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Archive for April, 2013

One of the books I eagerly awaited this year was Andrew Blackman’s ‘A Virtual Love’. I read his ‘On the Holloway road’ sometime back and liked it very much. So when ‘A Virtual Love’ came out this month, I couldn’t wait to get it and read it. I finished reading it in a couple of sittings during the last two days. Here is what I think.

AVirtualLoveByAndrewBlackmanSmallerVersion

‘A Virtual Love’ is about Jeff Brennan and his life and loves. Jeff works as an IT consultant during the day. He spends a lot of time with his friend Jon in the evenings and during weekends playing computer games. The way he spends time is not necessarily by going to Jon’s place – why does one need to do that in today’s online world – but by having video chats with him online. Sometimes Jeff also goes to protests which are organized by another of his friends Marcus, against big corporates. During one of these protests, Jeff meets a young American woman called Marie. Marie works for a home shelter which helps who live in the streets. She also takes part in protests. When Jeff and Marie get introduced to each other after a protest, Marie mistakenly thinks that Jeff is the famous blogger who blogs on political and social issues. Jeff doesn’t do anything to correct that opinion. Jeff and Marie fall in love and after a time start living together. Jeff manages to juggle his different identities and impersonations, and only a few people know about the truth. But then one day suddenly the real blogger Jeff Brennan decides to turn up at a protest. And all hell breaks loose in our hero Jeff’s life. Will Jeff survive this storm? What will happen to Jeff’s and Marie’s relationship? Can Jeff continue to juggle his real life and his online selves and impersonations and deceptions, successfully? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

‘A Virtual Love’ has an interesting narrative structure. Though it is about Jeff Brennan, it is told through multiple narrators who all play important parts in Jeff’s life. One of them is Jeff’s grandfather, whom Jeff visits every weekend. Marie is also one of the narrators and the other narrators include Jeff’s friend Jon, Jeff’s protestor friend Marcus and the real blogger Jeff Brennan. Our hero Jeff Brennan is not one of the narrators and we get to know about him only through what other people think about him. This narrative technique made me think of Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ in which also the main character’s life is portrayed through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances.

My favourite narrator and character in the story was Jeff’s grandfather. He is the opposite of the modern, online person – he doesn’t have a mobile phone, he struggles to use the computer, he is not on Facebook, he is able to sit quietly and contemplate for a long period of time, when he wants to write something he never uses the computer but he either uses pen and paper or types it out using the typewriter. He is the kind of character who is the counterpoint to the other characters in the story and I totally fell in love with him.

The book captures the social lives of the people of the 21st century quite well – how most people spend a lot of time online updating Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, blogging, reading and replying to comments, how people buy more and more things – books, clothes, shoes, gifts, food – online thus converting the computer into a marketplace, how friendships are built online, how online friends sometimes feel more real and authentic and intellectually sophisticated than real-world friends, how relationships are nurtured online and how breakups can happen online too. This is the kind of portrayal that a modern reader (who spends too much time online for his / her own good, if I may add – and I am the first guilty party here) will totally identify with. Jeff’s grandfather’s perspective on online life is quite interesting and provides a fascinating counterpoint to what the rest of the characters think and in some ways shows that some things don’t change.

Andrew Blackman’s trademark prose is spare and beautiful and it rises to sublime heights in the chapters which the grandfather narrates (Sorry I can’t stop mentioning my favourite character again and again – his thoughts are wonderful to read). The place where the grandfather says that he likes typing on the typewriter and then putting his written work together and tying it up with a rubber band vertically and horizontally made me smile and think of my own father (my father used to write, not type. But he definitely used rubber bands.).

The conclusion of the story was a little open ended and even sad for me. But it is interesting and throught-provoking in the context of the story. It makes us think and question the online identities we all have and how they might be similar or different to the identities we have in the real world. It also makes us wonder whether any of our identities are real or whether it is all an act or as some might put it, whether they are all valid identities highlighting different facets of our personalities to the world.

‘A Virtual Love’ is an interesting take on today’s world in which online identities of people sometimes submerge their offline ones. I enjoyed reading it. I can’t wait to find out what themes Andrew Blackman will explore in his next book.

You can find Delia’s review of the book here.

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

Of course, I am accustomed to mobile phones by now, but the idea of them ringing in my own house still bothers me. It diminishes my role as host. I’m used to the idea that in my own house everything is under my control. If the phone rings while I have company, I can decide whether or not to answer. Now it’s out of my hands. You bring your own world into my front room, and I am reduced to the role of a passive observer.

      Since it was the first Sunday of the month, I’d spent the morning cleaning. As usual, I started with the toughest task. It’s an old, unbreakable habit, instilled by my father from an early age. ‘Face up to the devil, and the rest is child’s play,’ he used to say. He would constantly ask me my worst fear and make me confront it immediately, whether it was a spider, a girl, a history essay or a bully at school. The old man wouldn’t let me rest for a second until the toughest thing in my life at that particular time had been accomplished. In cricket practice, he used to rip out two of the stumps, leaving only one to bowl at. ‘It’ll be easy when you come to matches,’ he’d say. ‘Having three to aim at will feel like child’s play.

      He was right, of course, and I would later thank him when I became, for a time, one of the most feared medium-pacers in the north London leagues. But somehow, no matter how many tough tasks I faced, there were always more awaiting me. The golden age where everything was finally child’s play always remained my father’s broken promise. After the bullies and the girls and the history essays came work, tax returns, marriage, a baby, a mortgage and a thousand other tough tasks. I threw myself at all of them, patiently waiting for everything to seem like child’s play, but the easy life always remained tantalizingly just around the corner. Finally I focused all my hopes on retirement, feeling sure that then I could finally ‘put my feet up’, as everyone said. But after a brief respite, I found myself once again paying bills, worrying about my pension, filling my life with tasks. And then Daisy got ill, and my arthritis got worse, and our only child died, and tough tasks seemed to take up the majority of my life once more. Now I am well aware that life will never seem like child’s play. But a habit is a habit, and so I still handle the toughest tasks first.

Anybody who saw the inside of the clock, the elegant machinery of springs and weights, wheel trains and escapements all intersecting in perfect harmony, would understand why I could never let it be sullied by dirt from the outside world. When I am cleaning it, I slip into a trance. Time stops, my thoughts fly away, the world around me fades, and all that exists is the familiarity of the movements. My hands seem to act from memories of their own, without the need for conscious thought. I always remove the parts in the same order, squirt on the same cleaning fluid to remove solidified oil, use the same cloth to wipe the metal clean, and apply the same amount of fresh oil in the same places, before slipping everything firmly back together in the reverse order. There’s a neat circularity to it, progress of a kind. The metal gleams brighter than before, the parts have been checked and the possibility of a catastrophic failure averted. That’s about the only kind of progress I can believe in these days.

Have you read Andrew Blackman’s ‘A Virtual Love’? What do you think about it?

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After reading Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’, I thought of exploring more works by French-Canadian authors when Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat recommended ‘The Mark of the Angel’. I got it recently and finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

The Mark Of The Angel By Nancy Huston

The story told in ‘The Mark of the Angel’ starts in 1957 in Paris. It has been twelve years since the end of the Second World War, but some things don’t seem to have changed much. There is trouble in Algeria and French troops are trying to get the situation under control, sometimes by violence. A young German woman, Saffie, lands up in Paris. She goes to work as a maid at the home of a young flautist, Raphael. Raphael falls in love with her at first sight. After a few months, he proposes to Saffie and she accepts his proposal. Raphael’s mother doesn’t like Germans because of the happenings during the Second World War and disapproves of the match. Still, Raphael goes ahead and marries Saffie. But there is something about Saffie. She is detached about everything. She doesn’t show any emotion. She doesn’t seem to love Raphael as he loves her. Raphael feels that things will change after a while. But they don’t. Then Saffie and Raphael have a son. Raphael feels that now that Saffie has become a mother she will change and genuine warmth will blossom in her heart. But still nothing happens. One day Raphael sends Saffie to a workshop to get his flute repaired. Saffie meets András at the workshop and it is love at first sight for her. Her heart opens to him. And András responds back. And Saffie blooms like a flower. Raphael notices the change. He concludes that being a mother and a wife has finally made his wife open her heart to the world. He is delighted. Saffie and András start meeting regularly. Saffie brings her son Emil everytime. She also continues to be a dutiful wife to Raphael. She lives these two parallel lives – as a wife to Raphael out of necessity, and as a lover to András out of choice – without much trouble. It works for her. Meanwhile the trouble in Algeria explodes and it ends up with violence in the streets of Paris. During this troubled time Saffie and András share secrets about each other, about their past. Saffie is German and András is Jewish and so some of the secrets they share are not going to be comfortable. But still their love binds them together. And Emil loves András like his own father. And then András starts collaborating with some of the Algerian freedom fighters. And things take a turn for the worse. What happens to Saffie? Why was she detached before she met András? What secret was she suppressing? Will she find happiness with András? What happens to Raphael? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story. (This is probably a spoiler. So please be forewarned. As you might have guessed, a love story like this where the heroine leads parallel lives, never ends well. There are some surprising revelations, a shocking discovery, some partings, a heartbreak and some unanswered questions in the end. To find out the nature of these, you should read the book.)

I liked ‘The Mark of the Angel’. Nancy Huston’s prose is very conversational and in many places she talks to the reader directly while telling the story. It is like sitting in front of the fire on a winter night, listening to a story told by our favourite aunt. There is also a gentle sense of humour throughout the book, even when it talks about serious topics like war, the holocaust, violence and death. Saffie is a fascinating character and her detachment from the world and the weight of sadness that she seemed to carry in her heart made me fall in love with her. When Saffie meets András and falls in love with him and opens up to him and her heart starts blooming like a flower, one can’t help but feel happy for her. Even though one is worried about the consequences and one fears whether their love will survive the situation and the damning revelations that follow. I liked most of the characters in the story – there were no good and bad ones, but most of them were normal people trying to find a little happiness and a little peace in the middle of a chaotic world. The book also portrays Paris of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the culture of those times quite well. I learnt a little bit about the Algerian issue of the ‘50s and ‘60s after reading this book – it didn’t show the French in good light. The way the books weaves the stories of Saffie, András, Emil and Raphael and the people in their lives with the story of the fight for Algerian independence and the way it shows how the weight of history changes and distorts individual lives is quite interesting. It also made me feel sad, because it showed how difficult it is to find happiness and freedom in the world, even if we try our best.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Mark of the Angel’. I would love to read more of Nancy Huston’s books. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

For the first time in his life, he feels that beauty and necessity are converging in his heart, as they do in a Bach fugue.

Raphael plays the flute. His playing is getting better by the day, as anguish has come to lend added complexity to his ingenuous, overly optimistic nature – enhancing rather than supplanting his mad love, slipping into the interstices of his music and giving it new shades, denser and more subtle shades than ever before. In the adagio movements in particular, every note he produces is like the shimmering surface of a pond beneath which dark treasures lurk.

Yes, adultery can give you wings. As a general rule, the flight is brief and the fall brutal. And yet, watching the young woman move off towards the Seine with her pram, Mademoiselle Blanche’s heart warms in spite of herself. It’s not easy to advise caution to a person in the thrall of such blatant happiness. All you can do is hope the damage will be limited.

In every tale of passion there comes a turning point. It can happen sooner or later but as a rule it happens fairly soon. The vast majority of couples miss the curve and go careening off the road, flip over and crash into a wall, their wheels spinning madly in the air. The reason for this is simple. Contrary to what you’d believed during the first hours, the first days, at most the first months, of the enchantment, the person you love hasn’t radically transformed you. When you miss the turn, the wall you run into is the wall of your Self. Yes, there it is again – every bit as nasty, as petty and as mediocre as it was before. You haven’t been magically healed. Your wounds are still raw. Your nightmares begin again. And you’re filled with rage at the other person – because, as it turns out, you haven’t undergone a metamorphosis, love hasn’t solved all life’s problems, and you’re not floating ecstatically heavenward – but rather, as usual, pulling your own weight down here on Earth.

“You know, Mama,” says Emil as they head home, “every time the rain falls on my cheeks, it feels like I’m crying. Did that happen to you, when you were little?”

“Yes, Schatz. Yes, it did.”

Have you read Nancy Huston’s ‘The Mark of the Angel’? What do you think about it?

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I read Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ last year and liked it very much. I had wanted to read other books by her since that time. When I discovered that she has come out with a new book, I couldn’t resist getting it. I finished reading ‘Flight Behavior’ yesterday and here is what I think.

Flight Behavior By Barbara Kingsolver

‘Flight Behavior’ is about a farm wife, Dellarobia, and her life. Dellarobia lives near the mountains alongwith her husband and works in the farm of her in-laws. When she was in high school, she had wanted to go to college, but she got pregnant and so got married to Cub. Unfortunately, her child is stillborn, but she stays married to Cub and later has a son, Preston, and a daughter, Cordie. She is not very happy with her life though she loves her children. She likes her husband, but she feels that she and her husband are different in many ways and her parents-in-law aren’t really nice to her. One day, to escape from her dreary life, she drives up the mountain to meet a young man and have an affair with him, unmindful of the consequences (It is the first scene in the story. The first sentence in the book is a beautiful, trademark Barbara Kingsolver first sentence – “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.”). When she reaches the top, she sees a glorious sight. The valley seems to be filled with a lake of fire. Dellarobia is astounded and she thinks this is a sign. She comes back home without meeting the young man. Meanwhile her father-in-law signs a contract with a logging company to cut down the trees in the mountain. When his family protests, he refuses to listen to them. Dellarobia tells her husband to first checkout the mountain before deciding to cut the trees. The whole family goes up the mountain. And they see what Dellarobia had seen earlier. The only difference is that the scene is not a lake of fire. It is an ocean of monarch butterflies – millions and millions of them – which give that illusion. Soon everyone in the town is talking about how Dellarobia had this vision. TV channels arrive for her interview. A scientist comes with his assistants and starts research. Dellarobia becomes friends with him and after a while gets to work in his team. She discovers that the presence of so many monarch butterflies is not a good sign. It is probably because of global warming which might lead to the extinction of this butterfly species. What happens next – to the butterfly species and to Dellarobia – forms the rest of the story.

 

‘Flight Behavior’ is an interesting story which deals with two themes – the travails of a farm wife and the issue of climate change. Barbara Kingsolver blends the particular and the general quite well and weaves these two diverse strands into a beautiful whole – while one strand of the story depicts how the monarch butterfly faces challenges posed by the environment and tries to adapt to change, the second strand shows how Dellarobia faces the challenges posed by her restraining circumstances and how she adapts herself to face them and overcome them. Though climate change plays an important part in the book, I think what stands out in the story is the travails of the farm wife – how Dellarobia is talented but she is restrained by her circumstances which stunt her from growing as a person and prevent her talents from flowering. There are no ‘bad guys’ in the story who are preventing her from realizing her potential – it is just the way things are. The trademark Barbara Kingsolver sentences keep appearing throughout the book. The farming parts of the story are described in detail. One of my favourite scenes in the book is the one where a ewe gives birth to a baby sheep which seems to be stillborn and Dellarobia revives it and get it to breathe. Small town scenes are painted beautifully throughout the book – like getting children ready for the school bus in the morning, shopping at a second hand goods store, going to church on Sundays, how neighbours influence each other and intrude into each other’s lives, how the local pastor plays an influential role in the lives of people.

 

When I read ‘Flight Behavior’ I couldn’t resist comparing it with ‘Prodigal Summer’. Both of them have some common themes – preservation of wild life, life of a farm wife, in-law trouble, small town issues. ‘Flight Behavior’ had a traditional, straightforward story with a beginning, a middle and an end with one main heroine unlike ‘Prodigal Summer’. However, I felt that Kingsolver’s prose in ‘Prodigal Summer’ was more beautiful. There were many beautiful lines and passages in ‘Flight Behavior’ but the focus was more on the story rather than on the beautiful sentences. However, for some reason, inspite of the focus on the story, the pages moved very slowly and it took me quite a while to finish the book. Also, in ‘Prodigal Summer’ the coyote and the luna moth were more like characters in the story, while in ‘Flight Behavior’ I didn’t feel the same way about the monarch butterfly. Maybe because there were millions of them out there in the valley, I didn’t really fall in love with them, though I liked their story.

 

I found ‘Flight Behavior’ quite interesting. It was a slow-read for me, but I liked the stories and the characters and the family scenes and the themes that the book addressed. It has been shortlisted for the Orange prize this year and it will be interesting to track its progress there.

 

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

 

The way he closed his fingers in a bracelet around her ankles and wrists marveling at her smallness, gave her the dimensions of an expensive jewel rather than an inconsequential adult.

 

People automatically estimate a mom’s IQ at around her children’s ages, maybe dividing by the number of kids, rounding up to the nearest pajama size.

 

Having children was not like people said. Forget training them in your footsteps; the minute they put down the teething ring and found the Internet, you were useless as a source of anything but shoes and a winter coat.

 

Dovey : “Will you explain to me why people encourage delusional behavior in children, and medicate it in adults? That’s so random. It’s like this whole shady setup.”

Dellarobia : “True. At what age do you cross over the line and say, ‘Now I’ll face reality?’”

Dovey : “When you get there, send me a postcard.”

 

Dellarobia : “I don’t know how a person could even get through the day, knowing what you know.”

Ovid : “So. What gets Dellarobia through her day?”

Dellarobia : “Meeting the bus on time. Getting the kids to eat supper, getting teeth brushed. No cavities the next time. Little hopes, you know? There’s just not room at our house for the end of the world. Sorry to be a doubting Thomas.”

Ovid : “Well, you’re hardly the first. People always want the full predicament revealed and proven in sixty seconds or less.”

 

“Now, see, that’s why everybody wants Internet friends. You can find people just exactly like you. Screw your neighbors and your family, too messy. The trouble is, once you filter out everybody that doesn’t agree with you, all that’s left is maybe this one retired surfer guy living in Idaho.”

 

It was hard to feel the remotest sympathy for any of the different fools she had been. As opposed to the fool she was probably being now. People hang on for dear life to that one, she thought : the fool they are right now.

 

Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’? What do you think about it?

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