Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

First published:- 2012

Star rating:-

The tragedy of words like 'touching' and 'poignant' is that they have become hackneyed to the point they only give rise to skepticism if one spots them in a blurb. And yet I can't think of word choices more apt at the moment. 

After having had nothing but disdain for the present crop of Indian Dan Brown wannabes and writers of mythological retellings and nauseating romances riddled with blatant sexism, featuring terminally ill fiancees and 'hot girl on campus' and what other pathetic genre tropes have you, my faith in contemporary Indian literature (sans the Kiran & Anita Desais, Amitav Ghoshs, Vikram Seths, and Arundhati Roys) has been revived all thanks to this critically acclaimed gem of a novel. Rejoice Indian readers! Do not abandon hope ye all. 

It comes as a blessing when your mind is still fresh from the tvshow-esque humor of White Teeth and you are confronted with a good instance of the kind of tragicomic family drama you consider free of any intent of providing amusement at the cost of insidious disparagement. 'Em and the Big Hoom', which is only but a few modifications away from being the story of my growing years, is suffused with the kind of humor which delineates the comedy of quotidian life while attempting to pare down its tragedies. 

For a country whose pop culture validates the use of the word'mad' as an excuse for dehumanizing the psychologically unwell, here's an author who cuts through the bullshit of stereotypes, accepted misconceptions, and whatever it is that sets the cash registers ringing and keeps us stuck in the dark ages, and creates an endearing, true to life portrait of a Goanese, Roman Catholic family in the Bombay of 70s-80s. A family of four ensconced in a love for each other as much as an acute distrust for life's caprices. An unusual but not dysfunctional family conjured from reality and not the fantasy of Bollywood-ish tear-inducing schmaltziness. 

The bumbling, manic depressive, bipolar disorder-afflicted, suicidal, terrifying and fascinating matriarch Imelda, called Em by her offsprings, is the centre of this family with her dreadful mood swings, her chain-smoking of cheap beedis and addiction to countless cups of tea, and her capability of antagonizing and praising her children in the same sentence. Em is loved, feared and despised in equal measure while Augustine aka the Big Hoom is the reliable better half of volatile Em, the father with the stolid outer facade, a 'paragon' of patience, the iron wall which refuses to be shaken even in the most distressing of circumstances. 

"Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again."

The young narrator, who unravels the mysteries of his mother's life, takes the reader on a journey through Bombay of the last few decades, its socio-cultural quirks, the hilarity of Imelda and Augustine's courtship years, their unspoken, enduring love for each other, and the family's bitter battle with Em's post-partum depression.

There's something to be said for a book which makes you tear up and laugh at the same time. And I am not exaggerating or making a good use of rhetoric in this context. 
For those of you, like me, adequately suspicious of blurbs, you can take those words of high praise from Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh at face value here. For this one at least you can more than suspend your disbelief.


Also published on Goodreads and Amazon.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

First published:-2011

Star rating:-

"For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
Build up the blue dome of Air
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again."
 - P.B. Shelley

The heron preens itself majestically, perched delicately at the edge of the pond, having found the familiarity of a home at last after miles of mateless flight. Gold-flecked koi fishes dart surreptitiously just below the surface, disrupting the lotus leaves. Wisps of rain-bearing clouds and the mountains meld into each other's embrace in a rare moment to become a mist-robed goddess and render the vista an acute resemblance with aukiyo-e painting, a charming illusion not even a discerning eye can remain immune to. Unwilling to pay the dues exacted by aphasia, Yun Ling hears the fading whispers of times gone by - unspeakable horrors etched across the soft palate of her consciousness she'd dearly like to forget and fond remembrances of the ones who sustained the flame of empathy in their hearts while the symphony of death and devastation reached its crescendo all around the Malay peninsula. The beautiful and fragile landscape of Yugiri lies forgotten in the wake of Aritomo's perplexing disappearance, but his decrepit, untended garden stands as a testimony to his lifelong devotion to a dying art form, to his solemn resolve of remaining humane at a time when savagery was the norm. 

One war replaces another as the ruthless Communist guerrillas commence a new reign of terror at the end of the Japanese Occupation. Peace remains that idealized mirage in a desert, forever out of reach. The prospect of succumbing to an acute hatred of the ones who caused her misery tempts, but Yun Ling struggles to hold on to her sanity and conscience in the grey abyss trapped between light and dark. Her faith in Aritomo wavers time and again but she lets her skin become the last canvass of his horimono art anyway. 

Did Aritomo's loyalty lie with Emperor Hirohito all along? Or had he simply ignored the obligations imposed by notions of race, gender, skin color, and nationality to respond to that primordial voice of reason every time it had called out to him to do the right thing? Will Yun Ling ever be able to forgive herself for surviving the atrocities that claimed her sister's life? Will Yun Hong find the peace and dignity in death that she was denied as a 'comfort woman' at the hands of her Japanese captors? 

In her twilight years, Yun Ling realizes that these questions will continue to ricochet off the walls of her consciousness time and again until the day she breathes her last. But she is no longer haunted by their echoes. The war had claimed victims on all sides and nearly every one was complicit in the collective barbarity of it all. Her festering psychological wounds will never truly heal but she finds contentment in calm acceptance of this baffling duality of life - the juxtaposed coexistence of kindness and cruelty, love and loathing, memory and oblivion, the human capacity for creation and destruction. 

"Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?"

Reconciled to history's ironies, Yun Ling now knows that the world will forever rotate on its axis of disastrous decisions and terrible consequences for all. The relentless flow of time will weather away all the damage that had seemed indelible once. Remembering Aritomo's words, she will cling to a greater purpose with every last bit of strength if and when the cycle of madness starts all over again. Because nestled in the heart of the mountains in Tanah Rata lies the frayed dream of her refuge from the brutalities of the outside world - the slumbering garden of evening mists which patiently waits for her to awaken it to the magical touch of life once again.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: Skylight: Poems by Carol Muske-Dukes

First published:-1981

Republished:- By Open Road Media on June 10, 2014

Star rating:- 

One of my pet gripes with poetry is on full display in this poet's works - losing so much of time re-reading lines, fishing out implications from the layers of metaphor thrust upon allusion thrust upon circumlocution that in the battle between the reader's enthusiasm for emotionally connecting with the verses and sheer exasperation, exasperation wins. 
Poetry is meant to be savoured - the rhythm, the flow, the delicate alignment of pretty words combined with some semblance of purpose all taken in together - and not decrypted like some hidden code through multiple readings. It doesn't matter if the occasional pair of lines succeed in concealing their intent, their true significance, perhaps, too exclusive to the poet's inner life or too obscure to aid our understanding. But there should be a limit to this sort of penchant for inserting excessive imagery and hyperbole.

Don't take my complaints too seriously though. Finding poetry that hits just the right note is actually like finding the right shoe fit and hence the criteria that go into its determination will differ from reader to reader. Besides I had problems with only a few of the poems. Most of the remaining ones are exceptionally well-written and make their points with so much subtlety that you are more likely to miss them unless you keep your eyes peeled. 

I had no idea Carol Muske-Dukes (former Poet Laureate of California) had such a good knowledge of Indian history and an even firmer grasp over our cultural sensibilities. (Color me impressed) 
Her 'Ahimsa' on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (which is still regarded as one of the most barbaric things done to us by the British and which caused Tagore to reject his knighthood) is elegiac and deeply philosophical.

"Say you walked in the shadowy garden
in Amritsar, before night descended,
tried to imagine the massacre, that crazy saint
Gandhi and the people on their knees to a god
less civilized than he. You would
disagree, agree....
violence teaches nothing."

While 'War Crimes', a reflection on rape (a subject which Adrienne Rich versifies with more finesse, no doubt, in her Diving Into the Wreck) is wrenching and cerebral. 

"...that the great nerve
which runs from head to pelvis
which makes us courteous
makes us touch another with gentleness
would tremble
till it was plucked
held in the pliers
then in the fire
shriveling in that little violence
of heat and light
which in another form
we often refer to
as love."

The variation in her themes is another noteworthy aspect of her range as a poet - subjects from abuse of young children, a daughter's view of her painter father, a child with a stuttering problem, an opium addict mourning the loss of his wife/lover, real estate, to the last set of poems which seem to be meditations on grief make appearances in this collection.

No points for guessing that the poems on India-related subjects, an old man in Benares carrying his dead wife in his arms to her pyre, the one on sexual violence and androgyny are my favorites from the collection. Yes I am predictable like that.

**I received an ARC from Open Road Integrated Media via Netgalley**


Also posted on Goodreads and Amazon.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Feminism is for Everybody by Bell Hooks

First published:-2000

Read in:- June, 2014

Star rating:-

Not until recently had I emerged out of the rock I was living under and located the @everydaysexism twitter account. Keeping an eye on their retweets for a little less than two weeks enabled me to discover that women are not only forced to endure the lecherous male gaze (often called 'stare rape' these days) on public transportation, made the object of innuendo-laced, denigrating remarks since puberty but also masturbated at in public without their consent (not even women over 60 had been spared) . How blissfully ignorant I was of this last facet of everyday sexual harassment! I went on a kind of mad rampage immediately, flooding my timeline with a deluge of tweets on the subject, appealing to more of my followers to follow the everyday sexism account. A day later when I had checked back in eagerly in the hopes of noticing any visible change - NOTHING. Not even one person among my followers (I have nearly 1600 which maybe just a handful but it's not a very teeny number either) had honored my request apart from the 3 who were already following them - all of them women or women's issues related accounts.

It was then that I realized, 'feminism' in the 21st century is actually like a hip, new item of home decor that you place on a wall cabinet among the other borrowed, trendy opinions you profess as personal philosophy, then forget about. Whenever some horrendous instance of brutality against a woman makes the morning news headlines, everyone's 'tch-tch-ing' fake concern for civilization resurfaces, spills over into the realm of their office lunch hour debates and after a while dies a natural death. Then they go back to the comfort of their tweleb status by posting the same old 'jokes' about dumb blondes, unreasonable wives, sluts, 'cunts', boobs and what have you, each of which are guaranteed to get at least 20+ retweets. 
Lulz just chill, we're all kidding here, getting our kicks out of reinforcing the same old stereotypes that have done considerable damage to society since the dawn of time. No harm done.

It is this same all-pervading reluctance of acknowledging the efficacy of a concept like feminism as a panacea for sexism, violence and all the other concomitant shit women face every single moment of their lives that forms the backbone of Bell Hooks's book.

She merely chooses to use 'white supremacist capitalist patriarchy' as a refrain so as to hammer this information into our brains. Yes the recurrence of this phrase gets dull after a while, yes it is somewhat annoying but no it is not irrelevant. Especially since Bell Hooks seems to support the branch of feminism which brings the concept of equality for everyone (including homosexuals) in all walks of life - sexual, economic, social and religious - under its envelope. 

She summarizes the inception and journey of the feminist movement through the decades - how it made a first appearance in the U.S. in the 60s with the waves of bra-burning (she is not against bra-burning btw), angry women who had major grievances against a domestic arrangement where they held little to no power, how initially they believed 'feminism to be the theory and lesbianism the practice', how it has undergone gradual improvement to evolve into the polished academic discipline that it is today, how it was seen as an anathema in the past and how it continues to face a steadily growing list of challenges - apathy of mass media being a major one. She deftly interweaves feminism with the idea of politics, class struggle, physical beauty, love, religion, marriage, reproductive rights, parenting, masculinity and race to present before us a realistic picture of what truly internalizing its precepts can mean for us and our future. 

But all the conventionally known preachings of the book aside, she makes another very pertinent point about stripping the verbiage of jargon from all the academic work on feminism to make them more accessible to students and laymen alike, and working together to raise awareness of how feminism isn't inherently 'anti-men' or 'anti-religion' or even simply restricted to serving the interests of women in civilization, how feminism is for everybody.

"Today in academic circles much of the most celebrated feminist theory is written in a sophisticated jargon that only the well-educated can read. Most people in our society do not have a basic understanding of feminism; they cannot acquire that understanding from a wealth of diverse material, grade school-level primers, and so on, because this material does not exist. We must create it if we are to rebuild feminist movement that is truly for everyone."

To come to the negatives, there are almost none except the monotonous drone in which Hooks drives home her points which makes the reading experience little less than enjoyable, the drabness of her prose and the way her repeated references to her own writings reek of self-importance. And to further account for that missing star, I have this teeny niggling doubt about her defining acts of 'domestic violence', even those carried out by women against other women and children, as'patriarchal violence'. She reckons some women have been so rigorously conditioned by the patriarchal world order based on principles of domination through violence and other acts of intimidation, that they re-enact the same in their daily lives while dealing with people inferior in status to themselves. Which I agree with but my limited knowledge of the world and its assorted contradictions tells me it's not just the men. Some primeval inclination towards violence and skewing the power balance in any relationship is embedded in the human psyche in general, irrespective of sex. 

But that aside, the overarching message one gets from Hooks's outlook is that the traditional notions of 'manhood' and'masculinity' have to be flushed down the toilet for feminism to even have a chance at victory. And there's no second guessing it.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Enon by Paul Harding

First published:-June 7th 2012

Published by:-Random House

Star rating:- 

It is an ominous sign when your trusted, steady flow of empathy tapers off into a reluctant drip while you were making your way around the misfortunes encountered by a fictional parent rendered newly childless. Are you being too coldly practical, perhaps, mentally asking this grief-addled father to pick up the pieces of his heart and kickstart his life like a pre-programmed cyborg? Is your work-tired brain refusing to let you feel an intense pity for this man who resorts to tripping himself up on drugs to have a daily hallucinogenic rendezvous with his dead daughter?

I dearly wish I could nip such nagging doubts in the bud by answering all these questions with a 'no'. But I can't. My feelings for this book are as vague as the state of the protagonist's chaotic inner world post his daughter's demise.

The themes of trauma and tragedy permeate literature of any merit right down to its bones ever so often, that it's hard to come by a new treatment of the same old soul-crushing sadness. While some authors add an outer gloss of dignity and self-restraint to their psychologically broken characters, others deftly interweave unforeseen outwardly manifestations of repressed grief with the ennui of carrying on with the daily routine. And this is where Paul Harding does things differently. 

He kills Charlie Crosby's carefully organized world in an instant, shoving him right down the gaping hole of nothing. Charlie has no story to tell anymore, no purpose left in life except giving us prolonged glimpses of the tendrils of darkness that coil around his waking moments threatening to choke him to death. He only pulls us along for this turbulent ride as he traverses the distance between the edge of utter madness and a saner place, between losing himself in the futility of preserving any and every remnant of his daughter's short-lived earthly presence and finding his footing in the treacherous bog of loss. And this is fine really. But what is his justification for pushing away his co-mourner, his wife? 

There's only a thin line of difference between grieving for a loved one and internalizing that grief to the point where you begin using it as an anchor keeping you tethered to the reality that was stolen from you, to the extent the sadness which was gnawing away at your insides bit by bit became so fattened on your weaknesses that it pushed out every other thing from your head to make space for itself. And Charlie treads on this thin line barely holding on to his balance, often crossing over into the territory of no-man's land.

"I could not stop myself from stepping over the same dark threshold, night after night, trying to follow her into the country of the dead in order to fetch her back, even though she visited me in dreams and never left my waking thoughts."

I do not claim a kinship with most kinds of life-threatening sadnesses, especially a grief so fatal as the one entailing the loss of a child, not yet anyway. But I have lost a parent at 14. So I hope Paul Harding forgives me for judging Charlie Crosby the way I did.

Maybe I have never felt important enough to accord my grief a higher place over all the other more terrifying griefs - many of them unknown to me - which befall fellow humans and compete for priority every second in this mystifying drama of life. Maybe it's a personal foible to revere the ones who carry the ineffaceable marks of psychological damage, yet muster the courage to wake up every morning and put in their share of effort to keep the world's engines running. Maybe it's a puerile thing to care for tortured, emotionally scarred, righteous heroes like Rust Cohle who find an all-encompassing nihilism to be the answer to the inherent unfairness of life yet battle with that nihilism every moment with hope. 

Whatever the actual reasons maybe, I could not sympathize enough with this hapless father's 'magical realist' tendencies to keep his daughter frozen in the amber of his dope-induced daydreams. Even Harding's thoughtfully wrought, ornate sentences chronicling Charlie's memories of the small rural town of Enon, which witnessed the birth and death of his daughter, couldn't help me establish that intense emotional connection I was expecting to form with this story-without-a-story. In some of the narrative's most lucid yet hazy moments, during the course of Charlie's scarily accurate depiction of despair in its rawest form - the terror of waking up from a nightmare where your loved one was constantly slipping away from your grasp - I came close to developing a sense of solidarity with his pain. But then these moments of sporadic brilliance were interspersed with numerous other iterations of similarly-themed moments which gave rise to nothing other than indifference in me.

On occasions like these, I wish I could align my reviewing methods with those who never rate books but simply move on after recording their experiences with it. Because how do you rate a grief-stricken father's lament?
This is why I am trying to believe that the noticeable absence of 2 stars will only underscore my apathy for infinite extrapolations of the aftermath of tragedy, paraphrased again and again until the reader becomes too jaded to care, and not my disregard for mourning as the key resonant theme. Because the latter assumption couldn't be further from the truth.

P.S.:-I have a feeling my experiences with Harding's Pulitzer winning book, Tinkers will fare much better.

Review also posted on Goodreads and Amazon

**I received an ARC from Random House via Netgalley**

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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Law of Desire: Stories by Andrej Blatnik

First published:- 2000

About to be republished on (after being translated into English):- July 15th, 2014

Republished by:- Dalkey Archive Press

Star rating:-

Short stories are such a tricky thing to get right and such a hassle to review. 
Before you have even settled down into the comfort of one minor narrative, a new one with brand new settings is silently demanding your undivided attention. A tiny slip in your concentration could result in that elusive thread of some unnameable, intangible emotion that you are struggling to disentangle from the jumble of lives and internal monologues, zipping past you with the agile grace of an eel. 
And having turned over the last page, you are facing the difficult prospect of making out all the discordant notes from the individual stories and combining them into a common refrain which captures the general mood of the collection. Unless the author can profess to being at par with one of those world-renowned masters and mistresses of the short story format (Munro, Maupassant, Carver, Lydia Davis, Gogol and so on) who have got it down so pat that each one of their stories stand out and leave permanent markings etched on to the slippery sands of memory, he/she has an uphill task ahead. 

I can vouch for the fact that Andrej Blatnik's stories cannot be shoehorned into any known category of writerly acuity. There's no single overarching theme that strings the whole collection together. And not all the stories can be commended on their execution or even thematic clarity. While some of the short stories give off a surrealistic Italo Calvino-esque vibe by blurring the boundaries between real and absurd, some of the others remind me of Murakami with their efficient juggling of nameless, wryly witty narrators who shirk responsibilities, intriguingly secretive women and emotional isolation. The remaining deal with themes as varied as PTSD-afflicted, psychologically scarred young men returning from the battlefield, the beauty and terror of fatherhood, the tragedy of young children adjusting to a newly motherless household and even something as eerie and nihilistic as a runaway convict resigned to his fate of being turned into a human sacrifice in an African village.

"The man feels the open dome of the sky descending, embracing him, he senses the universe closing in, he smells the brittle tail of comets, the gravity of distant worlds brushes his cheek. Galaxies open up and beckon him in. The man knows: This is the beginning; this is just the beginning."

The stories seem to be weakly delineated on purpose, the characters having no qualities that make an impression worth remembering, their lives appearing to be hazy silhouettes that never truly come into focus, just remaining out of reach for you to draw your own conclusions, which is precisely how short stories should be. But there's something more which accentuates their uniqueness, a disorienting effect that Blatnik manages to induce in the reader - an all-too-familiar sorrow, a feeling of unfulfillment arising out of a failure to communicate, and the concomitant cruelty of everyday lives of people trapped in the labyrinth of the urban jungle.

So even though I had my mind virtually made up to go with a 3.5 stars rounded off to a 3, I am conceding another one in the hopes that an above-average rating will help this Slovenian writer gain a wider readership, especially now that he has been translated. He really does deserve all the attention he can get.

**I received an ARC from the Dalkey Archive Press via Netgalley**

Also published on Goodreads and Amazon.

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