Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 451
Price: Rs 299
Genre: Historical Fiction / Social drama
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

I finally read the much-talked about and much-loved ‘The Help’ recently. It was a page-turner alright but only as much as a social drama could be. ‘The Help’ addresses an important time in history through a beautifully crafted story but it is not without its shortcomings.  

The narrative alternates between three main characters – Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter (Eugenia Phelan). The story is set in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi.

22-year old, fresh out of college, Skeeter dreams of becoming a writer and, unlike her childhood friends, Elizabeth and Hilly, her life’s calling is not in finding herself a suitable match and settling down to the idyllic life of Jackson. In her attempts to make it as a writer, Skeeter finds herself looking for an interesting idea to work on a book. Her own fond memories of Constantine, the black maid who raised her, and the silent presence of several other maids with the families Skeeter comes in contact with, makes her believe that giving voice to their thoughts and experiences could be a path breaking idea for a book. Those were the times of strong opinions against the rights of black people, and a marked divide between whites and blacks in social diaspora.

Aibileen is the quiet and elderly African-American maid with Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, who spent her life raising several white children. She exudes warmth and wisdom. She lost her grown up son in a tragic accident while her husband left her for another woman many years ago.

Minny is a fat, talkative and quick-tempered African-American maid who is known to be the best cook around but she has a problem in keeping her mouth shut or minding her own business. She had to change several households as a consequence. She worked with Skeeter’s friend Hilly’s mother Miss Walters but she is thrown out on false charges of stealing silver. She eventually starts working for the enigmatic but endearing Celia Foote.

‘The Help’ is essentially about how these women come together to work on a path-breaking book for those times – compiling good and bad experiences of several black women who worked for white people. Although an enlightening anthropological study, it was a dangerous book to get involved with.

There could not have been a more simple yet apt title for this book. The main characters are interesting and fairly well-defined. But I had issues with other characters, say, for example, Hilly is somebody who embodies evil. She is the nemesis of every black maid in town. We don’t get to know too much about her beyond her strong opinions on showing black people their place! Besides, I felt there was injustice with Stuart and Celia Foote’s characters. I would stop myself from elaborating on what happens with Stuart but I thought he should have been at the ending. Ditto with Celia Foote’s character. The character was developed and abandoned. I also felt that the book predominantly had female characters. The male characters were too marginalized, as if they did not exist.

The book has a strong and serious theme of racism. The characters talk about the lurking ‘dangers’ but the reader does not really feel any.

The book holds your attention from the beginning but I felt the ending leaves a few loose ends. Like I said, some characters should have made it to the closure. I wanted to know what happened to them.

Nevertheless, what works for the book are its engaging storyline, interesting main characters, controversial subject and fast pace.

Needless to say, it is a must read.

P.S. I look forward to watching the movie now. It is always fun to be able to see these characters than only visualize. The first thing I did after finishing the book is searched for the actors playing various characters in the movie.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: She's Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel

Title: She’s Never Coming Back
Author: Hans Koppel
Publisher: Sphere (Hachette India)
Pages: 393
Price: Rs 350
Genre: Fiction / Thriller
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

I don’t favour fiction these days but I like thrillers, especially after you have read some heavy-duty stuff or taken ages to finish a book, it feels good to pick up a fast-paced thriller.

‘She’s Never Coming Back’ is every bit a fast-paced thriller. I finished it in 2 days with my limited reading time (owing to my little one). But this book is a little different than the usual crime thrillers – good different, that is!

Here’s a little outline of the story. Ylva Zetterberg, a mother and wife, leaves office for home but never reaches. Her husband, Mike, assumes she is out with office colleagues, and keeps speculating about possibilities of why she might not have reached home, even when she does not turn up the next day. Ylva is a compulsive flirt and has had a fling before. When Ylva does not reaches home in the evening the first day, Mike is reluctant to call her so as not be accused of distrust by her. But when he is unable to reach her or get much information from her best friend at office, Mike reports her absence to police. In the wake of the brewing issues between Ylva and him, Mike becomes primary suspect for the police.

Meanwhile, Ylva has been kidnapped by her new next-door neighbours, Gosta and Marianne; who were known to her from before. She is also subjected to extreme sexual violence at their hands. She gets to see her husband and daughter on a screen, through a camera directed towards her home’s entrance. Locked in a sound-proofed cellar, Ylva cannot be heard outside, despite the fact that she is about 100 yards from her house.

The premise was very, very interesting and promising but I felt there were some weak links to the book.

First of all, the information on the back cover of the book is a little misleading. I think on reading it what comes out is that Ylva is a loving mother and wife from a happy, close-knit family, and she suddenly goes missing. Her husband is distraught and hysterical on her disappearance. On the top of it, he becomes the prime suspect which is heart-breaking for him. The camera shows Ylva the activities around her house and she is pained to see her loving husband and daughter, the way things progress in the days to come, how slowly Mike and Sanna start moving on, so on and so forth.

I might be giving away tiny bit about the story from here on but not really a spoiler. Ylva and Mike was not an ideal couple. Mike suffered from low self-esteem and is emotionally unstable, while Ylva is outgoing and a big-time flirt. As a consequence, there is a lot of friction between them. The book fails to draw out their characters well enough. We fail to connect with either Ylva or Mike. In fact, even as a victim, Ylva does not gets our sympathy because we don’t know her well. There is not much on what goes on inside her mind.

On another end, Jorgen Petersson, who has suddenly made a lot of money, reminisces about his school life and a bunch of bullies and is curious about what would have become of them over the years. He, along with his school friend, Calle Collin, a freelance journalist, start finding out about ‘the gang of four’. There is no justification to this angle, sheer coincidence. It is really not explained why Petersson is keen on finding those bullies from his past, and also how he finds any connection in what happens to each one of them.

The characters have not been drawn out too well. The relationship between them is also sketchy. We roughly know the state of affairs between Mike and Ylva, but we don’t know about the relationship between Ylva and Sanna or Ylva and Nour. When Ylva looks at her family on the screen for weeks, then months, then for over a year; we don’t know what she thinks, what goes on in her mind to see them getting back to normalcy. There is no insight into what goes on in the minds of all the main characters!

Another issue which disturbed me a lot was how Marianne approves her husband raping Ylva repeatedly. There is a bit of envy in places, but mostly she tells Ylva that she would be used by her husband whenever he wants. We also have no knowledge about the relationship between Marianne and Gosta.

The sexual assault on Ylva is also unnecessarily graphic, even repulsive.

In the beginning, Gosta is shown to be giving power point presentation on the methods used by perpetrators to control their victims. Each of those techniques has been explained in the beginning of several chapters dealing with Ylva and her captors. It is interesting and yet at some point, all this also looks like a case study.     

I have surprisingly rued about a lot of things and yet I loved reading the book. What stand out are the plot, the pace and the ending. The book is absolutely unputdownable. The ending absolutely lives upto the high the book creates. All the issues start coming out only in retrospect, they do not impact the pace or the story. When you read the book, you don’t really feel much amiss. You may absolutely love the book if you do not dwell too much into the things I mentioned.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review: The Green Room by Wendell Rodricks

Title: The Green Room
Author: Wendell Rodricks
Publisher: Rain Tree (Rupa Publications)
Pages: 356
Price: Rs 595
Genre: Non Fiction / Memoir / Autobiography
Rating: 10/10
Format: Hardbound

At the onset, ‘The Green Room’ stands out because of its gorgeous cover page – a black and white picture of Malaika Arora Khan in Wendell Rodricks’ famous mussel top, and the yellow colour spine.

‘The Green Room’ is a personal memoir by Wendell Rodricks about his life, his many passions and inevitably, the fashion industry, when he is completing 25 years of being in the business. If you think this book will be full of fashion jargons and about a rich lifestyle, you cannot be more wrong. This book is about a person who is driven by his passions, and who rose above his humble beginnings to realize his dreams. It is about a person who has lived his life well, who is content in what it has to offer and who makes the best of the opportunities, always eager to learn.

In ‘The Green Room’, Wendell Rodricks sets the pace with the ambience and feel of a green room, which is essentially the backstage room during fashion shows where models get ready. The early chapters are about his family tree and its roots in Goa, his humble early life in a glorified chawl at Mahim (Bombay), graduating from Dadar Catering College in pursuit of a glamorous career in hospitality, working as summer trainee at Taj Mahal Hotel and starting his professional life at Centaur Hotel (Santa Cruz, Bombay). He moves to Muscat for better opportunities and money to support his family income.

Muscat, in retrospect, had a far reaching impact on his life. He met his love and long time partner Jerome in Muscat, and with his support, changed his career track and went on to pursue fashion. Wendell Rodricks studied fashion in Los Angeles and later in ‘the fashion capital of the world’, Paris.

The book chronicles Wendell’s journey through the years – his ordinary early life, returning back to India to flag off his career in fashion (and ‘put India in his clothes’), teaching fashion students at SNDT, Mumbai (as he would say, he was “born to teach, to guide, to mentor”), his stint at the prestigious Garden Silk Mills, his First show ‘The Premier Collection’ for Glitterati, international acclaims, some stand-out shoots which made him famous, his articles for a myriad of publications and different subjects, setting base in his beloved Goa putting his promising career at stake, his fascination for Goa and its culture, stint at FIT, association with the first Lakme India Fashion Week, his path breaking work with Braille in fashion (the Visionnaire collection), involvement with environment conservation, his brush with politicians and politics while at IFFI, legalizing 21 years old relationship with Jerome by signing PACS, promoting Goan culture and Goa artists, researching Pano Bhaju (the old Goa costume), his extensive, enviable trips around the globe and many such important events and engaging snippets of his life.

He talks extensively about his shows, inspirations for clothes, how a designer works, the making of a fashion show, behind the curtains incidents, and yet it is never boring or repetitive.

In the early chapters, he also highlights the things which reflect the early indications of a designer’s eye, for example, the detailing of his aunt’s dresses, the sketches he made while in Muscat, the spectacle that stayed with him from childhood which he would later recreate in his clothes or shows.

He has kept the book delightfully above any controversies or scandals of the fashion world. He is also quite matter-of-fact about being gay. He handles it sensitively, and points out that while people look at the sexual element of gay love, for him it was just a celebration of love. 

He is a natural storyteller and a gifted writer; picking anecdotes and events, and relating them with the same gusto and detail as they would have occurred.

He is often funny.
One day, Mr D told me to go to Salalah. ‘By buffalo,’he said. ‘I have booked it!’ He was joking, I hoped.
The Buffalo turned out to be an old World War II aircraft …..”

“I would not do another film again even if they dragged me by hair, I decided. Seven years later, however, I was happily on the sets of Madhur Bhandarkar’s film Fashion.”

“There were three vanity vans in the lot where film was being shot. On one was a sheet of paper that said ‘Priyankaji’. The next said ‘Kanganaji’. The third – yikes – ‘Wendellji’!”

He is full of wisdom.
There would always be people with less or more, I figured, and there is no point in comparison. Even now, I am always content and hold to the belief that the best things in life are free. The stars in the sky, the monsoon rain, the pleasures of a walk on the beach …”

“I sat later on a parapet, over the bridge under which Princess Diana
 would die so tragically a few years later, looking at the Eiffel Tower with tear-blurred eyes. Madame Saint Laurent was right – I had to put India into my clothes. I needed to go back to my country.”

He is amusing.
I watched in horror as she came hopping down the ramp with mincing geisha steps. What the hell was wrong? Then I saw it. The dimwit had put both her legs into one palazzo leg. And then, horror of horrors, because the other leg was dragging on the floor, she had picked it up delicately to hold like a sari pallu or dupatta. The other models grinned and zoomed past her as Madam Mannequin continued to hobble on the ramp.”

He fittingly describes ‘Fashion’ as “that magical world of youth, colour, beauty, glamour, exotic travel, luxury, passion, ambition, corruption, intoxication, scandal….”

The most extraordinary thing about Wendell Rodricks is his relentless pursuit of knowledge, his passion for life and childlike enthusiasm for new things. His passion for fashion, traveling, food, Goa, culture, history, heritage, art and music; and the love and warmth with which he talks about his partner, are hard to miss. His enthusiasm for life is infectious and inspiring.            

He comes across as a prolific personality, and a fitting prodigal son of Goa.  He heaps praises on people who believed in him and supported him in different phases of his career, but most of all, his partner, who encouraged him and believed in his dreams.

At some point in the book, I stopped evaluating the book and style, and got deeply interested in him as his person and his life. This book is for everyone because simply put, it is about a person who accomplishes so much despite his modest beginnings.

P.S. At the end, my head was spinning with the information on all the traveling he has done. He has visited a mind-boggling 269 countries and 965 cities (at the time this book was being written).

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