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Book Nook - 09-04-2018

Monday, April 09, 2018

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 [email protected]

Bogota And The Beast
At the centre of Colombian author Melba Escobar’s novel, House Of Beauty (her first book to be translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer) is a beauty parlour in Bogota, where Karen works.

She has come to the capital after an unfortunate affair that left her with an illegitimate son. She works long hours at an upmarket beauty salon, run by a stern owner, and sends money to her mother, who looks after the child. She hopes to save enough to get an apartment and bring her son to live with her.  She puts up with the snobbery of rich socialites and the unasked for confidences of the unhappy clients, hiding the tips she gets under her mattress. It’s a struggle to survive in the crime-ridden city, in which women—especially non-white-- are exploited with impunity. Karen herself is robbed and raped by her vicious landlord and she cannot do anything; enduring the trauma is preferable to going to the police.

One day, a young girl called Sabrina Guzman comes to Karen for a beauty treatment and tells her that she has intimate date with her boyfriend. Later the girl is found brutally murdered, and the cops cover up the crime, calling it suicide by an overdose of drugs. Sabrina’s grief-stricken mother, however, refuses to give up and probes the murder herself, with the help of a private detective. Karen was the last to see Sabrina alive, and knows the name of the man she was going to meet.

The book has a disjointed narrative; Karen’s story is interspersed with the observations of Claire Dalvard, a French woman who grew up in Columbia and returns there after her divorce to practice as a psychoanalyst. She is fascinated by Karen’s skill and her beauty, and nudges her story out of her. Then there is the point of view of Clarie’s friend, the astonishingly subservient Lucia Estrada, who writes popular self-help books and lets her husband publish them under his name.

Karen is lured into prostitution by a workmate, and unwittingly walks into a trap that tightens around her. There is a scam afoot that involves a politician, gangsters and the unfaithful creep who made a fortune from his wife’s writing.

Escobar writes about Columbian society from stifling small town shacks to lavish city mansions, and is quite upfront about the racism, crime and corruption in her country. (The situation is not too different in India). Her descriptions are so vivid that the reader can visualize the rushed, heartless city and smell the stench of packed buses and human degradation, even though the translation is often flat and the dialogue stilted.

Perhaps because Escobar wants to portray the injustice that the poor have to suffer when the rich are in control, the ending is too contrived; still, the book has turned out to be an international bestseller.
House Of Beauty
By Melba Escobar
Published by: 4th Estate
Pages: 256

Excerpt of House Of Beauty
I hate artificial nails in outlandish colors, fake-blonde hair, cool silk blouses, and diamond earrings at four in the afternoon. Never before have so many women looked like transvestites, or like prostitutes dressing up as good wives.

I hate the perfume they drench themselves in, these woman as powdered as cockroaches in a bakery; what’s worse, it makes me sneeze. And don’t get me started on their accessories—those smartphones swaddled in infantile cases, in colors like fuchsia and covered with sequins, imitation gemstones, and ridiculous designs. I hate everything these waxed-eyebrowed, non-biodegradable women represent. I hate their shrill, affected voices; they’re like four-year-old dolls, little drug-dealer hussies bottled into female bodies as erect as men. It’s very confusing; these macho-girl-women disturb me, overwhelm me, force me to dwell on all that’s broken and ruined in a country like this, where a woman’s worth is determined by how ample her buttocks and breasts are, how slender her waist. I also hate the stunted men, reduced to primitive versions of themselves, always looking for a female to mount, to exhibit like a trophy, to trade in, or show off as a status symbol among fellow Neanderthals. But just as I hate this mafioso world, which for the past twenty years or so has dominated the tastes and behavior of thugs, politicians, businessmen, and almost anyone who has the slightest connection to power in this country, I also hate the ladies of Bogotá, among whom I count myself, though I try my damnedest to stand apart.

I hate their habit of using the term “Indians” to refer to people they consider to be from a low social class.  I hate the obsessive need to distinguish between the formal usted and informal tú when addressing someone, leaving usted for the servants. I loathe the servility of waiters in the restaurants when they rush to attend to customers, saying “what would you like, sir,” “as you wish, sir,” “on your orders, sir.” I hate so many things in so many ways—things that seem to me unjust, stupid, arbitrary, and cruel, and most of all I hate myself for playing my own part in the status quo.

Mine’s an ordinary story. It’s not worth the trouble of telling in detail. Maybe I should mention that my father was a French immigrant who came to Colombia thanks to a contract to construct a steel mill. My brother and I were born here. Like others of our social class, we grew up here, behaving as if we were foreigners. Wherever we were—our place in the north of Bogotá, or the apartment in Cartagena’s old quarter—we lived our lives surrounded by walls. There were a few summers in Paris, the Rosario Islands once or twice. My life hasn’t been all that different from that of a rich Italian, French, or Spanish woman. I learned to eat fresh lobster as a little girl, to catch sea urchins; by the age of twenty-one I could tell a Bordeaux wine from a Burgundy, play the piano and speak French with no accent, and I was as familiar with the history of the Old Continent as I was unfamiliar with my own.

Security has been an issue for as far back as I can remember. I’m blonde, blue-eyed and five feet seven inches tall, which is getting less exotic nowadays, but when I was a child it was an ace up my sleeve to win the nuns’ affection or to get preferential treatment from my peers. It also attracted attention, and so it made my father paranoid about kidnappings. As luck would have it, we were never targeted. Our money and my peaches-and-cream complexion contributed to my isolation, though lately I’ve started to wonder if I tell myself that to sidestep blame for being an exile in body and soul. No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve always been somewhere else.

At my age, melancholy is part of my inner landscape. Last month I turned fifty-nine. I turn my gaze inward and back on my life far more than I look out to the world around me. Mostly because I’m not interested, and don’t like what I find out there. Maybe they’re the same thing. I suppose my neurosis has something to do with my scathing reading of the here and now, but it’s pretty inevitable. As Octavio Paz would say, this is the “house of glances,” my house of glances, I have no other. I accept my classist nature. I accept, no, more than accept, I embrace my hatreds. Maybe that’s the definition of maturity.

FOR children to read over the vacations is  a classic story of good overcoming evil. Says the summary of Gita: The Battle of the Worlds by Sonal Sachdev Patel and  Jemma Wayne-Kattan, “When eleven-year-old Dev’s father dies, he can’t stop lashing out at those he loves. Until he meets Sanjay, a sprite-like being who claims there is a battle raging inside Dev’s own body. Sanjay embarks on a perilous journey beginning in the darkest realm at the bottom of Dev’s spine. As he searches for the noble warrior Prince Arjun, the only hope to defeat wicked Prince Ego, Sanjay encounters starving mobs, thieving gangs, water worlds and lands of fire, until at last he finds Arjun on the battlefield, ready to fight for Dev. This book takes the epic battle within the Gita and transports it inside the body of a young boy called Dev. A classic story of good overcoming evil, through Dev and Sanjay’s adventure, readers will be able to connect with some of the deeper concepts in the Gita.”
Gita: The Battle of the Worlds
By: Sonal Sachdev Patel & Jemma Wayne-Kattan
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 104
Bilingual Fairy Tales, translated from the original Grimm Brother’s stories (that almost every child must have heard or read), by Dr Sushila Gupta, is a series of books “aimed at helping young readers achieve proficiency in both Hindi and English. These illustrated retellings of popular fairy tales engage children, while building their skills and vocabulary in two languages through the 2-in-1 format. Old favorites enriched with a bilingual flavor make for an immersive reading experience. To start with are:

“The magical story of Cinderella, whose unhappy life is transformed when she meets her fairy godmother!

“The magical story of Little Red Riding Hood, who meets a wicked wolf in the woods, but escapes alive with the help of a kind huntsman! “The magical story of Hansel and Gretel, the brother and sister who have an enchanting adventure in the forest, which turns their bad luck around!”
Bilingual Fairy Tales
Translated by Dr Sushila Gupta
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 32 each

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