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One From the Archive: ‘The Path Through the Trees’ by Christopher Milne ***

First published in 2014.

The Path Through the Trees, the second volume of Christopher Milne’s autobiography, was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Bello.  It starts where The Enchanted Places ‘left off’, but, the author says, this book ‘is a complement [to it].  It is about the non-Pooh part of my life.  It is an escape from Christopher Robin’. 9781447269854

In The Path Through The Trees, Milne presents what he thinks of as ‘a disjointed story – but a happy life’.  He describes the second part of his autobiography as follows: ‘So I live at the bottom of a valley.  I have a small bookshop in a small town; and I seldom venture far afield’.  In the book, his story begins at ‘the point in time when the choice stopped being theirs [his parents’] and became mine’.  It opens with the declaration of the Second World War, when he has finished at his public school and is about to go and study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A few of the themes which were so prevalent in The Enchanted Places weave their way into The Path Through the Trees, most notably the importance of nature and Milne’s love for his natural surroundings.  The Path Through the Trees is written just as eloquently as the former, but the entirety feels far more grown up.  Milne talks about smoking for the first (and last) time, forays into politics, his joining up with the Army, discovering himself as a person, his marriage, and becoming a father.  Records from his personal diary have been copied verbatim.

Whilst the charm of the first book has not made its way into the second, The Path Through the Trees is still a most interesting read, particularly when Milne reaches his acquisition of the Harbour Bookshop in the small town of Dartmouth.  It is at this point that the book really comes into its own.

One cannot help but feel, however, that the same kind of leap between volumes of autobiography is present here as exists between Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo.  The spellbinding note has been lost somewhere along the way, and sadly, a lot of it tends to read just like any other memoir.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Enchanted Places’ by Christopher Milne ****

First published in 2014.

Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places is one of the newest books on Bello’s thoughtful list of reprints. He was the son of A.A. Milne, and the inspiration for the darling character Christopher Robin – ‘the small boy with the long hair, smock and wellington boots’ – who shares his adventures with a cast of lively and captivating animals, including Pooh and Piglet. 9781509821891

The Enchanted Places has been written from the vantage point of the author’s mid-50s, and tells of his childhood in the ‘enchanted places’ in Sussex in which he used to play – the Hundred Acre Wood, Poohsticks Bridge and Galleon’s Lap, among others.  As well as talking of his own adventures as a young boy, Milne ‘draws a memorable portrait of his father… [in] a story told with humour and modesty’.

The Enchanted Places, first published in 1974, is the first book in Milne’s three volume autobiographical series, and deals solely with his life as a young boy.  His memoirs begin ‘somewhere around the year 1932’ in his Crotchford Farm home, a place which he and his family adored. Milne describes the reason for which he decided to write about his life as follows: ‘To some extent, then, this book is an attempt to salve my conscience; and it may perhaps be some slight consolation to all those who have written and waited in vain for a reply that this, in a sense therefore, is their reply’.

Throughout, The Enchanted Places is absolutely charming, and full of vivacity.  Milne’s descriptions are beautiful, and it is clear that he was forever full of love for both nature and life.  Rural England springs vividly to life beneath his pen.  Each chapter presents a mini essay of sorts on one subject or another, and whilst Milne’s prose style echoes his father’s, there is also something wonderfully original about it.

A.A. Milne with Christopher and Pooh Bear

Milne is a rather humble man, and comes across so nicely on the page.  He takes the reader on a journey back in time with him to encompass his nursery days, his forays into the Hundred Acre Wood, tours of his home, the discovery of his very first treehouse, and the adoration he held for his childhood nanny.  He goes on to talk of the problems which he encountered due to his immortalisation in fiction, and demonstrates how his father’s fame impacted upon him from such an early age.

The Enchanted Places is a quaint and an incredibly lovely read, and is sure to be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.  The natural settings and shyness of Milne as a young boy have been captured perfectly, and the book presents a rich treasure trove of memories, certain to enchant everyone for whom Winnie the Pooh was a part of childhood.

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‘Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank’ by Hannah Goslar and Alison Leslie Gold ****

Hannah Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank’s and a survivor of the Holocaust, tells her story here in tandem with Alison Leslie Gold. The two met in Israel in 1993, where Goslar now lives, and Gold transcribed what Goslar told her. ‘We did the interviews in English,’ Gold writes, ‘which Hannah had learned as a schoolgirl over fifty years ago. Because I wanted the book to sound like Hannah, sometimes the style is a little cryptic.’  Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is, says its blurb, ‘a moving testimony to a girl who survived a terrible ordeal and another who did not.’ 9780747592242

This particular Holocaust memoir is very much aimed at younger readers; it presumes that one knows very little about the Holocaust in its introduction, or of Anne and her diary. The book uses an omniscient voice, in which Goslar herself appears as a character rather than a narrator. This narrative style sometimes verges on the simplistic.

The Goslar and Frank families, both of whom had moved from Germany during the Nazi Party’s rise to power in the late 1930s, were neighbours in Amsterdam for almost a decade, and became very close friends. The account which Goslar provides here begins in 1942, when she found out that the Franks had left their home. They did so under the guise of going to neutral, and therefore safe, Switzerland, and brought this up with various friends and neighbours before they went into hiding in the annexe of Otto Frank’s workplace.

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Anne Frank and Hannah Goslar, Amsterdam, May 1940

A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank feels, in tone and style, as though it would be the perfect accompaniment to the likes of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and its sequels. It is a compelling memoir, filled with such sadness, but also a great deal of hope. Of course, it tells of Goslar’s own experiences more than it does Anne Frank’s; we learn about Goslar before, during, and after she and her family were transported to Westerbork, in Eastern Holland. Goslar later met up with Anne Frank again when both were moved to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne sadly died shortly before the camp’s liberation. A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is moving, and gives an insightful portrait of a childhood friendship, and the war and persecution which tore it apart.

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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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Two Books About Haiti

I have noticed of late that a few reading friends tend to theme the books which they read, choosing several about the same topic and reading them in quick succession.  Having been granted two galleys about Haiti at around the same time, I thought that I would read them back to back, for what I hoped would be an immersive cultural experience.  One of the books, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, is a short story collection, and the other, Maps Are Lines We Draw by Alison Coffelt, is a travel memoir.

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Ayiti by Roxane Gay ****
I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me.  Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’.  Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages.  Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.

Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it.  The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there.  He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s.  He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’

Many themes are touched upon and tackled here.  Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit.  The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.

 

Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Roadtrip Through Haiti by Allison Coffelt ** cover127304-medium
Throughout Maps Are Lines We Draw, Allison Coffelt rather briefly details a trip which she takes across Haiti, along with Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, founder of the public health organisation OSAPO.  In Haiti, she writes, ‘she embarked on a life-changing journey that would weave Haiti’s proud, tumultuous history and present reality into her life forever.’

Maps Are Lines We Draw is rather a short travel memoir, told using an entirely fragmented style which weaves together experiences from Coffelt’s trip, childhood memories, and many facts about Haiti.  Whilst it was interesting enough to read about her trip, there was quite a jarring edge to the structure.  I found it quite bitty and inconsistent due to the seemingly randomly placed fragments of thought and memory.  The author uses a lot of quotes from various guides, but there is rarely an exploration of them; rather, they feel like random appendages which have been placed willy-nilly in order to make up a wordcount in a GCSE essay.  At several points, it read simply like a factbook.

I love the fragmented style of prose when it is used in fiction, but I do not feel as though it works well with regard to non-fiction.  There needs to be an overarching, controlled structure for works such as this.  Only the sections on Haiti’s history have been approached well.  Whilst Maps Are Lines We Draw is enlightening in some ways, it is markedly problematic and frustrating in others.

 

 

I have very much enjoyed my first deliberate experience of reading two books with very similar subject matter, despite enjoying one far more than the other!  Is this something that you personally do often?  Do you have any books along the same themes, or about the same topic or geographical location, which you would recommend reading one after the other?  Would you like to see more twinned reviews like this on the blog?

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‘Two Under the Indian Sun’ by Rumer Godden ****

I cannot wait to travel to India at some point in the next few years, and was thus very much looking forward to deciding on my Indian book choice for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  There were so many intriguing and tantalising-looking works of fiction which I could have chosen, but I decided to go with something a little more unusual, and picked up Two Under the Indian Sun by sisters Jon and Rumer Godden.

I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before.  I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India.  Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.84b6c72c80c3e0ffac1edd779348a767

The girls had both lived in India as very small children, along with their two younger sisters, Nancy and Rose, but, as was the custom at the time, were sent to live with their grandmother and maiden aunts in London.  In the meantime, their family, whose father works in India, had moved from their old home in Assam to the town of Narayangunj.  When they arrived back in India, they realised that they had been homesick all along.

The girls’ observations of the world around them are sometimes contrasted with their experiences of India as adults, and everything is consistently captured using the most beautiful prose: ‘Early mornings seem more precious in India than anywhere else; it is not only the freshness before the heat, the colours muted by the light, the sparkle of dew; it is the time for cleansing and for prayer.’  Highly vivid and sensual descriptions are given throughout of the girls’ surroundings: ‘Perhaps the thing we had missed more than anything else was the dust: the feel of the sunbaked Indian dust between sandals and bare toes; that and the smell.  It was the honey smell of the fuzz-buzz flowers of thorn trees in the sun, and the smell of open drains and urine, of coconut oil on shining black human hair, of mustard cooking oil and the blue smoke from cowdung used as fuel; it was a smell redolent of the sun, more alive and vivid than anything in the West, to us the smell of India.’

The preface of Two Under the Indian Sun begins: ‘This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone, a few years that will always be timeless for us; an evocation that we hope is as truthful as memory can ever be.’  Interestingly, although published several decades earlier, Jon and Rumer address many similar questions to those which Penelope Lively explores in her memoir of life in 1930s and 1940s Egypt, Oleander, Jacaranda.  All three authors write about the reliability of memory, particularly those made in childhood.

Spreads of rather charming photographs have been included in Two Under the Indian Sun, and these complement the memoir wonderfully.  The girls’ relationship with one another is beautifully evoked; whilst they fight from time to time, they write that they ‘were so close that between them was a passing of thought, of feeling, of knowing without any need for words.’  The girls feel an overarching affinity for life in India, something else which is shared between them: ‘Our house was English streaked with Indian, or Indian streaked with English.  It might have been an uneasy hybrid but we were completely and happily at home.’

The voice which Jon and Rumer have created together feel fluid, and I loved the shifts between describing themselves as ‘Jon and Rumer’ and then ‘we’.  Whilst it can occasionally be described as dark, Two Under the Indian Sun is largely a charming memoir, filled with all kinds of quaint details, and told with a light and often funny collaborative voice.  Their portrayal, despite those nods to the darkness which they know exists in their adoptive country, is largely an idyllic one.  They enjoy having personal freedom in India, which is markedly different to the rather strict and proper conditions which they lived under in London: ‘We were free of everyone and everything and, as hares take on the colour of their surroundings, we disappeared, each going our separate ways except during the period of Nana, when we were taken for a walk every morning.’  Two Under the Indian Sun is a lovely and joyful book to read, offering a multilayered portrait of India at the beginning of the twentieth century.