Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: Operation Lipstick by Pia Heikkila

Title: Operation Lipstick
Author: Pia Heikkila
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 287
Price: Rs 250
Genre: Fiction 
Rating: 6/10
Format: Paperback

I am beginning to conclude that most of the books are good in parts, like this one. There I said it, I liked the book in parts; the second part, that is!

The cover page is tantalizing but it gives the feel of a spy-thriller, which may not be the right words to describe this book. And then the title - ‘Operation Lipstick’- and the by-line ‘mission for Mr Right’ seem more suitable for a chick lit.

In this interview, the author says that ‘she wanted to marry different genres – war writing, chick-lit and adventure’. It may be what some people would like about this book (I gather it has also made to the bestselling titles list for the month) but for me that was the key problem because where the first part was clearly chick-lit, the second part was majorly war journalism.

The protagonist, Anna Sanderson, is a 32 year old war journalist based in Kabul, working for London-based GNN, and in her own words “single and horny beyond belief”. She stays with Tim, her cameraman, who is in his late thirties; and Kim, an Australian print journalist, touching 30. The book begins like a classic chick lit, and for first several pages we follow the protagonist in her never-ending smoke and booze sessions, fantasies or confessions about men she would like to have sex with or have had, and meeting a man of her dreams Mr Delectable, Mark, at unlikeliest of places. Kelly finds out that her boyfriend Rich had been cheating on her, and she decides that this time she would not forgive him, and plans revenge. Anna, Kelly and Tim team up to pursue a big story that involves Rich in arms smuggling. The mission is christened ‘Operation Lipstick’. The mission eventually turns out to be life-threatening for all of them and clearly, much serious than they had imagined.

Anna also explores the barely there possibility of finding true love in war-torn Afghanistan where there are not enough opportunities to meet the right men. But she meets Mark and keeps bumping into him at unexpected places. She finds herself deeply drawn to him and eventually all works out well at the end.

As I mentioned, the first part of the book has a lot on sex which sometimes can make you cringe. Sample these:
“Nothing wrong with a bit of American beefcake after a main course. I was now imagining myself sucking his, what I hoped would be, huge cock.”
“But it seemed clear that I was arousing something else as there was a huge bulge in his jeans.”
But the crown should go to this piece which starts with “I decided to take a walk to think things through”. The next two pages dwell on Anna fantasizing about having sex with two twenty-somethings army men in detail and ends with Anna masturbating.

However, the book has several funny moments too.
“I fiddled with it, and it turned out that the camera was still working. Bloody mobile phones, no good for saving my life, but hey, don’t worry, it can still take scenic pictures en route! The voice recorder was also in good condition – good to record my will, I guess.”
“Stay calm. You have been in worse shit than this. Actually you haven’t. But keep telling yourself that.”
 “He held the rope, while I lowered myself down. The movies never show you how it happens in real life. My getaway wasn't really elegant or Catwoman like. I looked more like a sack of potatoes wobbling on some string.”

There are no detailed characterizations barring Anna’s. We get to know neither Mark nor Kelly or Tim.

Few other things which I would like to highlight:
  • The background or the setting was promising and I loved the part that deals in Anna’s experiences as a war-journalist and her adventures. That part was quite a page-turner.
  • I thought Operation Lipstick did not have a proper closure at the end. In fact, I thought it was preposterous to embark on such a dangerous mission to teach a cheating boyfriend lesson. 
  • The romantic angle between Anna and Mark needed more fleshing out. Mark – her Mr Delectable – kept popping up at every place Anna goes and eventually both proclaim love for each other. Anna, a self-confessed sex-maniac, was in love with this man was hard to digest when all she did was either fantasize about him or his good looks.
  • The angle on Tim was unnecessary.
  • Anna Sanderson’s adventures as a war journalist have potential of developing into series (except for the overdose of sex). The author can still marry the chick lit and war-reporting genres.
All said and done, I think, the author shines in the part where the story dwells into the challenges of war-journalism, adventure and the situation in Afghanistan. I would have loved the book much better if the book stuck to a charming yet gutsy heroine and her adventure in war-reporting.

Note: There are a lot of typo errors too. When you love a book, you overlook a few mistakes here and there, but when you have mixed feelings, such mistakes just become eyesores. Don’t they?

Image source: Amazon

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: Return To India by Shoba Narayan

Title: Return To India
Author: Shoba Narayan
Publisher: Rain Tree (Rupa Publications)
Pages: 269
Price: Rs 395
Genre: Non Fiction / Memoir
Rating: 9/10
Format: Hardbound

I read Mint Lounge, mostly because I love reading about culture, books, movies, urban life, etc. So I have read and enjoyed Shoba Narayan’s columns. When I first came across this book, I was completely charmed by its cover page. It evokes nostalgia. I noticed the author and the subject of the book, much later. And then, I just had to read it. Thanks to Blogadda, I did not have to wait for too long.

In ‘Return to India’, Shoba Narayan writes about her journey from being a young girl chasing American dream and better opportunities, to a mother caught in an emotional quagmire of how to provide the best of both countries (India and America) to her children. In the author’s words, ‘immigrant dilemma is at the heart of the book’.
The book begins with her pressing desire to escape from India and its many problems, to chase better opportunities in America, to live a better life and to become whatever she chooses to become. She had romantic notions about life and opportunities in America. And the book eventually tells us, they weren’t unfounded. Shoba achieves much more than she ever dreamt of and in fields she would have never explored in India.

However, the book is not so much about whether she gets the kind of opportunities she dreams of, rather it is about finding one’s identity. In that way, it also reminded me about ‘the Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri. When she talks about her younger self, cajoling and convincing her parents and family to let her go abroad, she could be anyone of us. It mirrors the life of so many young people who leave their homes for education and better opportunities, whether for a different city or a different country [as she also mentions in the Prologue]. The angst of a parent is the same. The underlying fear that the child would never return, is the same.

America never fails her, with its wonderful people, myriad of opportunities, and a great lifestyle. For the 15 years of her life in America, first single and later married, she is never bothered by the weighty questions of identity and roots, culture and family. Only when she becomes a mother, she dreams of providing her daughter with the same kind of loving environment, familiar surroundings, loving grandparents, fussing relatives, as she had experienced while growing up. In India, people go out of their way to help relatives and friends even if it meant inconvenience for them. That is how we are raised and that is how we become.

Though she considered herself modern and adventurous, Shoba surprises herself by agreeing for arranged marriage. And later, as a mother, she is always consumed by thoughts of how to keep her children rooted in Indian culture while living in America. Life comes a full circle for her when she feels a similar kind of angst like her mother on the question of whether she would be okay if her daughter chooses to marry an American. She discovers that actually under the surface, she was quite traditional.

I loved the book. The author has a fresh voice, and her writing style is witty, particularly in the first half. She is a natural writer and draws the reader to the story well, never losing his attention. Although I did find the part on her dilemma of returning to India a bit long drawn but may be it actually was. Such decisions are not easy. For quite a long time, she goes back and forth on her decision, even till the last moment. The various conversations are interesting. Towards the first half of the book, she is particularly charming, adventurous and exciting, while toward the ending, perhaps because of the dilemma she was in, there is restlessness.

But all said and done, it is a fabulous book. There is something to which every reader would relate to whether it is the dreamy-eyed young girl or dynamic woman chasing opportunities, young students leaving home for education or those in 20s-and early 30s driven by ambition and passion, angst of a mother or the many challenges of parenthood! . Participate now to get free books!

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Image source: Amazon

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Recommendations: Mini Book Reviews - 1

Here are a few books which I have read at some point of my life – may be a few months back or a few years back. I do not remember the specifics, so I would not be in a position to write full reviews. But these books have stayed in my memory because when I read them, I loved them and I often think about them.

Publisher: Penguin India
Author: Sonia Faleiro
Genre: Non Fiction / Biography /Anthropology

This ‘narrative non fiction’ is a result of author’s pursuit of life of bar dancers through the years. This book is about Leela, a bar dancer the author meets while researching for her story on dance bars. Read author’s interview here and a review of the book here. What stood out for me is the stark contrast in the world these girls live in from ours, their hopes, their dreams and their usually bleak future! It is a remarkable book and very well written.  


Title: Death in Mumbai
Publisher: Random House India
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Author: Meenal Baghel
Genre: Non Fiction / Crime

Who hasn't heard about the Neeraj Grover Murder case that involved a TV producer, an aspiring actress and her fiance, a Naval officer! It was a case straight out of a movie or a potboiler. What sent chills down our spines was the gruesome murder of Neeraj Grover, in what looked like a case that involved passion and envy.

There is a dearth of good literature on crime in India. This book is not a simple retelling of the probable turn of events. Meenal Baghel, through her interactions with friends and families of the three people involved in the case, attempts to dig deeper into their personalities. Along with trying to understand what went inside them, she also explores the outside factors like the changing urban culture, driven by high aspirations of small town youngsters, low tolerance, aggression, etc.
Here's a review of the book.


Title: Second Turn
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Publisher: Macmillan
Author: M.T.Vasudevan Nair (Translated by P.K. Ravindranath)
Genre: Fiction / Mythology

I am particularly fond of various interpretations of Mahabharata and I have several versions already. It was Yajnaseni that sparked my interest in this ancient epic. Mahabharata is quite addictive. Even if you read different versions of the same story, you never get bored. There is always a revelation!

Bhim's character has not got its dues in any of the popular versions, therefore I was curious to get my hands on this one. 'Second Turn' is Mahabharata retold through Bhim's perspective. Draupadi was married to all the five Pandavas and as per their mutually agreed rule, she would stay as a wife of each brother for one year. Since Bhim was the second brother, therefore the name 'Second Turn'. 
Bhim is generally known for great physical might and his love for food. MT Vasudevan Nair's portrayal of Bhim opens our eyes to a sensitive character who is completely dedicated to his mother, brothers and wife. He never really got his dues.
This book is quite a gem but very difficult to get your hands on. It is 'out-of-stock' at most of the online sites. You will be able to get it only if you are lucky.
Here's a review from the Outlook magazine.


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Title: The Invisibles: A Tale of The Eunuchs of India
Publisher: Random House
Author: Zia Jaffrey
Genre: Non Fiction / Anthropology / Culture / Gender Studies

It is an outstanding work of non fiction that focuses on the class of people, which have been rightly called 'the invisibles'. The eunuchs, the hijras, the cross-dressers, call what-you-may, are found everywhere - in trains, on roads, visiting homes at the birth of babies, during marriages, etc; and yet they are an 'invisible' lot. The society does not talk about them or their plight. It was a revelation to learn about their hierachies, how these people depend on each other (with their families turning back on them), how society perceives them, how they are forced to earn their living by begging, how some of them have been kidnapped and castrated, and many such pieces of information.

Here's a review of the book. I cannot recommend it enough but it is yet another difficult book to get your hands on. It is out-of-stock on most places.


Title: May You Be The Mother of Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India
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Publisher: Penguin India
Author: Elisabeth Bumiller
Genre: Non Fiction / Travel

I read this book really long time back, may be 7 years. But I do remember that this was the first book among many that I read, which showed India from an outsider's perspective, and that is what appeals to me about such books. Many times, several things which happen close to us, start appearing ordinary or mundane, unless an outsider points those out to us. 

Here is a review, and here's another one.


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Title: Holy Cow
Publisher: Bantam
Author: Sarah Macdonald
Genre: Non Fiction / Travel

I read this book shortly after 'May you be....' and loved it. In this case also, I don't remember the nitty-gritties. Sarah Macdonald, like several Western tourists before and after her, was enamoured with India, and chronicles her experiences. And like everyone who writes about India, impact of religion on everyday living, widespread poverty and misbehaviour with western women form chunk of her writings. But I loved the book and I would like to read it again now!

I don't have this book because I had taken the book from a library at that time but guess, I will order one for myself. Read a bunch of really good reviews on GoodReads. 

*Update*: I have re-read and reviewed it here.

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Title: Eleven Hours
Publisher: Harper Collins
Author: Paullina Simons
Genre: Fiction / Thriller

I  have read many thrillers but I have not been able to forget the feeling of reading this fast-paced edge-of-the-seat thriller. It was so good. 
Here's a review to add to my case. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 451
Price: Rs 299
Genre: Historical Fiction / Social drama
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

I finally read the much-talked about and much-loved ‘The Help’ recently. It was a page-turner alright but only as much as a social drama could be. ‘The Help’ addresses an important time in history through a beautifully crafted story but it is not without its shortcomings.  

The narrative alternates between three main characters – Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter (Eugenia Phelan). The story is set in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi.

22-year old, fresh out of college, Skeeter dreams of becoming a writer and, unlike her childhood friends, Elizabeth and Hilly, her life’s calling is not in finding herself a suitable match and settling down to the idyllic life of Jackson. In her attempts to make it as a writer, Skeeter finds herself looking for an interesting idea to work on a book. Her own fond memories of Constantine, the black maid who raised her, and the silent presence of several other maids with the families Skeeter comes in contact with, makes her believe that giving voice to their thoughts and experiences could be a path breaking idea for a book. Those were the times of strong opinions against the rights of black people, and a marked divide between whites and blacks in social diaspora.

Aibileen is the quiet and elderly African-American maid with Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, who spent her life raising several white children. She exudes warmth and wisdom. She lost her grown up son in a tragic accident while her husband left her for another woman many years ago.

Minny is a fat, talkative and quick-tempered African-American maid who is known to be the best cook around but she has a problem in keeping her mouth shut or minding her own business. She had to change several households as a consequence. She worked with Skeeter’s friend Hilly’s mother Miss Walters but she is thrown out on false charges of stealing silver. She eventually starts working for the enigmatic but endearing Celia Foote.

‘The Help’ is essentially about how these women come together to work on a path-breaking book for those times – compiling good and bad experiences of several black women who worked for white people. Although an enlightening anthropological study, it was a dangerous book to get involved with.

There could not have been a more simple yet apt title for this book. The main characters are interesting and fairly well-defined. But I had issues with other characters, say, for example, Hilly is somebody who embodies evil. She is the nemesis of every black maid in town. We don’t get to know too much about her beyond her strong opinions on showing black people their place! Besides, I felt there was injustice with Stuart and Celia Foote’s characters. I would stop myself from elaborating on what happens with Stuart but I thought he should have been at the ending. Ditto with Celia Foote’s character. The character was developed and abandoned. I also felt that the book predominantly had female characters. The male characters were too marginalized, as if they did not exist.

The book has a strong and serious theme of racism. The characters talk about the lurking ‘dangers’ but the reader does not really feel any.

The book holds your attention from the beginning but I felt the ending leaves a few loose ends. Like I said, some characters should have made it to the closure. I wanted to know what happened to them.

Nevertheless, what works for the book are its engaging storyline, interesting main characters, controversial subject and fast pace.

Needless to say, it is a must read.

P.S. I look forward to watching the movie now. It is always fun to be able to see these characters than only visualize. The first thing I did after finishing the book is searched for the actors playing various characters in the movie.

Image source: Amazon


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: She's Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel

Title: She’s Never Coming Back
Author: Hans Koppel
Publisher: Sphere (Hachette India)
Pages: 393
Price: Rs 350
Genre: Fiction / Thriller
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

I don’t favour fiction these days but I like thrillers, especially after you have read some heavy-duty stuff or taken ages to finish a book, it feels good to pick up a fast-paced thriller.

‘She’s Never Coming Back’ is every bit a fast-paced thriller. I finished it in 2 days with my limited reading time (owing to my little one). But this book is a little different than the usual crime thrillers – good different, that is!

Here’s a little outline of the story. Ylva Zetterberg, a mother and wife, leaves office for home but never reaches. Her husband, Mike, assumes she is out with office colleagues, and keeps speculating about possibilities of why she might not have reached home, even when she does not turn up the next day. Ylva is a compulsive flirt and has had a fling before. When Ylva does not reaches home in the evening the first day, Mike is reluctant to call her so as not be accused of distrust by her. But when he is unable to reach her or get much information from her best friend at office, Mike reports her absence to police. In the wake of the brewing issues between Ylva and him, Mike becomes primary suspect for the police.

Meanwhile, Ylva has been kidnapped by her new next-door neighbours, Gosta and Marianne; who were known to her from before. She is also subjected to extreme sexual violence at their hands. She gets to see her husband and daughter on a screen, through a camera directed towards her home’s entrance. Locked in a sound-proofed cellar, Ylva cannot be heard outside, despite the fact that she is about 100 yards from her house.

The premise was very, very interesting and promising but I felt there were some weak links to the book.

First of all, the information on the back cover of the book is a little misleading. I think on reading it what comes out is that Ylva is a loving mother and wife from a happy, close-knit family, and she suddenly goes missing. Her husband is distraught and hysterical on her disappearance. On the top of it, he becomes the prime suspect which is heart-breaking for him. The camera shows Ylva the activities around her house and she is pained to see her loving husband and daughter, the way things progress in the days to come, how slowly Mike and Sanna start moving on, so on and so forth.

I might be giving away tiny bit about the story from here on but not really a spoiler. Ylva and Mike was not an ideal couple. Mike suffered from low self-esteem and is emotionally unstable, while Ylva is outgoing and a big-time flirt. As a consequence, there is a lot of friction between them. The book fails to draw out their characters well enough. We fail to connect with either Ylva or Mike. In fact, even as a victim, Ylva does not gets our sympathy because we don’t know her well. There is not much on what goes on inside her mind.

On another end, Jorgen Petersson, who has suddenly made a lot of money, reminisces about his school life and a bunch of bullies and is curious about what would have become of them over the years. He, along with his school friend, Calle Collin, a freelance journalist, start finding out about ‘the gang of four’. There is no justification to this angle, sheer coincidence. It is really not explained why Petersson is keen on finding those bullies from his past, and also how he finds any connection in what happens to each one of them.

The characters have not been drawn out too well. The relationship between them is also sketchy. We roughly know the state of affairs between Mike and Ylva, but we don’t know about the relationship between Ylva and Sanna or Ylva and Nour. When Ylva looks at her family on the screen for weeks, then months, then for over a year; we don’t know what she thinks, what goes on in her mind to see them getting back to normalcy. There is no insight into what goes on in the minds of all the main characters!

Another issue which disturbed me a lot was how Marianne approves her husband raping Ylva repeatedly. There is a bit of envy in places, but mostly she tells Ylva that she would be used by her husband whenever he wants. We also have no knowledge about the relationship between Marianne and Gosta.

The sexual assault on Ylva is also unnecessarily graphic, even repulsive.

In the beginning, Gosta is shown to be giving power point presentation on the methods used by perpetrators to control their victims. Each of those techniques has been explained in the beginning of several chapters dealing with Ylva and her captors. It is interesting and yet at some point, all this also looks like a case study.     

I have surprisingly rued about a lot of things and yet I loved reading the book. What stand out are the plot, the pace and the ending. The book is absolutely unputdownable. The ending absolutely lives upto the high the book creates. All the issues start coming out only in retrospect, they do not impact the pace or the story. When you read the book, you don’t really feel much amiss. You may absolutely love the book if you do not dwell too much into the things I mentioned.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review: The Green Room by Wendell Rodricks

Title: The Green Room
Author: Wendell Rodricks
Publisher: Rain Tree (Rupa Publications)
Pages: 356
Price: Rs 595
Genre: Non Fiction / Memoir / Autobiography
Rating: 10/10
Format: Hardbound

At the onset, ‘The Green Room’ stands out because of its gorgeous cover page – a black and white picture of Malaika Arora Khan in Wendell Rodricks’ famous mussel top, and the yellow colour spine.

‘The Green Room’ is a personal memoir by Wendell Rodricks about his life, his many passions and inevitably, the fashion industry, when he is completing 25 years of being in the business. If you think this book will be full of fashion jargons and about a rich lifestyle, you cannot be more wrong. This book is about a person who is driven by his passions, and who rose above his humble beginnings to realize his dreams. It is about a person who has lived his life well, who is content in what it has to offer and who makes the best of the opportunities, always eager to learn.

In ‘The Green Room’, Wendell Rodricks sets the pace with the ambience and feel of a green room, which is essentially the backstage room during fashion shows where models get ready. The early chapters are about his family tree and its roots in Goa, his humble early life in a glorified chawl at Mahim (Bombay), graduating from Dadar Catering College in pursuit of a glamorous career in hospitality, working as summer trainee at Taj Mahal Hotel and starting his professional life at Centaur Hotel (Santa Cruz, Bombay). He moves to Muscat for better opportunities and money to support his family income.

Muscat, in retrospect, had a far reaching impact on his life. He met his love and long time partner Jerome in Muscat, and with his support, changed his career track and went on to pursue fashion. Wendell Rodricks studied fashion in Los Angeles and later in ‘the fashion capital of the world’, Paris.

The book chronicles Wendell’s journey through the years – his ordinary early life, returning back to India to flag off his career in fashion (and ‘put India in his clothes’), teaching fashion students at SNDT, Mumbai (as he would say, he was “born to teach, to guide, to mentor”), his stint at the prestigious Garden Silk Mills, his First show ‘The Premier Collection’ for Glitterati, international acclaims, some stand-out shoots which made him famous, his articles for a myriad of publications and different subjects, setting base in his beloved Goa putting his promising career at stake, his fascination for Goa and its culture, stint at FIT, association with the first Lakme India Fashion Week, his path breaking work with Braille in fashion (the Visionnaire collection), involvement with environment conservation, his brush with politicians and politics while at IFFI, legalizing 21 years old relationship with Jerome by signing PACS, promoting Goan culture and Goa artists, researching Pano Bhaju (the old Goa costume), his extensive, enviable trips around the globe and many such important events and engaging snippets of his life.

He talks extensively about his shows, inspirations for clothes, how a designer works, the making of a fashion show, behind the curtains incidents, and yet it is never boring or repetitive.

In the early chapters, he also highlights the things which reflect the early indications of a designer’s eye, for example, the detailing of his aunt’s dresses, the sketches he made while in Muscat, the spectacle that stayed with him from childhood which he would later recreate in his clothes or shows.

He has kept the book delightfully above any controversies or scandals of the fashion world. He is also quite matter-of-fact about being gay. He handles it sensitively, and points out that while people look at the sexual element of gay love, for him it was just a celebration of love. 

He is a natural storyteller and a gifted writer; picking anecdotes and events, and relating them with the same gusto and detail as they would have occurred.

He is often funny.
One day, Mr D told me to go to Salalah. ‘By buffalo,’he said. ‘I have booked it!’ He was joking, I hoped.
The Buffalo turned out to be an old World War II aircraft …..”

“I would not do another film again even if they dragged me by hair, I decided. Seven years later, however, I was happily on the sets of Madhur Bhandarkar’s film Fashion.”

“There were three vanity vans in the lot where film was being shot. On one was a sheet of paper that said ‘Priyankaji’. The next said ‘Kanganaji’. The third – yikes – ‘Wendellji’!”

He is full of wisdom.
There would always be people with less or more, I figured, and there is no point in comparison. Even now, I am always content and hold to the belief that the best things in life are free. The stars in the sky, the monsoon rain, the pleasures of a walk on the beach …”

“I sat later on a parapet, over the bridge under which Princess Diana
 would die so tragically a few years later, looking at the Eiffel Tower with tear-blurred eyes. Madame Saint Laurent was right – I had to put India into my clothes. I needed to go back to my country.”

He is amusing.
I watched in horror as she came hopping down the ramp with mincing geisha steps. What the hell was wrong? Then I saw it. The dimwit had put both her legs into one palazzo leg. And then, horror of horrors, because the other leg was dragging on the floor, she had picked it up delicately to hold like a sari pallu or dupatta. The other models grinned and zoomed past her as Madam Mannequin continued to hobble on the ramp.”

He fittingly describes ‘Fashion’ as “that magical world of youth, colour, beauty, glamour, exotic travel, luxury, passion, ambition, corruption, intoxication, scandal….”

The most extraordinary thing about Wendell Rodricks is his relentless pursuit of knowledge, his passion for life and childlike enthusiasm for new things. His passion for fashion, traveling, food, Goa, culture, history, heritage, art and music; and the love and warmth with which he talks about his partner, are hard to miss. His enthusiasm for life is infectious and inspiring.            

He comes across as a prolific personality, and a fitting prodigal son of Goa.  He heaps praises on people who believed in him and supported him in different phases of his career, but most of all, his partner, who encouraged him and believed in his dreams.

At some point in the book, I stopped evaluating the book and style, and got deeply interested in him as his person and his life. This book is for everyone because simply put, it is about a person who accomplishes so much despite his modest beginnings.

P.S. At the end, my head was spinning with the information on all the traveling he has done. He has visited a mind-boggling 269 countries and 965 cities (at the time this book was being written).

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: Powder Room by Shefalee Vasudev

Title: Powder Room
Author: Shefalee Vasudev
 Random House India
Pages: 335
Price: Rs 399
Format: Hardbound
Genre: Non Fiction / Fashion
Rating: 10/10

Madhur Bhandarkar’s movie ‘Fashion’ was the first to explore what is little known to the general people, like me, of the world of fashion. But like all his other films, the characters were too unidimensional and the story was largely put together by mix-and-match of some controversial scoops from the Fashion world. There were no insights. It looked what it was – an outsider’s view of the workings of the Indian Fashion. It was high time an insider threw some light.

I first read about this book here, and I was hooked. Fashion is such a fascinating subject. Moreover, I had a ‘Fashion Designer’ phase while growing up, so I am pretty well-versed with a lot of fashion designers and models. I think Sushmita Sen winning the coveted Miss Universe title was a defining moment for Indian Fashion industry. Atleast my generation, which was still in school, took notice of this field. I even had a ‘Fashion Journalist’ phase. But today in retrospect, I am glad I did not become either.  I am not cut out for the Fashion world. I hardly care about clothes now (I mean the latest trend and not wearing!).

‘Powder Room’ by Shefalee Vasudev, an ex-Marie Claire editor and a journalist for 15 years writing on popular culture, social trends and fashion, attempts to offer a 360 degree view of the Indian Fashion industry. She interviewed 300 people within the scope of her book to understand what ‘fashion’ means to them. What came out eventually in the form of a book is an expansive view of Indian fashion industry –it takes into account how everyone perceives fashion and how fashion touches everyone and its impact, which is surprisingly far reaching and wide-spread. This book is as much about the elite class who can afford the latest luxury brands as much it is about the middle class shopper who gets a replica made for considerably low cost.

With a fetching cover page, the book is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a distinct aspect of fashion. ‘Powder Room’ packs a lot in its 330-odd pages. Here are a few glimpses:

The famous fashion designer Raakesh Agarvwal talks about fighting his personal demons, getting overwhelmed by the downside of fashion world to getting back on track and finally getting acclaim. Jennifer, the Sales girl with a luxury brand, admits to the conflict between her middle class personal life and the professional one surrounded with luxury brands and elite customers. Ludhiana ladies make dream customers for the luxury brands in their eagerness to lap up every latest offering. The super rich splurge on designer wear but India has a huge middle class which cannot afford those expensive clothes, and thus the emergence of darzi culture.

It was also refreshing to read about all kinds of models - where there are desperate ones like Nagma, eager to do whatever it takes to make it big; there are also the practical ones like Laxmi Rana and a lot of other senior models who have learnt to draw the line and keep their sanity. There are observations about Naga culture and fashion, and surprising lack of organized retail stores in a fashion conscious state.

While Rohit Bal stands out for the luxurious clothes he creates and the dramatic way in which he presents; Sabyasachi Mukherjee also has a huge following for his clothes which are distinctive and original. He is obsessed with Indian weaves, textiles and embroideries, and goes all out to revive, sustain, contemporarize the traditional crafts. The story of Patan Patola sarees and Salvi family actually mimic the fate of a lot of original Indian weaves and crafts. Without their openness to experimentation and any unique marketing strategy to make those traditional weaves aspirational for the young generation, the art is sure to get lost in the near future. 

The fashion media consists of stylists and editors from fashion magazines on one hand, and journalists who cover fashion as a segment for the mainstream newspapers on the other hand. The former focuses on insights and latest trends while the latter thrives on controversies and scoops. And finally the much talked about fashion world politics – feuding fashion designers, multitude of fashion weeks sprouted even in B-class cities now, no clear criteria for selection of young designers for them, and many such industry specifics. Bridal wear is certainly a big business avenue for the Indian fashion world and top designers agree that no matter what they show on the ramp, they are making a lot of Indian wear for their customers.

Eventually, ‘Powder Room’ is insightful, informative, gripping and eye-opening. It gives you an all-round view, multiple perspectives of fashion world and what fashion means to different people. The author explores the “aspects of modern India through fashion”, while also offering a study on evolving fashion consciousness. Though she steers clear of the controversial topics, she does discuss the pitfalls and downside of the fashion world but gives enough examples of people who have made it and yet not lost their heads to the excesses.

I am not in a position to comment if she has done justice to the Indian fashion world, may be her contemporaries can comment better. But as far as it is about me, I had a great time reading this book. It opened surprising as well as interesting aspects of a world, which has not been too talked about in books. May be there are many more things to say but it is certainly a good beginning.

A must read for anybody interested in fashion world, fashion students as well as people who are interested in anthropology, culture and social change. It strengthens my belief that non fiction is an extremely interesting category to read.

P.S. I googled every reference that she throws in – whether people, books or articles. I also googled all those cover pages she talks about.

Image courtesy: Random House India website

Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Title: We Need To Talk About Kevin 
Author: Lionel Shriver
 Serpent’s Tail
Pages: 477
Format: Paperback
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 10/10

Thought provoking, nuanced, ambiguous, horrific, dark, multi-layered, disturbing, unputdownable, engrossing, terrifying, even haunting – these are some of the words which popped into my mind while reading this extraordinary book. I often forgot that it was a work of fiction but it could have easily been a real story.

In ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver, the story unfolds through a series of letters by Eva Khatchadourian addressed to her husband, Franklin. Through her candid letters, Eva tries to pursue the possible reasons that eventually led her first born Kevin to murder seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher, three days short of his sixteenth birthday. She ruminates, evaluates, examines several incidents, feelings and experiences from before Kevin was born leading up to the present context (two years after the unfortunate incident).

In the beginning, she is taken in by the idea of having a child “for a change” but eventually when she finds that she was pregnant she did not like the idea any longer. Pregnancy felt intrusive in her personal space. Even after the baby was born, she failed to feel the connect with her newborn. She detested the changes it brought to her body and to their lives. In her letters, she candidly admits to her faults and her failings as a mother, in order to single out the reasons that eventually led Kevin to commit the unthinkable. 

She confesses to being a bad mother. When little Kevin tells her that she did not want him. In response, Eva tells Kevin that he would not want himself. All in the guise of being factual. She was also envious about Franklin's attention for the baby. The way baby responded to him and he behaved with the baby. 

She felt early on that Kevin was not an ordinary child. There was something odd about him. He was evil by birth. But she forever struggles to convince Franklin about this because Kevin is always the regular, loving, enthusiastic child in front of him. Eva believed that Kevin was a scheming, shrewed boy, not a little innocent child. The way Kevin behaves in front of Eva is almost eerie but Franklin always laughs off all such incidents. He might have been even unreasonable in convincing himself that there could not be anything wrong with his child. Eva goes up to the extent of having a second child Celia to prove (even to herself) that Kevin was certainly different and her own emotions as a mother were quite alright for the second child. A lot of times, Eva seemed even scared of Kevin.

Eva comes across as cold, proud and also vulnerable at times, but still Eva and Franklin could be any regular couple and that is what terrifies the most. This could happen to anybody!

The story telling and characterization are probably one of the best that I have ever read. This book is in the league of classics. A must-read if you are also a parent! It is the kind of book that stays with you long after you have finished it. You cannot stop thinking about it. 

It is a difficult book to read but always engaging, never slow. I cannot recommend it enough!

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Recommendations: Books on baby development and child care

Market is flooded with child care books and like in everything else, the internet comes handy in selecting just the right one for reference. I would also suggest discussing with fellow mothers. It always helps to get recommendations from others in the same boat. And at the end of the day, follow your instincts.

What to Expect: the First Year by Heidi Murkoff (with Sharon Mazel) – This book is only for the first year of the baby, so it addresses all the issues which you might have during the first year, and at 800 pages is pretty exhaustive in exclusively addressing the first year of a baby’s development and care.
It is divided into 4 Parts:
Part 1. The First Year – This gives you month by month account of a child’s development, what to expect each month and various issues one might face, for example, feeding issues, colic, baby necessities, child-proofing, etc.
Part 2. Of Special Concern – This chapter deals with concerns like baby’s health in changing weather, planning for travel, when baby is sick, most common health problems, first aid do’s and don’t’s, special needs baby, adopted baby, etc.
Part 3. For the Family – Concerns of a new mother, notes for father, when you have an older child at home
Part 4. Ready Reference – It contains baby’s first recipes across months according to his development, Common home remedies and Common childhood infections.
This book is pretty detailed and extremely useful for the first year, but it will be almost redundant after that.

Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care – Another favourite with new parents, this book will be handy till the time your child is 18 years. It is divided into 6 sections:
Section 1. Your Child, Age by Age: It covers all aspects from before your child is born till the time he is eighteen years of age
Section 2. Feeding and Nutrition: From Breastfeeding to starting solid foods and addressing eating disorders; the chapter focuses on the food-related issues and nutrition.
Section 3.  Raising Mentally Healthy Children: Emotional needs, balancing children with work, discipline, sexuality, stresses – are some of the issues addressed in this chapter
Section 4. Common Developmental and Behavioural Challenges: Sibling rivalry to annoying habits, toilet training to therapies – this chapter focuses on the behavioural challenges in children and how to address them
Section 5. Learning and School: This chapter covers the areas related to school, from starting to various problems faced by school going children.
Section 6. Health and Safety: General medical issues, immunizations, overall health and common childhood illnesses; are part of this chapter
Of course, since this book has a wider scope, diverse topics have been touched upon. It has been a good reference book so far.

Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different – How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men – Let’s face it, girls and boys are different, their inherent natures and tendencies are usually different. A mother, most of the time, is the primary care giver for children. With girls, we have our own experiences to fall back on a lot of times but it is a little different with boys. If you have observed, girls are usually more talkative and like to play with toys, while for boys ‘action speaks louder then words’. They need a lot of physical activities to release their energy. We end up getting frustrated with this inherent need of boys.

This book at 200 odd pages, attempts to help us understand boys, so that we help them develop into happy individuals. It covers the three stages of boyhood, the role of dads, mothers and sons, developing a healthy sexuality, sports, etc. It is a great book. (There is another book Raising Girls too but I have not read it, so would not be able to comment).

By the way, since I am at it, I would also recommend this article: Raising Boys - A dad's parenting advice for moms.

All these books are good reference books but every child is unique and a mother must follow her instincts to decide what is best for her child. The books will only act as guides to help you take informed decision. They are generic. Only you know what is best for your child or what your goals are.

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