Review: The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

marriageThe Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama is a sweet and funny new book.  Set in modern day India, it is the story of Mr. Ali, a newly retired man with too much time on his hands.  I got a good laugh from this exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Ali early in the book (it reminds me of my parents!).  Someone has just leaned over the Ali’s gate and pulled a flower off Mr. Ali’s hibiscus plant:

He struck his forehead with his hand in frustration and Mrs. Ali laughed.

“What?” he asked.  “Do you think it’s amusing to lose all the flowers from the garden before the sun has even risen fully?”

“No,” she said.  “But you are getting worked up too much over trivial things.  After retiring, you’ve been like an unemployed barber who shaves his cat for want of anything better to do.  Let’s hope that from today you will be a bit busier and I get some peace,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

Mrs. Ali rolled her eyes.  “I have been running the house for more than forty years, and the last few years since you retired have been the worst.  You keep interfering and disturbing my routine,” she said.  “You are not the first man in the world to retire, you know.”

So Mr. Ali, a Muslim, puts a sign out front and opens up a marriage bureau; a matchmaking service for those who can afford it.  He is willing to work with all the castes and major religious groups.  Soon he has more work than he can handle alone, so his wife suggests an assistant.  She finds Aruna, a lovely Hindi girl with amazing organizational abilities, who becomes invaluable to the bureau.

As customers come in and express their wishes for a match for their son, brother or daughter, or even for themselves, the reader gets a real sense of Indian society.  From arranged marriages to the caste system to religion and food, it’s a cultural lesson wrapped in a charming story.  Some customers think they know what they want, but Mr. Ali (with Aruna’s help) is sometimes able to convince them to widen their search and consider other possibilities.  Mr. Ali has great success, facilitates many matches, and even gets invited to a wedding.

It’s so easy to fall in love with these endearing characters.  Aruna, young and smart but without marriage prospects due to a failed engagement and her father’s health problems and resulting financial woes, falls in love with Ramanujam, a handsome, wealthy customer.  Marriages must be arranged; Aruna cannot find her own future husband!  Brides must have substantial dowries..  and her family simply cannot afford a marriage to a man of means.  And Ramanujam’s family is looking for a very different kind of bride.  When their wishes and choices go against family expectations, Aruna and her intended face a serious dilemma.  Do they respect their elders, or find a way to be together?  Can they do both?

This is a light and breezy book written with much affection for India and it’s people.  I learned a lot about the customs and culture without actually trying.  My only quibble would be that the dialogue felt stiff and stilted at times.. it was like reading English being spoken by someone for whom English is not their first language.  But maybe that was intended.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People offers a wonderful sense of place; the heat, the rains, cows wandering into the garden, the dust, the sites and smells, and the beautiful people.  While there are significant cultural differences between us, people are people wherever they live.  Book clubs would have many universal themes to touch on in discussions.

Many thanks to Jaclyn at Penguin for sending me this lovely book to review.  Highly recommended.

Review: The Blue Notebook by James Levine

51rkxj2gqbl_sl500_aa240_Is it wrong to say I loved a book about child prostitution?  Maybe so, but it’s true.  The Blue Notebook by James Levine is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.  

The story is about Batuk, a beautiful and imaginative young girl from rural India.  Having learned to read during a lengthy hospital stay for TB, she takes solace from her miserable home life in books.  Betrayed by her own father, she is sold into the sex slave trade in Mumbai at the age of 9, brutally raped and forcibly introduced to the ways of the street.  Stunned and disoriented, survival becomes little Batuk’s main priority. 

As a prostitute, she weaves fantastical tales in her blue notebook as a way to remove herself mentally from the filth and scum of the Common Street, a place in Mumbai where she is locked in a “nest” and “makes sweet-cake” with 10 or more men a day.  All of her earnings go to pay off her purchase price; she gets nothing.  Hungry, filthy, lonely- her pencil and notebook come to mean everything to her.  Sold yet again to a wealthy man and taken to a luxurious hotel to show the man’s effeminate and vile son “how to be a husband”, she is abused, attacked, and treated like human garbage.  She hangs onto her notebook and continues to write, hiding her scribblings behind the pipes under the bathroom sink. 

The subject matter is difficult, but Batuk is an unforgettable character.  Through the gift of literacy she manages to rise above her circumstances and hold onto hope for the future.  Her imagination sets her free even as she is exploited, beaten, sold, belittled and raped. 

The atrocities of Batuk’s existence sickened me.  After reading The Blue Notebook, I did some internet searches to find out how many children are in similar circumstances in India.  The numbers are staggering and the reasons are complicated, but poverty, illiteracy, hunger, and overpopulation play an enormous role.  

James Levine is a brilliant writer.  He is a British doctor at the Mayo Clinic who, as part of his research for the Mayo Clinic, interviewed homeless kids on a famous street of prostitution in Mumbai known as The Street of Cages.  He noticed a girl writing in a notebook outside of her cage and he interviewed her at length.  That powerful image haunted him and launched his career as an author.  I hope this book will shine a bright light into this dark global issue.  

All of the US proceeds from The Blue Notebook will be donated to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.  It will be released in July 2009.  I recommend you buy a copy to help this organization and to honor a child you love (you can pre-order before the release).

Thank you to Rochelle Clark at Random House for sending me this extraordinary novel.


Book Club Meeting for Eat, Pray, Love: Wrap-Up

A few Books on the Brain readers, including Danica, Gentle Reader, Tara, and others, some of whom left comments HERE and HERE and HERE, asked if I would post about the Eat, Pray, Love discussion at my book club meeting.  We had an excellent meeting, with 8 of our 12 members attending.  The food was great.. mini pizzas from Trader Joes, a big pasta salad, homemade calzones, wine and chocolate.  Mmmmm.  

We started off the discussion by asking what was each person’s favorite part of the book.  Our hostess, who is relatively new to the group, said the cutest thing.  Her favorite part was when the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, was at the ashram in India and talked about wanting to be The Quiet Girl In The Back Of The Room, because every time she leaves a book club meeting, she feels like she’s talked too much, and she wanted us all to know that she doesn’t think her opinions and comments are any more important than any of ours, and she wanted to apologize if anyone felt she went on and on too much, and she just really likes to talk, and she loves the book club, and and and..  finally her sister said, “Ok!  We get it!  You can stop talking now!”  We all had a good laugh.

Everyone liked certain aspects of the book.  We agreed that Gilbert is talented and that the book was well written.  One member, who I know didn’t really care for the book, said good things about it before she went on her rant about “paying for Gilbert’s therapy by buying this book”.  A couple of us were critical of the India section and the “fake God moment” when she declares she is one with God and actually IS God.  We all thought there were a few coincidences that were probably mostly BS and just thrown in because she was writing a book.. like when she was praying about her nephew and his nightmares and learned later they had abruptly stopped at the same time.. or when she wrote a letter to God about finalizing her divorce, and then suddenly she gets the call that her husband finally signed the papers.  

Many of us thought she could have filled us (the reader) in a bit more about why her divorce was so horrible.. to me it was hard to work up any real sympathy for her because she doesn’t say why it was so awful, so so so hard, really really hard (WHY?)  Divorce sucks, but in the big scheme of things.. it’s not like having cancer or losing a child or whatever.  We all thought she needed some perspective.  If the worst thing that ever happens to you is something that really isn’t all that horrible, it’s still the worst thing ever TO YOU.  But stop trying to convince me (without actually TELLING me) that it was SO BAD, so horrible and hard.  On a funny side note, Liz Gilbert has now married her Brazilian lover Felipe, who she met in Bali, and her next book is about marriage.  BWAAHHAAHAHAHAHA!

 Anyway.   Overall I’d say the book was liked more than disliked.  I asked members to give me a “wrap up” of what they thought and got a few responses.  Here they are:

From TD:  EPL was a well-written, somewhat comical memoir of Gilbert’s travels and search for spiritualism and balance.  As the book progressed, I could see that she changed from a self-absorbed needy woman to a more self-controlled, happier person.

I would rate it 3.5.

From DD: Rating: ***

In total, I did not hate or love the book.  I could not relate to Gilbert’s depression, so I had little sympathy while reading about her divorce trauma.  If all of her whining was removed from the book, I would’ve liked the book better.  Gilbert is a good writer and has a fun way of describing her adventures in all three countries.  I came away learning a little about Italian cuisine and language, Indian ashrams and meditation, and the culture of Bali – a plus.  Some of her events were a little contrived and far-fetched, but I guess it was felt that they were needed to “spice up” the book.

From KD: 4*’s

Gilbert’s travels were very educational.  EPL is a wonderful book to read for those who have an open mind about someone who has mental illness. Gilbert wants to get well (without drugs) and find her inner peace. A beautiful book!!!

From EL: I would give it 4 stars.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a witty writer and very easy to read.  I enjoyed reading about her personal journey, as well as the cultures, geography of the places she visits.  She was especially informative about meditation and the ashram in the India section.  Readers will love the book if you can get past two things: 1) she is often whiney and self absorbed, especially about her failed relationship with David (bleh!), and 2) since she is upfront with the reader that the trip (and thus book) was conceived before she began her journey, the reader may often feel like some of the events that she experiences are fake and contrived.  Otherwise, I really did love the book. 

From JT:

I enjoyed it although I was ready to leave India- it got a little long and I felt the author was so self-absorbed on and off throughout.  I enjoyed Italy most of all- I like her writing style and she is very likable and fun.

From SA:  I can’t say I loved or hated this book – my feelings about it fall somewhere in the middle.  On one hand, like many working mothers, I had a bit of a problem relating to the author, her life, and the premise that she “needed” to spend one year away from the States (in order to heal herself and cure her depression).  On the other hand, I did enjoy and appreciate her wit, her obvious intelligence, and her talent as a writer.  While reading the book, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life, dreams, disappointments, and future goals. I think that was a good side effect of this book, and it is not something I can say about most of our other book-club picks. So, I don’t regret reading it. But I’ll be careful about who I recommended it to in the future.  4 Stars

Sunday Salon: For Those Who Have Read “Eat, Pray, Love”

The Sunday

Ok, so a lot of you who visit me at Books on the Brain participated in the comments section of an earlier post about Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Click HERE if you missed it.  At that time I hadn’t read too much of the book and didn’t really understand the uproar this book has caused.  I’m not sure I totally understand it now that I’m about 2/3rds of the way through either. However, I have a bit of a problem with a certain section of the book, and would love to know if anyone else had a similar problem with it, or would like to comment on it.

While in India, the author has a spiritual episode called a turiya state, something devotees of the Ashram she was staying in aspire to, in which she says she is “suddenly transported through the portal of the universe and taken to the center of God’s palm.” (pg. 198)  She explains, in part, this way:  “I was inside the void, but I also was the void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time.  The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom.  The void was conscious and it was intelligent.  The void was God, which means that I was inside God.  But not in a gross, physical way-not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle.  I just was part of God.  In addition to being God.  I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe.”  (pg. 199) 

So, am I to read this as she thinks she was God, for that brief period of time that she was in this altered state?  Seriously?  She and God are one and the same?  

Please, enlighten me, if possible.  Cuz’ I’m having a hard time buying THAT.