Monday, October 28, 2013

Review : Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

**Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1983.**
Star Rating:- 

Ask me to pronounce verdict on a work of literature flaunting self-indulgent wordplay, 
revelling in its own brand of avant-gardism which stops short of making a powerful statement on our troubled times and my response to it is likely to be lukewarm. 
Ask me to judge a book dissecting the greater human quandary with keen insight but in stilted prose, and my reaction is likely to be more or less the same. 

But give me a story capable of dismantling all the divides of race, culture, political/religious indoctrination, time and space, encompassing all the inner contradictions of our existence into a compelling commentary on human follies that elicits a very visceral, emotional response, and my being won over is practically guaranteed.

Reading Michael K's tale took me on one such heart-breaking metaphorical journey. At the culmination of which I realized that pitying the innocence of Michael Ks of the world who are repeatedly squashed like bugs under the bootsoles of the 'system' is but a foolish thing to do. Instead, I pitied the ones who are incapable of recognizing true misery when they see it, the ones who fail to identify the root cause of all human conflict and its futility, who pride themselves on their achievements which are, sometimes, nothing but grave mistakes in the greater scheme of things.

Inspite of being born with genetic deformities and other crucial handicaps like the absence of a privileged background, Michael K is a fortunate being in my eyes. Someone who doesn't baulk at staring truth right in the eye, a venerable hero stranded in the midst of cowards. He can summon the moral strength to shun the comforts of life, deprived of which each one of us are bound to wither away and die the pathetic death of an unwatered plant. He can seek refuge in the heart of the inhabitable mountains, combat starvation by feasting on insects and the cherished pumpkins he cultivates with the tender care of a mother. He is brave enough to eschew the path prescribed by the ones positioned on the top most echelons of the social hierarchy. He doesn't know which side to choose during a war. So he chooses life over death, physical misery over psychological enslavement, creation over destruction. Simply put, he deserts the company of men to embrace humanity.

"You are precious, Michaels in your way; you are the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age, like the coelacanth or the last man to speak Yaqui. We have all tumbled over the lip into the cauldron of history: only you, following your idiot light, biding your time in an orphanage, evading the peace and the war, skulking in the open where no one dreamed of looking, have managed to live in the old way, drifting through time, observing the seasons no more trying to change the course of history than a grain of sand does. We ought to value you and celebrate you, we ought to put your clothes and your packet of pumpkin seeds too, with a label; there ought to be a plague nailed to the racetrack wall commemorating your stay here."

He understands the one thing that others are too cowardly or too ignorant to acknowledge. That laying the groundwork for a future way of life through ruthless violence blunts the human intellect to the point where one is only aroused by the urge to draw blood, inflict fatal injury and the application of reason loses its appeal.
Michael doesn't understand what a war is, so he struggles to flee the myriad horrors of it, clinging to the last shred of his dignity and his self-made definitions of right and wrong. As everything falls apart in the cities, in the labour camps, swallowed up by the chaos brought about during war, Michael busies himself with creating and rebuilding life in the countryside.

Thus, Michael is nothing but a representation of that slumbering voice of reason within each one of us, the voice of the dissenter, the voice of the one putting up a passive but stubborn resistance against the absurd, inhumane demands of society. And that is precisely the reason why this world needs more silent revolutionaries like him. 

P.S.:- My only grouse with Coetzee is his pedagogical compulsion to launch into a lengthy discourse expounding on hidden meanings, instead of having faith in the perceptive reader to grasp underlying implications. That caused me to take away that 1 star.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review : Letter to a child never born by Oriana Fallaci

Originally published in 1975 by Rizzoli 
Republished on:- September 24th, 2013
Republished by:- Open Road Integrated Media 
Star Rating:-

Once in a while, I stumble upon an unheard of book written by someone who expresses everything I have ever felt and says it as eloquently and without any reservations as I would hope to someday. And I realize once again why reading is so vital to my existence. Only literature helps me make my peace with all the ugliness in the world and infuses me with the strength to carry on with whatever futile everyday doings I busy myself with in the hope that someone somewhere is summarizing the human condition with deep empathy and sensitivity, for me to derive my solace from.

Once in a while, I stumble upon an unheard of book written by someone who expresses everything I have ever felt and says it as eloquently and without any reservations as I would hope to someday. And I realize once again why reading is so vital to my existence. Only literature helps me make my peace with all the ugliness in the world and infuses me with the strength to carry on with whatever futile everyday doings I busy myself with in the hope that someone somewhere has summarized the human condition with profound empathy and insight, for me to derive my solace from.

Oriana Fallaci makes no pretensions in this book. Doesn't sugar-coat her attempt at shaking the very rigid walls that make up the citadel of patriarchy, doesn't shy away from tackling the entire spectrum of burning issues which if you proceed to discuss with friends and acquaintances even now in 2013, will earn you the raised eyebrows of some, urgently conducted hushed discussion of your 'morals as a woman' behind your back by others and vehement denouncement by the rest. And to think this brave war correspondent from Italy, who had removed the 'hijab' or 'chador' forced on her during an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in addition to criticizing the imposed compulsion of wearing it, wrote this in 1975. (I am not going into the topic of her alleged Islamophobia)

A woman's right to her life over the life of her yet unborn child. Is there one?
And not just that. When do we say that life comes into being? At the moment of conception or in the ninth month and, in some cases, the seventh month when the foetus actually becomes viable?
How morally justifiable is it to ask a woman to behave, monitor her own mood changes, refrain from undertaking tasks which put a physical strain on her or treat her like an inanimate incubator designed to mold its existence around a foetus' needs? Is it okay to overlook the importance of the life of a full-fledged person of flesh and blood, with her own place in the world, taking only into consideration the hint of possibility of life that has taken roots inside of her? Given a choice, would an unborn child want to be born in a world like ours where a mother is unable to ensure her child's safety and well-being and slavery begins the moment we are liberated from our dark prison inside the mother's womb?

Oriana Fallaci writes with a poetic flair, fearlessly lending her voice to many questions which nearly all of us (specially women) battle with in solitude over a lifetime, but are often unable to articulate these ideas in front of an audience in fear of backlash by a predominantly conservative society. The central ideas are presented in the form of a young woman's internal monologue, in which she confronts her own fears, doubts, misgivings and suppressed anger while pretending to converse with her unborn child.

As I reached the end of the book I couldn't help but wonder if the irony of mostly men framing abortion laws in almost all nations of the world would have registered with the ones at the helm of matters if they had a copy of this book? Probably not. After all, a writer like Fallaci is more likely to be labelled a 'radical feminist' and her views snubbed coldly with a patronizing shake of the head without further thought.

I haven't 5-starred this book merely because it deals with a strongly feminist humanist theme or because it is so deftly written but also because it neatly presents a logical argument both in favor and in opposition of nearly every pronouncement of the pregnant woman. The unnamed protagonist's voice keeps shifting between the extremities of calm rationality and impatient resentment, sometimes making irrefutably cogent statements in front of an imagined jury silently judging her thoughts and actions, and sometimes just lashing out in cold fury at the unfairness with which the world treats her. 
She is as humane and prone to error as any one of us, which is why it is most important to acknowledge that our established notions of life, death and motherhood could be just as flawed.

**I received a free copy of the republished e-edition from Netgalley and Open Road Integrated Media**

Also posted on GoodreadsBooklikes and Amazon.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: In The Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1) by Tana French

First published: 2007

Star rating:  

It's been two hours since I finished reading. I'm disoriented and emotionally drained, and turns out, home alone on a Sunday. I think my parents told me they were going somewhere but I honestly cannot remember where that somewhere is; I was just that deeply obsessed with reading this book.

In The Woods is too layered to be labelled as a crime-thriller or a mystery. It is not just a guessing-game of who did what to whom. It is an exploration of what this guessing-game does to the people involved, from the ones left behind to deal with the ramifications to the ones responsible for doling out justice - and what better way to do that than tell the story through the eyes of a man who plays both roles at the same time.

In the Woods is a very unusual book. It has this lovely subdued feel to it, which I absolutely loved. It was everything I did not expect - unhurried, reflective, gorgeously written. There are two crimes involved but Tana French does not sensationalize either one. What she does instead, is create complex, real characters and build the dynamics between them. She makes you care about the players and not the game, so even when the whole thing wraps up and the verdict is out, you don't stop caring. You don't forget.

There is a big question-mark at the end that I'm sure will frustrate a lot of readers but I liked that note of incompleteness. I'd rather be left with a question that has room for hope than be left with an answer that is definite and ugly.

This book is not a high-action nail-biter. It is quiet and sad, but I can guarantee that it will linger in your memory way past the last page.

Added bonus: The writing is just wow.

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the microlandscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams. 
They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink? 

If this snippet from the prologue doesn't convince you to give this book a try, I don't know what will.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review : Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua

First published:-1995
Star rating:- 

I have anemia and irrespective of what comprises my daily diet or the amount I consume, my body's ability to manufacture blood and hemoglobin remains permanently stunted. Which is why I have no choice but to take iron supplements regularly and without fail. 
Once I suspend this routine for a few days, the dizziness, the lack of vigour returns to haunt me with a vengeance. 

So perhaps, it is a travesty of the highest order that I will now proceed to empathize with the protagonist's compulsion of selling his own blood away like a commodity to procure a few Yuan for his family's well-being. 
I am supposed to wax eloquent about how moving an account this is of the mishaps that befall a family, mainly due to the policies implemented by a cruel, unfeeling administration divorced from the needs of the common man.
I do know a thing or two about being bloodless but then I have no first-hand knowledge of suburban and rural poverty in China preceding and succeeding the years of the Cultural Revolution. Hence, I don't deserve to frame a few pompous sounding sentences in a review depicting the hardships of Xu Sanguan and his family and express commiseration. Because come what may, I'll never be able to experience what it feels like to be in his shoes. Even if my family falls on hard times, I'll promptly be shooed away from hospitals or laughed at if I ever did try and sell/donate my blood.

How can I understand destitution, sitting here inside an air-conditioned room typing away patronizingly at a desktop after having read a book on my kindle? I don't know the first thing about working on an empty stomach in a silk factory. Or being forced to savour a bowl of thin corn flour gruel laced with sugar like the finest gourmet dish in existence during a terrible famine. Or having to sell blood and, in turn, risk selling my life away in order for my family to get over a crisis. Or having my life's basic structure re-modelled according to the whims of a delusional autocrat.

But what I do perceive with shocking certainty is the giant, looming shadow of Chairman Mao's legacy of despotism and how deeply it affects the work of writers from this fascinating country. 
It is becoming increasingly hard to imagine coming across literature from and about China devoid of any mention of the Communist Party's history of corruption and the blunt indifference with which they stripped away a generation of people of their dignity as human beings, treating them almost like laboratory mice.

Xu Sanguan goes through life, fights his daily battles with various adversities without knowing the first thing about Communism, Socialism or Capitalism. He only wishes to provide for his family and survive, remaining largely clueless about the political upheavals in his own country or their significance in the greater scheme of things. Forget politics, he only identifies with the English letter 'O' as a circle which denotes his blood group. Such is the extent of his guileless ignorance.

He can only know what being in the throes of starvation feels like and what it is like to be in perpetual need of one thing or another. Concepts like subversion, revolution, agitation or questioning the legitimacy of a regime or higher authority are alien to him.
And yet innocuous as his existence is, ripples of political disturbances outside the realm of his comprehension bring turbulence into his own minuscule sphere of existence. He suffers and we suffer along with him.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant showcases no instances of ostentatious wordsmithy or lucid erudition. Instead, Yu Hua often resorts to crude metaphors to bring to life the rustic simplicity of the backdrop against which the story unfolds. But what catapults this into the league of great literature is its endearing honesty and its attempt at remaining true to the spirit of an age and a nation caught in a painful phase of transformation. Sanguan's bloodlessness is rife with underlying implications. It is his steady depletion of vitality which symbolizes the silent misery of a generation.

And yet, this book stresses not so much on an anti-communist rhetoric as much as it directs its energies at narrating a tale of blood ties and a family's quest for survival in the face of all imaginable trials and tribulations. A family which couldn't care less about Mao remaining in power or Mao being deposed. 

Because to the Xu Sanguans of China, all meaning in life lies embedded in a crock full of bug-free rice and a few Yuan which can buy them the luxury of gorging on fried pork livers and gulping down a few shots of cheap yellow wine.

4 stars out of 5.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Eleanor Catton wins the Man Booker

Way to win an award in style, woman. Not only is Eleanor Catton the youngest Booker winning author in history (at 28) but she has also won the award for the longest novel in Booker history.

At 832 pages, The Luminaries is the longest novel to be ever awarded the Man Booker Prize.

Aww someone is all smiles. 

Quoting from The Telegraph:-

"Catton, 28, beat competition from Colm Tóibín, NoViolet Bulawayo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Ozeki and the favourite, Jim Crace, to be awarded the £50,000 prize by the Duchess of Cornwall at a ceremony in Guildhall in London.The author began The Luminaries, her second novel, aged 25, and has eclipsed the previous youngest recipient of the award, Ben Okri, who won aged 32 in 1991."

Well heartiest congratulations to Ms Catton. Now I may have to read this after all.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Review : Asunder by Chloe Aridjis

Publisher:-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published on:-September 17th, 2013

A vague sense of foreboding persistently stalks the reader on every page of this narrative, as if something potentially dangerous and forbidding awaits one at the turn of the next page. But then the pages fly by, nothing truly nefarious ever materializes and the feeling finally settles in that the substance of this narrative lies not in a likely event of cosmic importance or even in the anticipation of its occurrence but in the minutiae a reader usually glosses over.
The everyday happenings, some of them mystically inexplicable, some of them a little odd but so commonplace that they do not merit even a second thought let alone further introspection - the things we breeze past in an effort to dwell on the more materially satisfying aspects of life without realizing that each one of these discrete snippets of time spent with people in places is what makes up the structure of life itself.

As I glanced at the blurb (which clearly does not do the book justice even as a half-hearted synopsis), I felt a stab of sympathy for whoever wrote it (author/publisher/random intern), because not only is it very difficult to clearly define the contours of this book but it is equally trying to put one's finger on one strongly resonant theme in it since there are many.

There's the subject matter of the suffragettes (the term used for women campaigning in Britain in the late 19th and 20th centuries for the female ballot) and a young Mary Richardson who had taken a blade to assault one of the priceless works of art in the National Gallery on the eve of the First World War while Marie's great-grandfather Ted was a guard at the museum. It's no coincidence that our protagonist is the namesake of this revolutionary since the shadow of Mary Richardson's act of bravado looms large over Marie's life, silently influencing her in ways she remains oblivious to.
Hence it can be stated that feminist undertones are delicately woven into the the narrative without being glaringly obvious.

There's also an overarching feeling of the protagonist's unnerving indifference to most things, her tacit refusal to take the wheels of her own life and letting herself be propelled by happenings and the decisions made by people around herself. In the beginning I was speculating on the possibility of some sort of unique psychological condition plaguing her in an attempt to convincingly explain her aloofness from life or what could even be called her cowardice. But by the end of the narrative, I realized, a little bit of Marie's dogged impassivity lives inside all of us.

She is haunted by the spectre of her own isolation in the midst of people and her inability to steer her life in the direction of romantic entanglements and fulfillment of any kind. As a guard at the National Gallery in London, Marie comes across many visitors from day to night who spend agonizing minutes peering over works of art which have been witness to centuries of history. With the passage of time, she starts equating the cracks and fissures showing up in the fabric of her life with the craquelures in the paintings. And finally when she confronts her own hesitations after an enigmatic encounter with an owner of a chateau in France, the reader is left with the parting message that Marie has finally summoned the courage to destabilize the status quo in her life just as a certain young Mary Richardson of yesterday had dismantled the status quo in the socio-political landscape.

Chloe Aridjis is a gifted story-teller. Her writing is richly atmospheric and often plays out like a discordant symphony, combining too many erratic musical notes together and yet sounding so perfectly melodious. Same can be said about her choice of original but beautiful metaphors.
"It began with those viragos, he'd tell me, comets detached from the firmament, deviant and sharply veering, long-haired vagabond stars, hissing through the universe on their solitary paths, a tear in the social fabric, threats to the status quo. Yes once war broke out, Ted said, their battle eclipsed by larger events, became no more than one of many lit matches in the stratosphere."
This book made me feel thankful for my relationship with Netgalley which has allowed me to discover such promising new female authors as Chloe Aridjis and Nina Schuyler. In other words, this is very highly recommended.


Also posted on GR:-
Also posted on Booklikes:-

**with thanks to Netgalley and the publishing house for providing me with a free copy of the e-edition**
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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

If I were to use only one word to describe this book, I would type the word 'brilliant' a million times with each letter in CAPITALS and fill up the entire word length of this particular space.

In all its sensitivity, emotional depth and keen understanding of the complications of the human mind, this is a stellar work of literature and a tour de force in itself. I cannot go ahead and say it is Murakami's magnum opus (it is not his longest novel), since I haven't finished with all his translated works and besides he is only 63 and I expect him to keep writing books for as long as it matters, each one better than the last. But I'm forced to admit that of the 7 Murakami books I have had the fortune to read so far, this one stands out as the most gripping, most cerebral yet compassionate commentary on loneliness and human misery. 

In this particular novel, Murakami stitches together a handful of seductively beautiful vignettes to form a magnificent larger than life image, that does not only represent a story of a particular individual but recounts the tales of many. Seemingly unconnected at first, these numerous subplots coalesce together in a solid clincher of an ending - a humongous task but performed with elan by the masterful surrealist.

It is a story of a marriage which is falling apart slowly but steadily, a moving depiction of the horrors inflicted on humanity during Japan's occupation of Manchuria and the forgotten battle of Nomonhan, a mystery thriller, an exploration of the inherent darkness within each one of us and a man's path to self discovery all combined into one.

Newly out of work, Toru Okada is leading a peaceful life with his wife Kumiko when his carefully organized world starts to crumble bit by bit. His wife goes missing without a hint, the sociopathic brother-in-law he despises with a passion is emerging as a compelling figure in Japanese politics and he begins encountering queer characters one after the other, each of whom seem to be twisted individuals but guide him towards solving the mystery of his wife's sudden disappearance. And thus begins a most intriguing tale of Okada's journey through an intricate labyrinthine path stretching across time and space, the real and the surreal, where he goes through a set of bizarre but enlightening experiences.

It is difficult for me to say anything more about the plot simply because it is impossible to summarize a Murakami novel or to express all the emotions a reader goes through in such a short review. Honestly I could write a whole damn book if I'm to review every aspect of one particular Murakami novel.

All this time I had subconsciously developed an intense desire of knowing Murakami's opinions on Japan's infamous role in World War II. This book surprised me pleasantly by giving me exactly that and I'm not disappointed with his view. 
Instead of taking a stand, Murakami describes a few scenes of extreme violence with precision and calculated neutrality and pushes the reader to form his/her own opinion. He does not try to absolve the Japanese of the unmentionable crimes they committed against the Chinese but at the same time offers a very human perspective of the trail of death and devastation. For example, when a Japanese veterinarian, serving as the director of a zoo in Manchukuo is being made to watch the gruesome killing of 4 Chinese rebels with bayonets, Murakami sums up his feelings in the line:-

'He became simultaneously the stabber and the stabbed.'
I don't think he could have created a more moving picture of the ruthlessness of war or the unimaginable horrors it spawns. If the Japanese were ruthlessly brutal, so were the rest - the Soviets, the Mongols and every single human being who killed or tortured another in the name of war. He also hints at the accountability of those at the helm of matters, seated somewhere in their immaculately decorated offices, dressed in dapper suits, making decisions which alter the course of humanity for the worse and bring about disastrous consequences for the rest to face.

This is perhaps the only Murakami novel which has a very strong element of mystery at heart and which ends with a satisfactory resolution of sorts. 

Final rating :- 5 stars and no less. Hell, I could've given it a 10 stars out of 5 if possible.

P.S:- So Murakami didn't win the Nobel this year either, but that's okay because in the heart of every devoted Murakami lover, he has been given the Nobel a million times over already.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review : Paper Towns by John Green

I sit here at my desk, staring blankly at the notepad document wondering what kind of a review will be able to portray effectively all that I felt for this book and yet manage not to come off as an incoherent, mawkishly emotional discourse on the failings of life.
On the one hand, there's this hazy voice at the back of my head - the one voice embodying the spirit of the slightly snooty me who almost had me convinced that I won't find another good YA book to read again - telling me to single out all the minor flaws and inconsistencies, elaborate on them and dismiss John Green with a condescending, pat-on-the-back kind of review.
On the other hand, there's the voice of the the flawed, often conflicted, unsure but honest me - asking me to be generous instead of patronizing, to have the courage to admit that the poignant ending made me shed tears and that often, our heart craves for a heart-warming, bittersweet yet simplistic story that represents life itself, in its myriad manifestations, rather than endless pages of rich, flowery prose and little more.
I am honoring the intentions of the second voice. (I mostly go with the second voice. Please care to note the word 'mostly'.)

At a superficial level, Paper Towns, is not much apart from a regular YA novel. It's about American teenagers doing what teenagers do - survive high school, try to fit into social cliques, get into colleges, date, break up, date again, lose their virginities and so on and so forth.
Yet deeper beneath that surface, it is a story flavoured with the bittersweetness of life itself.
It is about an unremarkable, often ignored boy named Quentin whose presence is almost taken for granted by every one around him. And it is about his polar opposite - an exceptionally interesting girl called Margo, Quentin's neighbor, who is seen only as the quintessential popular girl at school. And it is about the pair of them discovering who they really are underneath that exterior of carefully preserved appearances through a long and convoluted process..
When Margo goes missing after a night of vengeance wreaked on a handful of people at school who 'betrayed' her, the only person truly interested in getting her back or finding out her whereabouts is none other than Quentin. Because, predictably, our male lead has a crush on Margo since he was a kid.
But how does he find her when she has disappeared supposedly without a trace? - Turns out Margo has left clues behind for only Quentin to piece together and figure out where she is headed and more importantly, why she has taken off abruptly anyway.
This puts Quentin at the head of a long, winding, physical and metaphysical journey of deconstructing the enigma that Margo Roth Spiegelman is, figuring out where she is and in the process of it all, coming closer to understanding himself and the people around him better.

As a woman who spent her adolescence in a country named India, let me say that American YA fiction makes us feel as if we're reading about people from an alternate plane of reality. While American teens go to prom, date, lose their virginity, smoke pot, go clubbing, (sometimes) engage in illegal activities, take a gap year after school and mainly act and behave like adults, Indian teens are busy taking tuitions to get into the premier engineering institute in the country.
Because our society holds a degree in engineering in the highest regard and sees it as a one-way ticket to the realm of financial eminence.
So it's more of an understatement to say that we do not relate to American teens - we read these YA novels partly out of bizarre fascination and partly out of curiosity.
But rarely do we stumble upon a YA book which is able to surmount the barriers of stiff cultural divides and sing to the universal human spirit.
Paper Towns is like that rare gem in a genre well-known for its banality. It is alternately frivolous in its portrayal of teenagers and melancholic in its ruminations on life, love and the way we choose to put labels on people without caring to know the real person under the disguise of the stereotype.
But it is not free from its quota of cliches and minor flaws. The pairing up of the school geek with the school beauty, her jock boyfriend and bitchy best friend and two additional nerdy boys as sidekicks of the male lead - these are but formulaic elements found in a run-of-the-mill YA novel.
Also, in real life a girl like Margo Roth Spiegelman is unlikely to exist and even though she insists on the contrary, her penchant for drama and actions appear to be desperate bids for more attention - a fact John Green doesn't gloss over by making the side characters point this out to Quentin time and again. There's also something very Holden Caulfield-ish about Margo, a thought I just couldn't get out of my head.
Not to mention, the whole premise comes off as a little unrealistic as well - Margo is repeatedly shown to be a near invincible character whose plans and designs seldom fail.
But even so, the strengths of this book do enough to overshadow its shortcomings. John Green's fast dialogue and witty one-liners make you smile.
"Getting you a date to prom is so hard that the hypothetical idea itself is actually used to cut diamonds."

"Girls dig you," he said to me, which was at best true only if you defined the word as girls as "girls in the marching band."

Some of the hilarious situations that Quentin and his friends find themselves in during the course of their road trip, made me laugh out loud multiple times. Which doesn't happen often.

Ben keeps bouncing his legs up and down.
"Will you stop that?"
"I've had to pee for three hours."
"You've mentioned that."
"I can feel the pee all the way up to my rib cage," he says. I am honestly full of pee. Bro, right now, seventy percent of my body weight is pee."

And what sealed my absolute, unwavering love for this book was the ending. The sheer poignancy of it will stay with me for a long time.
John Green dares to ponder on the difference between being in love with the idea of a person and being in love with the actual person, while staying within the limits of a genre not noted for its depth or emotional range.
And this is why, Paper Towns stays with the reader long after he/she has finished reading - as a great story and as a somewhat sentimental discourse on the imperfection of our lives.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review : Orlando by Virginia Woolf

The most prudent way to review a Virginia Woolf book, perhaps, would be to write 'READ THIS  BOOK. IT'S STUPENDOUS. GENIUS. AMAZING. WHY HAVEN'T YOU READ THIS YET?' and leave it at that. Because not only does this relieve you of the responsibility of casting about for appropriate words to serenade Woolf but also because you know no review in the world does justice to the sheer magic that she is capable of creating with words.
But since I have a thing for self-flagellation (not really) I wish to undertake precisely this mammoth task of writing about Orlando.

After having closed the book and put it aside, the first predominant emotions are that of being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing nature of its inherent themes, then awestruck, then of being very close to tears.
One is compelled to sit quietly in a corner, still under the heady influence of Orlando's poetic stream of thoughts, and brood over all the discrete human sentiments, actions and events that make up life as we know it, letting precious minutes trickle by.

Our hero-heroine, Orlando, seems not only to be a representation of the human spirit, a union of yin and yang in all its imperfect glory, but also a lasting testament to the perpetual flow of time. His-her pronouncements sound almost like a chorus of voices, echoing all the dichotomies that characterize our existence and the transience of our emotions.
Orlando begins the journey of life as a man of wealth and social standing in Elizabethan era England, comfortable in the skin of his vanity, amorous in his dalliances with women. And the book ends on 11th of October, 1928, in modern England where Orlando is a married woman, a mother, an accomplished writer and finally at peace with life's many ironies and caprices. I will refrain from going into all that takes place between these two distant points in time because for that one can always read the book.

It will suffice to say that Orlando swings back and forth between craving and shunning love, between pursuing his-her literary interests and trivializing the urge to write, between seeking the august company of men of letters like Pope, Addison and Swift and then belittling them. And even though hundreds of years pass by as Orlando goes through the many myriad experiences that life had in store for him-her, it seems like everything has remained essentially the same. The reader is struck by a sense of passivity in motion, of an enduring constancy even though the sights and sounds and scenarios, that Orlando flits through, keep varying.

Thus in a way Orlando is not different from Woolf's other works just because of the noticeable absence of a stream of consciousness(which, again, is not totally absent here) but because here, she attempts to grasp at an amorphous entity like time and enclose it within the pages of this gem. And I am mightily pleased to say that she pulls it off with an elan, one associates only with her.
What makes Orlando really stand out among other VW works is the dual gender of its protagonist. Orlando keeps oscillating between his-her manly and womanly bearings and towards the very end, what nullifies the differences between the sexes is his-her humanity, his-her detachment from the material world and a crossover into the realm of the spiritual.

"The whole of her darkened and settled, as when some foil whose addition makes the round and solidity of a surface is added to it, and the shallow becomes deep and the near distant; and all is contained as water is contained by the sides of a well. So she was now darkened, stilled, and become, with the addition of this Orlando, what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self."

The narrative does seem a bit disjointed at certain points, especially when Woolf foregoes conventions and goes into intricate detailing of events which seem of little importance in the greater scheme of things or inserts her witty observations on society's prejudices concerning women, chastity and more.

"Orlando, who was a passionate lover of animals, now noticed that her teeth were crooked and the two front turned inward, which, he said, is a sure sign of a perverse and cruel disposition in women, and so broke the engagement that very night for ever." 
"I am she that men call Modesty. Virgin I am and ever shall be. Not for me the fruitful fields and the fertile vineyard. Increase is odious to me; and when the apples burgeon or the flocks breed, I run, I runl I let my mantle fall. My hair covers my eyes, I do not see. Spare, O spare!"
 "Truth come not out from your horrid den. Hide deeper, fearful Truth. For you flaunt in the brutal gaze of the sun things that were better unknown and undone; you unveil the shameful; the dark you make clear, Hide! Hide! Hide!"

See what I mean? This is probably Woolf at her funniest and wittiest. So not a single sentence or passage can be devalued even though it may appear a little out of place or slow down the progress of the narrative.

In essence, Orlando is a summation of all the irrepressible instincts of both the man and woman - their quest for knowledge, their search for meaning in chaos, their feelings of inferiority aroused by the vastness of the universe and their desire to find an eternity trapped within their brief lifetimes.

5 out of 5 stars.

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Either this book failed to do what it set out to do, or I went in with the wrong expectations. Whatever the cause, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock did not have any appreciable impact on me.

You see, I read this book hoping to gain some insight into the mind of a school shooter. Someone like Kevin Khatchadourian, just not so inherently evil. I wanted this book to scare me, stun me, make me question, make me think, maybe break my heart a little.

What I did not want this book to do (and what it essentially did) was give me a long list of excuses for why this guy was walking around with a gun in his bag.

Now, I'm not trying to undermine the gravity of the situation here. Leonard has had a tough life; has endured some horrible things. He's depressed and lonely, he's been bullied, and I understand how difficult that is to get through. But isn't that true for a lot of teenagers?? Not everyone lugs a P-38 to school though. Shouldn't there be something more? Something in the way Leonard's mind works? Something to do with the person that Leonard is rather than the circumstances?

The narrative is designed to make you feel sorry for Leonard. I'm afraid that had quite the opposite effect on me - my empathy meter was stuck at zero. This is going to sound highly insensitive but I felt like Leonard was constantly appealing to the sensitive side of me - See how intelligent I am but nobody appreciates me? See how nice a person I am but nobody talks to me? See how profound my questions are but nobody gives a damn? See how none of my friends, and not even my mother, remember my birthday? Doesn't my life suck? Don't you feel sorry for me? Don't you? Don't you? - and all I could do was watch impassively, with the occasional annoyed eye-roll.

There are only a handful of characters other than Leonard but I cannot tell you anything remarkable about them except that they all seem a little extreme. As much as I hope teachers like Herr Silverman exist, he is almost too good to be true. Leonard's mother is way too absent; she has pretty much abandoned her only son and never bothers to return his messages. Asher Beal is... horrible, supposed to be hated. The whats-her-name that Leonard has a crush on is a little too obsessed with Christianity.

Leonard himself never became a real person in my eyes. At the best of times, he was nothing more than a string of adjectives, too different and too disjoint to go together.

Quick's writing is okay but the structure of the book impedes the flow. The footnotes are more like footessays - long, meandering recollections that make you forget you're reading a footnote until you're suddenly pulled back to the main narrative, following which it becomes necessary to re-read a few lines to grasp the context again. Then there are these "Letters from the Future" that, looking back, are probably some of the most poignant moments the book has to offer, but because Quick doesn't bother explaining their importance until it's too late, you read them only with a growing sense of bewilderment, wondering why you're suddenly in the middle of a post-apocalyptic water-world.

The only point where I felt some semblance of an emotional connection was the very last chapter. It's nothing remarkable, but there is this desperation there that really hit me. It was when I wondered if I had it all wrong. Maybe Leonard was never the "shooter" but just another depressed teenager who, tired of fighting the world, had come dangerously close to giving up altogether.

I don't know if I'd recommend this book. If you can empathize with Leonard then maybe you'll love it. I couldn't, so I didn't.

Forgive Me, Matthew Quick. I'm not impressed.

2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review : Florida by Christine Schutt

While reading this, I suffered from a keen sense of déjà vu.

"Now where have I come across similar prose?"

Then I dredged up from memory, my feelings about Offred's nearly toneless, emotionally detached, subtly traumatized voice in The Handmaid's Tale.
The protagonist, Alice Fivey's voice shares stark similarities with Offred's, in the way it drips with a resignation to fate and acute despair. There's nothing much lyrical about the prose of THT as opposed to the prose-poem like structure of Florida, but there's the note of desolation and suppressed grief palpable in both the narrator voices. 
While I liked THT extremely because of the brilliant extrapolation of facts concerning present trends on misogyny, Alice Fivey's rather blandly narrated tale of grappling with abandonment issues left me cold and unaffected. 

And the thing is I am not a big fan of this kind of writing characterized by awkward, stumpy sentences which must be the polar opposite of Proustian prose. In fact, it grates on my nerves. My brand of poetic prose would be Anaïs Nin's, Virginia Woolf's in pretty much every one of her books or Toni Morrison's in Beloved. Sorry Christine Schutt, but your prose doesn't seem all that poetic to me. 

Alice Fivey is an orphaned child who lost her father to a car accident. A few years later her mother falls victim to a mental illness and has to be institutionalized as a result of which Alice becomes homeless, reduced to the state of temporary live-in arrangements with a set of unsympathetic relatives. 

"I was ten - ten was my age when Mother left for good, and this sleep-over life began."

The reader is led through her growing years in the midwest, where she is shown rather implicitly to suffer from profound loneliness, her dreams of a laughter-filled life with her parents in Florida shattered to bits. Her isolation is so pronounced that only the company of her family chauffeur Arthur, whom Alice comes to view as a kind of father figure, seems to provide her with a degree of comfort. Arthur becomes the only person who doesn't treat her unkindly or make thoughtless remarks regarding her mother the way her Aunt Frances and Uncle Billy do.

"No one was there to think he was my father, so I could love him as I might a father."

There are certain sentences containing heart-breaking implications of Alice's sense of hurt and subdued anger at her mother's 'betrayal'.

"Mother, or the woman who said she was my mother, settled in California, finally."

This one really stabbed me in a rather sensitive spot. But barring a few instances like the sentences I quoted above, Alice's story didn't achieve any kind of high emotional resonance. More often than not, the monotony of reading similarly structured sentences crept in unnoticed and I found myself trying to glide over them with a fluid grace in an effort to finish the book soon and move on to better reads.

3.5 stars out of 5.

P.S.:- My slightly negative review notwithstanding, this novella was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2004 so it could be worth a shot after all. 

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review : The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

"Like the rain, I had brought tragedy into many people's lives but, more often than not, rain also brings relief, clarity, and renewal. It washes away our pain and prepares us for another day, and even another life. Now that I am old I find that the rains follow me and give me comfort, like the spirits of all the people I have ever known and loved."

Tan Twan Eng may not be a great prose stylist or even come close to being one. He may falter when it comes to subtlety and fail at inserting appropriate metaphors into his rather direct tone of narration. But he surely succeeds in recounting a moving tale of human triumph with great clarity. Like a wise old man with sinewy forearms sitting in the midst of a group of young, moon-eyed listeners, he narrated a story of times gone by and all I did was lend him an eager ear. 
I listened to his voice with rapt attention, I learnt, I understood, I shed tears. 

I was transported back in time where I stood somewhere along the sidelines as a helpless spectator witnessing the mute misery of a picturesque but war-ravaged land. So much so I'm still recovering from the fierce onslaught of all the images of terrible beauty that Eng drew before my mind's eye in rapid succession. 
I'm going to recall from time to time, the startling greenery of the verdant rain forests in and around Penang, the hustle and bustle of the marketplaces in Istana, the gray-white limestone cliffs of Ipoh, the rich aroma of a pot of steaming coconut rice, the calming effect of zazen and the tale of Philip Hutton's uncommon bravery in the face of madness brought forth by an all-engulfing war. And I'm going to try to make sense of the paradoxical yet deeply human bond between Philip Hutton, a representative of a vanquished and besieged Malaysia and Hayato Endo, a representative of the conqueror Japan.

When the world sinks into chaos of the most fatal kind and all finer human impulses are trampled on over and over again until nothing remains but only the irrational urge to draw blood, burn and annihilate, a handful of people refuse to stray from the path of sanity and compassion at the cost of complete personal ruin. 
Philip Hutton, our narrator, was one such person. Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, he was forever an outcast in any world he wished to belong to, all because he was guilty of having a mixed parentage. Perhaps that is why, he imbibed all the great virtues of his British and Chinese heritage and under the tutelage of a Japanese spy of dubious loyalties, familiarized himself with all the tenets of aikijutsu aikido and other Japanese ways of living, which became crucial to the survival of many later on.

During the trying times of the Japanese Occupation, at the risk of perpetual disgrace, he crossed over to the side of the enemy only to save what was most precious to him. Philip Hutton became notorious for aiding the Japanese in running the affairs of Malay and a collaborator in all the atrocities carried out against the natives, but what didn't become common knowledge was how he saved many, many innocent lives under the helpful guise of betraying the land of his birth.

Even though I am sorely tempted to label The Gift of Rain as a testimony to the greater human predicament during turbulent times, that goes beyond the petty divides of ethnicity, skin color and culture, I will not succumb to that lure. Philip Hutton maybe perceived as a cliched symbol of a stabilizing influence on all conflicting elements of life or he may even be just a reminder of that elusive voice of reason which we often proceed to stifle with brutal force at a time we need it the most. But I will not seek to trivialize his fictitious life in this cold analytical manner.

Instead, I choose to be a random listener who came across the extraordinary story of his courage and withhold judgement. I choose to dignify his existence by not questioning his deeds, his associations, his choices or his existential dilemmas. I choose to empathize with Malay and China, both of which were tormented and ripped apart by another nation nurturing a blind Imperialist zest. But then I also choose to empathize with the aggresor Japan, which didn't escape suffering inflicted by the War either. 

I choose not to vilify Philip for fraternizing with the foe and I choose not to indict Endo san for his treachery. 
And by doing neither, I choose to side with humanity.
Because as much as it will be easier to pigeonhole wartime human barbarity into convenient labels like repercussions of ruthless nationalist ambitions and pass the buck on responsibility, the lasting truth of the matter is the all-encompassing nature of our collective ordeals through time and space. 
In the end, it doesn't matter who or what caused our suffering. It matters that we suffered.

4 glorious stars of 5.

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