Thursday, 20 March 2014

Book 8 Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

My 8th book this year is the novel ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri. This novel is Lahiri almost at her best; full of cross cultural observations, complicated relationships, families who don’t always like each other and lots of beautiful descriptive language. The novel is ostensibly about two brothers from Calcutta and the divergent paths their lives take. But at its core, it is a novel about the complexities of families. The Lowland was Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Price and was a National Book Award Finalist, and is certainly worth all of those honours. If you are after a light and happy novel, this is not the book for you. But if you want to be challenged, to look at the complexities of families in a different way and learn a little of Calcutta's past and the ill fated Naxalite movement, The Lowland will do all that and more.

The cover of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

A little context to start; The Lowland is not a novel about India.
It is a novel about families. And about how screwed up people are. (Aren’t I erudite!).
The stereotype of 'Indian' books is that they are full of beautiful colour, descriptions of busy families, and descriptions of food so real, you head straight to your local Indian restaurant for some takeaway. This is not that book. The Lowland is a book of cold, strained relationships, of emotions buried, a lifetime worth things unsaid and of distance. This is a novel about universal issues.

Indeed one of the strongest themes that comes through in the novel is distance, both emotional and physical. From a very young age there is a great difference between the personalities of the measured and thoughtful protagonist, Subhash, and his brother, the impulsive and boundary pushing Udayan. This difference between them only increases as Udayan starts receding into the murky world of the Naxalite movement and Subhash moves to The United States to pursue his studies. Although the novel is about two brothers, the majority of the novel is spent with the brothers separated, and mostly follows the life of Subhash and his life in America.

The Good Bits:
The Lowland is interesting and quick to read. This is not normally something worth mentioning as an especially 'Good Bit' but I'll allow it on this occasion. The novel deals with the nature of relationships, of marriage, of duty, of truth and love, and is often as bleak as a Subhash's beloved Rhode Island beach in winter. Despite this, I never found it a slow or uninteresting read, and I powered through it in no time at all.

Lahiri's novels always include enlightening commentary on the experience of Indian migrants and observations on the changes between old and new, post-colonial India. The Lowland is no exception to this. The experiences of Subhash and his wife in America highlight some of the challenges faced by the members of the Indian diaspora to the West. 

The Not so Good Bits:
The Lowland was very truthful in its portrayal of characters. And just as in life and in families, there are characters you don't like very much. Gauri, (I won't explain who she is to avoid spoilers) and the boys' mother, are both complex characters burdened by their pasts. But for me, they were unlikeable enough not to absolutely love this novel.

Discussing the novel on Twitter with one of my fellow book lovers, she mentioned something about The Lowland:

Hochu hit the nail on the head with this one and perfectly encapsulated my feelings on The Lowland. It isn't a book that you will spend days thinking about the characters after you have finished, and perhaps this is why it didn't win the Man Booker Prize. It is emotionally taxing, and the resentments, anger and unresolvable issues that the characters face result in a novel without simple answers or happy conclusions. It is still a brilliant novel, but ultimately I prefer The Namesake and The Interpreter of The Maldives by Lahiri.

4 out of 5

The Next Book:
The next book is The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, by Wendy Jones.

Want more?

Yes, you beady eyed loyal readers, this is a new section!

 If you liked this novel, or want something similar to The Lowland try these novels: 

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, And the Mountains Echoes Khaled Hosseini, The White Tiger Aravind Adiga

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Second Hand Bookstores- A Visit to Elizabeth's Bookshop

Breaking from my tradition of reviewing books on All Booked Up 2014, I thought I would do a BONUS! review of a bookstore and share some photos from my visit to the lovely Elizabeth's Bookshop on Pitt Street in Sydney, Australia.

If you have never visited before, Elizabeth's Bookshop is a quirky, second-hand bookstore full of unexpected books, hilarious recommendations and lots of surprise finds.


Wooden ladders, floor to ceiling bookshelves... bliss

Some interesting book placement


They also had a super cool 'Blind Date With a Book" section. This is a brilliant idea, and a great way to get people to read more. And they are wrapped charmingly in brown paper and tied up with string (Julie Andrews eat your heart out)
I Got one myself,

which ended up being, 'On the Ropes' by Tom Schrek, a novel I would have never heard of or bought if I didn't wander into Elizabeth's Bookshop that day. Elizabeth's Bookshop also allow you return the book if you have already read it, so win-win for everyone!

The staff were friendly and very knowledgeable- the man serving me on the day I visited was just the right ratio of hipster to booklover- and it is a great place to visit to loose yourself and find a great read.

Elizabeth's Bookshop is charming, and exactly what a bookshop should be. Carrying on with my usual rating at the end of the blog post, Elizabeth's gets
5 out of 5 stars.

 For those of you who remember- I started my blog by waxing lyrical about my Kindle. But what my challenge of reading 52 books this year has taught me, is to appreciate the printed book. I have remembered how much I love browsing through old bookshops. I still appreciate my Kindle, especially when reading huge novels like The Goldfinch or The Luminaries (do all big books have to start with 'The'?), but I am also now growing to love real books and bookshops again. Thanks to Elizabeth's Bookshop for reminding me how great bookshops can be!

Elizabeth's Bookshop has its own Facebook, Twitter and Website if you would like to find out more. Elizabeth's also has other bookshops across Australia.

If you live nowhere near Sydney Australia go visit your own local second hand bookshop, take the time to explore and support someone other than amazon.


Book 7 Review: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

"I was so twitchy with suspense at one point in the novel I Googled 'Who Killed Amy, Gone Girl'. Those who have read the novel feel free to laugh at me now."

My 7th book this year was the Novel ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. This is a novel full of suspense, a mix of who-done-it and fantastically flawed characters. I try and make all my reviews spoiler-free, and this novel is extremely hard to review without giving away the major plot twists and turns. But I promise this will be as spoiler free as possible. 
I enjoyed reading the book, but I discovered while reading this that I have a zero ability to cope with suspense, and this book is certainly full of it. As a reader you have no idea of how the story will resolve itself, or indeed if the complicated lives of its characters can ever be resolved happily.


Gone Girl book cover

The novel follows lovely married couple Nick and Amy as they celebrate their  5th wedding anniversary. Nick leaves for work and by the end of the day Amy is missing and as a reader you are strapped in for a ride that doesn’t stop until about 2 days after you have finished reading and mentally processing this novel. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Nick and Amy as right from the get-go you start to realise that their relationship is not all roses and sunshine. We follow Nick as he struggles to piece together his wife’s disappearance, and as the evidence slowly begins to stack up against him.
I am certainly feeling the pressure to make this a good review because Gone Girl is definitely the book of the moment. It is a huge bestseller and is soon to be made into a movie with Ben Affleck. It has been the first time that I have been tempted to read other reviews before writing my own, simply to find a way to review this book without giving it all away.



As a reader, I was shocked when I found that both Nick and Amy were not reliable narrators. I was used to a nice, straightforward relationship between a reader and a main character. As a reader of a novel written in first person I always go in with the naïve assumption that the narrator and I have an open relationship. It is apparently not the case in this novel and I was a little bit shocked. I suppose it wouldn’t be a very good suspense novel without some suspense and plot twists and turns (fancy that!) and sure enough Flynn delivers on both fronts. If you are feeling a little outraged that I gave this away, don't worry, it is one of the smallest plot twists, a mere wrinkle in the  fabric of the novel.
My scribbles as I tried to figure out how to review Gone Girl
The Good Bits
Flynn's writing is sharp, darkly humorous and she gets the voices of Nick and Amy spot-on. Nick constantly struggles to portray himself as a grieving husband, when the reality of his relationship with his missing wife is far from straightforward. You literally groan as Nick smiles automatically to a mob of media cameras instead of breaking down in tears as one would expect a worried husband to do. You feel just as tied up as Nick and Amy are in their complicated lives, so convincing is Flynn's writing. This makes it even more shocking when you realise that they are not the most reliable narrators.
Gone Girl also delves into some interesting commentary on how the Media reports on missing women. Families, Husbands, Friends and Neighbours are all expected to conform to their roles, to grieve publically and properly, to swear to find their missing loved one, to cry and sob for the flashing bulbs and watching lenses. The power of public opinion and the media mob once someone does not play their role properly is made fully apparent in this Novel, and will make anyone question their own perceptions when reading about or watching real life cases of disappearances or murders. The current media commentary on the Oscar Pistorius trial is tinged with the exact same themes raised by Flynn in Gone Girl. Listening to daytime TV hosts talk about how he definitely did/didn't murder his girlfriend makes you realise that Flynn's observations on the media coverage of missing/murdered women are spot on.
The Not So Good Bits
I was uneasy, tense and on edge when reading this book. Which I imagine is precisely how Flynn wants her readers to feel, but something I am not used to as I have not read a triller in a long time. This year is about reading outside my comfort zone and this book certainly booted me out. I was so twitchy with suspense at one point  early on in the novel I Googled 'Who Killed Amy, Gone Girl'. Those who have read the novel feel free to laugh at me now.
The Rating
4 out of 5 missing wives
The Next Book
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, a novel about two brothers growing up in India in the 1970's, a time a great political turbulence for India.
If anyone wants to read a much more intelligent review of Gone Girl that delves deeper into the concepts of identity, gender roles and reality read the Piratess's Tumblr post about Gone Girl. Piratess is 'the cool girl' without even trying.