Archive for October, 2011

I first got a copy of A.S.Byatt’s ‘Possession’ many years back. I knew that it had won the Booker prize and I also knew that it was a literary detective story, involving love letters. When I browsed the book before buying, it had a lot of quotes, poetry and letters inside. I found that quite fascinating. I was a big fan of Modern Library editions – with their soft paper and beautiful font – at that time (I still am) and so got a Modern Library edition of the book. I waited for the right time to pick it up, but that never arrived. Then I moved cities and countries and my edition of ‘Possession’ ended up in a box in the attic of my parents’ house. In the new place, during one of my weekend visits to the bookstore, I saw another edition of ‘Possession’. It had a beautiful painting on the cover, and I had a strong impulse to buy it and read it immediately. I got it and took it home, browsed the book and kept it on my shelf. It ended up being there. Then I moved cities and countries again, and my second copy of ‘Possession’ followed me, unread and uncared for. Then, sometime back, I was browsing at the bookstore, and I was in a mood for buying Vintage editions of classics. And out jumped from the bookshelf, my old friend ‘Possession’! I ended up getting it again. And as it had happened before, it ended up on my bookshelf at home. A couple of weeks back, when I was thinking on what book to read next, I had a strong impulse to read a novel about literature and poets. ‘Possession’ came to the top of my mind. I hunted around in my bookshelves and got the two latest editions of the book. Unfortunately, the Modern Library edition seems to be still in the box in the attic. I decided to read the edition which had the painting on the cover, because it brought back a lot of fond memories of the time I bought that book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

What I think

Roland Mitchell is a literary research scholar. During one of his trips to the library, he discovers a previously unknown letter written by the poet whose works he is researching on, Randolph Henry Ash. The identity of the recipient of the letter is not clear. It looks like a draft letter. Actually there are two unfinished drafts. Roland digs a bit more into the history of this letter and this period of Ash’s life and discovers the identity of the recipient. She is a poet called Christabel LaMotte. Roland is intrigued. Because according to official biographies, Ash and LaMotte never met. Roland wants to find out what happened next. He steals the two draft letters from the library. He doesn’t tell his boss about it. He discovers that Maud Bailey is the pre-eminent authority on Christabel LaMotte. He fixes an appointment with her and goes and meets her. She takes him to the resource centre at her university and shows him documents which he might be interested in. Roland makes more interesting discoveries and is hooked. He discusses it with Maud and shows her the two letters he had ‘stolen’. She too gets hooked into the mystery. Both of them embark on a journey of literary adventure and detection and try to find out what happened between Ash and LaMotte. Of course in a quest like this, there will be a villain. Mortimer Cropper is an Ash scholar and has unlimited funds to get hold of objects used by Ash or letters written by him. He gets to know about the letters and starts following the trail. There are other characters who get pulled into the action. What happens further and what secrets Roland and Maud discover are revealed in the rest of the book.

I loved ‘Possession’. I loved it because it was an old-fashioned literary mystery. The focus was on the plot, rather than on long contemplative passages which seem to be the fashion among literary fiction writers these days. Though ‘Possession’ also has such passages, which come once in a while. I liked the literary backdrop of the story and the way the secrets of the mystery are revealed, when the revelation of one mystery leads to a new mystery. It was like reading a literary version of ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

I liked the portrayal of most of the lead characters in the story. Roland Mitchell is a research scholar who is trying to make ends meet. He doesn’t have a regular job and the breadwinner in his home is his girlfriend Val, who is a typist. Maud Bailey is an academic and a feminist. She is strong, proud and intimidating, atleast during the initial part of the book. I love the name Maud – it suggests, ‘strong’, ‘independent’, ‘confident’ to me. The first time I encountered a character named Maud in a book was in Jack London’s ‘The Sea Wolf’ where the heroine is called Maud. Another Maud that I know is the actress Maud Adams, who acted in two James Bond movies – ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ and ‘Octopussy’. Maud Adams was independent, loved her work, never married and never had children. She should have been the poster girl of the feminists of her era. Maybe she was. I also liked Christabel LaMotte and Blanche Glover, her intimate friend. Blanche comes in the story only for a brief while, but she leaves a deep imprint. I also liked Leonora Stern, Maud Bailey’s friend, who is also a literary scholar, and Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife. I also liked Lady Joan Bailey, who plays a minor part, but who is sophisticated, charming, refined and likeable. Most of the male characters in the story played only bit parts and weren’t really strong. Except for Roland.

The next few lines are going to be spoilers. So please be forewarned. I liked very much the way the love stories of characters from two different eras are narrated in the book – the love between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte and between Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. Though the first one is the main part of the story, I liked the second one more, because of the characters involved and for the way Byatt depicts it – how independent, proud Maud and simple, nice Roland fall in love.

I like the way Byatt goes into descriptive mode and gives a long description of the surroundings and nature, when an important scene is coming up. When the reader is dying to know what is going to happen next. It is a narrative strategy which I have seen used in old novels – probably nineteenth century ones – and it was nice to see that being used again. I also liked the ending of the book, because of the way it ties up all the loose ends and gives a satisfying conclusion, where all characters end up happy. Maybe except for one minor loose end. Which, in my opinion, was left deliciously open for the reader to interpret. It was classical perfection. Which again is not the norm these days.

I also love the way Byatt uses language and words beautifully in the book. Like the last part of this sentence, which plays with contrasts and paradoxes :

It was his first French meal in France and he was overcome with precise sensuality, with sea food, with fresh bread, with sauces whose subtlety required and defied analysis.

And this, where the simplicity of the narration and the beauty of the image evoked is a tribute to the use of language :

there were butterflies everywhere, blue, sulphur, copper, and fragile white, dipping from flower to flower, from clover to vetch to larkspur, seeing their own guiding visions of invisible violet pentagrams and spiraling coils of petal-light.

There was a part of the book, at around page 178, which is in the middle of a collection of letters, when I got stuck. It took me a couple of days to move out of that page. I trudged along painfully to finish that section. But after that the book progressed at a lively pace. That was one of the things I liked very much about the book. When one browses it, it looks very intimidating, because it has poems, quotes, letters and different kinds of fonts. It looks like an academic work. But when one starts reading it, the story progresses at a lively pace and there is rarely a slack anywhere. Don’t mistake me. There are beautiful sentences and contemplative passages. But the passages and scenes make the plot move. It is an old-fashioned way of storytelling and it continues to work brilliantly. I have always been intimidated by Byatt, because she looks like a very serious person and doesn’t seem to speak much (my own impression – this may not be true). To my pleasant surprise though, I discovered that as a writer and as a storyteller, she really cares about the reader. The evidence is there in the gripping plot, the well-paced narrative, the way the different story arcs come together, the beautiful sentences, the contemplative passages, the character sketches, the way her love for literature comes alive on the page.

‘Possession’ asks interesting questions on love and relationships, on how biographies are written, on how literary research is done, on how much of the private life of famous people should be accessible to the public and most of all on how we try to possess people and relationships and things and on whether one can really possess anything. I loved it. I can’t believe that I waited for so many years to read it. I can’t wait to read another Byatt book. Maybe it will be ‘The Children’s Book’. Or ‘Babel Tower’.


Favourite Passages

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages.


Theoretical Knowing

Things had changed between them nevertheless. They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, ‘in love’, romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. They were theoretically knowing…


What this meant

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

      One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

      They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

      Neither was quite sure how much, or what, all this meant to the other.

      Neither dared ask.


On Love

Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his ‘self’ as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones. Mostly he liked this. He had no desire for any strenuous Romantic self-assertion. Nor did he desire to know who Maud essentially was. But he wondered, much of the time, what their mute pleasure in each other might lead to, anything or nothing, would it just go, as it had just come, or would it change, could it change.

      He thought of the Princess on her glass hill, of Maud’s faintly contemptuous look at their first meeting. In the real world – that was, for one should not privilege one world above another, in the social world to which they must both return from these white nights and sunny days – there was little real connection between them. Maud was a beautiful woman such as he had no claim to possess. She had a secure job and an international reputation. Moreover, in some dark and outdated English social system of class, which he did not believe in, but felt obscurely working and gripping him, Maud was County, and he was urban lower-middle-class, in some places more, in some places less acceptable than Maud, but in almost all incompatible.

      All that was the plot of a Romance. He was in a Romance, a vulgar and a high Romance simultaneously, a Romance was one of the systems that controlled him, as the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world, for better or worse, at some point or another.

      He supposed the Romance must give way to social realism, even if the aesthetic temper of the time was against it.


On Readings

      There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, that snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

      Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.


The Queen

I slept badly and as a result had a strange fragmented dream in which I was playing chess with Herbert Baulk, who had decreed that my Queen could move only one square, as his King did. I knew there was injustice here but could not in my dreaming folly realize that this was to do with the existence of my King who sat rather large and red on the back line and seemed to be incapacitated. I could see the moves She should have made, like errors in a complicated pattern of knitting or lace – but she must only lumpishly shuffle back and forth, one square at a time. Mr Baulk (always in my dream) said calmly, ‘You see I told you you could not win,’ and I saw it was so, but was unreasonably agitated and desirous above all of moving my Queen freely across the diagonals. It is odd, when I think of it, that in chess the female may make the large runs and cross freely in all ways – in life it is much otherwise.


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


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I discovered Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’ through Nymeth’s fascinating review. I couldn’t resist getting the book after reading the review. I haven’t read any of Eugenides’ novels before. He has written just three – one novel every decade for the past three decades. He seems to be someone like Donna Tartt in that respect. So, as soon I received ‘The Marriage Plot’ by mail, I started reading it. It is rare that I read a book as soon as I get it – normally the new book sits on my shelf for a few weeks or for a few months and sometimes for a few years, before I get to it. I wait for a book to age like wine and sometimes if it doesn’t age well, I don’t pick it up. But I didn’t wait for that to happen this time. I ripped open the package, took the book and started reading. I finished reading it in the middle of the night yesterday. Here is what I think.


What I think


The first thing that got me interested in Eugenides’ book was the premise – the story takes place in a university, there are three students whose lives the story describes, there is lot of stuff in the book about literature and literary theory and religion and the meaning of life. Who can resist this premise? 🙂


The second thing was the cover. I wanted this edition :




But I got this :




I thought – “Why I am always getting the wrong end of the stick? Why am I always getting the edition with the wrong title or the one with the wrong cover? Why me all the time?” The golden ring between the title and the name of the author was nothing special. Then I looked at the cover again. And then it suddenly hit me! Wow! Isn’t that magic! There was something in that cover after all 🙂 And it was awesome! Can you find what that is? If you can’t, then look at the ring carefully again. If you still can’t, read the next paragraph.


It is a Möbius Strip 🙂 It is a ring kind of structure, with an interesting twist. In a regular ring, there are two surfaces, one on the inside and another on the outside. In a Möbius Strip, there is only one surface. So, if you travel on the outside of the Möbius Strip, you end up on the inside after sometime and if you continue travelling you come back outside. That is cool, isn’t it? Is Eugenides saying that marriage is like a journey on a Möbius Strip? Isn’t that going to be awesome 🙂


The brief summary of the story can be described like this – Madeleine, the English major, falls in love with Leonard, the Biology major. Leonard loves her back. Mitchell, the Religious Studies major, is in love with Madeleine. He has had his opportunities in the past to impress Madeleine, but he misses them. Graduation day arrives at university and a major crisis looms in Madeleine’s and Leonard’s lives. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for Mitchell, the crisis brings Madeleine and Leonard closer. They move in together while Leonard does research. Mitchell meanwhile still hopes that Madeleine will fall in love with him. But he doesn’t do anything to bring that about, but leaves on a trip to Europe and India. But things move unexpectedly. The lives of Madeleine and Leonard change in a fundamental way and not for the better. Do Madeleine and Leonard manage to love and support each other through the big crises which stalk their lives? Is Mitchell’s love for Madeleine returned by her? For answers to these questions, you have to read the book 🙂


I loved the first part of the book which goes till 127 pages. It is set in a university and describes how the main characters meet each other and fall in love with each other. There is a lot of stuff on Victorian literature, literary theory, Derrida, deconstruction, Semiotics, Eco, Barthes, the search for the Meaning of Life, Religion and other such stuff which will blow one mind. At one point, I wanted to highlight six consecutive pages, type them out on my computer and send it to my favourite friends. That was how much I liked the first part. The first part met all my expectations and even exceeded them. But when I crossed the Rubicon after the first part, the pace of the book slackened, the story meandered on and I wasn’t sure where it was going. The literary discussions and the philosophical discussions were missing, the book slipped into narration mode and that wasn’t as interesting to me, because this wasn’t really a plot-driven novel. When I was halfway through the book, I felt that the book had slipped from brilliant to a little better than average. When I was three-fourths into the book, it had slipped further down to average or even a little bit below that. Fortunately, there were flashes of brilliance, even in the parts which I thought were average. My highlighting pen was working overtime even during these parts.


A part of the description of the book read like this :


Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of teh Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.


This description raised my expectations sky-high and the first part of the book was awesome because it satisfied them. Or even exceeded my expectations. But as they say, it is nearly impossible to meet sky-high expectations every minute. Or in every page. The blurb and the first part make references to the marriage plot of great English novels written by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James. I was hoping that the main characters’ lives were going to be linked to this Victorian marriage plot with a modern twist. I thought that was what the whole book was about. But after I crossed the first part, it didn’t feel that way. Or maybe it was, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe it was all part of the subtext. Or the subtext of the subtext. The story meandered along and reached the last page, where Mitchell makes a feeble attempt to refer to the Victorian marriage plot and Madeleine replies to him. It was like the theme of the story went missing for the major part of the book and then made a surprise entrance in the last scene. Or maybe I didn’t catch the subtext during the majority of the novel. 


The ending of the book was surprising and interesting. It was also unexpected. I thought the ending would be predictable, after what had happened a few pages earlier.


I liked most of the characters in the novel in different ways. I liked Madeleine and Mitchell and Madeleine’s mother Phyllida. I liked Phyllida for looking stylish, having class, showing strength in a crisis, being a wonderful parent and being unselfish when the situation required, but also being firm and defending her territory when it was required. In one scene she tells Madeleine – “If that’s the only thing you have to worry about in your marriage, you’ll be lucky” – which was one of the best lines in the story, in my opinion. (I am not revealing the context, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you). In my opinion, she is the best fictional mom ever. I also loved a minor character called Diane MacGregor, who is a biologist and who wins the Nobel prize. The description of her went like this :


Unlike the other scientists at the lab, MacGregor employed no assistants. She worked entirely alone, without sophisticated equipment, analyzing the mysterious patterns of coloration in the corn she grew in a plot of land behind her house…Other scientists at the lab ridiculed MacGregor for not having a phone or for her general eccentricity. If MacGregor was so out of it, though, why did everyone have to talk about her all the time? Madeleine guessed that MacGregor made people uneasy because of the purity of her renunciation and the simplicity of her scientific method. They didn’t want her to succeed, because that would invalidate the rationale for their research staffs and bloated budgets. MacGregor could also be opinionated and blunt. People didn’t like that in anyone, but they liked it less in a woman…There was the other thing that amazed Madeleine about MacGregor. She’d been at Pilgrim Lake since 1947! For thirty-five years she’d been inspecting her corn with Mendelian patience, receiving no encouragement or feedback on her work, just showing up every day, involved in her own process of discovery, forgotten by the world and not caring. And now, finally, this, the Nobel, the vindication of her life’s work, and though she seemed pleased enough, you could see that it hadn’t been the Prize she was after at all. MacGregor’s reward had been the work itself, the daily doing of it, the achievement made of a million unremarkable days.


I didn’t like a few characters, but even then I found their portrayal quite authentic. (For example I didn’t like Madeleine’s father Alton much – he looked like a bullying dad – but the portrayal of his character was quite realistic). I think it is a tribute to Eugenides and the way he develops authentic, realistic and complex characters in his story.


There was an arc of the story which looked quite memoirish – Mitchell’s time in India, when he spends time at the Home of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, taking care of sick people, trying out Indian food, travelling in rickshaws, drinking bhang lassi, following the tourist trail in India from Calcutta to Benares to Madras to Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry to Madurai to Mysore to Cochin to Trivandrum to Goa. The descriptions during this part of the story makes one feel that Eugenides himself might have done at one point of time in his life, what Mitchell was doing in the story.


One of my favourite descriptions in the book was about the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs which happened in the 1970s. I grew up reading about that and so this passage brought back a lot of fond memories.


One of the nice things about the book was that I got to add some interesting titles to my ‘TBR’ list. Some of them are :


(1)   Books by William F. Buckley

(2)   Books by Anne Finch

(3)   Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

(4)   Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

(5)   The Role of the Reader by Umberto Eco

(6)   A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

(7)   On Deconstruction by Jonathan Culler

(8)   The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri de Lubac

(9)   Interior Castle by Saint Teresa

(10)                       A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy


So, what do I think about the book? Did I like it? I loved the first part of the book. I liked bits-and-pieces of the rest of the book. If I have to give ratings, I will give the first part 5 stars (out of 5) or even 6 stars. Overall I will give the book, somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. Maybe 3.5. If I think of re-reading, I will definitely re-read the first part of the book. And parts of the book after that, which I have highlighted.


Favourite passages


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


 A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being “in love” was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work. She could read Barthes’ deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit. The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. She identified with Barthes’ shadowy “I”. She didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed. Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And, oh, how she loved it!


She was a large disordered woman, like a child’s drawing that didn’t stay within the lines.


What if you had faith and performed good works, what if you died and went to heaven, and what if all the people you met there were people you didn’t like?


There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home.


…whenever Mitchell stopped to think about the words of the Jesus Prayer, he didn’t much like them. “Lord Jesus” was a difficult opener. It had a Bible Belt ring. Likewise, asking for “mercy” felt lowly and serf-like. Having made it through “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” however, Mitchell was confronted with the final stumbling block of “a sinner”. And this was hard indeed. The gospels, which Mitchell didn’t take literally, said you had to die to be born again. The mystics, whom he took as literally as this metaphorical language allowed, said the self had to be subsumed in the Godhead. Mitchell liked the idea of being subsumed in the Godhead. But it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.


…it rained all the time, fog covered the fields, and by then he was reading Tolstoy. There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things. A Confession was a book like that. In it, Tolstoy related a Russian fable about a man who, being chased by a monster, jumps into a well. As the man is falling down the well, however, he sees there’s a dragon at the bottom, waiting to eat him. Right then, the man notices a branch sticking out of the wall, and he grabs on to it, and hangs. This keeps the man from falling into the dragon’s jaws, or being eaten by the monster above, but it turns out there’s another little problem. Two mice, one black and one white, are scurrying around and around the branch, nibbling it. It’s only a matter of time before they will chew through the branch, causing the man to fall. As the man contemplates his inescapable fate, he notices something else : from the end of the branch he’s holding, a few drops of honey are dripping. The man sticks out his tongue to lick them. This, Tolstoy says, is our human predicament: we’re the man clutching the branch. Death awaits us. There is no escape. And so we distract ourselves by licking whatever drops of honey come within our reach.

      Most of what Mitchell read in college hadn’t conveyed Wisdom with a capital W. But this Russian fable did. It was true about people in general and it was true about Mitchell in particular. What were he and his friends doing, really, other than hanging from a branch, sticking their tongues out to catch the sweetness? He thought about the people he knew, with their excellent young bodies, their summerhouses, their cool clothes, their potent drugs, their liberalism, their orgasms, their haircuts. Everything they did was either pleasurable in itself or engineered to bring pleasure down the line. Even the people he knew who were “political” and who protested the war in El Salvador did so largely in order to bathe themselves in an attractively crusading light. And the artists were the worst, the painters and the writers, because they believed they were living for art when they were really feeding their narcissism. Mitchell had always prided himself on his discipline. He studied harder than anyone he knew. But that was just his way of tightening his grip on the branch.


Have you read ‘The Marriage Plot’? What do you think about it?

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I read John Connolly’s ‘The Gates’ earlier this year and loved it. I wanted to read more of his books. Some of my blog-friends recommended Connolly’s ‘The Book of Lost Things’. Then my wonderful friend and fellow book blogger Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’ gifted me ‘The Book of Lost Things’ (Thanks Bina!). I started reading it a few days back and did a readathon and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.



What I think


‘The Book of Lost Things’ is about a boy called David who has recently lost his mother and is struggling to cope with the loss. It is a time when the Second World War has started and everyone’s normal life is threatened and things are uncertain. David’s father works with the British government in an Alan Turingsque kind of role – helping to decode the secret messages sent by the Germans. One day, David’s father introduces him to a beautiful woman called Rose and says that she is a friend. David discovers that Rose is more than a friend and she is on her way to becoming his step mother. David resents this and retreats into himself and his world of books and fairytales. Soon David’s father marries Rose and David’s worst fears and suspicions come true. David soon has a step-brother called Georgie. David resents the attention and affection that Rose and Georgie get from his father. The situation at home becomes strained. One day, in the night, David hears his mother’s voice from outside his room. He follows it and reaches a mysterious sunk garden. He enters it. At that precise moment a German plane crashes nearby. David hides inside an oak tree. And before he knows it David steps into another world – a world populated by good and evil people, strange beings and beasts, where he makes wonderful friends and where wicked enemies chase him. Is David able to find his mother there? How does David guard himself against the dangers in this strange world? Is David able to come back to the real world? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.


I loved ‘The Book of Lost Things’. It is about the big changes that can unexpectedly happen in a young person’s life and how the young person copes with it. It is also a story of confronting one’s fears, of identifying the roots of one’s feelings and managing them. It is also a coming-of-age story. One of the things I like about this book is the way Connolly takes all popular fairy tales – like Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty and others – and interprets them in his own way and weaves them seamlessly into the story. Some of his interpretations are quite interesting and hilarious. These fairytales seem so different when we read them separately, but when we read this book, they flow smoothly like different episodes in the book. I think that is no mean feat. There is also a 150-page appendix at the end of the book, which describes the origins of the important fairy tales covered in the book and how they evolved as well as the most popular version of each fairy tale. It is surprising to read how some of the fairytales have evolved (for example Goldilocks was originally a little old woman). It is a wonderful section, which I will keep coming back to, again and again. I had just one problem with the book. Rumplestiltskin (or the character representing him) comes across as a black-hearted villain in the story, while in the actual fairytale he is actually not-so-bad and from some perspectives he has some good elements to his personality. I also didn’t like the loups – the creatures who are a cross between human beings and wolves – much. The ending of the book is open-ended and makes the reader think whether all the adventures that David had were real or they were fantasies existing only in his mind. There seem to be evidence pointing to both interpretations and the reader is left to arrive at his / her own conclusion. My favourite part of the book was the initial part where David grieves the loss of his mother and reacts unpleasantly to his step-mother (eventhough she is nice and kind) and the part where he has adventures with the Woodsman and the knight, Roland. But I have to say that I loved the book overall. There is an interview with Connolly at the end of the book, where he talks about reading. I loved that passage. Here is what he said.


I think the act of reading imbues the reader with a sensitivity towards the outside world that people who don’t read can sometimes lack. I know it seems like a contradiction in terms; after all, reading is such a solitary act that it appears to represent a disengagement from day-to-day life. But reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways. I have always believed that fiction acts as a prism, taking the reality of our existence and breaking it down into its constituent parts, allowing us to see them in a completely different form. It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another, which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being.


Favourite Passages


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


On Stories


      Before she became ill, David’s mother would often tell him that stories were alive. They weren’t alive in the way that people were alive, or even dogs and cats. People were alive whether you chose to notice them or not, while dogs tended to make you notice them if they decided that you weren’t paying them enough attention. Cats, meanwhile, were very good at pretending people didn’t exist at all when it suited them, but that was another matter entirely.

      Stories were different, though : they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by torch light beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David’s mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.


On Routines


      The boy, whose name was David, did everything that he could to keep his mother alive. He prayed. He tried to be good, so that she would not be punished for his mistakes. He padded around the house as quietly as he was able, and kept his voice down when he was playing war games with his toy soldiers. He created a routine, and he tried to keep to that routine as closely as possible, because he believed in part that his mother’s fate was linked to the actions he performed. He would always get out of bed by putting his left foot on the floor first, then his right. He always counted up to twenty when he was brushing his teeth, and he always stopped when the count was completed. He always touched the taps in the bathroom and the handles of the doors a certain number of times : odd numbers were bad but even numbers were fine, with two, four and eight being particularly favourable, although he didn’t care for six because six was twice three and three was the second part of thirteen, and thirteen was very bad indeed.




      After they had eaten, David washed his face and hands in a bowl and tried to clean his teeth with his finger. When he had finished, he performed his little rituals of touching and counting, and it was only when he became aware of a silence in the room that he realised the Woodsman was watching him quietly from his chair.

      ‘What are you doing?’ asked the Woodsman.

      It was the first time that the question had ever been posed to David, and he was stumped for a moment as he tried to provide a plausible excuse for his behaviour. In the end, he settled on the truth.

      ‘They’re rules,’ he said simply. ‘They’re my routines. I started doing them to try to keep my mother from harm. I thought that they would help.’

      ‘And did they?’

      David shook his head.

      ‘No, I don’t think so. Or maybe they did, but just not enough. I suppose you think they’re strange. I suppose you think I’m strange for doing them.’

      He was afraid to look at the Woodsman, fearful of what he might see in the man’s eyes. Instead he stared into the bowl and saw his reflection distort upon the water.

      Eventually the Woodsman spoke. ‘We all have our routines,’ he said softly. ‘But they must have a purpose and provide an outcome that we can see and take some comfort from, or else they have no use at all. Without that, they are like the endless pacings of a caged animal. If they are not madness itself, then they are a prelude to it.’

      The Woodsman stood and showed David his axe.

      ‘See here,’ he said, pointing with his finger at the blade. ‘Every morning, I make certain that my axe is clean and keen. I look at my house and check that its windows and doors remain secure. I tend to my land, disposing of weeds and ensuring that the soil is watered. I walk through the forest, clearing those paths that need to be kept open. Where trees have been damaged, I do my best to repair what has been harmed. These are my routines, and I enjoy doing them well.’

      He laid a hand gently on David’s shoulder, and David saw understanding in his face. ‘Rules and routines are good, but they must give you satisfaction. Can you truly say you gain that from touching and counting?’

      David shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I get scared when I don’t do them. I’m afraid of what might happen.’

      ‘Then find routines that allow you to feel secure when they are done. You told me that you have a new brother : look to him each morning. Look to your father, and your stepmother. Tend to the flowers in the garden, or in the pots upon the window sill. Seek others who are weaker than you are, and try to give them comfort where you can. Let these be your routines, and the rules that govern your life.’


Other Reviews


Here are links to other reviews of this book.


Nymeth’s Review


Bellezza’s Review


Eva’s Review


Have you read ‘The Book of Lost Things’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose a few years back, when I was in a bibliophilic phase, when I was collecting books on reading. I got ‘How to Read Literature Like a Professor’ by Thomas Foster, ‘How Novels Work’ by John Mullan, ‘How to Read a Novel : A User’s Guide’ by John Sutherland, ‘A History of Reading’ by Alberto Manguel and ‘The Anatomy of Bibliomania’ by Holbrook Jackson alongwith Prose’s book. As it seems to happen often with me, all these books ended up on my bookshelf unread and uncared for. I thought that I will get to them sometime, when I am in a bibliophilic mood, but every time I felt like reading one of them, I ended up reasoning that it is better to read an actual book rather than a book on reading. Fortunately, the book gods worked behind the scenes, the stars got aligned and the auspicious time finally arrived. I picked up Prose’s book from my shelf and started reading and after reading a page, got hooked into it. Before I knew I lost myself deep inside the book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.




What I think


The subtitle of ‘Reading Like a Writer’ says ‘A Guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them’. That is what the book is about. Francine Prose uses her experience in teaching creative writing classes to gently show the reader the art and craft and science of writing, touching on every topic that is part of any book of fiction – words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, dialogue and others. She takes her favourite books – some of them well-known masterpieces and classics and others little-known gems (atleast to me) – and looks at them through different perspectives and shows why some words, sentences and techniques work in creating a great scene or a great piece of literature and why others don’t. Prose shows through her examples, how reading a book closely, word-by-word and line-by-line, can help us prise out its secrets and show us the book’s beauty and greatness in all their glory. She also discusses the rules taught in creative writing courses and shows how all rules can be broken and how great authors break those rules and create exceptional works of literature. In one place, this is what Prose says on this topic : 


In the spring, at the final meeting of the course I was commuting to teach, my students asked : If I had one last thing to tell them about writing, what would it be? They were half joking, partly because by then they knew that whenever I said anything about writing, and often when we’d gone on to some other subject completely, I could usually be counted on to come up with qualifications and even counterexamples proving that the opposite could just as well be true. And yet they were also half serious. We had come far in that class. From time to time, it had felt as if, at nine each Wednesday morning, we were shipwrecked together on an island. Now they wanted a souvenir, a fragment of a seashell to take home.


Reading the book was like attending the class of a favourite teacher, hearing her warm voice as she shares her passion and love for great literature with us, her students, and takes us on an adventurous and educational tour through the literary landscape. During this exciting journey, Prose shares her own experience – things that she discovered while writing books and teaching creative writing – and they are as illuminating as the examples she quotes from other books. Prose also has an obligatory chapter on Chekhov called ‘Learning from Chekhov’, in which, she describes how Chekhov managed to break every rule taught in creative writing courses and still managed to create great literature. Prose’s love for Chekhov comes through in every line and every word of this chapter. In one place Prose says this about Chekhov :


For me, Chekhov’s mystery is first of all one of knowledge : How does he know so much? He knows everything we pride ourselves on having learned, and much more. “The Name Day Party,” a story about a pregnant woman, is full of observations about pregnancy that I had thought were secrets known only to pregnant women.


In another place, she says this :


Reading Chekhov, I felt not happy, exactly, but as close to happiness as I knew I was likely to come. And it occurred to me that this was the pleasure and mystery of reading, as well as the answer to those who say that books will disappear. For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on a bus.


Prose’s affection for Chekhov’s work is infectious and it inspires us to go and get the complete works of Chekhov and read all of them end to end. I have Chekhov’s complete plays and two collections of his short stories. I need to get started on them soon.


On Chekhov


As an aside, I have always been puzzled why most American writers admire Chekhov. He is a great writer and I love his short stories and his plays (my favourite play of his, out of the ones I have read, is called ‘A Play Without a Title’ or ‘Platonov’ which was made into an awesome Russian movie called ‘An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano’), but if I have to compare him with other Russian writers of his era, I have to say that I also love the stories of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. My favourite is actually Turgenev, who wrote those achingly beautiful love stories again and again. So why Chekhov? And why is everyone rooting for him? There seems to be something there, which I am not able to see. Do you know why?


TBR list


There is a reading list at the end of the book which has most of the titles that Prose discusses in the book. I used that list and made my own ‘TBR’ list containing books / short stories / essays by authors who are new-to-me (mostly). The books / short stories / essays on my list are these :


·         The Wonders of the Invisible World by David Gates

·         Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

·         Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

·         Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout

·         A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

·         On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf


Have you read any of these?


There is also an interesting interview of Prose at the end of the book and a brief description of some of her books. After reading that I felt that Prose is an interesting novelist, who has probably not got the fame she deserves. I want to read some of her novels now and am hoping to start with ‘Primitive People’.


On analysis


I had one minor problem with the book. In some places I felt that a particular word or sentence or paragraph was analysed a bit more than necessary. I felt that by just reading the original sentence slowly and savouring it, we can understand what the author is trying to do and analyzing it too much was spoiling the beauty and the fun. But it was a minor complaint I had in an otherwise excellent book.


Two questions


I also have a couple of questions with respect to what Prose said in the book. One of the things Prose talks about in the early part of the book is how she was trying to find out what is the possessive of a word like Keats, and uses Strunk and White’s style manual and discovers that it is Keats’s. I am not sure whether I agree with that. What do you think? Do you think Keats’s is correct?


Another question I have is on the phrase “If a character’s going to light a cigarette” that Prose has used. I think the word “character’s” representing “character is” is correct. But I have rarely seen this used in actual writing. Most of the time the apostrophe is used only to indicate the possessive. Have you seen this kind of usage where the apostrophe is used to abbreviate the ‘is’?


Favourite Passages


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


A novelist friend compares the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage to a sort of old-fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is a bit like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially if you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.


In general, I would suggest, the paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended – in some cases, very extended – breath.


Reading (Henry) Green, we’re tempted to conclude that he simply had a great ear for the sound and rhythms of speech. But as the critic James Wood points out in an incisive essay on Green’s work, Green often minted words that were not in use during the period in which his novels are set (or during any other period) but that nonetheless sound utterly right. So perhaps the correct conclusion is that Green was less attuned to how people sound when they speak – the actual words and expressions they employ – than to what they mean.


It’s one of the things that writers are most commonly being told these days : their characters should be likable and sympathetic so the reader can care about them. And what does care mean, exactly? Too often, I’m afraid, it’s being used as a synonym for identify. But what’s even more unsettling is the possibility that, in order for us to identify with them, characters in modern fiction are supposed to be nice people, like us, having the exact same experiences that we have had. We want to read about a high school student, maybe with a few problems, one who is going through precisely what we went through in high school. Consequently, we sympathize. We identify. We care.


But the first chapter of Pedro Paramo will not necessarily help you during a bad writing day, or after a few days in which you are constantly fighting what William Burroughs described as the temptation to tear up your work in little pieces and throw it in someone else’s wastepaper basket. And reading a masterpiece may be even less of a consolation when you first figure out, or are reminded for the thousandth time, of how much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terrors pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place. Those are the moments when it can help to read the lives and letters of great writers.


(Note : The following passage is not written by Prose, but is quoted by her from one of Isaac Babel’s interviews, in which Babel talks about revising his work. I think it is one of the best pieces of advice ever given to a budding writer.)


I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it…I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetitions, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything…I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel…I take out all the participles and adverbs I can…Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless…A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun…Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard…But the most important thing of all…is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is…We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.


 Have you read ‘Reading Like a Writer’? What do you think about it?

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I was quite excited when I discovered that Caroline from Beauty is a Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life were hosting German Literature Month during November. I was excited because I love German literature and this seemed to be the perfect reason to read German literature for a whole month J You can find the homepage of this challenge with introductory posts, information on readalongs and giveaways, the list of participants and potential books that will be read, here.


I had a lot of fun trying to make a list of German books that I wanted to read. Here is what I came up with.


Week 1 : German Literature


German Literature : A very short introduction by Nicholas Boyle – I thought I will start the German literature month by reading a VSI on it J


Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada – I have the British edition of this book, which has the unfortunate title ‘Alone in Berlin’ –  a poor imitation of the original title. I am extremely annoyed at the title change (Publishers, please leave the title alone!) but I am relieved that the book is the same. I first heard of this book, through my dear friend M—–l from Outgoing Signals, who said that this was one of his alltime favourite books. I can’t wait to read it.


The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind – I read Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’ sometime back and I loved it for Suskind’s beautiful prose and the way he evokes the senses. I can’t wait to read this novella of his.  


Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink – I have seen the movie version of Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ and liked it very much. I have his novel ‘Homecoming’ which also seems to bet set during the Second World War. I want to find out how it is.


Week 2 : Crime Fiction


Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann – This is a murder mystery where sheep play the role of detectives. I have been having this book on my shelf now for three years and I have been waiting for the right time to read it. I think the right time has now arrived J


Week 3 : Austria and Switzerland


The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse – I have wanted to read this Hesse book for years. Some of my friends who are Hesse connoisseurs rate this as his best novel. Hesse is one of my favourite authors (I loved both ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’) and so I can’t wait to find out what I think about this book. I don’t know whether Hesse is considered a Swiss writer – Wikipedia says that he is German-Swiss.


Week 4 : Kleist and other German Classics


The Marquise of O- by Heinrich von Kleist – I have been hearing a lot about this novella for a while now and I read a short review of it in Francine Prose’s book ‘Reading Like a Writer’ and liked the review very much. I can’t wait to read this novella.


Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – I have read von Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and I loved it. It is a beautiful, sad story. I have wanted to read ‘Faust’ since then. It will be too ambitious to try to read it within a week, but I hope to read a chapter or two to get a flavour of Goethe’s beautiful poetry.


Week 5 : Read as you please and wrap up


There are a few other books that I would like to try to squeeze in during this week (or during previous weeks). The books that I am thinking of, are :


  • The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch
  • Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Böll
  • The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann
  • The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke


I can’t wait for November to start J


Are you joining the German Literature Month reading festival? What do you think about the above books? Have you read some of them?

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