22-May-2014

May book update


I ended my last post with a note on how I was going to read Doris Lessing’s Going Home.

It was not to be.

Doris Lessing is probably a very good author but this book was not for me. I could not quite get her descriptions on moving back to her native Zimbabwe after a brief stint in Britain. So I had to abandon her.

I moved onto John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a book that has been in my bookshelf since 2006 (as per the inscription from the thoughtful and better- read friend who had gifted this to me on my birthday that year). Somehow I was finally ready to read it and once I got into the book, it was unputdownable. It was just as well that I had the holiday in Penang and a work trip to Jakarta to finish the 500+ pages. During holidays, I can read in the time I would normally be at work. During work trips, I can read in the time that I would normally spend with Bobo. All travel is good for solid bouts of reading.

East of Eden tells the saga of the Trask and the Hamilton families. It is set in the early part of the Twentieth century and starts off in the East before moving to Salinas Valley in California. Samuel Hamilton is a jack of all trades, blessed with a large family but not much money. He leads a life rich in friends. Adam Trask starts off with hard beginnings and despite the good things that happen to him he also takes quite a few falls. The book is based on real life families that Steinbeck had heard about while growing up. The story takes its time to trace the life of its principal characters, following their ups and downs, all of which are ordinary, human and yet so interestingly described. A really rich account of human foibles and follies.  

Since I had still not made another trip to the library despite the mounting concerns about mounting fines, it was back to reading from my own collection. I had bought Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants and Mohsin Hamid’s How to be filthy rich in rising Asia in the Jakarta airport under the mistaken impression that books are cheap in Jakarta. They are not. Using my brains to work out the exchange rate would have helped.

Tina Fey is funny. She is also hardworking, dedicated, professionally focussed and sometimes, cutthroat and self centered. Fey gives a good idea of how comedy works. She is also unabashedly feminist and makes a great case for female comedy writers, a species that is very rare and encourages the myth that men are funnier.

Mohsin Hamid’s book is styled as a self-help book. It traces the meteoric rise of a poor village boy, ostensibly in a big city in Pakistan but could have been equally located in India, and presumably in other parts of Asia as well. It is a story of enterprise to capture a slice of the growing Asia pie. Enterprise does not mean merely hard work, intelligence and luck. In Asia it is also knowing how corruption works, how hired goons are a necessary business expense, how political influence is necessary when businesses reach a certain scale and other such tricks that are described in a matter-of-fact manner. A quick read and one that had me nodding along in agreement most of the times.

By this point, I had finally managed to find the time to go to the library and was relieved to find that D had thoughtfully renewed my books and hence I was not stuck with a large fine. I borrowed another arm load of books.

I returned to an old favourite, P.D.James and was quite looking forward to reading a slow-murder mystery. I carried Death of an Expert Witness alongwith me on an office team-bonding  trip to Macau. Unfortunately I found myself sitting next to a top level person from my office. She was friendly and we chatted for a while and then she entertained herself with word games on her phone. I turned to my book but part of my mind was wondering ‘Should I be networking harder? If I talked to her, would she be disturbed? Anyway, is a 9 p.m. ferry to Macau the best time to keep up a constant chatter with someone jetlagged from a transatlantic flight? Oh god, I am going to throw up if this ferry does not stop shaking soon’. In the end, I read the first few chapters in a half-distracted manner and ended up not fully enjoying a perfectly good book. I am going to give it a few years and reread the book again and hope I don’t remember the ending any more. All travel is not necessarily good for solid bouts of reading.

My next book was Nora Ephron’s I feel bad about my neck and other thoughts on being a woman. The title was not something that quite enamoured me. It sounded a lot like some shallow, aging person cribbing about their aging in a shallow manner. However I had read very good reviews of the book and in the end, it turned out to be a great read, with several ‘yes, I get it’ and ‘that is so funny’ moments. Ephron has lead quite an exciting life with a journalism and writing career and having been married three times (the last one successful). Hers is the kind of effortless-looking, wry humour that makes you think that you could probably be a bestselling writer too if you just tried a bit. She is smart, funny, honest and eminently likable and I guess coming across as all of this is a tougher than it seems at first sight. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on how much she loves reading and how it felt when she read a good book. It was as if she had peered into my head and put down the thoughts on paper. A nice collection of essays.

The collection of essays that has been disappointing on the other hand is PJ O’Rourke’s Holidays in Heck. I think I had read a long ago essay of his in an old Reader’s Digest and the name had stayed with me. I remember that essay being quite funny. And PJ O’Rourke has lived the life of a frontier journalist, so he should probably have many interesting observations to make. Unfortunately this book is from his post-retirement avatar where he writes about fairly benign activities like skiing in Ohio. I am not sure if he himself feels the lack of excitement in this activity compared to say, finding his way around Baghdad. In any case, the humour feels a bit forced at times. I have still not gotten through all the essays and I may end up liking the book in the end. So far though, it has not been a great find.


07-May-2014

Penang holiday




The good thing about Penang is that it can be visited anytime of the year. Much like Singapore, the weather is mostly muggy and humid and hence there is no particularly good or bad time. So we set off during the Easter weekend, a holiday I normally used to waste in India because it used to be too hot to go anywhere except the hills and then the travel would make a three-day trip tiring.

We took the hour-long flight to Penang and were in our hotel well before noon. The hotel was in Batu Ferringhi, the popular beach area. We had initially contemplated staying in Georgetown, the UNSECO World Heritage area, since the idea was to soak in the architecture and the food. In the end, mindful of the 16-month- old who was tagging along, we decided to stick to the beach zone. Ironically, said 16-month-old turned his nose up at the beach and did not play there much.

The first day, we relaxed by the beach and the pool. Hmmm…I think we did that most of the second day and the entire third day till it was time to leave.

We did manage to step outside and visit Georgetown on the second day in the morning. We  hired a taxi for the morning. Our first stop was Fort Cornwallis, which is a beautiful fort right by the sea and reminded me of every British fort I had seen in India. Given our limited time and energy, we decided to focus on the Peranakan pleasures instead.

The next stop was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street. The mansion belongs to a private family which has owned it for several hundred years. The place was a lovely example of what a wealthy person lived back then. Plush furniture and artefacts dotted the enormous place. There was a lovely jewellery exhibition.  A free guided tour was going on when we went and we happily joined for a while. We initially began by letting Bobo run around. Once we had mentally tabulated how much even a small damage would cost us, we firmly tucked him in our arms.

From here, we went to the New World Hawker centre for lunch. An acquaintance who is a local, had helpfully given a huge list of eating places and this was in the recommendation. The food was cheap and tasted different from the same fare available in Singapore.

Post lunch, we stopped by the Khoo Kongsi clan house belonging to one of the oldest clans in Penang. The d├ęcor was intricate and the wide courtyard gave a lovely sense of space. Clans no longer play a big role in the local Chinese society but once upon a time they were quite powerful and the house did send an impressive message. From there, D popped into the nearby Armenian Street while I quickly nipped with Bobo into a souvenir shop.

It was nearing two by then and we decided to head back for Bobo’s nap. Except we got caught in terrible Saturday-afternoon traffic (why aren’t people napping at home on Saturday afternoons! It is the one time of the week I really look forward to). By the time we reached our hotel, all of us were tired and ready to hit the bed, which we did promptly.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn, which is located right on the beach. The famous Batu Ferringhi night market was right outside, selling fake Louis Vuitton bags and various pointless trinkets. The hotel itself was a bit old but very well maintained and I could not actually put my finger on why I had a vague feeling of dissatisfaction till D remarked ‘ Well, atleast with a Holiday Inn you know what to expect’. That was it. We had turned into the family travellers, seeking familiarity over adventure.

Nevertheless predictability is good when travelling with a child (as I have stated before and as I am going to repeat ad nauseum).

Penang made for a good three day trip. I liked the relaxed feel of the place. There was something laidback about the place. I could have easily spent more time wandering through the streets of Georgetown had we been located closer to that part of town. What little I saw seemed lovely.

Still, I am also slowly getting addicted to the pleasures of relaxing by the pool with a book in my hand. And I did plenty of that