Monthly Archives: July 2013

‘The Painter of Shanghai’ by Jennifer Cody Epstein


Known as the first Chinese woman to paint in the Western style, Pan Yuliang is best described in the words from the book that is based on her life,

“She is strong, but like bamboo. She’ll bend if the wind forces her to. But she will not break”

Born as Xiuqing, she loses her mother at six and is brought up by her opium addicted uncle. To pay off his debts, little Xiuqing is sold to a brothel when she is barely a teenager. The story then takes us through her days there, her relationship with the top girl, Jinling, and how an upright customs official Pan Zanhua paves the way out for her to her true calling.

The real story starts after Zanhua makes her his second wife. The aimless sketches that she has made from time to time catches the eye of Zanhua and slowly Yuliang realizes the passion that she has for this art form. It is only her determination that makes her one of the first women to enter the Shanghai Academy of Arts and from there to Paris and Rome.

The first half of the book is slightly dragging and feels like a documentary. It is as if the author’s passion awakens along with Yuliang’s determination not to give up on what she believes in, in spite of all possible odds and challenges. Imagine a woman painting her own nude portraits in an orthodox China of early 20th Century. Even the displeasure of her husband cannot detract her. She knows without him, she wouldn’t have come this far, yet she cannot but be true to the artist in her. During the initial days of her success, you can see a typical man in Zanhua who supports his wife, at the same time believes that a woman’s true calling is to take care of her home and hearth. The difference is where he realizes this is a spirit that cannot be chained down and he allows his love for her to dominate all other insecurities.

Yuliang’s life in Paris gives us a picture of life as it is for many an artist for whom life itself is their art. The days of penury end in poetic justice when she wins a scholarship to the Royal Roman Art Academy and then finally is invited back to her alma mater in Shang Hai. Circumstances make her return to Paris where she spends the rest of her life.

What catches the reader is one woman’s fight for what she truly believes in. She has moments of apprehension thinking of Zanhua and his expectations, she acknowledges that her love for her art is more than her love for him , at one point in life she almost gives it up for him. Interspersed with her story and in the background is the changing political scenario of China, which in itself is quite interesting.

Verdict – If you can put yourself through the first half which I found a little dry and dragging, the other half will more than compensate for it. You are sure to gain new respect for a true artist. Do get a copy if art and biographies interest you.

‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe’ by Fannie Flagg

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fried tomatoes

“Evelyn Couch had come to Rose Terrace with her husband, Ed, who was visiting his mother, Big Momma, a recent but reluctant arrival. Evelyn had just escaped them both and had gone into the visitor’s lounge in the back, where she could enjoy her candy bar in peace and quiet. But the moment she sat down, the old woman beside her began to talk….”

Thus starts the weekly conversations that slowly grows into something much deeper, between Evelyn and Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, the eighty six year old resident of the nursing home. Evelyn is at a bewildered stage in her life, where she has clearly played all the rules set for her by her mother and then later by her husband and possibly her children as well. She is now confused as to where the rewards are, forget about the world around her, she cannot understand even her immediate family…

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‘Ex Libris : Confessions of a Common Reader’ by Anne Fadiman

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ex libris
Don’t be fooled by the title, the author is no common reader. Daughter of well known American author, editor and radio and TV personality Clifton Fadiman and screen writer and world war II journalist Annalee Jacoby Fadiman, it is but natural that Anne Fadiman grew up breathing books and words. One of the most delightful books that I have read in the recent past, this is ‘a collection of 18 essays written over a period of four years.’

When you have a father who has written books like ‘Wally the Wordworm‘, ‘Reading I’ve liked‘, and edited the likes of ‘The World Treasury of Children’s Literature’, ‘The World of the Short Story:A Twentieth Century Collection‘ and so on, how can one not fall in love with books? And the cherry on the pie is getting married to another bibliophile, and together accumulating books,


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‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng

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A friend commented that the author’s name sounded like a ring tone, probably alluding to the musical sound of the name. Well then, it is only poetic justice that the tale told by the author wafts into your soul like the faintest notes of a soulful melody that is sad and serene at the same time, making you smile, albeit with tears running down your cheeks.

The story starts with the retired Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh returning to the gardens of Yugiri in the Cameron Highlands after thirty four years. It moves back and forth between the present and the past, at times like a sweet gurgling stream, then an angry downpour that threatens to shake and destroy your very roots, again turning into a serene breeze that makes you close your eyes and smell the mountains around you and at other times like a lake that lays…

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Review – Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

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Michael Ondaatje is an author who has intimidated me for a long time, after trying to read ‘The English Patient’ years ago. Somehow, brooding and dark is what I have always thought about him. The feeling has been reiterated after reading his ‘Anil’s Ghost’

Anil Tissare, a forensic pathologist of Sri Lankan origin comes back to her homeland after fifteen years, as a delegate of UN Human Rights commission. Sarath Diyasena, an archeaologist is assigned to help in her investigations of mass murders by the Sri Lankan government. They discover four skeletons in a government protected sanctuary and realize that one of them is just about four to five years old. The story is their search to reconstruct the person that he was. In the process, Anil and Sarath wanders in and out through their past, trying to slay the personal ghosts that haunt them.

The details of a civil…

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‘the end of your life book club’ by Will Schwalbe

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end of lifeWhat would you ask your mother while you are keeping her company in a hospital waiting room, and knowing that she has only a few months left to live? Like any other normal son who loves his mother deeply but doesn’t know how to express it much, Will Schwalbe asks an apparently awkward and one of the most casual questions that anyone can ask, “What are you reading?” Thus starts a journey that the mother and son embarks on for the newt two years.

Mary Anne Schwalbe, the founding director of Women’s Refugee Commission and a former admissions director at Harvard and Radcliffe among other positions that she has held, is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer at seventy three. Her son Will Schwalbe, the author, accompanies her on the numerous visits to the oncologists and chemotherapy sessions at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. What started as…

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‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’ by Mario Vargas Llosa

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aunt julia

Off late, I am discovering a universe of words outside the English speaking world. I have crossed seas and time to a Nazi Germany (The Book Thief), a war torn Nigeria (‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and ‘The Purple Hibiscus’) and 13th century Persia of Sufis(‘The Forty Rules of Love‘). The latest was to a time before Television in a far away place in South America. This one was again an ‘on the spur of the moment’ pick. The ‘New Statesman’ review on the back cover was what did it in for me:

“A comic novel on the grand scale, written with tremendous confidence and verve. Mario , 18-year old law student and radio news-editor, falls scandalously for his Aunt Julia, the 32 -year old divorced wife of a cousin, and the progressively lunatic story of this affair is interwoven with episodes…

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‘The Forty Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak

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Rumi caught me, yet again.

Have you ever had the feeling that when you love someone or something deeply, somehow they seem to drift into your life as if by chance? Then it is upto you whether to grab that chance or hesitate and hold back. Its been less than a year since I came to know about Rumi and his poems. First couplet of his and I was hooked. I was a bit confused though when I saw some of his poems attributed to Shams of Tabriz. There were allusions to the relationship between Rumi and his beloved in an earlier, disappointing book that I picked up just because it said, a study on poems by Rumi. Elif Shafak has given me all the answers in ‘The Forty Rules of Love”.

It was the picture of a woman lost in her thoughts, wandering along a beach that first caught…

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‘Abandon’ by Pico Iyer

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“An Englishman in California studying Sufism, and in particular Rumi”, so says the back cover on who the protagonist is. Having discovered Rumi rather late in life and getting drunk on him ever since, the pull was too strong to resist and back it came with me from the last trip to the library.

The story starts with John Macmillan in Damascus meeting up with an enigmatic old professor, Khalil and ending up carrying a gift back for his friend. Originally from London, he seems to be running away from his life and love and moving towards something that neither he nor the reader can make sense of, at least in the beginning. His trip to dleiver Khalil’s gift brings Camilla Jensen to his life, who gets intricately entangled with him. The story goes in and out of their unusual meetings with each other. In between are the encounters with…

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Review – The Book Thief

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Sometimes you hear about a book through a friend or a review and buy it, other times you like the author and pick up a book of theirs, yet other times you randomly find it on the library shelf. Then there are times where I like to believe the book finds you. This is the second time that has happened. The first book was ‘Theo’s Odyssey’, and now this. I had no intention of buying a book as I walked into the office food court, got a cup of tea, and was aimlessly wandering around and as usual, the feet went in automatically into the book shop, the fingers started caressing the shelves filled with books of all kinds and suddenly the eyes caught a catchy title – ‘The Book Thief’. Turned around and here is what I found


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