READING FOR FEBRUARY : Tolkien's Gown; Miss New India; In the Sea There Are Crocodiles


Even if you don't read this review please do read the link on the author's name in the side bar.

You are a ten year old child. The last things your mother ever says to you before you go sleep one night are to never use drugs, never use weapons, and never cheat or steal. Then you wake the next morning and she is gone and you are totally alone, dependent only on your wits and the kindness of strangers for survival.

This book is that story. The author is an Italian novelist who works with children who have suffered immense hardship. In his work, he came across sixteen year old Enaiatollah Akbari, originally from a small village south of Kabul, and now recently granted political asylum in Turin, Italy.

The author in a his note at the beginning of the book calls this a work of fiction rather than a factual account as told to him by Enaiatollah. This is mainly due to the fragmented nature of the young man's memories resulting from the various traumas and events he went through, and the length of time covered in the story - some five or six years. He says it is a 'recreation' of Enaiatollah's experiences, with the journey 'painstakingly reconstructed'.

The story opens with ten year old Enaiatollah fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan with his mother for Pakistan, where he finds himself abandoned. It takes him five years to finally make it to a safe place in Italy. In the meantime he makes his way from Pakistan, to Iran, Turkey, Greece and finally Italy. At all stages he is subject to the whims of people traffickers, has to avoid border control, finds himself shipped back to Pakistan only to have to pay to get across back to Iran. He knows he has to keep going west, and he is always motivated by the occasional story he hears of boys from his home area, or of boys who have already been where he currently is who have made it to Italy. He endures the most dangerous and frightening border crossings that others in his group do not survive.

Once again, we can only marvel at how much endurance and hardship the human spirit can take, and in one so young. We marvel at the determination and tenacity to find peace and a safe place. At no point does he ever consider giving up, and maybe it is because he is so young, so naive, so filled with youthful optimism and energy, not yet damaged by lies, manipulation, dishonesty and fatigue that he simply keeps going, putting one step in front of the other. It also makes you think he must have had a guardian angel watching over him as he would have been just one of thousands of abandoned children trying to survive. And yet strangers are unbelievably kind to him and he does have some very good luck.

This is a very inspiring story, very humbling, and makes you wonder if you too would offer assistance to a dirty, bedraggled foreign child whose path you crossed.

MISS NEW INDIA by Bharati Mukherjee

All those off shore call centres - don't we just love to hate them and for all sorts of reasons. But probably what is the most annoying thing is they claim to be speaking to you from your home town and you just know that aint so. And do we ever think about the person behind the voice so desperately trying to sound Kiwi, American, English, Australian? Not really, because we just know that the voice is just another Indian voice out of probably a million voices in that vast land mass working in a call centre. Google 'call centres India': reading what is there will provide a most informative backdrop to this story.

But this story is not about call centres and not really about the people who work in them. It is about a young girl who wants to work in one, who thinks that once she has that job with a steady income, she has made it, she has escaped. Escaped from her preordained provincial rural small town life, escaped from the marriage that her parents are desperately trying to arrange for her, escaped from the tyranny of a future mother-in-law, domestic drudgery, and the chance to use her intelligence and sparkling personality.

And this is the core of the story and of so much of what modern day Indian society is like, especially for young women with some education and expectations. How do you marry the past with the future? Often one gets these sorts of conflicts when people from one culture or ethnic group move into another and the younger generation rebels against the values and expectations of their parents. But in India, this is happening within the country itself, as young people are better educated than their parents, see the Western consumer culture infiltrating all aspects of their lives, and want a piece of it.

So who is Miss New India? She perfectly captures this conflict. She is Anjali Bose, second and unmarried daughter of a traditional lower middle class couple who live in a small town in India's poorest province Bihar. Her father has always been a lowly clerk in the enormous and cumbersome bureaucracy of one India's many bureaucracies. His over riding mission is to have Anjali married off, and unlike his older daughter who was married and left her husband and whose name is now never mentioned, he hopes his daughter will be happy, that the marriage will be fruitful and that when he dies there is a son-in-law to preside over his funeral in good Hindu tradition. In her head however, Anjali is Angie. Beautiful, irresistible to men, perfectly poised to take on the world thanks to her excellent education from an American man who has lived and taught in the town for many years. He sees the potential in his young student and encourages her to take control of her life. Which she does.

After a 'journey', she finds herself in Bangalore, or Bang-a-lot as it is called by the young who have migrated from all over the country to escape the lives their parents have carved out for them. In Bangalore they have jobs, money, Western clothes, cell phones, a phone number, plenty of eating and drinking places to go to, some even a car, and no one to curb or manage their behaviour. No wonder the place is called Bang-a-lot.

So Angie finds herself literally thrown in the deep end of this very cosmopolitan, over populated, fast moving and to her eyes very sophisticated call centre city. She finds life is not quite as peachy as she has been led to believe it would be. How surprising. Constantly she is having to marry what she sees going around her with whether she should be doing it or not, what her parents would think, what her teacher would think. In fact I think she even stops thinking at times and just does! The New India is really quite a different place from the Old India.

So her life experience might be completely different from mine, but I found Anjali/Angie intensely irritating and stupid. Her whole life as she wants it to be has been learnt through Bollywood movies, although how she knows what to do on her first kiss when those movies never actually show one I don't know! As one would expect she is incredibly naive, having come from some little town in the middle of nowhere, and I really expected with her innocence of the world, and her misplaced trust in those around her, that more bad stuff would have happened. Parts of it are so fantastic it is ridiculous, and just like a Bollywood movie there is something momentous going on all the time.

But nevertheless, despite the contrived story line, there is actually a very good message in this book. The author is Indian herself. Fortunately for her, her parents saw the value of a good education and she now lives in America, as a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. I would say she is very well placed to be able to write such a story, having a foot in both worlds. Having lived in Bangalore myself, I was instantly drawn to reading this book. I can see exactly where the author is coming from and felt how she wrote about the city was very real. But I just wish she had chosen a character more believable and smarter than she thinks she actually is!

TOLKIEN'S GOWN by Rick Gekoski

This man is something else. He has been able to combine his mad passionate love of books and everything linked to them with the buying and selling of them for what could be regarded as ridiculous amounts of money. He is a dealer in books and associated paraphernalia such as manuscripts, chapters, and items such as JRR Tolkien's old college gown. Way back in 1982 he found it 'more fun to buy and sell books than to keep them. That way you kept acquiring interesting things, could suck the pleasure out of them, sell them, and move onto something new'. And that is what he has spent the last 30 years doing and, if this book is anything to go by, having an absolute blast in the process.

This little gem of a book takes a number of his best encounters with books and their writers and gives us a potted history of how the book came to be written and how he came to acquire a particularly valuable copy of the book - usually a first edition, or a copy annotated by the author with the special message to the recipient such as 'For Virginia Woolf from the author T.S Eliot' or 'For Rick Gekoski, the book which women like, from Graham Green'. Modern literature gold!

The author writes just like a child let loose in a sweet shop. His enthusiasm, his mad crazy energy, his marvellous sense of humour shines through in bucket loads and most importantly he doesn't seem to take himself at all seriously. On the book's endpapers there is a gorgeous photo of him in a tuxedo having a laugh with Dame Edna Everage and she features in one of the essays in the book. He adores what he does, and he loves telling people about it. These essays are based on a BBC radio series called Rare Books, Rare People that he broadcast on Radio 4. I would love to have heard him tell his stories, it would have been excellent entertainment.

There is nothing conventional about any of the authors selected by Mr Gekoski. They were/are all outstanding and memorable individuals whose books have created a stir/fuss/outcry/stampede/made a mark on the twentieth century landscape. And you will learn the most interesting stuff such as where the inspiration for Peter Rabbit came from, that JRR Tolkien designed the cover for 'The Hobbit' himself, that Jack Kerouac wrote 'On the Road' in six weeks on a 120 foot roll of teletype paper, that Graham Greene was also a mad passionate collector of rare books.

This is such an easy, entertaining and relatively quick read that will leave your head reeling with all sorts of interesting bits and pieces and lamenting the fact that becoming

a rare book collector could well have been the perfect career choice.