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Sabbatical for Surgery

Smoky is taking a break while she prepares for, then has, knee replacement surgery. She will be back late January, 2011. Until then, happy reading!

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A Breathtaking Journey to Post-Colonial India

Think of Pearl S. Buck, and most readers will automatically think The Good Earth.  But the prolific Buck wrote of exotic places other than China. In Mandala, she takes us on a breathtaking journey to India as the country is transitioning to independence with a story of love, the clashing of cultures, and mysticism.

This is the story of Prince Jagat, stripped of his title and most of his wealth, who embraces the new independence of his beloved country, and Moti, his wife, who is terrified of the changes that have come to her homeland and her home. When their only son, Jai, is killed in a Chinese Border skirmish, Moti, convinced their son’s spirit still lives, sends Jagat on a quest to find Jai. Along the way, he meets a beautiful, exotic American, Brooke Westley, and the pair strike up a love affair that seems destined by the fates. With Brooke, Jagat learns the difference between sex and romantic love. In doing so, he also learns cultural traditions are embedded deeply in his soul, and wages a personal war as his love for this Western woman clashes with Eastern traditions.

Moti, always timid and shy, is bewildered by the changes she sees in her husband, and seeks solace in her friendship with Father Francis Paul. With the priest, Moti becomes alive as she struggles to understand and accept love can be platonic, not sexual.

The East-West culture clash also affects Veera, Jagat and Moti’s daughter, who flirts with the idea of refusing the marriage her parents arranged for her in favor of emancipation; Bert Osgood, the American businessman employed by Jagat, whose attraction to Veera is irresistible; and Rodriguez, the servant whose loyalty to Jagat and his family affects them all in a profound manner.

Along the way we are treated to the splendor and mysticism that are India: visits to the Taj Mahal, the opulence of Jagat’s palace, and the underlying certainty that what is, was, and will be again. The intimation that Brooke and Jagat may have been lovers in a previous life is subtle yet unmistakable, as seen in the conversation the pair have shortly after meeting:

       “The night (my grandmother) died she told me to follow the man I love.”

       “But if you do not know who he is?”

       “I think she will let me know somehow, when she thinks I need him…”

       “How do you propose to find this man you love when, or if, you need him?”

       “I’ll happen on him by chance—as I did upon you.” 

Brooke’s touching encounter with a young child toward the end of the novel is nothing short of magical. Is reincarnation real? Readers are left to decide this for themselves. 

Buck’s sympathy for and understanding of Eastern traditions are evident in this gentle book. Her handling of the border skirmish with the Chinese rebukes without criticizing, a difficult task. Sex is part of this story, but is handled delicately, not graphically. We know the act is taking place, yet we are not bombarded with graphic details of who did what to whom—a trend in modern storytelling that I often find cliché and borderline pornographic. 

And if the end of the story was not what I hoped for as I was reading, what I would have written had I been Mandala’s author, it is a fit ending, and the only one Buck could have written.  I loved Mandala, and from now on, when I hear someone mention the name Pearl S. Buck, I have no doubt it is the book that will come to mind before all others.

To read an excerpt from Mandala, visit Amazon at: http://amzn.to/bMz5Mq

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Leave it to Mark Twain to reach from beyond the grave and publish a book. And what a book it is!

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 is like no biography you’ve ever read before. There is nothing chronological about it. Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, dictated memoirs of his life’s major and minor events to his assistant as the mood struck him. One moment he’s chatting amiably about a humorous event in his life, the next he’s ranting about some injustice in the world. Along the way, the reader is treated to gut-busting humor as only Twain can write it; and we’re also treated to the more serious side of the man, a side rarely portrayed in his writings. It is the more serious side and the frank manner in which he speaks of people and events that made Twain dictate the autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death.

The gut-busting side: Twain relates the story of a turkey hunt he went on as a boy, where he “followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of of the United States one morning.” What follows is an hilarious accounting of a young boy being outwitted by a bird, told in that remarkable tall-tale manner for which Twain is famous. (He never got the turkey, by the way.)

The more somber side: Twain tells the tale of the time he and his invalid wife stayed at a villa in Italy, and the nightmare he had dealing with the Countess who owned the estate. The Countess was cold, calculating, and cruel, and made life miserable for the Clemens family while they lived there. “I was  losing my belief in hell until I got acquainted with the Countess Massiglia, Twain writes.

Yet, even when Twain was speaking about political injustices, he managed to do so with humor. “…(M)y own seventieth birthday arrived … on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for—annually, not oftener—if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank for Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.”

This is a scholarly book, no doubt. It contains original notes he took over the years, photographs, and an extensive reference section. This additional material actually makes up the largest part of the book, and is why it is a whopping 735 pages. It weighs four pounds, which makes it difficult to read simply because you practically need heavy construction equipment to lift the thing. I never thought I would hear myself say this, but if I had a Kindle, I think I would have preferred this book in electronic format simply for ease of reading.

Yet, scholarly as it is, it is also very readable, because it is written in Twain’s wonderful conversational style. I laughed, I cried. But most of all, I fell in love all over again with the man who has delighted readers for well over a century with his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and plethora of other books. How fortunate for Twain fans that 100 years have passed, and his wonderful autobiography is now available for all to read.

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