Reading update: Tea Obreht, Marion Chesney, Anjali Banerjee, Geronimo Stilton

1. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht:  I joined a book group shortly after moving to California, and this one was February’s pick. In an un-named post-war country in Eastern Europe, Doctor Natalia Stefanovi visits an orphanage to provide medical care, while simultaneously searching for clues to her grandfather’s death. As her narrative unfolds, she recounts the tales she’s heard from her grandfather over the years. Two fantastical stories run through her grandfather’s life– that of the tiger’s wife, a tale set in his childhood village about the relationship between a tiger and deaf-mute girl, and that of the “deathless man” Gavran Gailé, whom the grandfather meets in a variety of places and situations.

This is a book of ideas–about the power of folklore, about the intersection of  myth and history, about belonging and outsiderness, and much more.  The prose soars, especially in the sections about the tiger’s wife–Obreht is wonderful with tone, and invests the story with a mysticism that is utterly convincing. The Tiger’s Wife demands a very close reading–it features a large number of characters, nested stories that move away and outward from the first-person narrator, and the author is deliberately spare with grounding detail. I keep a book in my car so I can read for the ten minutes I wait to pick up my son from school, and this title was a terrible choice for this function–you can’t gain access to a work of such complexity  while reading  in dribs and dabs with an ear peeled for the school bell. So I took the book  home and gave it all the attention it deserved.

In sum: I’m in awe of Obreht’s (obvious) talent, but the book’s structure didn’t work for me. I felt that Natalia’s first-person present-day narrative failed as a framing device–it simply wasn’t strong enough to pull all the disparate stories (flashbacks, myths, history) together into a pleasing whole. And at times, I felt almost as though Obreht made the reader work hard on principle rather than as a function of the demands of her story, with the result that it’s difficult to gain entry into her fictional world. The Tiger’s Wife won the Orange Prize in 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, so I’m in the minority here. Other members of the book group had other reactions, which of course makes for the most interesting meetings. And there was no wine, as the group meets in the library; our almost 2-hour discussion was powered by BOOK LOVE.


2.  Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee: This one is pretty much a love letter to indie bookstores.  Jasmine Mistry, wounded by divorce and capitalism, takes a reluctant break from her investment banking career to manage her aunt’s quirky little bookstore in Puget Sound. At first, Jasmine browbeats customers and tries to persuade her aunt to makeover the store into a mini-Hallmark outlet.  Yes, I hated her too. But slowly, Jasmine discovers the truth– the store is haunted by ghosts of famous authors (Kipling, Poe, Emily Dickinson etc.) who dispense much-needed advice (and in one instance, a lot more than advice) to the world-weary Jasmine. 


Such a charming plot! This book will appeal to anyone who loves books as objects of beauty, and who believes in their transformatory/healing power. I have my hand raised. 

The writing in the initial part of the book is fairly edgy. “My ex-husband, Rob, used his charm like a weapon, and ultimately he didn’t care whose heart he broke– or whose life he ruined. Neither did he care whose bed he woke up in. My mother would say, Well, Jasmine, that’s an American penis for you. You should’ve married a Bengali.” The book, however, loses most of its edge as Jasmine mellows, and by the end, the whole thing feels a trifle lightweight. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t help but wish that Banerjee hadn’t held herself back  from taking this wonderful plot over to the dark side. Haunting Jasmine is an enjoyable read, yes, but Banerjee’s MG novel Maya Running, which I read and praised back in 2011, has stayed longer with me than this one.

3. Marion Chesney’s Daughters of Mannerling series. When Sir William Beverley gambles away the family home Mannerling, the six haughty Beverley daughters, all obsessed with status and position, decide to regain their house at all costs. As this is the Regency period, there’s only one path open to them–marriage. The six volumes have each daughter in turn deciding whether to sacrifice true love for a chance to restore the family fortunes.


I zoomed through The Banishment (#1) , where the beautiful Isabella must choose between the new owner of Mannerling or an Irish lord, and then went to the last volume one, The Homecoming (#6), because I wanted to see if Chesney would have the family regain Mannerling, before getting a hold of the rest of the series. So, um, all six books have the same plot. As always, I read Chesney for her brisk, energetic writing–the heroine moves from hate to love back to hate in the first paragraph, gets engaged or attacked in the next, overhears a secret (but not the *really* vital bit, because she scurries off in distress mid-way) in the third, runs away in the fourth etc. etc. Chesney packs her books with emotion and action, and on every page, you sense that she knows it’s all fun–she never takes the characters or story very seriously, unlike, say, some Georgette Heyers I can think of. You get zero moral ambiguity and a guaranteed happy ending. This stuff is great in small doses.  

4. Each time I visit the library, I return with a carefully curated set of kids books for my son. Last week’s pickings included The Wolves are Back by Jean Craighead George (thanks for heads up about this writer, Buried in Print!), The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson, and The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs.  I returned them all unread yesterday, because the only books my son reads now are the Geronimo Stilton books. Aargh!


Geronimo Stilton is a mouse who lives in New Mouse City on Mouse Island and is the editor of The Rodent’s Gazette. He’s timorous and risk-averse, but is willy-nilly dragged into adventures in exotic places (titles include The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid and Valley of the Giant Skeletons). The books are filled with terrible rodent-centric puns (detective Hercule Poirat, groan) and my son loves them. There are 56 Geronimo Stilton books (on average, four new volumes are published every year) plus numerous spin-offs including a series featuring Geronimo’s sister Thea and another with his caveman ancestor  Geronimo Stiltonoot.  There’s no respite in sight. 

Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

Song of India by Mariellen Ward: I’ll admit to a jaundiced-verging-on-chrome  eye when reading travelogues about India. In my experience, such books either romanticize the country–it’s all Rajasthani palaces and IT fortresses–or they  condescend, wherein the writer, on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk. Ward’s book however, steers well away from such cliches; hence this review.

Song of India (2011) is a (self-published) collection of travel articles that appeared in a number of venues, including the Toronto Star. Ward, who lives in Toronto when she’s not traveling, combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an unapologetic passion for India, and the result is a splendidly personal account of the country’s transformation of her philosophy of life (and death). Ward’s experiences center around Yoga and spirituality, but her uplifting, informative  tales will appeal to Indophiles of all stripes. If, at times, I was skeptical about the ease of her travels–all hardship is self-imposed, and the author has apparently escaped (how?) diarrhea/sexual harassment/taxi drivers demanding five hundred rupees to reach the idli-stall round the corner–Ward herself acknowledges the magical quality of her relationship with the country.

The pieces could perhaps have been thematically arranged for a more cohesive read (the collection occasionally feels a tad scattershot), but Ward’s tensile prose, free of any hint of self-aggrandization, goes a long way in helping the reader overlook such minor flaws. After reading Song of India, you can’t help being glad for Ward for finding herself a happy place; would that all of us could. Ward conducts tours of India as well; on the basis of this book, I’d say you couldn’t find a better guide.

You can read more India-centric writing by Ward at her website.


Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee:  It’s the 1970s, and as the only brown girl in her small Manitoba town, Maya faces incomprehension, scorn, and occasional racial slurs  for her Indian heritage. Then her cousin Pinky arrives from India, and suddenly, being Indian is cool, for Pinky is beautiful and accomplished, and unapologetic about her ethnicity. Maya is delighted–until Pinky catches the eye of the boy Maya likes.

Obviously, serious intervention is called for.  Maya prays to the (Hindu) God Ganesh to change things around, and Ganesh answers her prayers, but the beware-of-getting-what-you-ask-for clause kicks in. How Maya gets  things sorted provides the note of suspense to the story.

In the main, I was charmed by Maya Running.  The novel is sharply-written and deeply-felt, and while Banerjee doesn’t sugar-coat issues of racism, she doesn’t let it bog the plot down either. The magic realism (for want of a better term) was an unexpected and welcome touch–works like this are often predictable, conforming to the cultural-conflict-solving “issue” book mold, and I was very glad that Banerjee injected something new and fun into this genre. My only real issue was with the pacing of the story.  Ganesh’s machinations begin only midway through the novel, and then everything moves very fast; I felt Banerjee could have explored Maya’s altered reality in more detail, rather than hurtling towards the climax.  Having said that, I was impressed with this book overall.  Banerjee, who grew up in Manitoba and now lives in the USA (presumably in warmer climes), writes for adults as well, and I’ll be trying those books soon.

You can read more about Banerjee at her site. And here’s an interview with her on this month’s Bookslut.