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Book Nook - 19-09-2016

Monday, September 19, 2016
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.

Ghosts In A Canvas
This is something you can’t imagine in Mumbai—an apartment lying vacant for decades, without anyone trying to break in or squat.  Just such a place is at the centre of Karen Swan’s new bestseller, The Paris Secret.

Flora Sykes is a fine arts agent, working with large firm or art dealers; she enjoys her work, travelling all over the world, attending auctions, picking up paintings for clients. Suddenly her boss Angus and she are summoned to Paris by their wealthy clients, Lillian and Jacques Vermeil.

They received a mysterious communication informing them that the family owns an apartment in Paris, that they did not know of, and, according to a will, were not to enter the flat till the death of Jacques’s mother—the matriarch who lives in Antibes and ferociously guards the family’s past. But the apartment was broken into, and they need someone to check what is in there, without contravening the condition of the codicil.

Flora and Angus go to the apartment and find a treasure trove of classic art works by the great masters, believed to be lost during World War II.  Exciting as the discovery is, it has to be kept a secret, till the canvases and artifacts can be catalogued and their provenance established.

This is where Flora hits a block, because several paintings are traces back to an art dealer who worked for the Nazis during the War, which means they were probably stolen or extorted from Jewish families in distress. As Flora painstakingly solves the mystery, that involves the Vermeil family, she is also facing a family crisis involving her beloved brother Freddie.

To add to her stress she has to deal with the two obnoxious Vermeil brats, Xavier and Natascha. They are spoiled and cause scandals in their circle on a regular basis. Since it is a given that the workaholic heroine will fall for the bad boy, there is a romance thrown in half-heartedly, and a short-lived triangle as Flora dates a Vienna-based businessman, Noah Haas, who might have some details of a Renoir in the hidden collection. But for the reader, the story of the abandoned apartment and the paintings is of more interest.

Swan keeps the tone light, even though the story gets dark and intense at a point, when it brings in questions of ethics, honesty and loyalty. It is an easy, mostly appealing read, and Flora makes for a likeable heroine—scrupulous but not goody-two-shoes; strong, but not inflexible. The men in the book are not half as interesting.

The Paris Secret
By: Karen Swan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 352

Excerpt of The Paris Secret
Summertime had England in its grip. The heatwave baking the Continent had finally hit British shores and the nation was revelling in its signature jubilant mood that was always unzipped any time the mercury nudged the thirties – deckchairs dotted the parks, freckles multiplied, children played in fountains and residential streets reverberated to the slap of flip-flops on bare feet.

Not that Flora Sykes could see or hear any of this. Her parents’ back garden – eight acres in the Wiltshire countryside – was bordered by high beech hedges and carpeted in camomile lawns, and she had been blissfully face down and unconscious on the lounger by the pool since arriving, a cool three hours after she’d stepped off the plane. Her big brother Freddie was still nowhere to be seen, sleeping like a student; her father was on the golf course; and her mother, swatting away Flora’s half-hearted, exhausted offers to help, was efficiently plunging langoustines into boiling water, apparently unmoved by the creatures’ Nemo-like attempts to escape by wriggling the plastic bags they were held in across the worktops.

Flora had intended to read. One of her New Year’s resolutions involving working less and playing more had been to read everything on last year’s Man Booker longlist, but by March that had been amended to reading the shortlist and now she would just be grateful to get through this first book that she’d bought in January and was still only a third of the way through. The problem was adrenalin. Her life was ruled by it – long, intense, work-around-the-clock bursts, followed by crashes into oblivion – and it left precious little time or energy for pastimes like reading.

This week had been a case in point. She had woken up in Palm Beach on Monday, Chicago on Wednesday, and had squeezed in a meeting and drinks party in Manhattan yesterday, before darting to JFK in her cocktail dress for the red-eye to Heathrow.

‘Cup of tea, darling?’ Her mother’s voice, distant, sounded in her ear. She heard the chink of china on limestone. ‘And you need to put some more lotion on. Your shoulders are beginning to go pink.’

A warm hand touched her skin, testing across her shoulders for proof. Flora raised her head, a cloud of butter-blonde hair falling over her face. ‘Huh?’ she groaned.

‘Oh, darling, I worry about you. All this jet lag plays havoc with your system.’

Flora flipped her hair back and tried to push up into a sitting position. Her mother was swinging her legs onto the lounger next to her, a copy of The Lady on her lap and a matching tea in her hands. Her straw hat threw shade over a face that was still beautiful, even in her late fifties.

Flora fiddled with the straps of her Liberty-print cotton bikini – not great for swimming in but she had no intention of getting wet; well, assuming Freddie didn’t chuck her in – and reached for the tea. The steam pinked her already sleep-flushed face as she drowsily watched the electric-blue dragonflies skimming the water’s surface, swallows swooping in the clear skies above.

‘You work too hard. It’s not good for you.’

‘I know but I can’t step back at the moment. I need to keep bringing in new clients – it’s what Angus hired me for. I can relax a bit come Christmas.’

‘Christmas? Darling, you’ll be long dead by then. It’s only August. Frankly, I’m worried you won’t see out the day.’

‘Well, of course you are, you’re always worried. You’d worry about not having anything to worry about,’ Flora smiled. ‘When’s Daddy getting back?’

Her mother glanced across, eyebrows hitched and a sceptical expression in her blue eyes. ‘I said lunch was twelve-thirty – so one.’

‘And when is lunch?’

‘Two.’

Flora chuckled. Her father’s tardiness was legendary. He had been late to his own wedding (burst tyre on the Aston), the hospital when Freddie was born (traffic in Mayfair), the hospital when she was born (the dog got lost in Hyde Park and the ambulance couldn’t wait) and his brother’s funeral (the high street closed for the farmers’ market in Marlborough). The only things he had never, ever been late for – not once in forty years – were his auctions. He had been chief auctioneer at Christie’s throughout the late eighties until fairly recently when he’d retired; the auctions were known as lively, rambunctious affairs more akin to shooting parties and he had been feted for his witty commentaries which whipped up both mood and appetite and meant that, more often than not, he brought the hammer down on record prices.

But lunch, they all knew, could wait. No doubt he would still be hacking divots into the sixteenth green at twelve-thirty, in spite of his very best intentions to obey his adored wife.

‘Freddie’s sleeping late,’ Flora observed, catching sight of the time as she sipped her tea. It was twelve-fifteen already, although her body was telling her it was dawn.

‘. . . Yes. He is.’

Flora tipped her head back against the teak and looked across at her mother. ‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Mummy, I know that tone. What is it?’

Her mother glanced over but Flora could tell she didn’t really see her. ‘He’s very thin.’

‘He’s always thin.’

‘Well, he’s lost a lot of weight then. I don’t think he’s eating properly.’

‘I can almost guarantee it,’ Flora said with a groan, extending a leg to examine her pedicure. Three weeks in and it was holding up well. ‘This is the man who uses the possibility of scurvy as justification for buying multi-packs of Frazzles, remember.’

But her mother didn’t laugh as she looked over the stretch of springy lawns. ‘I think something’s wrong.’


Ghosts In A Canvas
As the interest in food is increasing in India, more and more writers are coming out with cookery books, and many of them are bestsellers. Anoothi Vishal has written a noteworthy book about the cuisine of the small but prosperous Kayath community, with her formidable grandmother at its centre--Mrs. LC's Table: Stories About Kayasth Food and Culture.

According to the synopsis, “A lively exploration of the rich tapestry of the Kayasth foodscape through an intimate portrait of a family’s – and a community’s – social mores Known as much for the lavishness of its dining table spreads as for its intellectual and cultural capital, the Kayasth community – spread over many parts of India – has a unique history that has over centuries influenced its widely varied and delectable cuisine. It is this story that Anoothi Vishal weaves in Mrs. LC’s Table, an inventive and delightful food narrative that combines her memories of her imperious grandmother – 'Mrs. LC' to the world – and her impeccable gourmet sensibilities with endearing tales of feasts and fasts, weddings and charming musical soirees – all accompanied by generously served meals. In accompaniment are 20 recipes that speak to the incredible variety and stunning adaptability of Kayasth communities in different corners of the country, who as bureaucrats in Mughal courts and the British administration alike assimilated elite Muslim manners, culture and food into their universe as easily as they did the Westernized ways of the colonial rulers while retaining the essence of their own caste and religion. In essence the story of the Kayasths is the story of an older Hindustan, one which we are slowly forgetting, as liberal, creative spaces get squeezed out in an increasingly schizoid world – connected on the surface but deeply parochial within.”

Mrs. LC's Table: Stories About Kayasth Food and Culture
By Anoothi Vishal
Published by Hachette
Pages: 236

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