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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

imanishiI am quite hard to please when it comes to crime fiction. This is a genre that relies to a great extent on a well-crafted denouement, which is often precisely the let down. Some books, like those by Barbara Vine are redeemed by exceptionally sophisticated plotting and writing, even though the finish does not quite live up to my expectations. So, I do realize that by giving Inspector Imanishi Investigates a five-star rating, I might be setting future readers for disappointment by raising their expectations. But I’ll say with reasonable confidence that if you like crime fiction and/or care for social and cultural commentaries, reading this book will be time well spent.

Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1989) is the English translation of the much more poetically titled Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand) which was first published in 1961. Inspector Imanishi’s investigations certainly bear fruit, but shed no light (to me) on why this work should be titled Vessel of Sand, or what the picture on the book’s cover of a man covering his face with both hands is supposed to signify, and how it is relevant. Apart from these burning questions,  all plot-related intrigue is sufficiently cleared up.

Imanishi Eitaro (Imanishi being his family name) is a conscientious haiku-writing, bonsai-collecting detective trying to solve the mystery of a battered corpse of an unidentified man in a rail yard. His only clue is a half-line of conversation overheard by waitresses working at a nearby bar, that the victim supposedly had with an unidentified potential suspect. With almost nothing to go on, Inspector Imanishi slowly, methodically sets about identifying and capturing the killer. He does too, at the end.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates has an air of elegant simplicity, although its plot is anything but simple. This police procedural has layers upon layers, red herrings and blind alleys aplenty, and yet the richness of plot is intensified by the subtle and understated writing. The translation seems flat, but doesn’t impact the reading negatively, adding to the overall effect of sparseness. I can’t help but wonder whether reading this book in Japanese will have the same effect—I’ll never know.  Imianishi has none of the swagger of Philip Marlowe or the eccentricity of Hercule Poirot. He is just a good detective – deliberate, hardworking, quietly intelligent, though he’s not beyond an occasional miscalculation. He is mostly likeable, even if entirely conventional, and a little brusque (though not unkind) in dealings with his wife, who polishes his shoes, gets his newspaper, and uncomplainingly welcomes him home at the end of long days spent investigating. This is the 1960s after all, and the reader is oft reminded of the post-war, patriarchal setting of the story. Part of the charm is certainly the descriptions of everyday life – the pouring of the green tea over rice for a quick dinner, the Wajima lacquerware obi fasteners that Imanishi gifts his wife, the Kamedake abacus that Imanishi receives in the post, and such.

I am excited to read more by Matsumoto and will look out for Points and Lines and Pro Bono.

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Night Film

night filmNight Film (2014) has  pretty impressive  credentials – New York Times Bestseller! Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, Cosmopolitan, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage. The book lovin’ community also seems to have lapped it up – mostly. So, of course, I wanted to read it. What should have given me pause was that it comes recommended as a “page-turning thriller for readers of” among several others, Gillian Flyn. Remember Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn? The same Gone Girl that won, according to goodreads:

Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award (RT Award) for Suspense/Thriller Novel (2012),Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Best Novel (2012)Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Goodreads Choice for Best Mystery & Thriller (2012)Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2013), and Grand Prix des lectrices de Elle – policier (2013)

Well, I didn’t  care much for it.

So, after investing a few days on the nearly 600-page lumbering tome (only in length) that is Night Film, my reaction was an underwhelming meh.

I haven’t read much noir, and Night Film would certainly fall into that bucket (whether successful or not) so I don’t really have a frame of reference here. But enjoy it, I did not.

The missing center of the book is a mysterious cult horror-film director, a Stanislas Cordova, whose twenty-something daughter, Ashley, jumps to her death. Enter the protagonist, shamed investigative journalist Scott McGrath, the shining examples of whose once-illustrious journalistic history include intriguing titles such as Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas, Crud: Dirty Secrets of the Oil Industry, and Cocaine Carnivals. McGrath sets out to investigate Ashley’s life and death together with unlikely companions, Nora and Hopper, whose motivations are not entirely comprehensible entirely bewildering. Cordova’s eccentricity begins to grate after the first 300 pages, and the themes of black-magic and family-curses only add to the confusion. The conclusion is neither neat nor clever.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the characters – none of them are very likable, but that does not really preclude interesting or good characterization. To me, all the characters fell flat and felt completely phony. I could not buy who they were and what they did. I could not buy the outlandish scenarios they found themselves in. The setting and the people felt bizarre, but not good, noir-like bizarre, but just plain absurd.

Neither did I enjoy the writing. Author Marisha Pessl interjects the meandering writing with plenty of visual aids – webpages of interviews and articles, official reports and plenty of pictures. A great idea in theory, but poorly executed – the news clippings and pictures seem too contrived, and if they are meant to be a satire, they are unsuccessful.

The book goes from promising hype to disappointing beginning, and all too quickly into the territory of Plain Boring (I feel a bit cruel saying this, though). I really tried to like it, but even being a 100-pages shorter, would not have endeared this book to me.

But no long-lasting harm done. Nothing a trusty Mo Willems can’t fix. His Elephant and Piggie  series has been a great hit with my four-year old, and he has leapfrogged explosively into unaided reading.

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purple hibiscus

If you are into that kind of thing, reading can be a habit where fate seems to dictate who, what, where, how, and if you read. Unless you know what you are looking for, what makes your fingers pull out a specific book by an unknown author, from rows of books whose covers have been specifically designed to draw you in, and whose titles have been deliberately chosen to sound intriguing? Would you have picked that very book if it was on a higher shelf? If the cover was a different color?

It is so delightful when a book selected serendipitously  proves an enjoyable read. It does not happen very often.

In the case of Purple Hibiscus (2004), my eyes would’ve likely not strayed to it if the author had a different name. Let me explain. Some time ago, I watched a TED Talk: The danger of a single story by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is a beautiful woman, and I was impressed by how articulate she sounded.

I need no convincing about the importance of diverse stories. As someone who depends on books to convey images of people and places, I am always aware how much is left unrepresented, and how much can never really be represented. No matter how much I read about another part of my own country, I know I will only get a part of the picture, but the real scene, evolving, changing, and complex, will always remain elusive. And so, yes, there is danger in learning your lessons, or forming an opinion based on just one story.

However, as I was listening to Adichie talk, I realized that she was also talking about something very different than what I had in mind. She speaks about visiting her poor domestic help as an eight-year old:

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

While I was thinking more about the danger of a single perspective, Adichie speaks here about the danger of knowing just a single dimension, poverty in this case. I’ll admit I am a little confused. While her talk was extraordinary and powerful, I wasn’t sure how or if this little snippet belonged there. After all, surely people are more complex and have more to them than just ‘rich’, ‘poor’, or ‘can make beautiful raffia baskets’.

While I was pondering about if I had misunderstood what was obviously a very successful talk, doing the rounds on social media sites, I got another chance to raid my neighbor’s bookshelf. My eyes went past the title ‘Purple Hibiscus’ (I don’t generally pick up dreamy titles like that), but went back to the book when my brain registered the author’s name after a second’s delay. While listening to her talk, I had noticed Adichie’s (first?) name Chimamanda, and it stuck because it looked close to ‘Chinmayananda’ (an Indian name), but on closer look was distinctly African.

Adichie might not forgive me for comparing a country and a continent above.

…I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in  “India, Africa, and other countries.

That’s how Adichie’s book came to rest on my own book shelf for a few weeks. I enjoyed the book, and I am glad my book-fate brought us together.

Purple Hibiscus is not the delicate romance its title might imply to some. On the contrary, it deals with themes that are sensitive, disturbing and often unexpected. The story is told in the voice of 15-year old Kambili Achike, who lives a privileged life with her mother, father and older brother. Her father, Eugene, a wealthy, successful and influential businessman, is staunchly Christian, and despises the native “ungodly” traditions of the Igbo people; so much so that he only speaks in Igbo in the frenzy of anger. He does not visit his father who has refused to convert, and worries that his children (Kambili and her brother) might get influenced by their grandfather’s heathen life. Eugene somehow conveys an impression of intelligence, and is undoubtedly compassionate and generous. But he is also fanatically oppressive, brutally violent and abusive, causing Kambili’s mother to have at least two miscarriages.

While one major theme throughout the book is certainly the link between religion and persecution, another important subject is colonial influence and the divide between the traditionalists and the tradition-rejecting, English-speaking Nigerians (like Eugene, only Eugene, in fact), and the general exclusion of ethnic practices.

Purple Hibiscus is also a strange coming of age story, in which Kambili learns to laugh and to cry. Kambili and other brother, Jaja, have a rigidly structured life, and a timetable for every day of the week. Kambili lives her sombre, Christian life unquestioningly, always seeking her father’s approval, always eager to prove her loyalty to him. Every time Eugene bestows an approving smile upon her brother, she wishes she had done what her brother had, and it was her Eugene was pleased with. Kambili loves and admires her father. She is proud of him and secretly terrorized by him.

When Kambili and Jaja stay with Eugene’s aunt and her children for a few days, they are shocked by their aunt’s exuberance and open warmth. Kambili wonders how her aunt “laughs so easily” and realizes that she has never heard herself laugh. As Kambili  slowly emerges out of her cocoon, Jaja rebels openly, but quietly. Life changes for everyone.

I loved Adichie’s writing. It was clean and unfussy, peppered with Igbo phrases that I sometimes looked up. I did smile when Jaja inquires of his grandfather,”Papa-Nnukwu, are you well? How is your body?”. How is your body is a rather peculiar way of asking ‘How is your health?’. Interestingly (to me at least), the Tamil way of talking about health is very similar. We say “odamba pathukko” or “look after your body” to mean “take care of your health”. I noticed another striking similarity when Eugene asks Kambili to do well at school, “Read well”. That’s how we Tamil folks do it too.

I read Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart a lifetime ago and reading this made me want to read Achebe again.

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The Hour Past Midnight
The Hour Past Midnight (2009) is the English translation of Irandaam Jaamathin Kadai, originally published in Tamil . I was unfamiliar with the author, Tamil poet Salma, whose extraordinary life and struggle against subjugation have been chronicled in the eponymous film, Salma, which premiered at the Sundance festival this year. I borrowed the book from a neighbor who has been kind enough to open up her bookshelves to me. I am especially grateful, because this book, which seems to be a gift from the author herself to my neighbor, is apparently out of print. I am fortunate that I got to read a book that I would have otherwise been ignorant about, or would have been unavailable to me in any case.

The Hour Past Midnight is a women-centered novel set in a conservative Muslim business community in rural Tamil Nadu. Most of the men are away in Singapore, Sri Lanka, or even Saudi Arabia, visiting their home town every few years to marry, procreate, or marry again, bringing gold, sweets and imported Lux soaps. The girls are allowed to go to school until they hit puberty, at which point they are forced to stay indoors,  away from the eyes of men who are not family. They also graduate from wearing the traditional blouse and long skirt (paavaadai), to a paavaadai – daavani (a piece of cloth, much like a dupatta, which is draped over the blouse). The girls are now deemed ready for marriage, often to much older men, always arranged, often to maintain kinship or retain property within the  extended family. The daavani now gives way to the saree.

And so the story follows Rabia, Zohra, Rahima, Madina, Amina, Firdaus, Fatima, Nuramma, Khadija, Farida, Saura, Sherifa, Mumtaz, Nafiza, Sainu, Wahida, and a handful of men – their brothers, husbands, and sons, as they participate in the complex rituals of fasting, feasting, and praying in the holy month of Ramzaan. There are young girls, older girls of ‘marriageable’ age, young divorcees, young widows, young wives, young mothers, older mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.  The story follows the younger girls as they try to make sense of the often stifling world they live in, and hesitantly ask often forbidden questions; older girls as the begin to accept the rules of the community, or in some cases decide to flagrantly break them, and older women who perpetuate the subjugation.

The busy narrative weaves the lives of the women together , but the sheer number of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who is who and I often found myself flipping pages to see if Shainu was Mumtaz’s mother-in-law or Madina’s mother. A family tree at the beginning of the story would have been helpful.

Also, a little more detail on the year(s) in which the story is set would have provided more context to it. Salma does repeatedly mention the ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, but since the riots have a long and protracted history, the reader is left uncertain if the year is 1953, 1958, 1977, 1983 or as recent as 2006 (unlikely). The village setting is timeless, and rural life is often unencumbered by technology, and there are little clues in the every day lives of the people.

The story has a Tamil Muslim atmosphere, which is both unique and universal. I think that many can identify with Ismail who…

…knew his mother and Amina [his wife] didn’t get on. Most certainly this was not Amina’s fault but his mother’s. She could not endure it that Amina enjoyed the happiness she herself never experienced.

This bitterness and the resulting feud is neither Tamil nor Muslim, but perhaps Ismail’s realization is especially perceptive.

Some of the practices Salma describes are surprisingly familiar, and being Tamil myself, I can relate to Rabia, whose aunt tells her that…

A girl should not be lying down at lamp-lighting time.

My own mother has rebuked me thus on countless occasions.

The language is peculiar too. The translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, who has considerable experience in translating Tamil fiction into English, has tried to maintain the unique Tamil flavor, which I presume the original is brimming with. For instance, what may seem to some as an awkwardly constructed phase – “lamp-lighting” time, is actually the literal translation of “villaku ethra netram“, which in colloquial Tamil means “the time at which lamps are lit” – at dusk. But sometimes, I wondered if some of the meaning was not quite lost in translation. Take the many times characters begin their dialogue with “that is..”, as in…

That is, I want to ask you something…

That is, how many husbands can a woman have?

That is, I’ve decided to wear a davani from tomorrow…

“That is” is, again, a translation of “adhu vandhu” (I’m guessing), which is used as something of a filler in colloquial Tamil. Though there is no perfect translation, I am unsure if “that is” means anything to the non-Tamil reader. Also, consider this exchange:

“…See if I don’t find the same bridegroom for the two of you and see you both married.” Rahims teased Rabia.

“Go on, Periamma,” said [Rabia], covering her face shyly.

The “go on” here is not an invitation to continue the banter and the teasing. It is a literal translation of “ponga” which is used to politely and playfully ask someone to “just stop it”. Rabia is actually shyly asking her aunt to stop teasing her, and not go on with it. The novel is also peppered with a lot of Tamil words, which I didn’t have to stop to think about, but I can’t say the same for others. The book made me realize the thin line between maintaining the cultural tone and feel, and being unintelligible or even misleading.

I enjoyed the story. I particularly appreciated the characters, whom Salma paints as neither black or white, but a very human grey. Even as she highlights the suffocation that her women experience, some quietly protesting, others welcoming it and even imposing it on their kin, she portrays the community, the lives and marriage as the way they usually are – a mixed bag. Salma also examines how women come to have beliefs, especially those that are generally considered to be repressive, and perpetuate them to posterity.

I recommend the book to fellow Tamils and those interested in regional lives. I wish I get a chance to read the Tamil original.

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Such a Long Journey

 

I am tempted to  summarize my thoughts about Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey with his own words – quite a bit of a journey, but that would both be highly unoriginal and oversimplified, if not completely untrue. There is much that I enjoyed about the book and little that I can honestly kick up a fuss about.

Such a Long Journey (1991) is set in the early 1970s and its characters are overwhelmingly and colorfully Parsi and middle-class. The protagonist, Gustad Noble, is a middle-aged bank employee whose life, if not quite beset by tragedy, has been singularly unsatisfactory. He works hard to achieve respectability despite struggling to manage the needs of his family (a wife and three kids) on his small income. Already embittered by his circumstances, Gustad’s frustrations are aggravated by his eldest son who refuses to join the prestigious IIT and instead elects to pursue a lowly arts degree; by what he perceives as betrayal by one of his closest friends; by his daughter’s persistent sickness which weighs heavily on the family’s finances; by the suffering of his ailing colleague and office clown; and a host of other everyday problems, including his building’s wall being used as an open toilet. There are many, many characters: colleagues, neighbors, friends, community members, some eccentric, some pitiable,  and some mysterious. Although Mistry takes the time to develop Gustad’s character and explore his past, his weaknesses, his thoughts and actions, I felt that he could have delved more deeply into some other (non-minor) characters and their motivations.

Politics, both local and national, provide a backdrop of unrest and disquiet, and Mistry’s characters frequently criticize the Shiv Sena, and the policies of Indira Gandhi and her “car manufacturer” son, RAW (India’s intelligence agency), and deplore the (East-Pakistan) refugee situation and the resulting mandatory refugee tax. Mistry pretends prescience when a vengeful character declares a thinly veiled threat:

I may collect my payment tomorrow, or next year, or after ten years. From whoever is responsible. If it’s the car manufacturer, he will have to pay. Lots of possibilities – his car might explode, for instance. He also likes to fly aeroplanes, so: bhoom, crash, the end…Mummy herself has many enemies. Makes more and more every day, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. Any one of them could do it.

The “car manufacturer” died in air crash in 1980, and “mummy”, of course, was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.

India’s unsuccessful war with China, and its ongoing war with Pakistan are also a frequent topic of office banter. Mistry seems to presume a fair amount of knowledge of the politics of the Indian subcontinent. For those unfamiliar with it, some homework is definitely called for.

Mistry excels at capturing the everyday difficulties of the common man, the dynamics between the various members of the Noble family, as well as their interaction with others, as does he shine at depicting the close-knit Parsi community and its practices. I enjoyed his description of the clinical setting and methods of traditional bonesetters; but had mixed feelings towards the “black magic” that is employed by Noble’s wife  to try to manage their wayward son. While the concept, in an Indian context, is not quite alien to me, I was mildly disturbed by the use of nail clippings and lizard tails to ward off the evil eye.

But for me, the segment that provoked most thought was the debate around the traditional Parsi system of disposing off the dead – The Tower of Silence – a flat open air auditorium with three concentric circles, where dead men, women and children are left to be consumed by vultures, and their bones bleached by the sun. Parsis, traditionally, are averse to cremation, burial, or submergence because they consider fire, land and water to be sacred, and corpses to be unclean. However, the ancient ritual is often incongruous with glamorous luxury high rises. Vultures scattering titbits and body parts on million rupee balconies do nothing to endear the practice to city dwellers. Moreover, traditionally, scavenging birds consumed the body in a matter of hours. With the  dwindling vulture population, this process is often protracted and bodies lie decomposing on the tower, and raising quite a stink. Aviaries to breed vultures, and solar reflectors to accelerate the decomposition notwithstanding, this subject continues to evoke a raging debate between the orthodox, or “vulturists” as Mistry calls them, and the reformists.

Gustad Noble’s is a long journey, from troubled to accepting, from bitter to considerate, and though a tad slow, I found Mistry’s drama to be engaging and rich in details.

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Certifiable and Creepy

 

 

I’ve been good with new, 2-week books this year. I’ve diligently put them on hold as soon as they showed up on the local library’s database and waited patiently for them to become available. Or, I borrowed and read them even when I had eight other books due in five days. This October I really hit the jackpot, when two of the books I was really excited to read became available. I expected the first book, Where’d you go, Bernadette?to be clever, playful and funny. I found the  Maria Semple’s (the author) narrative style to be unique and interesting, at least until Bernadette disappears. I liked it more than I thought I would.

Which is not what I can say for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. After waiting for a couple of months with bated breath, while I won’t say I was disappointed, I found it a bit meh.

The principal characters are definitely deranged, although that hasn’t stopped me from liking a book in the past. I did not enjoy how uneasy the story, especially the ending, made me feel. I am not sure it qualifies as a serious psychological thriller, much less as noir, in the way that I am the Cheese or Silence of the Lambs do. As I was reading the book, I had a feeling that the author was challenging me to hazard a guess as to what would happen next (which was easy, too easy), and that she expected the reader to confidently come up with the wrong answer, at which point she would jump in and say ‘Ah-a!’. But this game didn’t work out very well, and the plot is only moderately clever and somewhat predictable.

I’ll still say I liked the book, and might even recommend it to some as a good book to read on the train.

 

 

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The Marriage Plot wasn’t as unequivocally applauded as Jeffrey Eugenides’ earlier, more popular works, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Luckily, I was spared the mental chore of subconsciously examining The Marriage Plot to see if it lived up to the high expectations set by the others, because, I am ashamed to admit, I don’t remember much about either of his earlier books. I could refresh my memory by reading up a plot synopsis on Wikipedia or some such source, but it wouldn’t help me recollect my uniquely subjective response to them. These lost thoughts are precisely the impetus behind Happy Reading. And Happy Thinking.

I know I enjoyed The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, and was intrigued by the mixed response to The Marriage Plot. It is entirely possible that I was expecting a mediocre to above average reading experience and that might have contributed to how totally enjoyable I found it. Well-constructed, engaging, and a very pleasing read.

The Marriage Plot is a rather un-classic love triangle, and an un-classic coming-of-age tale that follows the lives of three Brown graduates in the early 1980s. Madeleine Hanna is a pretty, privileged English major in love. Leonard Bankhead, the object of her affections, is brilliant, utterly charming, poor, and a manic depressive. Mitchell Grammaticus pines for Madeleine, as he ponders his relationship with God, and in some ways, the meaning of is life. The ‘marriage plot’ in the title refers to Madeleine’s honors thesis, as well as an honors seminar that she takes in college, both of which deal with mainly Regency and Victorian novels that revolved around the ‘marriage plot’ – “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings”, the wedding itself, and reached their artistic peak when the heroines faced their disappointing married lives with admirable fortitude. So, yes, The Marriage Plot is about courtship, unrequited love, marriage, and disappointment.

Leonard’s mental illness, and Mitchell’s obsessive yearning for Madeline are two parallel themes that run through the story. I did not fully understand Mitchell’s preoccupation with faith and its relation with his excessive affection for Madeleine, and am not  familiar with the ways in which manic depression manifests itself, but I did enjoy Eugenides’ treatment of the subjects.

With three fairly brainy main characters, a lot of the story involves academic chatter, often about philosophy and God (that students of the subjects will better be able to appreciate), such as a student’s contention with Barthes that “that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.”

Madeleine is a budding Victorianist, and her love of books and women writers, in particular, is apparent right from the first page. She realizes why Victorian women writers were such pioneers:

Women were restricted from owning and inheriting property in early Victorian Britain. They were restricted from participating in politics. And it was under these conditions, while they were classified literally among idiots, that Madeline’s favorite women writers had written their books.

Seen this way, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, especially that written by women, was anything but old hat. Against tremendous odds, without anyone giving them the right to take up the pen or a proper education, women such as Anne Finch, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, and Emily Dickinson had taken up the pen anyway.

Leonard clearly has an exceptionally brilliant and well-informed mind, so while it does not surprise me that he knows the origin of the word ‘paradise’…

“You know what paradise means?” he asked.

“It doesn’t mean ‘paradise’?”

“It means ‘walled garden’. From the  Arabic…”

…I am a little intrigued. Leonard is presumably referring to the Arabic word firdaus, which I understand means something like ‘the highest level of paradise’. In The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd talks about paradaeza, high walled Persian gardens, as the origin of the word. If they are both correct, as Persian and Arabic certainly have influenced each other, which way is it? Did firdaus come from paradaeza or vice versa?

Eugenides takes his time to develop the characters, and builds a rich, layered drama. His writing is smooth and inviting. This is not a book I rushed to finish in a night – I savored it over a week. The Marriage Plot might not be a magical novel, but underwhelming it is not.

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