WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING LATELY
Empress by Ruby Lal, Norton, $36.95. History books require a lot of research to write, a great deal of hard work goes into the best ones, but they tend to remain dry accounts of which king conquered what territory when.
Names, dates, perhaps lists of accomplishments... one rarely gets a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and ruled, unless it’s a fictionalised account. The books lack heart and soul.
Ruby Lal’s Empress is a rare exception. An acclaimed historian of Mughal India, her knowledge, passion for her subject and a formidable talent brings alive the life and times of Nur Jahan.
She weaves history and possible scenarios seamlessly to present a richly-detailed portrait of the times. She describes palaces, intrigue and jostling for power, journeys the royal entourage took from Agra to Kashmir and back again, what books might Nur have read, what she wore and ate. What emerges is an empress who was celebrated as Jahangir’s co-consort with coins being cast in her name but also reviled by those who feared her power and attributed it to her womanly wiles rather than acknowledging her political acumen and diplomatic skills. Specially after her rift with her stepson Shah Jahan, when people who had bowed before her authority began to band together in opposition.
Condemnatory statements on her character began to emerge... She had sowed the seeds of dissension within the royal family...
The book also presents Jahangir, who was often written off as a weak king – one who was inebriated much of the time and led by his wife – in a different light. Lal describes a patron of the arts, a traveller, a scholar, an enlightened man, strong enough not to be threatened by a woman.
But after Jahangir’s passing, “At a rather astonishing speed, the old order was restored, as if these men had simply been waiting for the emperor’s passing so that they could override the empress”.
Women were rarely more than a footnote in history, as Lal points out. In Akbarnama, the chronicle of Akbar’s reign, the passage that noted the birth of longed-for son Salim doesn’t mention the name of Harkha, the wife who produced him. Instead it makes metaphorical references only to her womb... Erasure was common for a woman of Harkha’s time...
Over centuries, Nur Jahan’s remarkable contributions were diluted by successive monarchs and those who kept royal records, and yet, as Lal notes, some people will themselves into history.
Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal, Ballantine Books, $36. Alys Binat asks students in her literature classes at a school in Pakistan to reimagine as they saw fit that most famous of opening lines:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This sets the stage for a reimagined Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. As Alys Binat (Elizabeth Bennet), Valentine Darsee (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Jeorgeullah Wickaam (George Wickham) – you get the idea – make their entry, this reviewer’s initial response was, Oh, please! One wishes writers would imagine their own stories and leave classics alone, but this particular one works surprisingly well in the talented hands of Soniah Kamal.
Even as her own life plays out like that of Elizabeth Bennet, Alys not only teaches Jane Austen, she describes her as Jane Khala (aunty Jane). “Jane Austen is ruthless when it comes to drawing-room hypocrisy. She’s blunt, impolite, funny, and absolutely honest. She’s Jane Khala one of those honorary good aunts who tells it straight and looks out for you.”
Kamal tells it straight, too. Her observations on social norms in countries we called home and her sketches of the Binat clan and all the other major and minor characters who weave in and out of the tale are detailed and funny. Satirical, without becoming farcical.
And she has my vote with Alys’s reimagining of the line she assigns her students:
It was a truth universally acknowledged, Alys suddenly thought with a smile, that people enter our lives in order to recommend reads.
The Happy Human by Gopi Kallayil, Hay House, $34.99. Happiness is a multimillion dollar industry, based on the premise that we deserve to be happy. Gopi Kallayil holds that the key to happiness lies in being who we are – 100 per cent.
Even if, maybe specially if, that means falling on our faces. Which, as he shares, he has done. Many times, but he has also seen spectacular success.
Kallayil is chief evangelist, Brand Marketing, at Google. He is also the founder of Yoglers, a yoga program for Googlers and a self-proclaimed Happy Human – this appears above his name on his business card.
He starts by describing how it felt to check number 36 on his list of 100 things to do – meet the Dalai Lama. When he hesitated about making the 12000-mile journey with no guarantee of a meeting, his friend and mentor Stuart Newton told him, “You asked the universe, and it has opened a door. Now you must walk through it.”
I think, he’s chanelling Shah Rukh Khan of all people! And yet, there he is, two weeks later, meeting the Dalai Lama.
Kallayil attributes much of his happiness to yoga and meditation techniques he was raised with in his family in India, and also to the fulfillment he’s found in working in the tech industry. Though, he confesses, that preoccupation with work, and work-related stress came in the way of this happiness, and that these were things he had to learn to overcome, to deal with.
And he shows readers how he did it. In one chapter he describes himself as a possiblearian.
I believe everything is possible... That sense of potential creates so much joy and happiness.
Being happy is serious business!
The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie, Unbound, $35.99. Set in southern India in the 1700s, The Pagoda Tree follows the journey of Maya, a little girl who is destined to be a devdasi or temple dancer.
Extensive research on the subject and the period results in a tale that is rich in detail and full of colour, like an exquisite tapestry. The rituals in the lives of the dancers and the lives of the British traders stationed there, they all come alive with barely a few mis-steps.
A note on the rather unorthodox way the book was published: Unbound was created by three writers who came up with a form of crowd-funding because they believed there had to be a better deal for writers and readers. On their website, authors share their ideas for a book and if enough readers support it by pledging for it in advance, they produce a special subscriber’s edition along with a regular edition that is sold in shops and online. The book lists the names of the people who made it possible.
To learn more about how this works, visit unbound.com.
Made Out of Stars by Meera Lee Patel, Tarcher Perigee, $22. It’s a journal with a difference. Author and illustrator Meera Lee Patel uses a wide range of inspirational quotes, from Louisa May Alcott and Oscar Wilde to Marcus Aurelius, and watercolour paintings to move one along on the journey of self-discovery.
What are three things you’ve always wanted to experience?
What is keeping you from exploring them?
Questions like these, with plenty of room to jot down your thoughts, it’s a space to reflect on what makes each of us unique.
The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach, Dragonfly Books, $10.99. A delicious twist on “the dog ate my homework”, this is a tale that anyone who has ever had a dog will love. Two big paws up!
Good Night Solar System by Adam Gamble and Mark Jasper, Good Night Books, $9.95. “Children of Earth” are introduced to the wonders of the solar system by “children of the Milky Way”. Informative and fun!
Yamna Asim’s Teen Review of eah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli, Balzer + Bray, $20.11. Filled with high school scandals, the rumour mill, and the eagerness of prom night, Albertalli captivates the reader by the happiness and success or the hardships and challenges in the life of senior students as they enter their last year of high school – their last year of freedom before entering adulthood.
Leah Burke, all-girl band drummer, is a diva and a bisexual girl who has not come out to anyone, except her mom. Not even to her gay best friend, Simon Spier. As a person whose life revolves around drums and rhythms, she likes to say her life is pretty much on beat. But real life always comes with off beats. Raised by a young, single mom in a small house, her life is less privileged than her fancy friends who live in mansions with still married parents.
Tensions run high when her rock solid friends group starts to break and go into unexpected paths. Leah struggles to hold them together through tough breakups and nasty fights, all the while battling to keep her hidden feelings intact. What happens when you realize you love someone more than you intended to?
In my opinion, this book is recommended to teens that like or are interested in reading LGBT romance and comedy. It does have some swearing and famous book references like Harry Potter which made this book more interesting and humorous. I think this book reminds people that high school is not easy and explains most of the problems teenagers go through in their senior year like college applications, exploring their sexuality and accepting the fact that they will be adults soon, meaning taking responsibility for their actions. As Leah Burke says, “But it sucks when life moves along without you. Sometimes I feel left out even when life’s moving along with me.”
• Yamna Asim is a grade 10 student and a member of Brampton Library’s Teen Library Council.