writing Workshop

My first day at the Creative Writing Workshop

Susan (Malaysia), hope you don't regret asking! Sorry that it's so long-winded! :)



I am still unsure what prompted me to join a creative writing workshop. I have NEVER written a story (not even a simple one for my kids) and nor have I ever harbored a desire to do so. I am more likely to write about someone else's story; not like a critic would, but more like a fan of literature, rhapsodizing about the writer's magnificient style, her/his storyline and so on. So it was a big surprise, even to myself, when I made the call to the college sponsoring the workshop. The person who took my call didn't ask me for my credentials on the phone - just signed me up, so really, I didn't know what to expect when I got there.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the venue is that I was probably the youngest person in the group (well, I had the least grey hairs anyway, or maybe I just had the better coloring job!). But perhaps that's not so surprising when you consider the course takes place in the middle of the day thereby attracting more retired people, but as we went round the table introducing ourselves, I realized these were no ordinary retired people - about half were published authors already and the other half were journalists wanting to make the leap from journalism to fiction. I felt sooooooooo out of my league in that esteemed company, that I half wanted to run home with my tail between my legs!

Our workshop leader, a published author himself, is an easy going, non-threatening kind of guy. He both looks and sounds very creative, (please don't ask me to elaborate on what I mean by "creative-looking", he might be reading this!). After introducing himself he outlined the course for us and I was delighted to see we were going to cover travel writing (my favorite) along with short stories, novel writing, the memoir, writing for children, humorous writing, character development and romance (my least favorite - perhaps I'll sit that one out)


Without much of a to-do he gave us our first assignment: to write about a chance meeting between two people. Our instructions were to write for the first 10 mins without lifting our pens from the paper. He told us to turn off the internal editor as we wrote and not to worry about grammar, spellings etc. After 20 mins we were divided into groups of three where we read our stories to each other. I was both shocked and pleased when the ladies in my group declared my story to be the best! Beginner's luck? ;)


After we returned to our tables a volunteer was called upon to read her story and we were all invited to give her feedback. I don't know when I will find the courage to read my story to the whole class or even to post it here. Maybe if you buy me a couple of Margaritas? ;)


So, what did I learn that first day? That really, anyone can write a story if prepared to allow the imagination to soar. I know that sounds easy, but it isn't because our pesky internal editor can be quite interfering. I also learned that if you want to be a better writer you have to write more and offer your work up for feedback (now that part still makes me quake). What if people find my work boring and actually tell me so? Will I ever be able to enter that class on bouncy steps with a jaunty, confident smile as I do now? We shall have to see.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Darfur is Dying!


From NPR.ORG

"A new online, interactive video game gives players a glimpse of what it's like to be a refugee in the Darfur region of Sudan. In "Darfur Is Dying," players take on the role of refugees searching for food, shelter and safety, while avoiding the wrath of the murderous Janjaweed militia."

University of Southern California graduate student Susana Ruiz, the game's creator, invented this game as part of her master thesis in order to educate kids and adults about Darfur, the struggle of the refugees there and to stir our consciences into taking action against the ongoing genocide.

My girls and I played it last night and boy, did we learn a thing or two! There are several avatars that one can use to play the game and I chose to be the 26-year old woman, Sittina. Sad to say, I never had a chance against the "Janjaweed" I was almost always caught by them. Women are such easy targets in the Darfur because they constantly have to venture out to collect firewood for their cooking or risk their kids starving to death. The Janjaweed are always on the look out for them waiting to catch and rape them. My daughter, N., took on the avatar of a 14-year old girl called Elham and although she wasn't so quick to be caught by the Janjaweed she wasn't able to collect as much firewood or water as an adult.

Click on the image below to play the game:



There are those that would say that this game makes a sport of Darfur and trivializes its cause, but I beg to differ - I think its goal which is to motivate players to take action and do something about the real world situation being depicted, will be very effective. Also, this game can be played "virally", in other words you can pass this around to your friends and contacts, spreading the word. So, please, click on the game, become aware and spread the awareness. Thanks!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen

Publisher:Penguin Books

Subject: Religious fiction

Publication Date:July 2002

Paperback: 384 pages




What would happen if the Virgin Mary appeared on your doorstep? Would you invite her to stay for lunch?"


Reading this exciting and unique blurb on the back of this book made me reach for my purse at the bookshop.

However, the interaction of Mary with the narrator wasn't as exciting or as revealing as I hoped. But, if you're like me, and you revel in facts, figures and history, this book is right up your alley.

The author, who obviously enjoys making encyclopedic lists, has used a large chunk of the book to describe the lives of Saints, the different appearances that Mary has made on earth and other Catholic trivia. In all fairness to her, I will admit that I learned a lot and enjoyed the process, too. For instance, I didn't know that St. Catherine of Sienna used to frequently suck the pus of lepers! I am sure you didn't either! :)

It is amazing how Mary, who is hardly mentioned more than 8 times in the Bible, has such a large following worldwide. Why are people so drawn to Mary? Do women relate to her because she's a woman? Do parents relate to her because she had a child too? Do children relate to her because she is a mother? I am not sure what her popularity is due to, and the book didn't answer that for me.