A Fine Balance

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. Read by John Lee. Santa Ana, CA: Books on Tape, Inc., 2001.

Reason read: in honor of India celebrating Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth month as Children’s Day in November. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Originally, I chose this book to read in November because supposedly November is a good month to visit India. Since I have never been to India in November or at any time, I couldn’t really say when is the best time to visit.

I could tell I was going to like A Fine Balance when I got to this line early in the the novel, “How much gratitude for a little sherbet…how starved they seemed for ordinary kindness” (p 8). The writing is so graceful and honest. This is the story of the daily lives of four people in an unnamed seaside town in India, thrown together by a housing shortage after the government has declared a state of emergency. At the center is Dina Dalal, a widowed seamstress. As a matter of pride she will not remarry just to be supported by a man. In order to stay self sufficient she takes in borders. One such border is Manek Kohlah, a student attending college in the city. He is studying refrigeration. Ishvar Darji and Omprakash, two other borders, are tailors fleeing caste-centric brutalities in their village. There is no doubt in my mind most people find this story incredibly tragic, considering its ending. I found it sad but with a thin thread of optimism. When a once bitter character can laugh by the end of it, you know the human spirit has not been broken.

The word that comes up time and time again when describing Mistry’s work is depth. Depth of characters, depth of plot, and of human emotion. That being said, pay attention to Dina. Her transformation is the best part of the book.

Author fact: Mistry also wrote Such a Long Journey in 1991. It’s also on my list.

Favorite line, “If there was an abundance of misery in the world, there was also sufficient joy, yes – as long as one knew where to look for it” (p 588.)

Book trivia: On November 30th, 2001 A Fine Balance was chosen as an “Oprah book” for her book club. As an aside, I went to her website to see how such a book is talked about, promoted, marketed, and so on. I was surprised to see her website would have such a crappy cover shot. The image is super blurry so my guess is the file is too big. I guess I expected Oprah’s website to be just like her magazine, big and glossy.

Nancy said: not much. Just described the plot, which is surprising considering Mistry’s masterful writing. I would have thought Pearl would want to say more.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust¬†twice. First, in the chapter called “100 Good Reads, Decade By Decade (1990)s” (p 179) and again in “Passage to India” (p 181).

City and the City

Mieville, China. The City and the City. Read by John Lee. New York: Random House, 2009.

Reason read: November is Imagination month and believe me, this book takes the imagination to the moon.

Despite the fact Tyador Borlu is investigating the murder of foreign student Mahalia Geary, the real main characters of The City and the City are the city and the city, Beszel and Ul Qoma. In order to wrap your brain around the plot you first need to understand the landscape. Each city shares essentially the same geographic space. Members of each city are trained to “ignore” the other and to perceive “their” city as different from that other one. Everything, from the clothes people wear to the architectural styles of the buildings, is seen as unique to the people within “their” city. Residents are taught to have different languages and mannerisms to further differentiate themselves; and to acknowledge the other city’s existence or “see” is called Breach. Breach is worse than murder. Residents need to learn how to “unsee” the other city or face the consequences of Breach. Only Copula Hall exists in both cities and is in fact the gateway to travel from one city to another.
But, back to the plot: murder victim Mahalia Geary was found mutilated in Borlu’s city, Beszel, but after some investigation Tyador Borlu learns she had connections to that other city, Ul Qoma. And to complicate matters, she was researching a third city, Orciny. Was her investigation getting too close to the truth? Was she murdered because she was about to expose a completely different society with nefarious activities? As Borlu gets closer to the truth he increases his chances of Breach.

As an aside, I now know why I don’t do well with fantasy and science fiction. The weird names that seem to be a staple of the genres are hard to pronounce and even harder to remember. No wonder I didn’t do well in my foreign language class.

Author fact: I read somewhere that Mieville wrote The City and the City for his dying mother since she loved police procedurals.

Book trivia: The City and the City won a Hugo award and many, many others.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter appropriately called “Travels to Imaginary Places” (p 236).

Under the Volcano

Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano. Read by John Lee. Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2009.

Reason read: November 2nd is traditionally known as Day of the Dead or All Souls Day in Mexico. For the most part, Under the Volcano takes place in one day on November 2nd, 1939. Confessional: Then She Found Me ended a week early so I started listening to Under the Volcano on October 23rd 2015.

The very first thing you notice about Under the Volcano is the luxurious writing. Lowry’s use of language is like sinking in a deep bed of velvet. You fall in and keep falling until you can’t extract yourself from the words very easily. Listening to this an audio made it a little more difficult because of the various languages spoken and the switching of points of views. I can understand written Spanish much better than the spoken language.
The very first chapter sets the stage for the following eleven chapters. It is November 2nd 1940 in Quauhnahuac, Mexico and two men are reminiscing about the British Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. Chapter two takes us back exactly one year and we follow Firmin’s activities for one short day. Be prepared for a pathetic man’s sad Day in the Life. His ex-wife has just returned to Mexico from an extended stay in America¬† in an effort to reconcile with Firmin but ends up having a better time with his half brother. All the while the Consul is drinking, drinking, drinking. It is tragic how he argues with himself about that one last drink. There are mysterious dogs, runaway horses, bullfighting, and of course, the ever present volcanoes. Warning, but not a real spoiler alert: this doesn’t end well for anyone.

Quotes I liked somewhere within the pages of Under the Volcano: “Genius will look after itself”. True. And, “Vandals in sandals looking at murals”.

Author fact: Under the Volcano seems very autobiographical in nature. Lowry was an alcoholic, lived in Mexico for a time and went through a divorce, all like his main character, Geoffrey.

Book trivia: Under the Volcano was made into a movie and was Lowry’s last novel before he died.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Postcards From Mexico” (p 186). Incidentally, it’s the last book of the chapter and to describe it Pearl calls it “uber viscerally painful” (p 186).