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Archive for September, 2011

I read these two beautiful passages in two books that I am reading now. Thought you might like them J

 

From ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose

 

Can creative writing be taught?

      It’s a reasonable question, but no matter how often I’ve been asked it, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is : Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

      What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I’ve been committing criminal fraud.

      Instead I answer by recalling my own most valuable experience, not as a teacher but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I took. This was in the 1970s, during my brief career as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taking one fiction class. Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form : clear, economical, sharp.

      Meanwhile, my classmates were providing me with my first real audience. In that prehistory, before mass photocopying enabled students to distribute manuscripts in advance, we read our work aloud. That year, I was beginning what would become my first novel. And what made an important difference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened. I was encouraged by their eagerness to hear more.

      That’s the experience I describe, the answer I give to people who ask about teaching creative writing : A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

      But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write.

 

From Literary Theory : The Basics by Hans Bertens

 

Within binary oppositions we do not only find an oppositional relationship between the two terms involved, we also find a strange complicity. Take for instance ‘light’ vs ‘darkness’. Arguably, light needs darkness. If there were no darkness, we would not have light either because we would not be able to recognize it for what it is. Without darkness, we would in one sense obviously have light – it would be the only thing around – but we would not be aware of light. We would not have the concept of light so that what we call light (which implies our awareness that there is also the possibility of non-light) would not exist. One might argue, then, that the existence of darkness (that is, our awareness of non-light) creates the concept of light. Paradoxically, the inferior term in this oppositional set turns out to be a condition for the opposition as such and is therefore as important as the so-called privileged one. The two terms in any oppositional set are defined by each other : light by darkness, truth by falsehood, purity by contamination, the rational by the irrational, the same by the other, nature by culture. Here, too, meaning arises out of difference. If there were no falsehood, we would have no concept of truth; if there were no purity, we would have no concept of contamination. Once difference has given rise to meaning, we privilege certain meanings and condemn others. Some privilegings will strike most of us as wholly reasonable – good vs evil, or truth vs falsehood – others have done incalculable damage – white vs black, the masculine vs the feminine. But whatever the effect of binary oppositions they always have their origin in difference. To analyse and dismantle them, as I have just done, means to ‘decentre’ the privileged term, to show that both terms only exist because of difference.

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I discovered Scarlett Thomas’ books through fellow book blogger Bina from If You Can Read This, who recommended Thomas’ ‘PopCo’. I read ‘PopCo’ and loved it. Then I got to know about Thomas’ ‘The End of Mr.Y’ from Bina’s review of it. I got the book and read the first chapter and found it quite fascinating. I kept it for a rainy day, but the book ended up being in my shelf and spending a quiet life there. (It has been exactly a year since I got the book which is a really uncanny coincidence!) Then more recently I read a review by Steph from Steph and Tony Investigate, and Steph gushed about the book. It tempted me to get the book from the shelf and read it immediately. Then Jo from Bibliojunkie said that she was planning to host a readalong for this book, and I couldn’t resist joining in. I finished reading it yesterday, and I loved it. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The End of Mr.Y’ is about Ariel Manto who is doing her Ph.D in thought experiments, with specific focus on a Victorian writer called Thomas Lumas and his book ‘The End of Mr.Y’, which is mysterious book which seems to carry a curse with it and no known copy of this book is available. Her guide Saul Burlem disappears from the university one day and no one knows what has happened to him. Ariel is not assigned a new guide though, and she continues doing her research in her original area of interest. Then one day one of the buildings in her campus collapses, because the tunnel which runs below the building collapses. Ariel walks home and while doing that she ends up in a second-hand bookshop. After browsing for sometime, she asks the bookshop assistant whether they have any of Thomas Lumas’ books. Ariel is in luck. The bookshop assistant shows her a box which is filled with books of Lumas. And, surprise, surprise, it has ‘The End of Mr.Y’! Ariel reads it and discovers that it shows a way to travel to a different reality where one can enter the minds of others. But for doing this one needs a concoction and the page which describes this concoction is missing. By this time, Ariel is obsessed with the idea of entering other’s minds and tries to search for the concoction. By luck, she finds the torn page in one of Burlem’s books in his room. Then she reads on how to make the concoction and travels to a different reality. While in this alternate reality, Ariel discovers that there are villains chasing her, who seem to want to either kill her or know the secret of the concoction from her. The adventures she has in this alternate reality, the people she meets, the creatures she helps, the people who save her, how she falls in love, the secrets she finds about Burlem and Lumas and the real world and what she does to save the world form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The End of Mr.Y’. I loved it first because of the underlying concept – that one can travel to an alternate reality and travel to other people’s minds and travel across time through those minds. And one can do that by having a simple concoction – how awesome is that! In some ways this book reminded me of the movies which have stories based on getting into an alternate reality by connecting oneself into a machine or through a video game – like ‘The Matrix’, ‘eXistenZ’, ‘The Game’ and ‘Tron’. Even ‘Avatar’. I also loved the book because of the way Scarlett Thomas makes concepts like deconstruction, poststructuralism, the existence of God, Big Bang Theory, Theory of Relativity, Four dimensional Spacetime, the Mobius Strip, Quantum Mechanics, the Uncertainty Principle, Homeopathy and the works of people like  Einstein, Heisenberg, Derrida, Baudrillard and Samuel Butler accessible to the general reader, without oversimplifying the complexity. I discovered this aspect of Thomas’ writing while reading ‘PopCo’ where Thomas takes the reader into mathematics and cryptography, and in ‘The End of Mr.Y’, Thomas goes even further and covers a wide range of subjects. I think that is a wonderful strength of the book. However, if one is not used to reading about a lot of science or philosophy in a novel, this might put off some readers. It worked for me wonderfully though.

 

What follows is probably a spoiler. But I couldn’t resist discussing about this. So, if you are planning to read this book, please be forewarned.

 

One of the interesting things that I learnt from the book was how if we assume that the Big Bang Theory is correct (which most scientists think is), then there should either be a God or there should be many worlds / universes with parallel realities. I haven’t heard of this interpretation before and it made me think. The logic behind this interpretation goes like this : one of the interpretations of quantum mechanics says that a subatomic particle doesn’t exist in a particular position or in a particular state, till an observer sees it. It is supposed to exist in what scientists call a ‘Collapsible Wave Function’ – having many forms at the same time. When an observer sees it, the subatomic particle takes up a particular state, position and has a particular velocity. The effect of observation by an observer, determines all these things. This is supported by quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and has been proven by experiments. The Big Bang Theory says that in the beginning the universe was small like a subatomic particle and had infinite mass, which was called a singularity. Then it exploded into the Big Bang and has become the universe as we know it. The argument goes that this subatomic particle-like-singularity would have existed as a collapsible wave function and for it to explode or assume a position or a state or a velocity, an external observer should have observed it. This observer could probably be God. I found this explanation quite interesting, because I haven’t heard of it before. This seems to be the strongest supporting argument for the existence of God that I have read. Are the religious guys listening? 🙂

 

The alternate explanation says that a subatomic particle doesn’t exist as an unresolved wave function before it is observed, but it exists in different states in parallel universes. When an observer observes it, he / she sees one of the states. So at the time of the Big Bang, the primordial subatomic particle, the singularity existed in many different states in different universes, and when it exploded, it resulted in many parallel universes at the same time.

 

From the little I know, scientists avoid questions on what happened before the Big Bang or how it came about (by saying that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, which I feel is a totally unsatisfying explanation and a cop out) and try to not talk about the ‘Many Worlds / Universes’ interpretation. To prove logically that either one of two controversial possibilities has to exist, was quite something to me. I need to read more on this.

 

There is also a lot of roaring sex in the book, which one expects from a typical Scarlett Thomas novel now. Thomas is also not afraid of using four-letter words and while some readers might find this a bit off-putting, Thomas seems to say implicitly that she can write about such things as well as anyone else.

 

I didn’t know how to react to the ending of the story – Scarlett Thomas herself says this about the ending : “Ian (Stewart) warned me that because of its epilogue, this novel could be read as a ‘shaggy God story’. In the end, I decided to risk it and left it in.” I am not able to say whether the ending is happy or sad – maybe it was bittersweet. It reminded me of the endings of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’. If you liked the endings of these movies, you will love the ending of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ too.

 

I made a list of things that I want to do, after I read ‘The End of Mr.Y’. This list has these items right now :

  1. Read Scarlett Thomas’ ‘Our Tragic Universe’
  2. Read ‘Flatland : A Romance of Many Dimensions’ by Edwin Abbot
  3. Explore on the Big Bang and the Many Worlds theory
  4. Read a VSI or a graphic novel introduction to Derrida
  5. Explore some of the works of Samuel Butler

Other reviews

 

Here are links to other reviews of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ that I liked. I have borrowed the idea of providing excerpts from reviews, from other bloggers – Thanks for the inpsiration, friends!

 

Bina’s Review – “The End of Mr. Y, like PopCo, is mainly a novel of ideas. Sure, the plot moves fast enough, but Thomas throws in wild mix of topics ranging from Derrida to quantum physics. This is the part I loved best, Thomas has the ability to explore complex ideas but still keep the action going…The quest for reality, God and love spans the whole novel. The beginning is a quick introduction to the relevant thinkers and theories, and with then really gains momentum with Ariel’s travel to the Troposphere. From then on you can never be quite sure what is real and what is not; there is the novel within the novel, a reality within reality, and there is so much talk about thought experiments that no one can miss that novel one is holding is one big thought experiment in itself. As Ariel says, “let me become part of a book”.”

 

Steph’s Review – “Most of the objects of my Sapphic affection tend to be these really brilliant brainy ladies (who have kick-ass senses of humor), so it should come as no surprise that I am now inducting Scarlett Thomas into my club of “Women I Would Go Gay For”…I really love the way Thomas infuses her novels with philosophy and physics…, how she isn’t afraid to tackle big questions and intellectually demanding concepts. In this book there was this whole discussion on the concept of multiple universes and how it relates to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics that kind of just blew my mind in the very best possible way. It is really gratifying to find an author who is not only convinced that her readers are capable of intense thought and contemplation but practically demands that of them.”

 

Jo’s Review – “I am attracted to this book because of its cover. Nothing else…One of the things that put me off about the book though was that it was rude and shocking at parts…I like the fact that the book is indeed ambitious, ingenious and abstract that makes me as a reader, thinks about the relationships between all those complex ideas introduced. Scarlett Thomas is a writer in her own league and I admire her for that.”

 

Jenny’s Review – “As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story.”

 

Leeswammes’ review –  “The solution of why certain scientific discoveries have been made was interesting, very clever…There was a lot of scientific discussion, a bit too much for me. Luckily, I have an interest in popular science and most of what was discussed wasn’t new to me. I can imagine that some people might find this slow to read and hard to understand. In the end, I did enjoy reading the book and when I closed it I was satisfied that I’d read a good book.”

 

If you like an intellectual novel bursting with ideas, you will love ‘The End of Mr.Y’.

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Read this passage in the introduction to a book I am reading now called ‘How to read Shakespeare’ by Nicholas Royle. Thought you might like it J

 

 

 

POLONIUS : What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET : Words, words, words.

POLONIUS : What is the matter, my lord?

HAMLET : Between who?

POLONIUS : I mean the matter you read, my lord.

 

(Hamlet, 2.2.191-5)

 

 

Hamlet, the stage direction tells us, is ‘reading on a book’ (2.2.167). They are just words, he suggests, all of them the same, they go on and on and on. The bumbling old Polonius politely asks what the words are about, ‘What is the matter, my lord?’, but Hamlet apparently misunderstands him. He interprets the word ‘matter’ in the sense of ‘issue’ or ‘something of concern’. ‘[Matter] between who?’ Hamlet asks. Or in other words : I’m sorry, I was so immersed in my reading, despite the fact that reading is impossible in my current state of deep grief and melancholy, it’s all just words, words, words. I didn’t realize there was a problem (since my uncle murdered my father, married my mother – it’s called incest – and took over from my father as King and pretty much no one seems to think anything of it, why should there be anything the matter, for example between me and the King, or me and all the rest of you? Honestly, I really hadn’t noticed there was anything wrong). No, I don’t mean that, says Polonius, ‘I mean the matter you read.’ If we have been reading or watching the play from the start, we know that Hamlet has earlier claimed that he is going to put on ‘an antic disposition’ (1.5.179), in other words to act in clownish or apparently mad fashion. How ‘antic’ is he being? How should we read his words? Is Hamlet being funny or deadly serious, calculating or distracted, mocking or indifferent? How might a particular director or actor choose to play him here?

 

 

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I went to the library sometime back to renew books that I had borrowed – books that I had borrowed many months back and books which I kept renewing every month, instead of reading. I don’t want to give up on the library yet, and so I keep renewing books, but I am a guy who reads my own books more, and so the library book normally stays unread on my desk. But there was a happy development on this side. A couple of weeks back my dad needed surgery and so I had to go to the hospital and stay with him. While packing things to take with me, I reached the most pleasurable part of packing – decide on which books to take with me. (I realize that if I had a Kindle or another e-reader, this was not really a decision that I would have needed to make – I can just take the Kindle with its hundreds of books and worry about what I will read later. However, it does take the pleasure and romance out of packing 🙂) I thought long and hard. I asked myself, whether I should take a comfort read or whether I should take a serious read. Another thing I had to decide was how many books I should take with me. A third question popped up, while I was thinking about this – should I take my own books or should I carry some library books? I decided that I will carry a couple of library books and three books that I own. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to read five books in three days, but I knew that I would be able to read one or two. One of the library books that I carried with me was ‘Love Letters’ by Katie Fforde. I saw it the last time I went to the library, when another member returned it. It looked like a romantic novel. I rarely read romantic novels and so I don’t know why I picked it up and looked at it. After I picked it up, I did what I normally do, when I see a book by an author unknown to me – I looked at what the back cover said about the book. From the back cover, I discovered that the story involved a young woman working in an indie bookshop in England which is closing down, a literary festival, a recluse Irish writer who hasn’t written for years, creative writing workshops and all things literary. How can a book lover resist this? I immediately grabbed the book and borrowed it and took it home. When I was waiting in the hospital during my dad’s surgery and then later, waiting for him to recover, I sat at the café in the hospital and read the book from the beginning to the end. Inspite of the anxieties involved in any hospital visit, it was a fun two days of reading. Here is what I think about the book.

What I think

‘Love Letters’ is about a young woman called Laura Horsley, the story’s heroine, who works in a indie bookshop. Unfortunately, the bookshop is closing down soon, because the owner wants to retire from the business. Laura organizes one last author event at the bookshop. After the event she meets a literary agent, Eleanor, who is impressed with Laura’s work, requests her to help out in a literary festival that her niece is organizing. Laura is in two minds about this – she likes the idea, but she has never been involved in the organizing of a literary festival, except for bookshop author events. She feels that she doesn’t know much about the nitty-gritty of organizing literary events. But her bookshop friends compel her to attend the first meeting called by the literary festival organizers and there, an interesting and impossible task falls on Laura’s head – she has to convince the famous Irish writer Dermot Flynn, who is Laura’s favourite writer, but who is also a recluse like Salinger and who hasn’t written anything for years, to come to the literary festival and give a talk. The sponsorship of the festival hangs on Dermot Flynn being able to attend it. Laura goes to Ireland with her musician friend in search of Dermot Flynn. She stumbles upon him by accident. She finds that he is infuriatingly attractive but he is also temperamental and is stuck with a serious case of writer’s block. She also finds herself falling in love with her favourite author. Is Laura able to get Dermot Flynn, who is famous for never leaving his Irish village, to England for the literary festival? Does Dermot Flynn respond to her love? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Love Letters’. But I should tell you more about it, because when I say ‘I loved it’, I don’t mean that ‘I admired it’. I loved the way the book depicts the literary world of today – how indie bookshops are closing down, how everyone is trying to work in an internet company or in a financial services company, how accounting is regarded as a ‘useful’ course, how graduates of the softer subjects like literature, philosophy, classics are looked down upon and how parents discourage their children from studying these subjects in university, how it is difficult to make a living as a writer, the excitement and the nuances of organizing literary festivals, the interesting facets of creative writing workshops, the unspoken hierarchy among different genres of fiction and the authors of different genres – the book depicts these and others quite beautifully. I loved the literary part of the book very much. After all, wasn’t that what grabbed my attention in the first place? I liked the romance part of the book too – the romance between Laura and Dermot. It showed that writers are also normal people, though Dermot is depicted as a Adonis-like character in the book. But I felt that the romance part of the book was also a bit weak, because the way that Laura and Dermot have misunderstandings and the way they make-up aren’t depicted smoothly, and those transformations of the heart are sometimes too predictable. If I compare ‘Love Letters’ with other favourite romances of mine – like ‘London is the Best City in America’ by Laura Dave or ‘The Undomestic Goddess’ by Sophie Kinsella or ‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell or ‘Book Lover’ by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack – I think ‘Love Letters’ falls short. I also feel that it could have had a better title, because ‘Love Letters’ doesn’t begin to describe the literary part of the book (of course it can be understood as comprising of two love letters – a love letter to literature and a love letter to love 🙂). But the book makes up for all of these shortcomings by its depictions of the literary world. And for that it wins my love and affection. And the romance part of it is not that bad – it was enjoyable and a pleasure to read.

If you like literature and romances, you will love this book.

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I got ‘Forget Sorrow’ by Belle Yang, as a birthday present from one of my dear friends. My friend has introduced me to a lot of beautiful literature and so I couldn’t wait to read Belle Yang’s book. I also realized that Chinoiseries is hosting a Chinese Literature Challenge and so I will read this as a part of that too. I read it in one sitting last week. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘Forget Sorrow’ is the memoir of the author Belle Yang and that of her father. Belle Yang starts the book with her own life – on how she was born in Taiwan to parents who had come from mainland China and how they had ended up in America. She also talks about the difference between her perspective of life and that of her parents and the eternal conflict between the value systems of the east and the west and how that led to differences and conflicts at home. She goes away from home to attend college, but comes back home after graduating, as an ex-boyfriend is stalking her. Her father uses his contacts and gets her admitted to a traditional Chinese art course in Beijing, where her teacher is Deng Lin, Deng Xiaoping’s daughter. The year is 1989 and we all know what happened – it is the year of the Tiananmen massacre, and Belle experiences history as it happens. Unfortunately the situation in Beijing becomes too tough for her to manage and she comes back home to live with her parents and whiles away her time. Her dad is very disappointed with her and frequently compares her with people whom they know – he is disappointed that while everyone is moving on in their lives, studying at university and getting advanced degrees, or getting settled in good professions, his own daughter is whiling away her time at home. This time together helps Belle in getting to know her parents better. While having long conversations, her father tells her his own story – about his own parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and how it came about that a poor family in Manchuria, became rich and how history intervened in the fortunes of the family and made it poor again, and how he was able to escape from his own country and strike it out in a free land. A significant part of the story is narrated by Belle Yang’s father and is about his family.

I liked ‘Forget Sorrow’ very much for the insider’s view it presented on early twentieth-century China. Belle’s grandparents were Manchurians and we see how this fact changes their lives and that of their families for good and for bad at different times in history. My favourite character in the story was Belle’s father’s second uncle, who is a person who loves live to the full, is philosophical, is not ambitious and is able to enjoy life when the family is rich and when it is poor. At various times he tries his hand at selling watermelons and works in a factory as an accountant and people around always like him for his unconventional ways and for his friendly nature. Another of my favourite characters in the book is Belle Yang’s father’s aunt, who dies young. The book also gives an interesting depiction of the debates, arguments, subtle politics and the kind acts that happen in a Chinese family of that era, where custom and tradition are important but where people find their way around tradition and indulge in spontaneous acts of kindness.

In some ways Belle Yang’s book reminded me of the graphic novel classics –  ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Sartrapi, because it was also a memoir set during a particular era, and of ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman, because as Spiegelman does, Yang also talks to her father and draws out the family story and secrets from him.

If you like reading books on China and if you like graphic novels, you will enjoy this.

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