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Archive for December, 2011

I have been seeing ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ on and off at the bookshop or the library for years, but have never got around to reading it. I also remember the movie version starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, though I haven’t watch that either. I remember reading somewhere that it is a love story and I wondered why a love story had ‘bridges’ in the title. A couple of Sundays back when I went to my book club meeting, one of the book club members brought the book for exchange. I thought I will borrow it from him and read it. The book was coming my way once again and I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The Bridges of Madison County’ is about Robert Kincaid, photographer and writer, from Washington and Francesca Johnson, farm wife from Iowa. Robert Kincaid is travelling through Madison County to photograph some of the covered bridges there as part of his photography project for ‘National Geographic’ and he stops by at Francesca Johnson’s home to ask for directions to one of the covered bridges. She decides to accompany him and show him the place. One thing leads to another and they end up having dinner and an interesting conversation. Both of them don’t want things to end there, but they are strangers who have accidentally met and social norms suggest that they should part at a decent hour in the evening. However, after Robert leaves, Francesca leaves him an invitation for dinner for the next day at an interesting place. Robert, in return, invites her to his photo shoot the next day afternoon. Both of them end up spending the afternoon and evening together. Deep feelings are awakened in their heart and they fall in love. They spend the next few days together, while Francesca’s family is away. And then the difficult time comes when they have to decide what they are going to do – whether Francesca is going to leave her family and come with Robert or whether both of them have to part, carrying memories of their intense and wonderful time together for the rest of their lives. What they do and what happens next form the rest of the story.

 

There were beautiful sentences and paragraphs throughout the book. There is a description of Robert Kincaid at the beginning of the book, which goes like this :

 

      He liked words and images. “Blue” was one of his favorite words. He liked the feeling it made on his lips and tongue when he said it. Words have physical feeling, not just meaning, he remembered thinking when he was young. He liked other words, such as “distant,” “woodsmoke,” “highway,” “ancient,” “passage,” “voyageur,” and “India” for how they sounded, how they tasted, and what they conjured up in his mind. He kept lists of words he liked posted in his room.

 

One of my favourite scenes in the book was when Robert and Francesca take a drive in Robert’s car and Robert offers Francesca a cigarette. It goes like this :

 

      Robert Kincaid pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one halfway out, and offered it to her. For the second time in five minutes, she surprised herself and took the cigarette. What am I doing? she thought. She had smoked years ago but gave it up under the steady thump of criticism from Richard. He shook out another one, put it between his lips, and flicked a gold Zippo lighter into flame, holding it toward her while he kept his eyes on the road.

      She cupped her hands around the lighter to hold the wind in abeyance and touched his hand to steady it against the bouncing of the truck. It took only an instant for her to light the cigarette, but that was long enough to feel the warmth of his hand and the tiny hairs along the back of it. She leaned back and he swung the lighter toward his own cigarette, expertly forming his wind cup, taking his hands off the steering wheel for no more than a second.

 

It made me remember one of my favourite scenes in a movie – the ‘anybody got a match’ scene from the movie ‘To Have or Have not’ which introduces Lauren Bacall’s character. I want to find out how the above scene is pictured in the movie version of this book.

 

Here is a conversation between Robert and Francesca that I liked very much :

 

“How do you like it here in Iowa?”

      There was a moment of truth in this. She knew it. The standard reply was, “Just fine. It’s quiet. The people are real nice.”

      She didn’t answer immediately. “Could I have another cigarette?” Again, the pack of Camels, again the lighter, again touching his hand, lightly. Sunlight walked across the back porch floor and onto the dog, who got up and moved out of sight. Francesca, for the first time, looked into the eyes of Robert Kincaid.

      “I’m supposed to say, ‘Just fine. It’s quiet. The people are real nice.’ All of that’s true, mostly. It is quiet. And the people are nice, in certain ways. We all help each other out. If someone gets sick or hurt, the neighbors pitch in and pick corn or harvest oats or do whatever needs to be done. In town, you can leave your car unlocked and let your children run without worrying about them. There are a lot of good things about the people here, and I respect them for those qualities.

      “But” – she hesitated, smoked, looked across the table at Robert Kincaid – “it’s not what I dreamed about as a girl.” The confession, at last. The words had been there for years, and she had never said them. She had said them now to a man with a green pickup truck from Bellingham, Washington.

      He said nothing for a moment. Then: “I scribbled something in my notebook the other day for future use, just had the idea while driving along, that happens a lot. It goes like this : ‘The old dreams were good dreams; they didn’t work out, but I’m glad I had them.’ I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll use it somewhere. So I think I kind of know how you feel.”

      Francesca smiled at him then. For the first time, she smiled warm and deep.

 

There is another conversation where Robert talks about artists and art which deeply resonated with me. It went like this :

 

      “Sometime I’m going to do an essay called ‘The Virtues of Amateurism’ for all of those people who wish they earned their living in the arts. The market kills more artistic passion than anything else. It’s a world of safety out there, for most people. They want safety, the magazines and manufacturers give them safety, give them homogeneity, give them the familiar and comfortable, don’t challenge them.

      “Profit and subscriptions and the rest of that stuff dominate art. We’re all getting lashed to the great wheel of uniformity.

      “The marketing people are always talking about something called ‘consumers’. I have this image of a fat little man in baggy Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and a straw hat with beer-can openers dangling from it, clutching fistful of dollars.”

      Francesca laughed quietly, thinking about safety and comfort.

      “But I’m not complaining too much. Like I said, the traveling is good, and I like fooling with cameras and being out of doors. The reality is not exactly what the song started out to be, but it’s not a bad song.”

      Francesca supposed that, for Robert Kincaid, this was everyday talk. For her, it was the stuff of literature. People in Madison County didn’t talk this way, about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams. Not about realities that kept the music silent, the dreams in a box.

 

There is a scene which describes how Robert ‘makes’ pictures, which I found quite beautiful. It goes like this :

 

      He moved into the creek, then up the other bank. She went through the bridge with the blue knapsack and stood behind him, happy, strangely happy. There was energy here, a power of some kind in the way he worked. He didn’t just wait for nature, he took it over in a gentle way, shaping it to his vision, making it fit what he saw in his mind.

      He imposed his will on the scene, countering changes in light with different lenses, different films, a filter occasionally. He didn’t just fight back, he dominated, using his skill and intellect. Farmers also dominated the land with chemicals and bulldozers. But Robert Kincaid’s way of changing nature was elastic and always left things in their original form when he finished.

 

The ending of the book is bittersweet – more bitter than sweet. I loved both Robert and Francesca – Francesca was an Italian once upon a time, which was so nice – and their impressions of each other and their conversations are described so beautifully in the book.

 

So what is my overall impression about the book?  

 

I loved ‘The Bridges of Madison County’. Atleast most of it. I loved the book from the beginning till the point when Robert and Francesca have the conversation about what to do in the future. After that, the book went a little downhill for me. When I think about it, it was probably because the part of the book till that point describes beautiful scenes and what might happen when two human beings connect in a deep way. The part after that analyses the situation and tries to provide a solution, and I found the reasoning there logical but not really romantic or inspiring, which was at odds with the first part of the book. I loved the beautiful passages and descriptions in the book and I would like to read them again. To me, the book shows that we can deeply connect with another human being at any point of time and sometimes the real world and social norms get in the way of those deep connections and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. I wish the ending of the book was different, but I guess from a logical perspective, it can’t be.

 

I want to watch the movie version and see how it is when compared to the book. My friends tell me that the movie version is better. I can’t wait to find out how Meryl Streep has played the role of Francesca, because I am not sure whether she would fit the profile of Francesca’s character. I love Meryl Streep by the way. But I think Susan Sarandon might have performed this role better. When I checked Wikipedia I discovered that both of them were considered for the role, but Meryl Streep finally got it. She won an Oscar nomination for it. Interestingly for the same year, Susan Sarandon was nominated for the Oscar for the movie ‘Dead Man Walking’ and won it. Good for her J

 

Have you read ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ or seen the movie version? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Sticky Wicket’ by Malcolm Speed during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookshop. Malcolm Speed was one of the controversial CEOs of the ICC (International Cricket Council) and he wasn’t liked even in his own country – Australia. (He himself says this in his book – “I was never going to be warm, soft and friendly, and I was not in cricket to win any popularity contest. As I said back in 2001 at my first ICC annual conference as CEO, my aim was to do my best for the game without fear or favour.”) At the beginning and middle of his term as ICC CEO, he was very unpopular in India, because of a series of decisions that the ICC took which impacted Indian players. The Indian cricket board never liked him throughout his tenure. But during this time I always found him to be an interesting person, because he was a stickler to rules and the law and never backed down from his position, if the law was on his side. He was not a chap who was easily intimidated. He would have been an asset to any organization he served in. So, when I discovered that he has written a memoir, I couldn’t resist getting it. I wanted to find out what he thought of all the controversies that he had been part of. I started reading it a few days back and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

What I think

 

‘Sticky Wicket’ gives an account of Malcolm Speed’s time at the helm of Cricket Australia (the Australian Cricket Board) and the ICC. He covers all the major controversies during this time – including the pay dispute that the Australian cricketers had with their board in the late 1990s, which nearly resulted in a player’s strike, the Monkeygate scandal involving Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh, corruption, betting, ball tampering and matchfixing in cricket, Speed’s battles with cricket administrators like Dalmiya, Lalit Modi and Ray Mali, the Zimbabwean problem, Bob Woolmer’s death during the 2007 World cup, the Stanford affair, the Darrell Hair affair and the Oval test controversy in 2005. He also gives an account of the world cups which were organized when he was at the helm and the highs and the lows and the controversies which were part of those events and covers other important cricket topics which are of interest to the modern cricket fan, like the rise of the India as a powerhouse in cricket, the rise of Twenty20 cricket, the role of umpires and referees in cricket and on the possibilities of cricket becoming a big sport in USA and China.

 

One thing that I liked very much about the book was that Speed doesn’t shy away from controversies. He takes all the facts that are publicly known and also some facts that are probably not public knowledge and gives his own analysis of the situation. He calls a spade a spade. Speed is a lawyer by profession and it shows in his memoir. His style is calm and cool, dispassionate, objective and well-informed. In places he even admits that he got things wrong. At other places he defends himself and his team at the ICC, based on facts. A few times he takes a swipe at others who must have annoyed him – for example Nasser Hussain, Jagmohan Dalmiya, Niranjan Shah (he says this about Shah –    “Shah, whose attendance at ICC meetings was described by Gray as unnecessarily depriving a village of its idiot” J), Ijaz Butt. But even that is done with the support of facts, in a calm and cool tone. It is very different from autobiographies – ghosted or otherwise – written by some players (for example Botham said in his autobiography that all rumours about his affairs were untrue, except for one. Peter Roebuck, who has an opinion on all other controversies, describes all the controversies he was himself involved in, in quite vague and abstract terms, so that readers who didn’t have a background into his life and career wouldn’t know what he was talking about). There is also no attempt at writing beautiful prose or flowery language. It is like watching Sehwag or Rahul Dravid play. This makes the pages fly when one is reading the book.

 

Speed gives only a very brief description of his pre-cricket life and career in a chapter. There was however a reference to how his wife Allison ditched him many times since they first met, before they finally got married, which made me smile J There is also a reference to his grandchildren in the final chapter when he talks about his retirement. But, otherwise, the whole book is about cricket and its administration and its controversies and its politics. His description of the Monkeygate affair was one of the best that I have read. His thoughts on the Zimbabwe affair are also quite objective, eye-opening and fascinating. Towards the end of the book, Speed talks about how he was unceremoniously sacked over the Zimbabwe affair, which was a real shame, and also how former Australian PM John Howard met a similar fate when he was nominated for the post of ICC President post but whose nomination was rejected by the Asian and African bloc.

 

There are a couple of things that Speed said, about which I want to write a bit more. On India’s rise as a powerhouse in cricket, this is what he says :

 

      “Is it to cricket’s benefit that India is the financial powerhouse of the game? Is it to cricket’s benefit that the BCCI has exercised its commercial muscle to influence the governance of the game?

      The answer is an emphatic yes.”

 

I should be agreeing with Speed here, but I don’t. I would say that the jury is still out on this. Indian cricket fans love cricket – not just when the Indian team plays in it, but any kind of cricket. We follow the Ashes, we follow the Australia-South Africa and the England-South Africa series and sometimes we even watch domestic matches held in other countries – like England and Australia. So, if the game of cricket and the international and national cricket administrations treat the fans better – in terms of producing and telecasting matches, providing good facilities for cricket fans at stadia – it is definitely good for the game. It is always a good thing if one of the world’s most populous nations backs one sport. It can only mean that this sport will stay popular and will encourage many talented youngsters to take it up as a career. Because of the surge in the number of cricket fans, cricket has managed to pull in a lot of sponsors in India and in the subcontinent. This has given the BCCI a lot of financial muscle. Has the BCCI used it for the game’s good? I am not very sure. To me the BCCI seems to be quite an undemocratic organization which has ugly battles during election time. The BCCI is very conservative in cricketing issues and opposes innovations and changes – the BCCI is still against using the UDRS system and against the players forming an association. The BCCI even opposed Twenty20 cricket, tooth and nail, during the initial days, without any logic. The BCCI bullies commentators and players to toe its conservative line. So, we have intelligent people like Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, who probably know better, saying that the UDRS is not a good system. The BCCI always tries to bend the rules to fit its needs. The BCCI buys votes from the South African, Zimbabwean and Bangladeshi boards (and previously from the Pakistani board too) by supporting them on issues where those boards were in the wrong. Two examples of this are the Zimbabwe audit issue and the Oval test fiasco. This has been going on for a decade. On top of that, the BCCI’s behaviour in the ICL issue was extremely shameful. Interestingly though, the BCCI has also got some things right – once upon a time Indian and subcontinental players were cautioned by umpires and match referees for bad behaviour and were even fined and banned while Australian and South African players used to go scot-free. This has changed significantly now, because of the bullying tactics applied by the BCCI – now the same rules are applied to everyone. The IPL and the Champions League were also wonderful innovations which came out from the BCCI stable. The IPL has ensured that cricket is now a viable career for a lot of talented youngsters. So is the BCCI’s influence good? I am not sure as there seem to be two sides to that debate. One thing I feel though is that the BCCI has a regional view on cricket and not a global view. It is important that some of the BCCI folks evolve into leaders who are able to think about what is good for the sport rather than what is good to strengthen their power base. That is a big leap to take.

 

Another thing that Speed said – this was about what he wanted to achieve at the ICC – was this :

 

      “Did we achieve respect, influence and an appropriate level of control? Clearly no. We made a good start but were overwhelmed. In the end, it got worse, not better.”

 

Many cricket fans and cricket administrators might agree with Speed’s assessment here. But I don’t agree with him. I think the ICC achieved a lot in the last decade. Sure, there were controversies and disasters and politics and in many cases the ICC was treated as the official punching bag by cricketers, national boards, commentators and fans. But the ICC was also responsible for some genuine achievements. Like neutral umpires in test matches and ODIs, using technology to assist umpires, the UDRS system, the Twenty20 revolution, the successful hosting of the past three ODI world cups, the FTP programme, giving more opportunities to Associate countries which led to the wonderful progress of Ireland and Netherlands, giving a clear shape to the role of the ICC amidst all the controversies and the importance given to women’s cricket and the telecasting of women cricket World cups. One of my favourite cricket memories in the past decade was watching Claire Taylor hitting the winning runs for England in the Twenty20 cricket world cup in her elegant style – who would have known that women cricket rocks and Claire Taylor is a legend if the match hadn’t been shown on TV? These were all genuine achievements of the ICC and Speed and his team at the ICC deserve credit for that.

 

So, what do I think of the book? I think it is quite interesting, objective and gives insights into cricket, its administration politics in the last decade. For someone who was once regarded as ‘Public Enemy Number One’ and whose effigy was burnt many times, Speed has written quite a fascinating and eye-opening account of his times at the ICC. I haven’t read a cricket administrator’s memoir before – I don’t think any cricket administrator has written a memoir except for Dr.Ali Bacher. I have only read biographies and autobiographies of cricketers – ghosted or otherwise – and books by authors like CLR James and Ed Smith which are difficult to classify. So, it was an interesting experience to read a cricket administrator’s memoir and I am glad that I liked it. If you love cricket like I do and have been fascinated by its politics, you will love this book.

 

For a book which is written in sparse, businesslike prose, it is quite surprising that I have some favourite passages from it. Here are some :

 

On Sport

 

      As with any job, if you work in a sport long enough you see beneath its skin: you understand what makes it tick, you know when it is strong and when it is ailing, you revel in its greatness, you fight against its ugliness. You hear its heart, analyse its DNA and see changes in its character as it adapts to changes in society. On rare and privileged occasions you see deep into its soul.

 

On Meetings

 

      I am quite prepared ‘to come out of the closet’ and make the unusual and unfashionable statement that I enjoy going to meetings. You don’t hear that too often these days – meetings are generally seen as an unnecessary impediment to sound decision-making. I enjoy taking part in well-orchestrated debates that stretch the participants to their intellectual limits and exhaust the collective wisdom of those around the table on their way to achieving great decisions. Over my career, I have worked in several forums – classroom, courtroom, media, public domain and boardroom – and I have been far and away most comfortable in the forum of the Board meeting.

 

On Players

 

I found it difficult to communicate with the Australian players. As a group they are quite intimidating. I had had a rough start with the team because of the player dispute and they were very wary of me. It is quite hard to stand in front of a group of household names and tell them what is expected of them. I think it was more difficult for me because I had not been an international cricketer – there was definitely an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

      Most modern-day cricketers have never had a career or serious job – or a boss. They show early promise and are fast-tracked into cricket through an Academy or one of the state programs. Most of them are terrific company and really enjoy the lifestyle of a professional sportsman. However, several of them are surrounded by people who tell them only what they want to hear, which means that they do not deal well with the reality of hardship and conflict off the cricket ground.

 

On Power

 

Power to influence the effective governance of a sport is a fluid and valuable commodity. Power brings with it responsibility. Power in business is different from power in sport. Sport administrators do not own the sport. They exercise their power as trustees for the owners of the sport – the public. They do not have a share price or shareholders. They have stakeholders. Sport should be more value-driven than dollar-driven.

 

Have you read Malcolm Speed’s ‘Sticky Wicket’? What do you think about it?

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‘Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature’ by Robin Brande was recommended to me by fellow book blogger Kelly from Kelly Vision. It is a YA novel on science and religion and as this is one of my favourite topics, I couldn’t resist getting this book. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think about it.

 

 

What I think

 

The story goes like this – Mena Reece is starting her first day at high school. She is in the middle of a huge controversy – something she did before, has turned away all the important people in her life – her best friend, her potential boyfriend, her parents, her friends at church, her pastor. She has to meet some of these people everyday at school and she is dreading it. Then she meets Casey Connor, who is smart and intelligent, has a wonderful sense of humour and, unbelievably, is paired as her lab partner in biology class. And more interestingly her biology teacher Ms.Shepherd starts the biology course with the unit on evolution. Half of the students in the class protest against it as they feel that it is against the teachings of Christianity and turn their chairs and sit with their backs facing the teacher. Their parents complain to the school principal. The pastor of the local church makes an appearance and says that if the school teaches evolution, it should also teach intelligence design. The story proceeds with these three plot arcs – the Evolution Vs God debate played out at school, how Mena’s friendship with Casey grows and the secret behind Mena’s past and what she really did. How these three strands of the story come together and lead to a surprising ending form the rest of the book.

 

I liked ‘Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature’. It was a fast-paced, easy read. I loved the premise behind the book – the Evolution Vs God debate. It resonated with me because I went through a similar phase in high school, when this debate gave me a lot of heartburn. I was looking forward to finding out how the heroine reconciles the facts behind Evolution with her faith in God. I liked the way she did it, though it was quite different from what I did. However, if one is expecting any definitive answers, the book doesn’t give it. Maybe it gives some mild indications and probable clues, but nothing really definitive. It was mildly disappointing, but I wasn’t really expecting the book to answer the big questions of life. I liked most of the ‘good’ characters in the book – the heroine Mena, her love interest Casey, Casey’s sister Kayla, Casey’s mom, Mena’s biology teacher Ms.Shepherd.

 

One interesting thing I noticed in the book was the way the author used American teen language extensively. For example, the word ‘weird’ appeared so often, in sentences like this – “Well, no one can get right to work after a weird performance like that” – and this “My point is, it’s just weird how your mind wanders when you’re under stress”. Toward the latter part of the book, there was probably a ‘weird’ in every page. No ‘strange’ or ‘odd’ or ‘bizarre’ or ‘unusual’ – it was just ‘weird’ everywhere. At the beginning of the book I found this – “I never, ever, EVER thought I’d be sitting alone in the cafeteria on my first day of high school. Ever.” Classic teen-speak, isn’t it? 🙂 I guess this book must have been a huge hit with teens when it came out.

 

I wish I had read ‘Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature’ when I was in school. Though the book doesn’t give any definitive answers, it does offer some clues to reconciling the contradictory beliefs that we might have, but more importantly it describes the experience of someone who goes through a crisis while being caught in the crossfire of the Evolution Vs God debate. I could identify with that.

 

If you like reading about the Evolution Vs God debate, you will like this book. You might also like ‘Science and Religion : A Very Short Introduction’ by Thomas Dixon.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

After the class

 

      And I just sat there. I didn’t want to move. I wanted to sit there and understand everything I’d just heard.

      Because I think until that moment, I was only sort of paying attention. I was treating biology like any other one of my classes – just something to learn so I could get a good grade and move on. I appreciated that Ms.Shepherd was making it fun and interesting, but it was still just a class.

      But as of today, I have to admit it : I have a crush on science.

      Can you love a thought? Can you love a concept?

      Not to be too dramatic, but when Ms.Shepherd explained that about the flu shot and about us all being freaks of nature, it was like something reached inside my chest and yanked on my soul. Like somebody opened up my head and shouted down into my brain, “Do you get it? Mena, are you listening?”

 

The Dilemma

 

      And I have to be honest : sometimes what I hear is hard to take. My brain has been brought up to believe certain things – like the fact that God created us in His own image and that we’re all descended from Adam ad Eve. I’ve never had a reason to doubt that. I’ve never wanted to.

      But then I hear the things Ms.Shepherd has been telling us, and I read what other scientists say, and I know in my heart and in my head that evolution is real, too. I have no doubt about that. There are too many facts to prove it.

      So what does that mean for Genesis? Evolution says we’re all descended from a common ancestor, too, but it doesn’t exactly sound like Adam and Eve. So when did they come along? Were there already apes and other creatures, and then God picked us out to make us special? Or were we always planned from the beginning, human souls waiting until the time was right to be in human bodies that walked upright and used tools and could appreciate the Garden of Eden?

      Sometimes it gives me such a headache.

      I believe in God – nothing will ever change that. You can hook me up to a torture machine and I’ll still say I believe. I’d die if I didn’t have God.

      But I also believe in science. Does that make me a bad Christian? Why do I have to ignore facts just to prove my faith is strong?

 

Have you read ‘Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature’? What do you think about it?

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Wilbur Smith was in town last week for the launch of his latest book ‘Those in Peril’. I used to read Wilbur Smith when I was in college, but I haven’t read a book of his in a long while. But I thought I will go to the talk and hear what he had to say and also buy a copy of his latest book and gift it to one of my friends, who loves thrillers. After I got the book, I read the blurb on the back and got tempted. So before I gifted it to my friend, I cheated and read the book 🙂 I finished it today. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘Those in Peril’ is a story set in modern times. It is a thriller, with a lot of action happening in Africa, like other Wilbur Smith novels. It is about a big oil corporation called Bannock Oil, owned by a beautiful former tennis player called Hazel Bannock. She has a teenage daughter called Cayla. Cayla is travelling in the family yacht to meet her mother. But Somalian pirates hijack the yacht and take Cayla hostage. Cayla’s boyfriend Rogier who is travelling with her, is revealed to be a Somali pirate himself who has orchestrated the whole thing while travelling with her in the vessel. Hazel Bannock tries to use her influence with the American government to get help to rescue her daughter, but she doesn’t get much help from those quarters. Then she calls the Head of her security team, Hector Cross. Hector is a former major with the British SAS. He plans a mission and gets out Cayla. Though their relationship starts on the wrong note, this dangerous and intense mission brings Hazel and Hector together and they fall in love. Cayla approves the match and they get married. However, unfortunately, the Somali pirates seem to have tentacles across the world and tragedy strikes the Bannock family. How they wriggle out from that and take revenge and put and end to piracy on the high seas form the rest of the story.

 

I didn’t like ‘Those in Peril’ much. It was too predictable, and there were no real surprises. Except for a few unexpected deaths in the middle. It read like an archetype of a thriller novel, without the magic. After the first 15 pages, there was a graphic, steamy scene, which went on and on, which was not required at all, and which put me off. Also the way Hazel Bannock throws around all the money she has to assemble a private army she wants was too unbelievable. There was no suspense in the book (except for a minor one) and the action wasn’t fast paced. Sometimes I wanted to drop the book in between. But I also wanted to get to the end and so persevered on. During the course of the book, Smith also has the standard, clichéd scenes – implying that the Islamic Sharia law is barbaric by showing scenes where in a public square an offender’s arms are cut off and a woman is stoned to death – and makes the right noises that Islam is a peaceful religion and how it is people who are making it barbaric. At the beginning of the story, Smith makes the reader believe that Somalians are black while later he says that they are Arabs. When the killing of the Somalian pirates starts, it is Arabs who succumb to the gunfire. For the benefit of Mr.Smith – Somalians are not Arabs but blacks. I am surprised that the editor didn’t spot this. Smith also does another clichéd thing by making noises about Iran being the country which helps the Somalian pirates.

 

I loved a small part of the book though. It was when Hazel, Hector and Cayla are together as a family and talk playfully to each other and do things together. It is an odd scene to be featured in a thriller, but I liked that. To me that was the redeeming feature of the book. It was also a indictment on the rest of the book – that the main story was shaky and weak and predictable.

 

I have to say that I was disappointed with ‘Those in Peril’. I don’t know whether it is because my reading taste has changed, or whether it is because Wilbur Smith has lost his touch. Maybe it was a bit of both. I felt like this when I read Alistair Maclean’s later novels – they were carelessly written and Maclean probably thought that putting a ‘superhero’ with a heroine and some villains in an exotic location and having some action scenes and a predictable ending where the good guys win is enough to create an entertaining thriller. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work, because readers don’t buy this. I think thriller writers, who get older and start losing touch, should learn from movie makers like Clint Eastwood, who though having stepped into his 82nd year, keeps reinventing himself with every new movie.

 

I just hope that my friend will like this book more. It is a signed copy – so I hope that atleast it will adorn his bookshelf 🙂

 

Have you read Wilbur Smith’s ‘Those in Peril’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s ‘The Language of Flowers’ a few weeks back during a random browsing session at the bookstore. The book jumped at me and though I tried putting it back on the shelf, the pull of the book was so strong that I couldn’t do that. I started reading it a few days back and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

I read the description of the book on its back cover and that was the one which pulled me towards the book and made me get it. That description of the book is so perfect that I am giving it here. This is how it goes. 

 

The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

 

Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is spotted by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realize what’s been missing in her own life. As she starts to fall for him, she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past and decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

The Language of Flowers is a heartbreaking and redemptive novel about the meaning of flowers, the meaning of family and the meaning of love.

 

The book is structured with alternative chapters in different time periods. The events in the first chapter happen during the present, and the events in the next chapter happen at a time around eight years back. The narrator of the story is Victoria Jones, an eighteen year-old girl who has been abandoned at birth and has spent her childhood in foster homes and group homes. Now she is a fully grown adult and she has to move out of a group home and make a her way in the world. She doesn’t have a high school diploma or any other formal qualification. The only thing she knows is about flowers – their names, how they look like and the meanings that they stand for. She has never seen real unconditional love – atleast that is what we are made to feel at this point. But the plot arc which tells the story of the past describes a time when Victoria is being adopted by a woman called Elizabeth, and how Elizabeth loves Victoria unconditionally, but also firmly, not tolerating Victoria’s violent behaviour, and how Elizabeth touches something deep in Victoria’s heart and how Victoria’s warms up to her. Things are going quite nicely and Elizabeth and Victoria love each other like a mother and daughter. Elizabeth home-schools Victoria in language and arithmetic and also on flowers, grapes and vineyards. The adoption hearing is round the corner. Unfortunately, at this time, complex things happen in their lives. We can infer from the present day situation that these complex things have driven Victoria and Elizabeth apart. We yearn to know what they were. Meanwhile in the present day Victoria is discovered by a florist and she starts working for her. She gets an individual room on rent for the first time in her life. Then she meets a flower vendor at the market and the vendor sends her a message through flowers. Victoria is confused, because she has seen people using flowers to make arrangements and bouquets only from an aesthetic perspective but she hasn’t seen anyone who knows how to send messages through flowers. She thought that it was a secret that only she knew. She replies back to his message with her own flower message and their exciting conversation begins. One thing leads to another and Victoria falls in love with the flower vendor, and he with her. But an unknown fear lurks at the back of her heart – she had a chance of happiness once upon a time and it ended in tragedy. She fears it will happen again. What happens next and how the two plot arcs come together, form the rest of the story.

 

I liked the heroine of the story, Victoria, very much. I also liked her adopted mother Elizabeth – one of my favourite characters in the story – and Grant, the mysterious flower vendor, who becomes the love of her life. When I think about it, I think I liked most of the other characters too, each in a different way – Renata, Natalya, Mother Ruby, Marlena, Hazel. Maybe I didn’t like Meredith much.

 

I loved ‘The Language of Flowers’. I loved it for showing how feelings and emotions can be revealed through flowers. I loved it because it is about mothers and daughters and love in all its complex shades. The book had one of the most beautiful descriptions of the birth of a baby that I have ever read and also describes the initial days of a baby’s life when a mother struggles to cope with her life which has become bewildering and complex. It looked like the author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, had poured her heart and soul into the book. I loved even the acknowledgements page where the author says – “I would like to thank my children…for teaching me to be a mother, and loving me through my mistakes.” The book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me despair, it made me smile. I despaired and agonized over the fate of the heroine, Victoria, and the other main characters – the romantic part of the my heart said that the author will ensure that they will find happiness in the end, while the cynical part of my heart said that the author will take the opposite route and it will all end in a tragedy. I loved it when the author decided to humour the romantic part of my heart.

 

‘The Language of Flowers’ is one of my favourite reads of the year. And probably one of my favourite books of all time. I hope to re-read it again – for the beauty of its story and for the redemptive ending. I am hoping to gift it to my favourite friends during the holiday season. I hope it catches the eyes of a Hollywood producer – it will make a wonderful, beautiful movie. Highly recommended J

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

A Language of Lovers

 

      “I’m more of a thistle-peony-basil kind of girl,” I said.

      “Misanthropy-anger-hate,” said Grant. “Hmm.”

      I turned away. “You asked,” I said.

      “It’s kind of ironic, don’t you think?” he asked, looking around us at the roses. They were all in bloom, and not one was yellow. “Here you are, obsessed with a romantic language – a language invented for expression between lovers – and you use it to spread animosity.”

 

The Human Touch

 

The relentlessness with which these women tried to repair their relationships was foreign to me; I didn’t understand why they didn’t simply give up.

      I knew that if it were me I would have let go: of a man, of the child, and of the women with whom I discussed them. But for the first time in my life, this thought did not bring me relief. I began to notice the ways in which I kept myself isolated. There were obvious things, such as living in a closet with six locks, and subtler ones, such as working on the opposite side of the table from Renata or standing behind the cash register when I talked to customers. Whenever possible, I separated my body from those around me with plaster walls, solid wood tables, or heavy metal objects.

      But somehow, over six careful months, Grant had broken through this. I not only permitted his touch, I craved it, and I started to wonder if, perhaps change was possible for me. I began to hope my pattern of letting go was something that could be outgrown, like a childhood dislike of onions or spicy food.

 

On Childbirth

 

I would hate my child for this. Mothers must all secretly despise their children for the inexcusable pain of childbirth. I understood my own mother in that moment as clearly as if we had just been introduced. I imagined her sneaking out of the hospital alone, her body split in two, abandoning her perfect swaddled baby, the baby she had exchanged for her own once-perfect body, her own once-pain-free existence. The pain and sacrifice were not forgivable. I did not deserve to be forgiven. Looking in the mirror, I tried to imagine my mother’s face.

 

Magical perfection

 

She was perfect. I knew this the moment she emerged from my body, white and wet and wailing. Beyond the requisite ten fingers and ten toes, the beating heart, the lungs inhaling and exhaling oxygen, my daughter knew how to scream. She knew how to make herself heard. She knew how to reach out and latch on. She knew what she needed to do to survive. I didn’t know how it was possible that such perfection could have developed within a body as flawed as my own, but when I looked into her face, I saw that it clearly was.

 

“The First Gift”

 

      Mother Ruby had told me the baby would sleep for six or more hours the first night, exhausted from the birth. It’s the first gift that a child gives its mother, she told me before she left. Not the last. Take it, and sleep.

 

Moss don’t have roots

 

If it was true that moss did not have roots, and maternal love could grow spontaneously, as if from nothing, perhaps I had been wrong to believe myself unfit to raise my daughter. Perhaps the unattached, the unwanted, the unloved, could grow to give love as lushly as anyone else.

 

Have you read ‘The Language of Flowers’? What do you think about it?

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