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Book Nook - 02-04-2018

Monday, April 02, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Love And Loneliness In Alaska

The title of Kristin Hannah's new novel comes from a 1907 poem by Robert Service called The Shooting of Dan McGrew, which has these lines:
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear, And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear?

The Great Alone is set amidst the splendid beauty and bleak winters of Alaska. Those who go there to get away from civilisation are bewitched by it. If they are able to survive one bitter winter with the eighteen hours of darkness, they invariably stay on.

Hannah, whose last book, The Nightingale, was a bestseller, was inspired by her own family’s history for this novel. In the 1980s, her parents established the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, which is still operating. So when she writes about the isolation of vast snow-bound landscapes, she can find the right words and emotions.

The story opens in 1974 when a mentally damaged army veteran, Ernt Allbright inherits a cabin and some land an Alaska, from Bo, an army mate, who was killed in Vietnam. Ernt's restlessness, alcoholism, violent rages and inability to hold on to a job have already dragged his long-suffering wife Cora and daughter Leni from one place to another. To make up for uprooting them yet again, he promises that this time they will settle down for good on their own homestead.

It does not matter to him that neither he nor his wife have any skills to survive the tough conditions in Alaska. When he tells Cora to think of, “A house that’s ours. That we own. In a place where we can be self-sufficient, grow our vegetables, hunt our meat, and be free,” he has no idea of what they are in for.

The cabin is decrepit shack, without electricity, running water or telephone; there is no police station in the tiny peninsular settlement, and the nearest neighbour is too far to call for help. They don't know that they will have to grow their own vegetables and hunt for meat, or that they will have to stock firewood and food for the long, dark winter, or risk starving and freezing to death. If it weren't for the incredibly helpful townsfolk, the Allbrights would be totally lost.

Still, in this harsh land, Cora and Leni find unconditional friendship and a sense of community. Unfortunately,  Ernt befriends Bo’s father, Crazy Earl, who shares his love for booze and nutty conspiracy theories;  the already unhinged man goes dangerously berserk. His relationship with Cora is described by Leni as “toxic.”

Cora puts up with savage beatings because she takes it as a sign of her husband's love. Also, having broken off with her well off parents who disapproved of Ernt, she has no one to turn to, except the generous neighbour and provision store owner, Large Marge.

Leni finds love in the form of Matthew, whose father Tom Walker is wealthy and wants to develop the town into a tourist spot. This enraged Ernt, whose destructive streak, pushes his family to the brink of tragedy.

Hannah goes from the epic to the mundane by the end of the book, but by then the reader is so invested in the characters’ fates that it doesn't matter. Alaska is the star and driving force behind the fascinating novel.

The Great Alone
By Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St Martin's
Pages: 440

Excerpt of The Great Alone
That spring, rain fell in great sweeping gusts that rattled the rooftops. Water found its way into the smallest cracks and undermined the sturdiest foundations. Chunks of land that had been steady for generations fell like slag heaps on the roads below, taking houses and cars and swim- ming pools down with them. Trees fell over, crashed into power lines; electricity was lost. Rivers flooded their banks, washed across yards, ruined homes. People who loved each other snapped and fights erupted as the water rose and the rain continued.

Leni felt edgy, too. She was the new girl at school, just a face in the crowd; a girl with long hair, parted in the middle, who had no friends and walked to school alone.

Now she sat on her bed, with her skinny legs drawn up to her flat chest, a dog-eared paperback copy of Watership Down open beside her. Through the thin walls of the rambler, she heard her mother say, Ernt, baby, please don’t. Listen . . . and her father’s angry leave me the hell alone.
They were at it again. Arguing. Shouting.

Soon there would be crying.

Weather like this brought out the darkness in her father.

Leni glanced at the clock by her bed. If she didn’t leave right now, she was going to be late for school, and the only thing worse than being the new girl in junior high was drawing attention to yourself. She had learned this fact the hard way; in the last four years, she’d gone to five schools. Not once had she found a way to truly fit in, but she remained stubbornly hopeful. She took a deep breath, unfolded, and slid off the twin bed. Moving cautiously through her bare room, she went down the hall, paused at the kitchen doorway.

“Damn it, Cora,” Dad said. “You know how hard it is on me.”

Mama took a step toward him, reached out. “You need help, baby. It’s not your fault. The nightmares—”

Leni cleared her throat to get their attention. “Hey,” she said.

Dad saw her and took a step back from Mama. Leni saw how tired he looked, how defeated.

“I—I have to go to school,” Leni said.

Mama reached into the breast pocket of her pink waitress uniform and pulled out her cigarettes. She looked tired; she’d worked the late shift last night and had the lunch shift today. “You go on, Leni. You don’t want to be late.” Her voice was calm and soft, as delicate as she was.

Leni was afraid to stay and afraid to leave. It was strange—stupid, even—but she often felt like the only adult in her family, as if she were the ballast that kept the creaky Allbright boat on an even keel. Mama was engaged in a continual quest to “find” herself. In the past few years, she’d tried EST and the human potential movement, spiritual training, Unitarianism. Even Buddhism. She’d cycled through them all, cherry-picked pieces and bits. Mostly, Leni thought, Mama had come away with T-shirts and sayings. Things like, What is, is, and what isn’t, isn’t. None of it seemed to amount to much.

“Go,” Dad said.

Leni grabbed her backpack from the chair by the kitchen table and headed for the front door. As it slammed shut behind her, she heard them start up again.

Damn it, Cora— Please, Ernt, just listen— It hadn’t always been this way. At least that’s what Mama said. Before the war, they’d been happy, back when they’d lived in a trailer park in Kent and Dad had had a good job as a mechanic and Mama laughed all of the time and danced to “Piece of My Heart” while she made dinner. (Mama dancing was really all Leni remembered about those years.)

Then Dad got drafted and went off to Vietnam and got shot down and captured. Without him, Mama fell apart; that was when Leni first understood her mother’s fragility. They drifted for a while, she and Mama, moved from job to job and town to town until they finally found a home in a commune in Oregon. There, they tended beehives and made lavender sachets to sell at the farmers’ market and protested the war. Mama changed her personality just enough to fit in.

When Dad had finally come home, Leni barely recognized him. The handsome, laughing man of her memory had become moody, quick to anger, and distant. He hated everything about the commune, it seemed, and so they moved. Then they moved again. And again. Nothing ever worked out the way he wanted.

He couldn’t sleep and couldn’t keep a job, even though Mama swore he was the best mechanic ever.

That was what he and Mama were fighting about this morning: Dad getting fired again.

ALSO RECEIVED
Eminent designer Wendell Rodricks has written a heartfelt book about an aspect of his native Goa, that is a well-kept secret, illustrated with Mario Miranda's evocative drawings. Says the synopsis, “Goans are presently experiencing the last generation of Poskim— young children taken in by wealthy families and retained most often as servants. In a narrative that spans Portuguese Goa to post the liberation of India’s golden state, Poskem: Goans in the Shadows takes the reader to locales from Bombay to Lyon, Pune to Paris and into the world of the Poskim people and Goan recipes. Through happiness and hope, despair and delusion, Rodricks writes of an unspoken, unheard of and shamefully silenced world of the last generation of a people that would soon be forgotten but for this book preserving their story for posterity.”

Poskem: Goans In The Shadows
By Wendell Rodricks
Publisher : Om Books
Pages: 187

The inspiring story of chef Vikas Khanna is told with warmth and understanding. According to the summary, “A young boy in Amritsar learns to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen while doing sewa at the legendary kitchens of the Golden Temple. He works as a delivery boy for his father’s video cassette library, makes blankets, cooks at weddings and opens a catering business in the back of his house at the age of seventeen.The boy, now a young chef, makes a journey of a lifetime to New York, only to face stiffer challenges—that of being homeless and facing discrimination almost every single day. Buried he may have been, under failure and hopelessness, but nothing could keep him down, for he had the power of passion and perseverance and the strength of skill and self-belief. He rose and how! This inspirational and page-turning account of the transformational journey of India’s most celebrated chef, Vikas Khanna, is a priceless gift—a gift of hope and fulfilling one’s dreams—for you and for everyone you love.”

Buried Seeds: A Chef’s Journey
By : Karan Bellani
Publisher: Wisdom Tree
Pages: 188

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