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Archive for February, 2012

I got ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ by Julian Barnes a few years back. I haven’t read a Julian Barnes book before – I had read bits and pieces of ‘A History of the World in 10 ½ chapters’ and liked it, but I hadn’t finished it. The first page of ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ started with this sentence – “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put.” It grabbed me and so I wanted to read the book as soon as I went home. I read a few pages and they were as good as I expected. But after that, somehow I got distracted and the book went into my bookshelf. A few days back I thought I will pick it up and give it the attention it deserved. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ is an exploration, contemplation and meditation on death. Julian Barnes talks about when he first got aware that he was going to die. He talks about his conversations with his brother on this topic. He talks about his parents lives and how they moved on. He also talks about writers and artists and musicians, mostly French – Jules Renard (I want to read his journal!), Stendhal, Montaigne (I want to read his essays!), Daudet, Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rossini, Ravel –  and what they thought about death and the works of art they created when thinking about death. I was actually quite excited that Barnes mentioned two of my favourite writers and composers – Maugham and Ravel – in the book. Most of the time he focuses on what Jules Renard said. On the way, Barnes also talks about God and whether God exists, on life after death and his own take on these topics. He talks about what philosophers and scientists think about it. He also talks about what the non-existence of God would mean to one’s fear of death.

 

Thus Barnes rambles on and on, on this topic, a topic which most people will be uncomfortable with. When I say rambling, it might look like I found the book boring. Far from it. The book was quite interesting. There were wonderful sentences and passages on every page. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book was about Barnes’ brother. It goes like this :

 

      Before he left England to live in France, my brother went to have his ears syringed. The nurse offered to test his blood pressure while she was about it. My brother declined. She pointed out that it was free. He replied that this might very well be the case, but that he didn’t want to be tested. The nurse, clearly not knowing what manner of patient she had in front of her, explained that at his age he might have high blood pressure. My brother, putting on a joke voice from a radio show transmitted long before the nurse had been born, insisted, ‘I don’t wish to know that.’

      ‘Nor did I,’ he tells me. ‘Suppose my blood was OK, then the test would have been a waste of time; suppose it wasn’t OK, then I wouldn’t do anything about it (wouldn’t take the pills, wouldn’t change my diet) but from time to time I’d worry about it.’ I reply that surely, ‘as a philosopher’, he ought to have considered the matter in the terms of a Pascalian wager. Thus, there were three possible outcomes : 1. Nothing wrong with you (good). 2. Something wrong with you but we can fix it (good). 3. Something wrong with you, but Sorry, mate, we can’t (bad). However, my brother resists this optimistic reading of the odds. ‘No, no. “Something wrong but we can fix it” = bad (I don’t like being fixed). And “wrong and unfixable” is far worse if you know than if you don’t.’ As my friend G. put it, ‘the evil is knowing it’s going to happen’. And in his preferring of ignorance, my brother for once resembled our father more than I do.  

 

Did you like it?

 

Another interesting anecdote I liked was about a CEO called Eugene O’Kelly, who is a high-achiever, but who suddenly discovers that he has cancer and has only three months to live. He decides to try to create perfect moments with his friends and family and unwind himself from the world.

 

For a book which was so wonderful, I had to push myself to get through pages sometimes. I don’t know why. This year I have read a few books which I got years back. I had to push myself while reading a couple of them. I didn’t like one of them as much as I expected to. I don’t know whether a book loses its freshness if it is not read immediately after it is bought and it resides in my bookshelf for a few years. It happens with newspapers. It is difficult to read yesterday’s newspaper. It is even more difficult to read last week’s newspaper. Last month’s newspaper – it is used mostly for packing or wrapping. But I thought that books were always fresh, unless they were on current affairs. ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ wasn’t on current affairs. It was on a deeper topic. I liked it. But I had to also push myself to read some parts of the book. I don’t know whether it was because the book had lost some of its freshness (or whether my mind had lost the fresh feeling it had for the book). Should I read books as soon as I buy them, in the future? Do you read books as soon as you buy them or do you put them in your bookshelf and let them age like wine?

 

I would like to read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ again sometime, atleast my favourite passages. If I survive till my sixties, I would like to read it again – I think the book will say some surprising and totally different things to me then.

 

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

 

On God

      A common response in surveys of religious attitudes is to say something like, ‘I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God.’ This kind of statement makes me in turn react like a philosopher. Soppy, I cry. You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters. Whether He’s an old man with a white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force, or a disinterested prime mover, or a clockmaker, or a woman, or a nebulous moral force, or Nothing At All, what counts is what He, She, It or Nothing thinks of you rather than you of them. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque. It also doesn’t matter whether God is just or benevolent or even observant – of which there seems startlingly little proof – only that He exists.

 

The Modern Heaven

We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfilment : the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it – doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfilment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, as a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgement that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral’s bell or the minaret’s muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism…

 

Individualism – the Twist in the Tale

Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism : from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms – the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self-fulfilment, self-indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways, we also discover that this individuality, or illusion of individuality, is less than we imagined. We discover, to our surprise, that as Dawkins memorably puts it, we are ‘survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. The paradox is that individualism – the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists – has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My adolescent notion of self-construction – that vaguely, Englishly, existentialist ego-hope of autonomy – could not have been further from the truth. I thought the burdensome process of growing up ended with a man standing by himself at last – homo erectus at full height, sapiens in full wisdom – a fellow now cracking the whip on his own account. This image must be replaced by the sense that, far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and that what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off. My ‘individuality’ may still be felt, and genetically provable; but it may be the very opposite of the achievement I once took it for.

 

On Wise Writers

I used to believer, when I was ‘just’ a reader, that writers, because they wrote books where truth was found, because they described the world, because they saw into the human heart, because they grasped both the particular and the general and were able to re-create both in free yet structured forms, because they understood, must therefore be more sensitive – also less vain, less selfish – than other people. Then I became a writer, and started meeting other writers, and studied them, and concluded that the only difference between them and other people, the only, single way in which they were better, was that they were better writers. They might indeed be sensitive, perceptive, wise, generalizing and particularizing – but only at their desks and in their books. When they venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts. It’s not just writer either. How wise are philosophers in their private lives?

 

On Simplicity

…there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. The artist is saying : display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. For the religious, this might mean becoming as a child again in order to enter heaven; for the artist, it means becoming wise enough, and calm enough, not to hide. Do you need all those extravagances in the score, all those marks on the canvas, all those exuberant adjectives? This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things.

 

Good News and Bad News

Would you like the good news first, or the bad? A sound tactic is always to choose the good – you might die before you get to hear the bad.

 

The Last Reader

We live, we die, we are remembered, – ‘misremember me correctly’, we should instruct – we are forgotten. For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning : fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a  title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a writer’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. Stendhal, who in his lifetime wrote for ‘the happy few’ who understood him, will find his readership dwindling back to a different mutated, perhaps less happy few, and then to a final happy – or bored – one. And for each of us there will come the breaking of the single remaining thread of this strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader. At some point, there will be a last reader for me too. And then the reader will die. And while, in the great democracy of readership, all are theoretically equal, some are more equal than others.

      My last reader : there is a temptation to be sentimental over him or her. Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in : your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?

 

Have you read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’? What do you think about it?

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After reading ‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson, I thought I will read ‘To Siberia’ written by him, which I had got along with ‘Out Stealing Horses’. I finished reading most of the book yesterday – and if some sudden things hadn’t cropped up, I would have finished the book yesterday itself, which rarely happens for me, because I am a slow reader – and finished reading the last few chapters today. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘To Siberia’ is about a sister and brother growing up during the Second World War in Denmark, when the Germans occupy Denmark. The sister is the narrator of the story, and her name is unknown. The brother is called Jesper. The first part of the book is about the sister and brother growing up in a small town in Denmark and the adventures they have together and the happy and sad moments that they experience. Then the German soldiers come into Denmark and things change. Jesper works with the resistance group against the Nazis and has to leave the country at some point of time. The war ends but for some reason the sister leaves the country. She works in different places – the telephone exchange, a glass blowing factory – and finally ends up as a waitress in a café. Then she has a brief affair with a customer who frequents the café and gets pregnant. She decides to go home and spend time with her parents while she is expecting, but when she lands up at home, she discovers that her brother has died. Her mother refuses to take her in because her mother is a very strict Christian and the narrator is pregnant without being married. So, our heroine, the narrator, decides to spend her time with an acquaintance in their sheep farm taking care of the ewes that are going to lamb soon, while she herself is expecting to give birth to a baby. The story ends with this. It is not very clear what happens next – whether the narrator gave birth to a baby, what happened after that, did she fall in love, did she get married, did she finally manage to travel to Siberia.

 

‘To Siberia’ had what I have come to expect out of a Per Petterson book now – long and beautiful sentences. However, in this book, the focus was more on the plot rather than on the sentences and the language. I somehow felt that this was one of his early works and Petterson’s prose was still getting finetuned and it all came together gloriously in ‘Out Stealing Horses’. I liked ‘To Siberia’ – not as much as ‘Out Stealing Horses’, but I still liked it. It is a story of growing up, of the love between brothers and sisters, of how the Second World War affected people.

 

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

 

And then it began to rain. It came from all directions at full speed and not on us, but against us with the wind right in our faces; we tried to turn away, walk sideways so as not to drown and Jesper gave up and ran out into the middle of the road and began to dance with his arms in the air.

 

When they have gone away they leave a dusty emptiness behind them, the air is stuffy and lifeless like the bottom of a purse, and my father gets to work on the cupboard or the chest and shapes up and remakes and polishes and rubs until the surfaces shine with the glow that is at the heart of all wood, shining without any varnish and with handles of finely carved bone. After a few days they come to fetch it, and then the piece stands there in the centre of the floor as good as new, better than new, and I have searched for the word year after year, looked it up in books and thought and pondered and found substance. They bring a wreck and leave with substance, and they see it and look dumbfounded and praise my father until his ears flame. When they have gone he has charged them the same amount as last year and the year before that and the year before that again.

 

      “I thought you were an angel,” he mumbled.

      “Angels have fair hair. Besides, they don’t exist.”

      “Mine do, and they have dark hair.”

 

      “You can learn a lot about human beings by studying insects,” he says, “their world is like ours in miniature, they just have a far better distribution of work.” There may be clarity and contrasts in Lone’s family, but I don’t care for insects. Insects scratch and tickle, they creep up under your dress and sting you.

 

      I usually sit listening, and a lot of what was said was meant for me. I was a woman and young, and they grew red in the face and excited, with their hands in the air competing for who would come out with the most brilliant riposte. Those elderly men infected me with their enthusiasm, they did not speak in one voice, they interrupted each other and dressed up history in words and flickering yellow-brown pictures until it felt like a home, and I was the guest of honour.

 

Have you read ‘To Siberia’? What do you think about it?

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A few days back I thought that I will take out some books from my bookshelf which I have always wanted to read (they pulled me strongly and that is why I bought them), but for some reason or other, I have never got around to reading. The first one I took out was ‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson. I did a readathon yesterday evening and finished it. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘Out Stealing Horses’ is about a man called Trond Sander who lives in Norway at the turn of the millennium – the most recent one. He lives in a house alone in the countryside which is surrounded by a forest. He has a neighbour nearby called Lars who also lives in the same way. Trond doesn’t have a telephone or a television. He keeps in touch with the outside world through his radio. He has an old car using which he goes out sometimes for grocery shopping or for getting tools and other stuff for his house. Trond narrates his life as it is now and also talks about his dog Lyra, his neighbour Lars, his car mechanic and a few other people whom he meets once in a while. While describing his current life, his mind goes back to his childhood, when he used to spend his summers in the countryside with his father chopping wood and playing with one of the boys who lived nearby. Trond goes back in time and describes his relationship with his father and the one last summer that he spent in the countryside. During the course of that time he discovered secrets about his father, about what his father did during the second world war, which surprised him. The whole book continues like this with different strands of the story set during different times. How the different strands come together in the end form the rest of the book.

 

The first thing I have to say about ‘Out Stealing Horses’ is Petterson’s prose. It is simple, lyrical, has beautiful thoughts and flows like a river. It was a pleasure to read every page, every sentence. I didn’t want the book to end, just for this. I also like the way Petterson moves the plot forward. Instead of just writing pages and pages of monologues with beautiful prose and ideas, he also pushes the story forward with transition between the two strands of the story happening seamlessly. And the third thing – the beautiful prose and thoughts. There were pages and pages of them and they challenged the capabilities of my overworked but untiring highlighting pen. The evocation of life in the countryside – in both strands of the story – is very delightful to read. It takes one to Norway and one can smell the wood and the forest and the grass and the cows and the hay and hear the swans and feel the heat of the woodstove and feel the cold of the snow and hear the ripple of the river. The beginning of the story was beautiful – there is even a reference to cricket in the second page (cricket in a Norwegian novel – imagine!) – and the ending was sad. Not tragic but sad in a beautiful way. The fourth thing about the story were the long sentences – sometimes these sentences went on for half a page and sometimes, even upto a page, almost Proustian. But they didn’t tax the brain as long sentences usually do – they evoked a series of images and the mind moved smoothly taking in each of them. I don’t remember the last time I felt so comfortable with so long sentences.

 

‘Out Stealing Horses’ was in the top-10 lists a few years back. I now know why. What I don’t know is why I waited for so long to read it. Life is too short and I rarely re-read novels these days, but I hope I get to read this one again.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book, some of them with long sentences.

 

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook. No-one can touch you unless you yourself want them to. You only have to be polite and smile and keep paranoid thoughts at bay…

 

He compresses his mouth into a thin line and squeezes his eyes tightly together, then he twists his whole face forty-five degrees to the right and down past his ear, or at least that’s what it looks like and the features I have barely become familiar with shrink into wrinkles, and he freezes it in that position for a while before opening his eyes and letting each part of his face fall back into place while the smoke goes on seeping out past his lips, and I do not have the slightest idea what kind of performance I have just witnessed.

 

…I really wanted to be alone. To solve my problems alone, one at a time, with clear thinking and good tools, like my father probably did those times at the cabin, took on one task after another, assessing it and putting out the tools he needed in a calculated order starting at one end and working his way through to the other, thinking and using his hands and enjoying what he did, in the same way I want to enjoy what I do, to solve the daily challenges that may be tricky enough, but within clear limits, with beginnings and ends to them that I can foresee, and then be tired in the evening but not exhausted, and wake up all rested in the morning, brew my coffee and light the stove and look out at the light that comes pink over the forest towards the lake and get dressed and walk the paths with Lyra, and then get on with the tasks I have decided shall fill that day. That is what I want, and I know I can do it, that I have it in me, the ability to be alone, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

 

…I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing past below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream, and you could lie out there beside the fjord at home in the vast darkness with your back against the hard sloping rock gazing up until your eyes hurt, feeling the weight of the universe in all its immensity press down on your chest until you could scarcely breathe or on the contrary be lifted up and simply float away like a mere speck of human flesh in a limitless vacuum, never to return. Just thinking about it could make you vanish a little.

 

Have you read ‘Out Stealing Horses’? What do you think about it?

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Last week, it looked like I might get into a reading slump. The initial symptoms were all coming out and so I decided to resist and fight by trying to read some short stories. I picked up an anthology that I have been having for years called ‘The Norton Introduction to Literature’. I remember buying it because it had lots of short stories, poems and plays and commentaries on plot, character, narration, point of view, tone, use of language etc. on these literary works. The anthology could be read in any way – from the first page to the last page or by dipping into works of one’s interest. I decided to go the traditional way and start from the first page. The first section had short stories. I read eleven of them. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

The anthology started with an introduction to what is literature. The first story after that was ‘The Zebra Storyteller’ by Spencer Holst. It was a simple story about a cat which acted like a lion and spoke in zebra language and ate zebras and how this cat is unmasked. There was a discussion on the elements of a plot after this story. The second story was ‘No One’s a Mystery’ by Elizabeth Tallent. It was about a married man who is having an affair with another woman and the conversation they are having in the man’s car, about how their affair will turn out in the end – the man is pessimistic about it while the woman is optimistic that they will end up happy. It makes the reader imagine his / her own conclusion to the story. The third story I read was Guy de Maupassant’s ‘The Jewelry’. It was about a very dutiful wife who like going to the opera and collecting imitation jewellery. When she falls ill and dies, her husband discovers that the jewellery is not imitation but the real thing. It makes him realize that his wife was probably unfaithful to him while managing to keep him happy at the same time. What happens after that and how this man reconciles his wife’s unfaithfulness with the fortune that she has left for him in jewellery, forms the rest of the story. For some reason, I liked the character of the wife in the story.

 

The fourth story in the collection was ‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood. It is difficult to call this a story. It is probably a story-ish essay. Atwood talks about happy endings and then gives a story which has only happy events and a happy ending. As expected, the story is boring. Then she plays with the plot (the leading woman character loves the man but the man doesn’t love back) and introduces new characters, some complexity, some not-so-happy events and the story assumes a life of its own and is more rich and makes us identify with one or more of the characters. Then she creates a third version of the story by playing with the plot more and introduces more complexity (the leading male character is much older than the woman character, he is married already and is only having an affair, while the woman has a romantic attachment to another young man of her own age) which makes the story more interesting. Atwood continues playing more with the basic plot structure and form of the story and each of the results is quite interesting. It is an education in creative writing and storytelling and this story made me very happy. It was like watching a master teacher at work. Towards the end of the story, Atwood says that there is only one authentic ending for all stories – that everyone dies – and then adds – “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.” I will highly recommend this story. Atwood rocks J

 

The fifth story in the collection was ‘The Country Husband’ by John Cheever. I have read one John Cheever short story before called ‘Marito in Città’ and I found it okay but it was not really my favourite. However, I liked ‘The Country Husband’ very much. Frank, the country husband of the title, is travelling by plane when his plane crashlands onto a field, putting the passengers into a panic. He survives and gets back home. He tries talking about his scary experience with his wife and children but no one at home is interested in listening. During the evening he meets a new babysitter at home and is attracted towards her. He even buys a gift for her later. The story goes on like this showing different scenes and images from the suburbs. I read somewhere that the difference between classical poetry (pre-20th century poetry) and modern poetry is that while classical poetry has a narrative arc, modern poetry has a series of images, coming one after the other. The images are absolutely precise and endlessly suggestive. I loved that phrase. When I think of Cheever’s story, I feel that is how it is – a series of images which are absolutely precise and endlessly suggestive, like modern poetry. It was interesting to read and open to many different interpretations by the reader in the end.

 

The sixth story I read was James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. A nameless narrator reads the newspaper while he is travelling by the subway and discovers that his brother Sonny has been arrested by the police. The narrator describes his feelings at this time in this beautiful and powerful passage :

 

A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream.

 

His mind goes back while he thinks about Sonny and how he was very different from the rest of the family and was unconventional and ended up as a drug addict. Towards the end of the story the narrator discovers an unknown, beautiful side of Sonny. This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, out of the ones that I have read till now. There is a beautiful conversation that the narrator has with Sonny about what Sonny wants to do in his life and Sonny replies that he wants to become a musician. I could relate very much to that conversation. Towards the end of the story, the prose got transformed into poetry and every word was a pleasure to read. For example this passage :

 

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

 

If you haven’t read James Baldwin’s stories before, I would highly recommend this one – ‘Sonny’s Blues’.

 

The seventh story in the collection was ‘The Cask of Amontillado’. This was a revenge story and it wasn’t much to write about it other than the fact that it was under the section ‘Narration and Point of View’ and featured storytelling from a first person point-of-view. The eighth story was Hills Like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway. The whole story was a conversation between an American guy and a girl (probably Spanish) in a bar while they were waiting for their train to arrive. It was also not much to write about other than the fact that the relationship between the guy and girl was going south. Hemingway is one of my favourite writers, but I realize that I can’t recommend his stories unreservedly. I need to read all his works sometime and decide which ones I like and which ones I don’t.

 

The ninth story I read was ‘How’ by Lorrie Moore. It was a story about a woman and a man who fall in love and they move in together. Unfortunately, after a while the woman falls out of love and decides to move out. But more unfortunately, the man has a serious health issue and his condition is undiagnosed. So the woman postpones her move out. Things linger on like this for a while, but finally the woman decides to move out, eventhough the man seems to be sick. The interesting thing about the story was that it was told from a second person point of view and even more interestingly and rarely, in the future tense. I haven’t read a story told from a second person point of view – or rather I have read parts of one story told from a second person point of view called ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino. So, it was quite interesting to read Moore’s story. I didn’t know for a long time what a second person point of view in a story meant – I only realized later that in this model, the reader was co-opted into the story as a character. I don’t think I have read a story which exclusively employed the future tense. I have to say that I loved Lorrie Moore’s story, especially for the innovative storytelling style. I want to read more of her stories.

 

The tenth story I read was ‘Dreams’ by Timothy Findley. It is about a husband-and-wife couple who are both psychiatrists and who have one tough patient each at work. Unfortunately, the husband’s patient doesn’t respond to him and as a result the husband gets insomnia and is not able to sleep. The wife tries to help him but she is not able too. What happens to them and their patients form the rest of the story. I don’t know how to describe this story other than fantastic – in the sense dreams and reality merge at some point in the story and it is difficult to tell which is dream and which is real. A very interesting story open to multiple interpretations.

 

The eleventh story I read was Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O’. The main character in the story talks about why she left her home and went to live in the post office in which she works. I have heard a lot about Eudora Welty and love some of her quotes, especially this one – “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming of themselves like grass.” I was hoping to read some of her stories one day and love them, but unfortunately, this one was not for me. But I hope to try other stories by Welty in the future.

 

My favourites stories out of the above are ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin, ‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood, ‘How’ by Lorrie Moore, ‘Dreams’ by Timothy Findley and ‘The Country Husband’ by John Cheever. That is five out of eleven – not bad J

 

Well, these are my eleven stories. The next story in the collection is ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville. There is also a whole section on Flannery O’Connor. I can’t wait to get to that. But right now, I am going to take a break from this book – it is nearly 1800 pages and so it is going to take some time for me to get to the last page – and I am going to read something else.

 

A word on the book. This is one of the best anthologies I have. The short story selection is quite excellent. The poetry selection is better and the selection of plays is awesome. The highlights of the book are the commentaries on different aspects of stories and poems and plays and essays by writers on their craft and by reviewers and critics and students on the pieces they have read. It is really a bibliophile’s delight. If you love anthologies, you might want to look at this. I don’t know why I waited for so long to start reading it.

 

What are you reading now?

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