Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I heard those names spoken with some reverence by my professor of Western Thought, a course deemed essential to round out all college degrees by the university I was attending. In the next breath, the professor uttered, “Existentialism.” Even now, I’m not entirely sure what the word means although its precepts (or at least some of them) are … Continue reading The Existential Life: Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950
Without a doubt, Like Water for Chocolate is a tasty read. It opens with the ingredients for Christmas Rolls, Mexican style. But it goes beyond the usual food in fiction novel. A little further down, it reads: Tita was literally washed into this world on a great tide of tears that spilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor. That … Continue reading Diving Into Magical Realism: Two Morsels
I can’t remember the last time I bought a cookbook. Until My Paris Kitchen, by David Lebovitz. The ones I have, I hardly ever consult anymore, since I have my own collection of recipes all organized in my iPad recipe app. But for me, if you throw in certain magic words, then I could be tempted to shell out a few dollars—I splurged on a … Continue reading My Paris Kitchen by David Leibovitz
The internet, streaming video, and discs have made films timeless. Here are two I liked very much, but they’re not for everyone. Coriolanus Different times. Morphed characters. The same story. Coriolanus, the film, attests to the timelessness of truths Shakespeare wrote about—in this case, that we haven’t yet conquered our hunger for war. Men’s ambitions, beliefs, and/or desire for revenge still lead to destruction. … Continue reading War, Two Viewpoints—Coriolanus and In the Land of Blood and Honey
Why Emile Zola’s title has been translated as The Masterpiece isn’t very clear to me. Literally, l’œuvre means “the work;” “masterpiece is “chef d’œuvre.” Zola’s main character, artist Claude Lantier, actually fails to produce a masterpiece. It isn’t even obvious that Claude thinks of the large piece he’s been working on as a potential chef d’œuvre. He is obsessed by it—that’s clear enough. But as … Continue reading Emile Zola’s L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece): Fine Line Between Artistic Genius and Mental Illness?
Les Halles in Paris—do you know it? Unless you’re into a bit of French history, you may not. It doesn’t exist anymore, demolished in 1969/70, its centennial year. It was a huge market, much of it housed in at least ten pavilions of glass and iron designed by Victor Baltard. Plus a big domed central pavilion that later became the Bourse de Commerce, the French … Continue reading Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris: Celebration of Food or Satire?
Disbelief. That’s my initial reaction as I follow the life of orphan master’s son, Jun Do, in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Is this really what life is like in North Korea? Lives subjected to unrelenting propaganda from its one radio station, and unrelenting trauma, probably almost from birth if you’re an orphan? As he grows up, Jun … Continue reading Adam Johnson’s North Korea: Fiction as Trauma Narrative
“War is nasty; war is fun, War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” Harvard University President Drew Faust borrows this quote to illustrate that war fascinates because it is a paradox. The remark actually comes from Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien about the “awful majesty of combat.” For films and books, war is a readymade but challenging setting … Continue reading War Stories: Why they may be worth your time
A story of a woman full of angst. A woman whom modern, educated women can relate to. But only to some extent. Meredith Ruth (MR) Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. That alone makes her totally unique. She’s achieved the pinnacle, a plum usually denied women, even those with her background and ambition. But what’s more remarkable about MR is … Continue reading Joyce Carol Oates—Mudwoman
How much of life is made up of coincidences? And is coincidence Fate? Or is it Chance? I think these questions are at the heart of Antoine Laurain’s novel, The Red Notebook. When a guy called Laurent finds a discarded stolen bag on top of a bin, a bag that he later learns belongs to a woman named Laure—is that fate or chance? On the … Continue reading Fate in Fiction: Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook
I picked up the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway because of my interest in music. But I find that it’s more like a meditation on the senselessness of war than a story on some theme regarding the power of music. The novel has no clear beginning, middle and end. Maybe, that’s how it should be. The story happens during a real war, when Sarajevo … Continue reading The Cellist of Sarajevo’s Tribute to Victims of Ethnic Hatred
I suppose in a large country like India you can see life in as many ways as you can imagine it to unfold. But in the poorest hovels of that huge country the reality is that life unfolds in ways you’ve never imagined. Ways that make you wonder how people can endure them. Ways that coax your admiration for a resilient social class whose existence … Continue reading Stark Truth: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
The telling of a terrible event seems somehow more compelling when done from the point of view of a child. We often assume that a child does not have the biases of an adult to color his perception. We also assume that he’s less likely to lie when recounting what he sees. On the other hand, lack of a life history may mean a child … Continue reading Cruelty Knows No Bounds: In The Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Myanmar—does that ring a bell? You guess that, maybe, it’s the same as Burma. And maybe you’ve even heard of its most famous citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi. Or, maybe, you have no idea whatsoever what Myanmar is. And you couldn’t care less. Myanmar is fascinating—rich in resources, diverse, exotic, unique, complex. Once a monarchy, invaded by the British, then terrorized by a military regime … Continue reading Fiction as History: Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace
How much do you know about sex? Probably less than you think. That’s how I felt, anyway, after reading The Story of Sex, a delightful book on sex. I first came across The Story of Sex in an article in theguardian.com with a long, formidable title: A graphic history of sex: ‘There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned. As if that … Continue reading The French do it again: An irresistible Story of Sex
I anticipated a great read with Reading Lolita in Tehran. It tackles two of my main interests—a woman’s journey through life, and her experience living in a culture quite different from that I live in. I strongly empathized with what I saw to be its underlying themes. But after reading pages and pages full of details to support those themes, I thought, okay, I get … Continue reading Mature Iranian Women’s Kinship with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—Reading Lolita in Tehran
Forty years after the end of the war in Vietnam comes a widely-acclaimed, generously awarded début novel—The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published by Grove/Atlantic, Inc. in 2015. I’m going to throw in my two-cents worth among the throng of gushing admirers of this 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel (plus at least five other awards), because this work says something essential to me. … Continue reading Vietnam War, A Retrospective: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer
I’m waxing nostalgic. I can’t help it in these last few days of official summer in the Bay Area. If you don’t know what that means, think heavy clouds, high humidity, and 64⁰ F — warm in most areas, but not here. For us, it’s winter weather. But what does this all have to do with the three novellas in this collection by Patrick Modiano, … Continue reading Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano
This post is technically not a review. Rather it’s a rant about the typical novels in the romance genre. I nearly zapped a historical romance out of my iPad while reading it one evening. It wasn’t badly written. It wasn’t boring. But it annoyed me that for the umpteenth time, the author says her hero has “wide/broad shoulders.” Now, how often must she remind of … Continue reading No Broad Shoulders. No Romance.
Is it merely coincidence that a thread runs through the two books by Yasunari Kawabata that I’ve read? Maybe, I should read at least one more to conclude that this 1968 Nobel Prize winner, who writes about obsession, is himself obsessed with the issue of older Japanese men preying on vulnerable young Japanese women. I understand Kawabata’s obsession better, after a quick Google survey on … Continue reading Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness: Love, Sex, and Revenge