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Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

February 6th, 2014 17 comments

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Front Lawn

Recently I returned from my first trip to India. One of the highlights was the Jaipur Literature Festival, where I attended sessions with writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathon Frazen, Reza Aslan and Cheryl Strayed.

I traveled with members of my Dubai book club. We were six women—all excited to see what the Jaipur Lit Fest was all about and how it compared to the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

Map of India ~ Jaipur

Jaipur Literature Festival

This five-day festival is the largest of its kind in Asia and the world’s largest free literary festival. It’s held annually on the green grounds of Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. All of the sessions were outside, and because it was free, participants moved freely from session to session. TimeOut Delhi refers to the event as the Woodstock of World Literature.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ map of Diggi Palace

This literature fest had a very different feel from the Emirates Lit Fest in Dubai, which is more formal and held in conference rooms at the InterContinental Hotel. For me, this Jaipur event reminded me more of Folklife Festival in Seattle, where you find yourself sitting on the grass chatting with whomever is next to you.

This year’s Jaipur Lit Fest also featured Gloria Steinem, who was promoting her new collection of essays, as well as actor Irrfan Khan and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, plus a full catalogue of others. In past years, the Jaipur Lit Fest has hosted Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, and JM Coetzee.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Jhumpa Lahiri

For me, the biggest highlight was seeing one of my all-time favorite writers—Jhumpa Lahiri. Her first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, is a short story collection which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her novel The Namesake was made into a film, but my favorite is Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories and one novella.

At the Jaipur Lit Fest, Lahiri introduced her latest novel The Lowland, the story of two brothers, very close and very different, and set in Calcutta (Kolkata) with tensions swirling. She read from her new book and discussed how her own family’s experiences informed her latest work.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Jhumpa Lahiri reading The Lowland

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri described the feeling of “Absence of Place” and her own family’s feelings of dislocation after leaving India. That is, when one stops living in a place and moves away, that place takes on a surreal quality. Lahiri explained that she has always been aware of this longing since her childhood.

Meanwhile, Jhumpa Lahiri’s appearance attracted a huge crowd.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Crowds to see Jhumpa Lahiri

 

The Global Novel

The most thought-provoking panel I attended was the one entitled “The Global Novel,” featuring writers from five countries and four continents: Jonathon Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste and Xiaolu Guo.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Global Novel Panel

First of all, this panel was not thrilled with the idea of the English-language Global Novel. Jhumpa Lahiri argued that “global” was a commercial term, rather than an aesthetic term. She explained how she is distressed by too much emphasis on work written in English. She argued that other languages and cultures get lost.

Jonathon Frazen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, explained that the current trend is for less diversity in reading. He fears a “global mono-culture” where cultural differences will become a novelty.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Jonathon Frazen

The panel all agreed that American books are overly emphasized in the literary world, and as Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo stated, “American literature is massively over-rated.” The panel discussed how readers select books. Jim Crace described that overwhelming feeling: “In the bookshop you feel terrified by all the novels you’ll never read.”

Giving us some hope and direction, Jhumpa Lahiri explained that translation is the bridge that enables us to read across cultures. She advised writers to find their own voices and not think about trying to be “global.”

After listening to this panel, I’ve decided to challenge myself (and my book club) to shoot for more difficult and unusual books, more books from other countries, and especially more translated work. I’ll think twice before buying the latest American book that a big publisher is promoting. I’ll dig deeper, and always remember that the power is in the hands of the reader. 

Cheryl Strayed

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

What a pleasure to hear Cheryl Strayed discuss her memoir Wild, an Oprah book club pick, soon to be a movie starring Reece Witherspoon. It was terrific to see a writer from the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR) in Jaipur and one whose work I have admired.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed discussed the journey of memoir writing which she compared to “deep sea diving.” She explained that the process of writing helps one remember their story, gain insights and “taste life twice.” So much of writing, she explained, is making sense of being human.

Reza Aslan

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Reza Aslan

I also attended a session with Reza Aslan, religious scholar and author of a long list of books on religion. He is a terrific and dynamic speaker, and I enjoyed listening to him. He was in a debate defending his latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Reza Aslan author & religious scholar

Zealot by Reza Aslan

I honesty wished he could have just talked about his book for the hour without him having to debate it with another scholar. We’ve already heard Reza Aslan defend his controversial book on Fox News and other news outlets. Oh well. It seems debates are part of the Jaipur Lit Fest program.

Other Highlights

I also attended panels entitled “Burdens of Identity” and “The Art of Biography.” My travel companions raved about the panel “Who will Rule the World?” Finally, I attended a creative writing workshop given by Anita Roy.

And of course, I visited the bookstore.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Book shop

I enjoyed wandering around the grounds of Diggi Palace, visiting the stalls, drinking masala chai, and soaking up the vibe at this inspiring and worthwhile event.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Diggi Palace

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~  Chai Tea Sellers

We are already planning our next visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my upcoming posts on the rest of my trip to India: the unique beauty of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.

Jaipur Literature Festival

Question: What are your impressions of the Jaipur Literature Festival? The Emirates Festival of Literature? Other lit events you have attended? 

Book Review ~ From Rags to Riches by Mohammed Al-Fahim

August 21st, 2012 6 comments

The one book that all residents of the UAE should read is From Rags to Riches by Mohammed Al-Fahim. The subtitle is A Story of Abu Dhabi, but because Abu Dhabi is the capital, the book reads like the story of the UAE.

First published in 1995, the book is part history and part memoir. Al-Fahim recounts his childhood, the hardships his family endured and his experiences in the UAE from the 1950s onward. This is all woven with the history of the UAE and its dramatic transformation from a tribal society to a modern nation.

The book is full of fascinating anecdotes about life in the UAE before the discovery of oil. Al-Fahim explains that as a child, the kandura had no pockets because they had nothing to put in them. He recounts traveling by camel from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and describes the treacherous job of pearl diving. He gives insights into why Sheikh Zayed is so revered by his people. Interestingly, Al-Fahim discusses how the British exploited the UAE and why he has forgiven them.

The book was ghostwritten by Susan Macaulay. She visited my book club some years ago and told us how she conducted a series of interviews with Mr. Al-Fahim, recorded his words and turned them into a cohesive story.

In short, this book provides illuminating insights into the history and culture of the United Arab Emirates. The book is sold all over the UAE in various languages, and I recommend it to all expats living here.

Question: Have you read from Rags to Riches? What are your thoughts on the book?

Book Review ~ Marrakesh by Design by Maryam Montague

June 14th, 2012 9 comments

It’s not often that I read an interior design book cover to cover. I had been waiting for some time for Marrakesh by Design, published last month and written by Maryam Montague, an American expat and hotel-owner living in Morocco. She writes the well-regarded blog My Marrakesh, and her home was featured in the April issue of Elle Decor magazine.

There is a certain flair to Moroccan design—something I haven’t observed in other Arab countries. Of course, there are beautiful items from all over the Middle East and North Africa, but when I see iconic objects like painted tea glasses, a fanciful teapot, pierced lantern, door knocker, tagine, colorful pouf, or pointy slippers, I think that’s Moroccan, and I have a clear association with the country.

Meanwhile, many design elements highlighted in the book are not unique to Morocco but are Islamic and Arabian—familiar all around the region. As the author states, Morocco has design influence from the Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Spanish, French and other African countries.

This eclectic blend is featured in the book’s captivating photographs of real homes in Morocco. The author, who took most of the photos herself, showcases a wide range of living spaces—from simple to bohemian, from grand to humble, and from traditional to surprisingly contemporary and whimsical.

Going way beyond adding a pouf or lantern to your living room, this book is divided into three parts. The first part “Discovering Moroccan Style” explores the architecture, colors, finishes and patterns of the country. Here the author goes into the artisanal and craft traditions of Morocco. I especially enjoyed the chapters on patterns and color.

The second part “Living Moroccan Style” provides examples of how to incorporate this style into bedrooms, salons, bathrooms, entries, gardens, and my favorite—kitchens. The last part of the book offers tips for buying carpets, pottery and all those distinctive Moroccan items. Finally, the book ends with lists of sources online and around the world for gathering these goodies.

The information is surprisingly detailed, like that on the art of zellij (mosaic tile), as well as the layout of the traditional Moroccan home and the meaning behind various motifs. Throughout the book are “Bring it Home” sidebars with hands-on projects for all types of living spaces. These practical ideas are interspersed with cultural information on such things as Moroccan greetings, superstitions, and even how to make Moroccan mint tea—all good stuff for lovers of Morocco.

As for me, the book has been a bit of a revelation. I have been collecting Arabian bric-a-brac for the past twenty years. But after I while, I stopped seeing my own things; they began to look like clutter. I drew inspiration from Maryam’s photos, which gave me fresh eyes to see my own home, my collections and the potential therein.

Granted, I will not be stenciling my ceiling, re-tiling my bathroom, or making a fountain out of a flower pot. However, I just might add a pierced lantern above my dining table, buy a Berber carpet, rearrange my Hand of Fatima collection, and plant some jasmine by my door.

Marrakesh by Design is for anyone who adores all things Moroccan or Arabian. Even if you are (like me) more of a daydreamer than a decorator, the photos alone are worth this book’s place on your coffee table—crafted, of course, out of an antique window.

To know more, here’s a 1-minute video introduction to Marrakesh by Design.

 

Question: What are your thoughts on Moroccan design or this book?