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I have been on a blogging slump for a while now, because the Bard’s prophecy as he stated it in ‘King Lear’ came true, that sorrow doesn’t come single, but it comes in battalions. First both my computers crashed at around the same time and then I went into a reading slump and before I knew time flew. I got back into reading, but haven’t posted reviews of what I read. I thought I will write separate views of each book that I read in the past two months, but I know that if I try doing that, I will postpone blogging for more time. So I thought I will just post a list of books I read and brief thoughts on them. So here they are – the books and my thoughts, in the order in which I read them.

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

I got this in a used book sale last year. It is a story set in ‘60s London. It is about a young, single woman who is a literary researcher at the university. She discovers one day that she is pregnant. Should she keep the child, or should she have an abortion? If she decides to keep her baby, will her decision adversely impact her freedom and lifestyle? Should she tell the father of the child about it? What are the choices open to a single woman who wants to have a child when the society around her doesn’t really encourage that idea? The book explores this and other related issues. I loved the story, the themes it explored and Margaret Drabble’s prose. One of my favourite books of the year. This book definitely deserves a separate review. I later discovered that Margaret Drabble is the sister of A.S.Byatt and they have a long running feud about a family tea service. How amazing a coincidence is it that one of my favourite writers and a newly discovered favourite writer are related? And they are at war? Life never ceases to surprise!

The Millstone By Margaret Drabble

Here is the first passage of the book, in case you are interested.

My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice : almost, one might say, made by it. Take, for instance, the first time I tried spending a night with a man in a hotel. I was nineteen at the time, an age appropriate for such adventures, and needless to say I was not married. I am still not married, a fact of some significance, but more of that later. The name of the boy, if I remember rightly, was Hamish. I do remember rightly. I really must try not to be deprecating. Confidence, not cowardice, is the part of myself which I admire, after all.

50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane

This was the book which helped me get out of the reading slump. So, happy, happy, happy! I have had this book for years, but never got around to reading it. I am very happy that I finally gave it a chance. This collection was compiled nearly sixty years back and so it reflected the taste of that era – it had mostly stories by American and British writers with some French and Russian writers thrown in. The classics were all there (just trying to impress you that I know one or two things about short stories, which clearly is not true) – ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Standard of Living’ by Dorothy Parker, ‘The Masque of Red Death’ by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. Many of the big writers were covered – in addition to the above, there were stories by Ernest Hemingway, V.S.Pritchett, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, Virginia Woolf, Katharine Anne Porter, among others. Because of the era in which it was compiled, there were fewer women writers featured than men – from what I could count there were only nine women writers featured (that is just 18% – bad, bad!) Also, there were no writers who were not European or North American. Also, some of the legends were missing – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Alice Munro – but this was probably because they weren’t famous or around when the book was published. But if we ignore such things, using which we judge books and people in the twenty-first century, the collection is quite good. 

50 Great Short Stories By Milton Crane

My favourite stories in the book were these – ‘The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse’ by William Saroyan (a beautiful evocation of childhood and summer), ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor (made me remember my favourite Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) movie ‘The Petrified Forest’), ‘The Man of the House’ by Frank O’Connor (in which the roles are reversed and a young boy takes care of his mother when she falls sick), ‘The Death of a Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler (with every story I read, Schnitzler keeps getting better and better. This is another story of his about an affair, told in the quintessentially gripping Schnitzler style – I should really read all his works one day), ‘The Tale’ by Joseph Conrad (a classic Conrad story in which the sea is the most important character and the atmosphere it evokes is mysterious and the plot is interesting but not really important – atleast for readers like me), ‘Putois’ by Anatole France (about the power of imagination), ‘A.V.Laider’ by Max Beerbohm (a surprising discovery for me. I want to read more of Beerbohm’s stories) and ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck (about a woman who yearns to be free).

I also read Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’ one more time and couldn’t get it once again, though this time I appreciated Mansfield’s prose and loved it. I also got to read a story by the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller for the first time. I first read about Steegmuller in Anne Fadiman’s essay collection ‘Ex Libris’ in which Fadiman describes how Steegmuller and his wife, the novelist Shirley Hazzard, frequently read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ together and how that was the book they read together on the day he died. It was nice to finally read a story by him.

If you are looking for a solid, traditional short story collection, you will love this.

Short Shorts edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe

Short Shorts By Irving Howe And Ilana Wiener Howe

This had short stories which were really short – most were less than four or five pages long. It is a book which we can easily read while commuting to work on a bus or on a train. The book was not great in terms of the women writers featured (just six of the 38 stories featured were by women writers – bad, bad!), but in terms of diversity, it was pretty good (25 out of the 38 stories were originally not written in English – there were quite a few German and Italian writers covered and there was even a Japanese writer featured). I didn’t like this collection as much as the previous one, as I felt that it didn’t fulfill the potential of the idea. I think there are better short shorts out there which could have been featured. My favourite stories from the book were these – ‘Alyosha the pot’ by Leo Tolstoy, ‘Swaddling Clothes’ by Yukio Mishima, ‘Homage to Isaac Babel’ by Doris Lessing, ‘The Blue Bouquet’ by Octavio Paz, ‘Wants’ by Grace Paley, ‘The Laugher’ by Heinrich Boll, ‘News from the World’ by Paula Fox.

The Newton Letter by John Banville

The Newton Letter By John Banville

I have had this novella by John Banville for years. Thought it was time to read it now. The plot is quite simple. A writer, who is working on Isaac Newton’s biography, moves to the countryside so that he can quietly work on his project. There he has an affair with the landlady’s niece. Then he discovers that he is not really in love with the niece, but is actually in love with the landlady. But with John Banville, it is rarely about the plot, but it is everything about the prose. With every book of his that I read, I love his gorgeous prose more and more. There were passages like this :

…she would break away from me and be suddenly strange and incomprehensible, as sometimes a word, one’s own name even, will briefly detach itself from its meaning and become a hole in the mesh of the world.

And this :

In moments like that you can feel memory gathering its material, beady-eyed and voracious, like a demented photographer. I don’t mean the big scenes, the sunsets and car crashes. I mean the creased black-and-white snaps taken in a bad light, with a lop-sided horizon and that smudged thumb-print in the foreground. Such are the pictures of Charlotte, in my mind. In the best of them she is not present at all, someone jogged my elbow, or the film was faulty. Or perhaps she was present and has withdrawn, with a pained smile. Only her glow remains. Here is an empty chair in rain-light, cut flowers on a workbench, an open window with lightning flickering distantly in the dark. Her absence throbs in these views more powerfully, more poignantly than any presence.

And this :

I left the room and closed the door carefully behind me, as if the slightest violence would scatter the shards of something in there shattered but still all of a precarious piece.

And this :

Spring is a ferocious and faintly mad season in this part of the world. At night I can hear the ice unpacking in the bay, a groaning and a tremendous deep drumming, as if something vast were being born out there.

And this :

When I search for the words to describe her I can’t find them. Such words don’t exist. They would need to be no more than forms of intent, balanced on the brink of saying, another version of silence. Every mention I make of her is a failure. Even when I say just her name it sounds like an exaggeration. When I write it down it seems impossibly swollen, as if my pen had slipped eight or nine redundant letters into it. Her physical presence itself seemed overdone, a clumsy representation of the essential she. That essence was only to be glimpsed obliquely, on the outer edge of vision, an image always there and always fleeting, like the afterglow of a bright light on the retina.

Well, if you want to read more such gorgeous passages, read the book. There are worse things to do in life than reading a John Banville book.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I haven’t read an Edith Wharton book before. So I thought I will start with this slim novella. The story is about a man called Ethan Frome who lives in the countryside with his wife who is permanently unwell because of real and imaginary illnesses. His wife gets one of her cousins to help her out with household work. And Ethan and this cousin, Mattie, fall in love. What happens next – such stories never end happily – is the rest of the story. I loved Edith Wharton’s prose and her description of smalltown America of a bygone era. Though the story was mostly bleak and grim, it had a surprising ending. You should read it to find out what it is. I will be reading more Edith Wharton books.

Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton

A sample of Wharton’s beautiful prose :

The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

I have wanted to read a James Baldwin novel for a while and I thought this was one. But it turned out to be a nonfiction book. It seemed to be Baldwin’s manifesto for the Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s. The prose is simple, the ideas are powerful and the book is inspiring.

The Fire Next Time By James Baldwin

My favourite passage from the book is this :

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life : It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

As this is the centenary of the First World War, I thought I will read a novel which is set during the war. And which better novel to read than Erich Maria Remarque’s classic. I even pushed it as a book club choice last month. Unfortunately, most of my book club mates didn’t read the book. But I did. And loved it. I think I can say this – this is my most favourite literary war novel till date. This is more a statement of my ignorance (I have read very few literary war novels) than anything else. But still. I couldn’t stop highlighting while reading book. I think every page has a quotable quote or a beautiful passage. The book takes us through the whole life of a young soldier from the time he enlists to what happens on a daily basis at the front. Remarque is quite frank about his portrayal of war and the insights that the book delivers are beautiful and relevant even today. There are similarities between the book and the Stanley Kubrick movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ – I am guessing the novelist who wrote the book on which the Kubrick movie was based on was originally inspired by Remarque’s book. This is a book that I will be reading again. If I have to give it a rating, I will give it five stars out of five.

All Quiet On The Western Front By Erich Maria Remarque

Two of my favourite passages out of the many I loved :

Kropp, on the other hand, is more philosophical. He reckons that all declarations of war ought to be made into a kind of festival, with entrance tickets and music, like they have at bullfights. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries would have to come into the ring, wearing boxing shorts, and armed with rubber truncheons, and have a go at each other. Whoever is left on his feet, his country is declared the winner. That would be simpler and fairer than things are out here, where the wrong people are fighting each other.

The silence spreads. I talk. I have to talk. So I talk to him and tell him directly. ‘I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in her again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, comrade! We always realize too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain. Forgive me, comrade, how could you be my enemy? If we threw these uniforms and weapons away you could be just as much my brother as Kat and Albert. Take twenty years from my life, comrade, and get up again – take more, because I don’t know what I am going to do with the years I’ve got.’

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I have wanted to read this book for the past few years because it was highly recommended by a friend. I got to read it finally. There are two story arcs – one is set in the present time (that is 2059-60 AD) and the other is forty years before that. In the present time, news comes out that a group of Jesuit priests and scientists have gone on a mission to a distant planet in another solar system and some strange things happened there and only one priest was able to come back. No one knows what happened. This priest refuses to speak. We are told the story of what happened through events in the past and through the story told by this priest Emilio Sandoz. The things I liked about the book – the story is interesting, the characters are real and likeable, the descriptions are beautiful and the dialogue is snappy, fresh and stylish, like it is in the best movies. I loved the character of Anne Edwards – in my opinion she was the heroine of the whole story. The thing I had problems with – the book explores the theme of faith through science fiction and I am not sure whether that worked well. I don’t think it did. But other readers feel differently.

The Sparrow By Mary Doria Russell

Some of my favourite passages :

“You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting that you’re in love? You are just naked. You put yourself in harm’s way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”

“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.”

There are times, when we are in the midst of life – moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness – times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth.

 

So, that is what I read during the last two months. Or rather, that is what I read this summer :) What did you read this summer? Have you read any of the above books? What do you think about them?

I can’t remember how I discovered Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’. I have had the book for years. I must have got it during one of my weekend bookshop visits. I used to buy a lot of Bantam classics those days and I think I got it then. I normally remember the bookshop from which I had bought a book, but I can’t remember the bookshop from which I had got Kate Chopin’s book. By some deductive reasoning, I have narrowed down the suspects to two. And that is where it will stay, I think.

I don’t know why Chopin’s book was lying unread on my shelf for so long. It is not too long and the story is interesting. Well, fortunately for me, the stars got aligned this weekend and I picked the book to read. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. I put down everything else I was doing – tasks, chores, TV – and read it till I finished it. Here is what I think.

The Awakening By Kate Chopin

‘The Awakening’ is about Edna Pontellier, who is in her late twenties, happily married by conventional standards, has a husband who is successful in his profession and takes care of her and two children who are delightful and undemanding. She has all the material comforts that a woman of her era would need. She also has a wonderful circle of friends, especially Adèle Ratignolle, who is her closest friend and Robert Lebrun who is always there with her during the summer. Once, while spending the summer holiday near the sea, with Robert for company during most days, something happens to Edna. Her heart opens up and she sees something new and it is the end of life as she knows it. She starts falling in love with Robert. She wants to do something new – like painting. She starts yearning for more independence. She wants to move away from her husband and her family, though she loves them, and get her own house and paint in that house. All these new thoughts and emotions explode in her heart at around the same time. As Chopin says while describing this event :

“But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in this tumult!”

Things become complicated for Edna after that. Is Edna able to leave her home and chart an independent life path successfully? What does her family feel about it? Can Edna part from her husband, whom she likes, and her children, whom she loves? What does her best friend Adèle have to say about it? Does Robert return her love? And if things don’t work out what would Edna do? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

‘The Awakening’ has been frequently compared to ‘Madame Bovary’. I haven’t read ‘Madame Bovary’ and so I am not able to compare. On its own, I think it is a story of a woman who is trying to discover herself and her relationship to the world around her and in the process how her heart opens up to new vistas and she strives for freedom and an independent expression of her vision which contradicts with the social norms of her era and the complexities which arise from that and how it affects her and how she copes with them. It is a beautiful story, though with a tragic ending, and I loved it. It is definitely one of my favourite reads of the year. (The introduction said that the book was banned in America, when it was published, for its ‘indecency’. I couldn’t believe it when I read that. The book didn’t deserve to be banned. It deserved literary awards. I can imagine how heartbroken Kate Chopin must have been when the literary world spurned her masterpiece.)

The edition of the book I read had a beautiful introduction by Marilynne Robinson, she of ‘Housekeeping’ and ‘Gilead’ fame. It also had eight short stories. I liked most of the stories. My favourite was ‘Désirée’s Baby’. (If you are curious about it, here is the story – an orphan girl is adopted by a childless couple. When she grows up, a young man from a distinguished family meets her one day and falls in love with her at first sight. They get married and a year later she becomes a mother. Puzzlingly, though our heroine and her husband are white, the baby is not. The husband starts hating his wife after that. What happens after that? What is the truth? – you should read the story to find out. It read like a Heinrich von Kleist story to me.). I also loved ‘A Reflection’ and ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’.

There is a small, interesting story behind ‘Désirée’s Baby’. I first discovered ‘Désirée’s Baby’ through a book that I read years back called ‘River Town’ by Peter Hessler. It is Hessler’s account of his time in China when he spent a couple of years teaching English in a small town in Sichuan province near the bend of the Yangtze river. Hessler said in the book that he frequently read and discussed ‘Désirée’s Baby’ with his students in English class. I am happy to have finally read it. Now I wonder what Hessler discussed with his students on the story. I should go back and read ‘River Town’ again.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. Kate Chopin’s prose is beautiful and brilliant.

 

    The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude, to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

     The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

 

She missed him the days when some pretext served to take him away from her, just as one misses the sun on a cloudy day without having thought much about the sun when it was shining.

 

The past was nothing to her; offered no lesson which she was willing to heed. The future was a mystery which she never attempted to penetrate. The present alone was significant; was hers, to torture her as it was doing then with the biting conviction that she had lost that which she had held, that she had been denied that which her impassioned newly awakened being demanded.

 

Robert’s going had some way taken the brightness, the color, the meaning out of everything. The conditions of her life were in no way changed, but her whole existence was dulled, like a faded garment which seems to be no longer worth wearing.

 

     There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.

     There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why, – when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. She could not work on such a day, nor weave fancies to stir her pulses and warm her blood.

 

“There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the impression of an oar upon the water.”

 

Have you read ‘The Awakening’? What do you think about it? Have you read ‘Désirée’s Baby’?

I read my first Angela Carter book last year – ‘The Bloody Chamber’. I enjoyed Carter’s unconventional take on popular fairytales (the retelling of fairytales seems to be the rage today, but when Carter did that, she was probably a pioneer) and so was hoping to read one of her novels sometime. So, when Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Delia from ‘Postcards from Asia’ announced that they were going to host Angela Carter week, I was quite thrilled (You can find more about it, here and here.). It was time to read my second Carter book. While deciding on which book to pick, I thought of three of her novels – ‘The Magic Toyshop’, ‘Nights at the Circus’ and ‘Love’. I opted to read ‘The Magic Toyshop’ because it was one of her earlier books and also the plot looked quite straightforward (I can hear you saying – “Yeah, keep thinking that. Angela Carter and straightforward simplicity – that is a total illusion. Carter’s books are always layered and complex and reveal themselves more on multiple readings.” Well, I can see that now :) ) I finished reading ‘The Magic Toyshop’ yesterday. Here is what I think.

Angela Carter Week 1

Angela Carter Week 2

‘The Magic Toyshop’ is about a fifteen year old girl, Melanie. In the first scene of the story, Melanie discovers one day that she is a woman. She explores her body and her sexuality and she takes her mother’s wedding dress and puts it on while doing that. Unfortunately, after a while, when she is walking around in the garden, she discovers that she is locked out of her house wearing her mother’s wedding dress. She is too embarrassed to ring the bell and ask the housekeeper to open the door. She climbs the tree next to her window and gets into her room. In the process her mother’s wedding dress gets destroyed. When she gets up the next morning, she receives a telegram. Without even reading the contents, she knows what is in it – that her parents are dead. Melanie’s parents are away in America where her father is on a lecture tour, while she and her brother and sister are being taken care of by the housekeeper. The telegram says that her parents have died in a plane crash. Now their situation becomes difficult – the house is sold, the housekeeper finds a new job and they are sent away to live with their uncle and his family, an uncle who was always avoided by her parents. Melanie finds her uncle’s house quite old-fashioned with fewer facilities. Her aunt is dumb – she has lost her speech after she got married – and her aunt’s two younger brothers also live with her. The elder of the two is a musician and plays the violin. The younger of the two helps out her uncle in his work. Melanie’s uncle makes toys of all kinds and is very good at it. We can even say that he is an artist who loves his art. He also holds a puppet show in his studio a couple of times a year and only the family is invited to watch it. But Melanie’s uncle has a dark side – he is mean and is a bully and doesn’t care much about his family. He refuses to speak to Melanie and her siblings for a long time. In contrast, Melanie’s aunt is a very kind person and soon Melanie grows to love her. Melanie also grows to like her aunt’s brothers and the younger of the two, Finn, is attracted towards her. Melanie is uncomfortable with it in the beginning, but gets used to it after a while. The rest of the book charts the relationships between these characters, the beautiful moments they have (one of my favourite scenes in the book is the one in which Melanie spies her aunt playing the flute, her aunt’s brother Francie playing the violin and Finn dancing to the tune. The scene ends with the sentence – “And this was how the red people passed their time and amused themselves when they thought nobody was watching.”), the pall of gloom that hangs around the house when the uncle is around and the free spirit which reigns when he is not, and the surprises which get revealed at unlikely times.

The Magic Toyshop By Angela Carter

‘The Magic Toyshop’ is first and foremost a coming of age story of Melanie when she first discovers herself and grows up to become a young woman. Within this framework, Carter has also woven her own versions of fairytales. There are frequent references to Bluebeard which makes one think that the book might be Carter’s own long take on the original Bluebeard story with Melanie’s uncle being the potential Bluebeard here. There are also lots of literary and cultural references in the story which I liked very much. Some of my favourites were the references to Ronald Coleman (if you like old classic black-and-white movies you have probably seen ‘Random Harvest’ or ‘Lost Horizon’, both starring Ronald Coleman – both are wonderful), the Doric column (“She was wearing her straight grey dress and looked like a Doric column” – it made me think of the days when I read my first book on art and discovered Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns and how the Doric was the plainest of the three and so seeing Carter talking about Doric columns made me nostalgic), Coleridge’s poem on the Ancient Mariner and the Biggles books.

 

Angela Carter’s prose is beautiful. She doesn’t write long passages and pages filled with beauty but sprinkles beautiful sentences across the book. Some of my favourite sentences were these.

 

Photographs are chunks of time you can hold in your hand.

His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.

The curl of his wrist was a chord of music, perfect, resolved.

The moment was eternity, trembling like a dewdrop on a rose, endlessly about to fall.

She splashed the shreds of the absurd night out of her eyes with cold water.

The tune was finished. It did not so much reach a conclusion as slow down and dribble into silence, as though the players had got bored with the melody and let it slip through their fingers carelessly.

 

I enjoyed reading my first Angela Carter novel. I hope to read ‘Nights at the Circus’ and ‘Love’ someday. I will leave you with links to other reviews of the book.

Caroline (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’)

Bina (from ‘If You Can Read This’)

Violet (from ‘Still Life With Books’)

Have you read ‘The Magic Toyshop’? What do you think about it?

I first read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ years back when it first came out. When my book club decided that this would be the May read, I was quite excited. Because I rarely re-read books and so I was interested in finding out how the experience would be. I remembered liking very much the start of the book. But I also couldn’t remember the rest of the book except for one of the surprises revealed in the end. However hard I tried, I couldn’t remember a single event in the story or any of the characters (except for the few who came in the events I remembered). So, it was really like reading a new book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.. 

The Shadow Of The Wind By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

‘The Shadow of the Wind’ starts with a scene, which book lovers will love and hold close to their heart. A father takes his young son to a place called ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’. The keeper of this ‘cemetery’ lets them in. The father asks the boy to choose one book from there and then read it, treasure it and save it and celebrate that book and the writer. He tells the boy that that book would belong only to him and it is his job to take care of it. The boy picks a book called ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Julian Carax. After they reach home, he starts reading the book, and before he knows he is deep into it and when he crosses the last page, he discovers that the sun is rising and he has been reading for the whole night. He asks his father about Julian Carax, but his father hasn’t heard of him. When his father takes him to talk to one his friends who is knowledgeable about these things, this friend tries to buy off the book from the boy. The boy remembers what his father said and refuses to part with the book. And thus starts his lifelong adventure – his search for more information on the writer of the book, the people whom he meets who might have been part of Julian Carax’ life, the surprises that are revealed, the pandora’s box he opens which lets loose evil which camps on his doorstep and those of others who are part of Julian’s life, and how in the midst of all this excitement, our hero, the boy Daniel Sempere, grows up into a young man, falls in love, gets his heart broken, falls in love again, and then has to go through an ordeal to ensure that his heart is not broken again.

So, did I like the book? I have good news and bad news.

 

The good news first. The start of the book is very wonderful. It is every book lover’s dream. The story takes off from there and it is enjoyable to read. There is a section which describes how we can get obsessed with beautiful pens which is very beautiful. The story of Daniel’s first love and how his heart gets broken and how he falls in love again are all beautifully told. Most of the good characters are fascinating, kind and likeable. It continues like this till around three-fourths of the book. I also liked the way in which the author takes a particular plot archetype (young boy falls in love with a girl, girl’s father is a rich and powerful man and doesn’t like it, girl has a brother / another suitor who hates the young boy) and introduces it into the lives of two of the main characters and steps back and let us see how the concerned character handles the situation. It was fascinating to watch.

 

Now the bad news. After three-fourths of the book, there is a ninety-page section, in which all the surprises are revealed. That section is structured in the form of a letter by one of the characters. I like surprises being revealed slowly and naturally. Big bang revelations are not my thing. That is one of the reasons I had a problem with Harry Potter 6 (‘The Half Blood Prince’). That is one of the problems I had with that long letter in this book. Another problem I had was in the depiction of the villain character. When he was a boy, it is shown that he is sensitive, carves beautiful things with wood and is shy and an outsider whom other students at school keep bullying. When he is grown up, he is shown as a bad guy, with a black heart. It is difficult to believe that. It would have been more convincing to believe that he had a mix of good and bad within him and the bad came more because of the bullying and the social circumstances that he grew up in. But that is not how he is. And, I don’t know how else to articulate this, but after a spectacular beginning, at some point the book loses that magic and feels underwhelming. I don’t know where that happens, but it does. I actually liked the ending and so I don’t know why I felt that way.

 

I asked myself what I felt about the book when I first read it. Did I like it? Was it one of my favourite books? Though it wouldn’t make sense to compare it with my favourite books now (because I have changed a lot as a reader and as a person since then), I asked myself how it compared to some of the books which I read at around the same time and liked. I remember liking the book when I first read it (as I read the same copy I found it interesting to read the lines I had highlighted earlier and see whether I still liked them. Though some of them weren’t as appealing now, I liked most of those lines that I had highlighted years back) but I don’t think it was a favourite. I remember reading Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’, Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ and Iain Pears’ ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ at around that time. I remember liking them very much, and I think I liked parts of ‘The Historian’ more than ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ and I liked ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ very, very much. But still ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ left positive impressions on my mind when I read it the first time, but I have mixed feelings about it now. As the book got raving reviews when it was published, I checked with friends and other readers, who had read it, on what they thought of it. Some of them had read it when it first came out and others had read it more recently. Those who had read it when it first came out still raved about it. Those who read it more recently had mixed feelings about it, like I do now. It made me think whether this book touched readers’ hearts in some important and contemporary way when it first came out and whether for some reason it hasn’t stood the test of time. It is an interesting point to ponder on. 

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book

 

Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is still considered an art.

 

Presents are made for the pleasure of the one who gives them, not for the merits of those who receive them.

 

You only got a pittance for translating literature, though a bit more than for writing it, it’s true.

Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.

My voice, rather stiff at first, slowly became more relaxed, and soon I forgot myself and was submerged once more into the narrative, discovering cadences and turns of phrase that flowed like musical motifs, riddles made of timbre and pauses I had not noticed during my first reading. New details, strands of images and fantasy appeared between the lines, and new shapes revealed themselves, like the structure of a building looked at from different angles.

We went into Father Fernando’s office, where he summoned up his memories, adopting the tone of a sermon. He sculpted his sentences neatly, measuring them out with a cadence that seemed to promise an ultimate moral that never came. Years of teaching had left him with that firm and didactic tone of someone used to being heard, but not certain of being listened to

 

Have you read ‘The Shadow of the Wind’? What do you think about it?

This year is French writer Romain Gary’s centenary and Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ is hosting ‘Romain Gary Literature Month’ to celebrate the occasion. I have wanted to read a Romain Gary book since I discovered him last year and so I decided to participate and read Gary’s memoir ‘Promise at Dawn’. Here is what I think.

Romain Gary Centenary

‘Promise at Dawn’ is Romain Gary’s memoir from the earliest time he can remember till the time around the end of the Second World War. The book starts with Gary sitting in the beach alone in the company of birds and seals and looking back at his life. Gary then describes his early life from the time he lived in Russia where his mother was an actress in the theatre circuit. It then charts their journey from Russia to Poland where they lived for a few years in between and then their move from there to Nice in France. Gary talks about his mother’s love for him, the dreams she had for him (should study to become a lawyer, should become an officer in the airforce, should become an Ambassador of France, should be popular among women, should become a famous writer and win the Nobel prize – Gary managed to achieve all of it, except the Nobel prize winning part, but in his defence he won two Prix Goncourt). The early scenes in which Gary describes his family’s poverty and how his mother tries her best to make ends meet while always making life comfortable for him, are very moving. The way his mother shows him gentle maternal love when it is needed and the way she shows him tough love when it is required is beautifully portrayed. Gary’s prose is simple and beautiful. There are long sentences – positively Proustian in their length – but they pull us inside the story and so they don’t feel long. I sometimes found myself resisting the pull of the story and putting myself outside it and trying to find out how long some of the sentences were (and they were long, very long). I think it is a tribute to his mastery that he makes long sentences accessible to a general reader.

Promise At Dawn By Romain Gary

 

There are beautiful passages throughout the book which I lingered on when I read the first time, and which I went back to again and again and re-read many times. Some of my favourites were these : 


The Sea

My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips, I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.

How Goethe Lied

I also feel it is time that the truth about Faust be made known. Everyone has lied before, Goethe worse than anyone; he has lied with genius. I know that I should not say what I am going to say, for if there is one thing I hate doing, it is depriving men of their hope. But there it is : the tragedy of Faust is not at all that he sold his soul to the devil. The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul. There is no “taker”. No one will help you to catch the last ball, no matter what price you are willing to pay. There is, of course, a gang of smart phonies, who give themselves airs and claim they are prepared to make a deal, and I don’t say that one cannot come to terms with them with a certain amount of profit. One can. They offer success, money, the applause of the mob. But if you have had the misfortune to be born a genius, if you are Michelangelo, Goya, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Malraux, you are destined to die with the feeling that all you have ever done was sell peanuts.

The Attraction of Endings

I was sitting in my room on the ground floor in front of the open window, writing the last chapter of the great novel I was working on at the time. It was a great last chapter. I regret to this day that I somehow never got around to writing the preceding chapters. I have always had a certain tendency to do last things first, a feeling of urgency, an eagerness for achievement that always made me very impatient with mere beginnings. There is something pedestrian and even mediocre about beginnings. In those days I had written at least twenty last chapters, but I somehow could never bother to begin the books that went with them.

 

There is an underlying sense of humour throughout the book. The fairytale picture of France that Gary’s mother paints when they live in Russia and Poland, telling him that one day they will reach there and become truly French, are touching but also make us smile. One of my favourite funny scenes was when a girl suddenly arrives by taxi to Gary’s home rushes in and hugs his mother and starts crying and tells his mother that Gary made her read all the volumes of Proust and now no one would marry her and so he should marry her immediately. There were also many touching and beautiful scenes in the story. One of my favourites was about his friend from the airforce called Bouquillard during the Battle of Britain. It goes like this :

 

      He became the first French “ace” in the Battle of Britain before being brought down after his sixteenth victory. The roof of his cockpit jammed and he couldn’t bale out, and twenty pilots standing in the operation room, their eyes riveted on the black maw of the loudspeaker, heard him sing the great battle hymn of France until his Hurricane exploded…

      No Paris street has been christened after him, but for me all the streets of France bear his name. 

 

That passage brought tears to my eyes when I read it the first time. It brings tears when I type it now.

 

There were mentions of writers in the book, some of whom are my favourites, which made me happy – the poètes maudites Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Walter Scott, Karl May and Robert Louis Stevenson. There is also mention of a delicious biscuit called Les Petits Beurres Lulu (At the time of the writing of the book, Gary says that this biscuit is still available. It has been fifty years since the book was first published. I hope Les Petits Beurres Lulu is still available. Because I want to try that.) Gary also mentions Russian dill pickles many times and says that his favourite thing to do was to buy them from a vendor put them on a newspaper and sit somewhere and eat them slowly and peacefully. One of my biggest regrets was not trying them when I was strolling the streets of Moscow. Maybe I should make a trip again just to try them. Or maybe I should make it at home. The ingredients mentioned in the recipe look like ones I could get.

 

The ending of the book was like the climax of a novel or a movie. It was surprising and heartbreaking, though Gary leaves some clues before and I could see it coming.

La Promesse De L Aube By Romain Gary

I loved ‘Promise at Dawn’. It is the story of a mother’s love for her son and her dreams of a new country and a new future for him. It is a beautiful song that Romain Gary sings for his mother and it is sweet to hear, though it talks about both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful things of the world. Definitely one of my favourite reads of the year and one of my favourite memoirs ever.

 

Have you read ‘Promise at Dawn’? What do you think about it?

This is the fourth book that I read for the ‘Once Upon a Time’ challenge hosted by Carl.. 

Once Upon A Time

I first got to know about Diana Wynne Jones a few years back when I discovered a Diana Wynne Jones event being hosted in the blogoshere. I have never heard of her before and so I made a mental note to explore her works later. Then Diana Wynne Jones started cropping up everywhere – I discovered that a collection of fantasy short stories on my bookshelf had a short story by her and then I discovered that another collection of fantasy stories on my bookshelf was edited by her. Then I heard more bloggers talking about her. So, this year I decided to read my first Diana Wynne Jones book. That is how I read ‘Dogsbody’. This is what I think.

Dogsbody By Diana Wynne Jones

The Dog Star Sirius is tried in a court of his peers and is found guilty of murder. He is sentenced to live as a dog on Earth. He is given an option to redeem himself. If he finds the powerful thing called the Zoi, which he has carelessly lost, he will be reinstated to his former glory. If not, he will continue to live and die as a dog. The punishment is swiftly executed and Sirius is born as a dog. Unfortunately the woman who owns his mother decides to kill Sirius and all his puppy brothers and sisters by drowning them in the river. Sirius somehow manages to escape and float on the river and a girl called Kathleen saves him. Kathleen keeps him as a pet despite stiff opposition at home. She lives in her uncle’s home and her aunt dislikes her and so does one of her cousins. They try every trick to send Sirius out but Kathleen’s wish prevails. Slowly, Sirius gets to like his new place. He loves his mistress Kathleen. But he also discovers that a dog’s life is hard on Earth. Human beings have all the power and eventhough his mistress Kathleen loves him very much, she can’t protect him at all times. Though Sirius thinks that he is a dog, his luminary consciousness is not far behind his doggie mind. He starts to slowly learn the truth about himself and then plans to discover the Zoi. He discovers though that there are some bad folks looking for it too. He also realizes that there is more to it than meets the eye with respect to the crime he had been accused of. Will Sirius be able to work under the limitations of a dog’s body and find the Zoi and redeem himself? And if he does find it what will happen then? Will it be easy parting with his mistress and all his friends and people he loves? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘Dogsbody’. From one perspective, it is about a fallen celestial luminary trying to redeem himself. From another perspective – probably the more important one – it is about the love of a dog and a girl for each other. I loved the way Diana Wynne Jones takes us inside the mind of a dog and shows us how it might think. I think Sirius is one of my favourite dog characters ever. I think he is up there with Lynx from Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’. I also loved most of the characters in the book. My favourite characters outside of Sirius and Kathleen were Mrs.Smith (who helps Sirius and Kathleen) and Sirius’ friend, the cat Tibbles. I loved the scenes where Sirius yearns for the same kind of freedom that the housecats have and also the scenes which describe how Sirius becomes friends with the cats after the initial hostility and how their friendship grows.

 

The book also asks an important question – if one’s life changes in a radical way from a position of influence and power to a position of an ordinary person, and if one manages to find joy in the little things in life in the new circumstance and form beautiful friendships and find love, what happens when things change again and one has the chance to get back one’s lost glory? Should one take that chance and lose everything beautiful that one has now, or should one forego that chance and live the everyday beautiful life? Or is there some third choice in which one can have both? It is a hard question to answer and the book has some interesting things to say about that.

 

The book had an interesting introduction by Neil Gaiman (Gaiman says at the beginning – “Don’t read this introduction. Read the book first” – I loved that) which I enjoyed reading. 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book

 

He might be stronger than all three cats put together, but he could not use his paws as they did. He saw that this put him further under the power of humans than the cats. Because of their skill, the cats lived a busy and private life outside and inside the house, whereas he had to wait for a human to lead him about.

 

It was not a creature at all, it was a planet, the most beautiful and kindly he had known. Of course he had talked to Earth. He had done so every time he scoured around the meadow or splashed in the river or sniffed the air. And Earth had talked to him in return, in every living way possible – in scents and sights, in the elegance of Tibbles, the foolish charm of Patchie, in Miss Smith’s brusqueness, in Kathleen’s kindness, in Basil’s roughness and even in Duffie’s coldness. Earth contained half the universe and had taught him everything he knew.

 

…he knew that people would take in a dog more readily than they would take in a fellow human. It was odd, but it was true.

 

Have you read ‘Dogsbody’? What do you think about it?

This is the third book that I read for the ‘Once Upon a Time’ challenge hosted by Carl.. 

Once Upon A Time

I discovered Erin Bow’s ‘Plain Kate’ through Ana’s (from ‘Things Mean a Lot’) review of it. The story looked interesting and the fact that it was based on Russian folklore made me want to read it. Here is what I think

Plain Kate By Erin Bow

Kate, the ‘Plain Kate’ of the title, lives in a small town with her father. Her father is a wood carver and he has taught Kate much of his art. Though Kate is young and is not even an apprentice, she is better than some of the masters at wood carving. However, as she is very good at it, the town people look at her with suspicion. Some even call her a witch-child. One day a plague kind of fever pays a visit to that little town. Kate’s father gets the fever and soon he is no more. Kate is left an orphan. According to the rules of that time, the guild sends another wood carver who takes over Kate’s father’s business, putting her literally on the streets. Kate moves to a small place near the market, makes small wood carvings and tries to make a living there. She finds a cat in that place and she adopts him and calls him Taggle. Things start getting worse in the town. There is talk of black magic and Kate is increasingly regarded as a witch. There are stories floating down from other places on what happens to witches. Then one day a boat arrives in that town. A pale, white-haired man comes to town to sell some trinkets in the market. He stops by at Kate’s place. He says that his name is Linay. He tells her that he can help her. He can grant her a wish and help her leave the town if she gives him her shadow in return. It seems like a Faustian trade. Kate, initially, declines his offer. But as things get more and more hard for her, she finally says ‘Yes’. Linay gives her some woodcarving tools and other things that she wants. Subconsciously, Kate also yearns for a friend to whom she can talk. And her wishes are realized when she suddenly discovers that her cat Taggle can talk now. One of her well wishers from her town introduces her to the Roamers who are visiting nearby. They are travelling gypsies (Roamers is probably Roma) and they don’t stay in any place for long. They take her in and start treating her as one of their own. One of the young girls there called Drina befriends Kate. As time passes by, Kate notices that her shadow is becoming thinner and thinner. One day she reveals her secret to Drina. She says that she wants her shadow back. Drina says that she will help her.

 

Well, the story is long after that. But I am going to stop here. Will Kate get back her shadow? What happens when the Roamers discover that she doesn’t have a shadow? Why did Linay want Kate’s shadow? What nefarious plan was he hatching? What adventures do Kate and her talking cat Taggle have? The answers to all these questions can be found if you read the book.

 

I enjoyed reading ‘Plain Kate’. I think this is the first time I am reading a novel which is based on Russian folklore and I liked the experience. The story brings the medieval era alive (though it is really silent about the time period it is set in, the stories of how women were branded as witches and tortured and how the guilds worked and the strange fever which comes and kills people – these give us an idea of the time period of the story). I loved most of the characters in the story – even Linay (who has a tragic story behind that cunning magician face) and the ghost, the Rusalka that rises out of the fog and brings terrible things with it. The ending was beautiful and perfect – sad and happy in equal measure, though it was mostly sad. I enjoyed reading and learning about the Roamer way of life and loved the wisecracks of the cat Taggle. Taggle was one of the charming characters in the book – beautiful, fearless, funny, wise, loyal and brave. He was almost a dog, though he would have bristled at that suggestion. I also loved the heroine Plain Kate. Plain Kate, or Katerina Svetlana as her full name was, was strong and brave and intelligent and loyal and was an artist at heart. She was anything but plain.

 

While checking out Erin Bow’s website, I discovered that she was a physicist in CERN before she decided to become a YA novelist. I found that quite fascinating.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book

 

“When you are carving a narrow point, like the tail of this fish, this is a time of danger. The knife may slip. It may follow a grain and spoil the line. There may be a flaw deep in the wood that will snap your work in two. You will want to leave the tail thick and crude; that is safer. A master carver will be brave, and trust the wood. Things will find their shape. Kate, My Star. Lift your knife.”

 

Have you read ‘Plain Kate’ by Erin Bow? What do you think about it?

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