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Archive for January, 2015

My first poetry collection of the year – ‘American Primitive’ by Mary Oliver 🙂 I got it last week and dropped what I was reading and started reading this. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

American Primitive By Mary Oliver

‘American Primitive’ is a collection of fifty poems. It is classic Mary Oliver – it has mostly poems on nature – on animals, plants, trees, the sky, the sea and other beautiful things. 

In a typical Mary Oliver poem – if there is any such thing – there is a heroine who comes out of the forest, or who is taking a stroll, sometimes with her partner or lover and sometimes with her child and sometimes she spots our poet looking at her and then we realize that our heroine is not human, but she is a deer, or a coyote or a bear or a duck or sometimes even a grasshopper or a damsel-fly and in rare cases even a ray of moonlight (“Yet over the bed of each of us moonlight throws down her long hair”). In some poems we don’t know who the heroine is – we just read about what she does. 

Some of the poems are epic (epic = more than a page long) – the story starts slowly and then there are sparklers and fireworks and then it fades away gently in the end like the coda of a beautiful, melodious song. One of my favourite poems from the book which was like this was ‘Humpbacks’. 

In one poem called ‘John Clapman’ there was an interesting character who made me remember the character called Tom Bombadil from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ “everywhere he went the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely as young girls.”

In the first half of the book, I liked lines from nearly every poem, but I had only one favourite poem. In the second half, the book came on its own for me, and I liked nearly every poem.

There are beautiful lines throughout the book, like this :

“The rain rubs its shining hands all over me”

And this :

“Now you are dead too, and I, no longer young, know what a kiss is worth”

And this :

“there is no end, believe me! to the inventions of summer, to the happiness your body is willing to bear”

And this :

“To live in this world you must be able to do three things : to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”

Well, no more spoilers. You should read the book to experience the joy I did. 

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

 

Morning at Great Pond

 

It starts like this :

forks of light

slicking up

out of the east,

flying over you,

and what’s left of night –

its black waterfalls,

its craven doubt –

dissolves like gravel

as the sun appears

trailing clouds

of pink and green wool,

igniting the fields,

turning the ponds

to plates of fire.

The creatures there

are dark flickerings

you make out

one by one

as the light lifts –

great blue herons,

wood ducks shaking

their shimmering crests –

and knee-deep

in the purple shallows

a deer drinking:

as she turns

the silver water

crushes like silk,

shaking the sky,

and you’re healed then

from the night, your heart

wants more, you’re ready

to rise and look!

to hurry anywhere!

to believe in anything.

 

 

A Meeting

 

She steps into the dark swamp

where the long wait ends.

 

The secret slippery package

drops to the weeds.

 

She leans her long neck and tongues it

between breaths slack with exhaustion

 

and after a while it rises and becomes a creature

like her, but much smaller.

 

So now there are two. And they walk together

like a dream under the trees.

 

In early June, at the edge of a field

thick with pink and yellow flowers

 

I meet them.

I can only stare.

 

She is the most beautiful woman

I have ever seen.

 

Her child leaps among the flowers,

the blue of the sky falls over me

 

like silk, the flowers burn, and I want

to live my life all over again, to begin again,

 

to be utterly

wild.

 

 

The Plum Trees

 

Such richness flowing

through the branches of summer and into

 

the body, carried inward on the five

rivers! Disorder and astonishment

 

rattle your thoughts and your heart

cries for rest but don’t

 

succumb, there’s nothing

so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

 

is a taste before

it’s anything else, and the body

 

can lounge for hours devouring

the important moment. Listen,

 

the only way

to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

 

into the body first, like small

wild plums.

 

The Kitten

 

More amazed than anything

I took the perfectly black

stillborn kitten

with the one large eye

in the center of its small forehead

from the house cat’s bed

and buried it in a field

behind the house.

 

I suppose I could have given it

to a museum,

I could have called the local

newspaper.

 

But instead I took it out into the field

and opened the earth

and put it back

saying, it was real,

saying, life is infinitely inventive,

saying, what other amazements

lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes,

 

I think I did right to go out alone

and give it back peacefully, and cover the place

with the reckless blossoms of weeds.

 

Have you read ‘American Primitive’? What do you think about it? Which of the above poems is your favourite? 

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It has been nearly three weeks into the New Year. So, it is time for me to write about my favourites from last year and also see my reading year in perspective. 

First the perspective part. 

I read 46 books last year. It was not as many as previous years, but I had bad reading slumps throughout the year, especially in the second half, and also family emergencies and so considering that, I think I read a good number of beautiful books. Here is a brief overview of my reading year. 

The first book that I read was ‘In the Land of Punctuation’ by the German poet Christian Morgenstern. It was actually a visual, artistic representation of a poem of the same name by Morgenstern. It defied classification – I didn’t know whether to consider it as poetry, or a book of art or a graphic novel.

In The Land Of Punctuation By Christian Morgenstern

The last book I read was ‘Blue Horses’ by the American poet Mary Oliver. It was one of my favourite books of the year. It was nice to start the year with a poem and end the year with a poetry collection. 

The thickest book that I read during the year was this one.

JS And MrN Spine

Can you guess which book this is? Yes, it is that chunkster, the 1006-page long ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ 🙂

JS And MrN Spine With Title

The thinnest book that I read was ‘In Berlin : Day and Night in 1929’ by Franz Hessel.

In Berlin By Franz Hessel

Now for some numbers.

I read 21 books by women authors and 22 books by men authors, which was nearly perfect. I read three books which featured both women and men authors – they were all anthologies – one was a poetry anthology and two were short story anthologies.

I read 24 books which were originally written in English, 6 books written in French (5 of them were Belgian comics :)), 10 written in German, 1 written in Russian, 2 written in Spanish, 2 written in Swedish and 1 written in Tamil. Except for the Tamil book which I read in the original, I read the other non-English books in translation. My English : Non-English reading was 24 : 22. Which is not bad.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell which country a book is from – because the author is from one country, while the characters in the story are from another and the story happens in a different country. But looking at it from the perspective of the author’s nationality, I read 4 Austrian books, 6 German books, 5 Belgian books, 1 French book, 1 Chilean book, 1 Spanish book, 6 English books, 1 Irish book, 16 American books, 2 Indian books, 1 Russian book and 2 Swedish books. No Middle-eastern, East Asian, African books – I need to work on that.

It was supposed to be the year in which I read a lot of French and Russian literature, but it didn’t turn out that way. I read just 1 French and 1 Russian book (and 5 Belgian comics written in French). I need to learn to stick to my reading plans – atleast an approximation of them.

In terms of genre, I read 7 Children books, 4 YA books, 6 Comics, 1 Fantasy, 3 Memoirs (one of them was a graphic novel memoir), 1 Essay, 2 Plays, 6 collections of Poetry, 2 Short Story collections, 1 book on Science, 1 Science Fiction novel and 12 books of Literary Fiction. I loved the fact that I read 6 collections of poetry – I don’t remember having read so many collections of poetry in a year before.

My Fiction : Non-Fiction reading was 41 : 5 (I considered poetry as fiction here, though some readers tend to consider it as nonfiction.).

My Narrative Stories : Others reading was 33 : 13. (In addition to novels, I included Children books, Comics and Short Story collections under the ‘Narrative Stories’ category. I included Plays in the ‘Others’ category.)

I participated in seven reading events – Angela Carter Week, German Literature Month, Romain Gary Month, Once Upon a Time and three readalongs – the Literature and War Readalong, the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ readalong and the ‘Lolita’ readalong. I loved all of them and I am hoping to participate in more reading events this year.

That is all about numbers.

Now for my favourite books of the year. Here are my favourite books of the year, in no particular order, with links to my reviews.

Poetry

Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva – My first experience of reading Tsvetaeva’s poems. Very beautiful collection. Unfortunately, Tsvetaeva doesn’t seem to be as popular among English readers as much as Boris Pasternak or Anna Akhmatova. She deserves to be better known and better read.

Selected Poems By Marina Tsvetaeva

101 Great American Poems – One of the finest poetry collections that I have ever read. In a slim book, the compilers have packed a lot of beautiful poems. I have a whole new love for American poetry after reading this book. All the classic poems are there in this book.

101 Great American Poems

Blue Horses by Mary Oliver – Mary Oliver’s new collection. Each poem is beautiful and different and the book refuses to let you go till the end. A must read for Oliver fans.

Blue Horses By Mary Oliver

Sandhya’s Kiss (Sandhyavin Mutham) by Kavitha – I didn’t review this book, unfortunately. It is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. I love reading Tamil poetry, and Kavitha is one of the talented, young poets. I will look forward to reading more of her poetry during the coming year.

I know that this is a list of favourites, but I have to mention this here. My biggest disappointment of the year was Pablo Neruda’s ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’.

Twenty Love Poems And A Song Of Despair By Pablo Neruda

I loved Neruda’s ‘Odes to Common Things’ when I first read it a few years back. It is one of my favourite poetry collections. When I read that, I heard from Neruda fans that ‘Twenty Love Poems…’ is a more critically acclaimed book and is more beautiful. I loved the title of that book and so, I went in with high hopes. As often happens when we go with high hopes, it ended in disappointment. There were beautiful lines in the book, of course, like this – “Love is so short, forgetting is so long” – and this – “Like a jar you housed the infinite tenderness, and the infinite oblivion shattered you like a jar” – and this – “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed” (this line made me remember the lines from a W.B.Yeats poem – “I’m looking for the face I had / Before the world was made.”). But, despite these beautiful lines, the book was a song of despair for me. The poems didn’t have the impact that I expected they would, and I came off feeling underwhelmed. I am wondering why that happened. Maybe the collection didn’t fit my poetry taste. Or maybe it is just me – maybe I didn’t understand the poems, the way they were supposed to be understood. Maybe I should give it a chance again later in life. Have you read this collection? What do you think about it?

Children’s Books

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren – I have wanted to read Ronja’s story for years. I finally got to read it and it was as wonderful as expected. Ronja is one of the great adorable heroines in children’s literature and this is a book that I will be reading again.

Ronia The Robbers Daughter By Astrid Lindgren

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – I have been trying to get this book for years after one of my friends highly recommended it. Finally got it and read it and loved it. I wish I had read it when I was a child – I would have loved it more.

The Phantom Tollbooth By Norton Juster

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris – A beautiful, contemporary retelling of a famous fairytale. Jackie Morris’ writing is the very definition of purple prose and the illustrations in the book are gorgeous and that ending, which is very different from the traditional ending, will make you think.

East Of The Sun West Of The Moon By Jackie Morris

Comics

Le Survivant by Jean Van Hamme, Thierry Cailleteau and Christian Denayer

Le Survivant Wayne Shelton

La Vengeance by Jean Van Hamme, Thierry Cailleteau and Christian Denayer

La Vengeance Wayne Shelton

I didn’t review these two books. I am a big fan of Belgian comics and Jean Van Hamme is one of my favourite Belgian Comic writers. He has worked on literally every comic genre and they are all excellent. These two are from the Wayne Shelton series – Shelton is a retired armyman in his fifties. He has grey hair and looks his age, but he is cool, stylish and sophisticated, he is frequently hired by bad guys on mercenary projects and most of the time he turns against his employers and his adventures are gripping and thrilling to read.

Memoirs

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary My first Romain Gary book. Though it is Gary’s memoir, it is more a love letter to his mom. Beautifully written, humorous and insightful in equal measure, it made me want to read more of Gary’s works.

Promise At Dawn By Romain Gary

Relish : My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley – A beautiful graphic memoir of Lucy Knisley love affair with food. It has many recipes and I loved reading all of them.

Relish By Lucy Knisley

Science

Infinite Ascent : A Short History of Mathematics by David Berlinski – I didn’t review this book. It is a slim, beautiful gem and the finest introduction to mathematics that I have read. I wish it was around during my student days – I would have loved it more.

Infinite Ascent By David Berlinski

YA

Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones – The dogstar gets convicted in the celestial court and ends up being born a dog on earth. His mistress is kind but can’t always protect him. Will he regain his lost glory and become a star again? And if he does, how can he bear to part from his mistress, whom he loves so much and who loves him back? One of the most beautiful fantasy tales that I have ever read. Vintage Diana Wynne Jones.

Dogsbody By Diana Wynne Jones

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner – Gae Polisner’s second book. It is about love and loss and family and about being a teenager in today’s complex world. With each new book Gae Polisner keeps getting better and better. I am torn between deciding which one I like more – this one or Polisner’s first book ‘The Pull of Gravity’ – they are both beautiful. I can’t wait to read her next book.

The Summer Of Letting Go By Gae Polisner

So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane – Has been lying in my bookshelf for years. Finally read it. A bookish girl while hiding in the library from bullies, discovers a book there on how to become a wizard. And before she knows it, she is plunged headlong into a world of magic and things go out of control. My favourite character in the story was a white hole which talks. One of the great discoveries of the year for me.

So You Want To Be A Wizard By Diane Duane

Literary Fiction

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – One of the finest war novels ever written. I am glad that I finally read it. Every page has quotable passages and my highlighting pen didn’t stop working. If I have to choose just one favourite book for the year, this might be the one.

All Quiet On The Western Front By Erich Maria Remarque

The Awakening by Kate Chopin – I have wanted to read Kate Chopin’s only novel for years. Finally got to read it. Chopin’s prose is exquisite and her sensitive portrayal of a woman who yearns to be free is beautifully told. A book which I will be reading again.

The Awakening By Kate Chopin

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble – A surprising discovery for me. I have never heard of Drabble before and I got this book in a sale. This is about a twenty-something woman in ‘60s London who gets pregnant and decides to have the baby. The challenges she faces are told in the rest of the story. Very realistically and beautifully told. I can’t wait to read more books by Drabble.

The Millstone By Margaret Drabble

Three Paths to the Lake by Ingeborg Bachmann – In her novella, Bachmann is as insightful as ever as she describes the life of her fifty-year-old heroine and her life and her loves. Probably my most favourite Bachmann story yet.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker – The story of a woman’s quest for her father which leads her into the interior part of Burma. Beautiful prose, quotable passages and a sensitive story.

The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats By Jan Philipp Sendker

Short Story

Letter to the Lady of the House by Richard Bausch

The Stories Of Richard Bausch

Though I read two short story collections, my favourite short story of the year was not from them. It was a story by Richard Bausch, an author who my friend M—–l (from Outgoing Signals) highly recommended. The Richard Bausch story I loved was called, ‘Letter to the Lady of the House’. It was featured in the collection ‘The Stories of Richard Bausch’. It is the story of a man who on the eve of his seventieth birthday writes a letter to his wife. It is now one of my alltime favourite short stories. If you like, you can listen to Richard Bausch reading it here.

So, that was my reading year in 2014. How was your reading year in 2014? Which were your favourite books? Have you read any of the above books?

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I haven’t heard of Denis Thériault before, till I got this book from one of my friends as a Christmas present. I read the story outline on the inside flap and before I knew I was into the book and couldn’t stop reading it. Though it is the size of a novella at slightly over a hundred pages, it is a book that I enjoyed reading slowly and lingering over my favourite sentences. Here is what I think.

The Peculiar Life Of A Lonely Postman Denis Theriault

‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman’ is the story of a postman called Bilodo. He is twenty-seven years old. He is an introvert. He is not really lonely, though it might appear that way to others, because he leads a rich interior life. His everyday routine is simple and inconspicuous – he goes to work in the morning, sorts the mail and then takes the ones allotted to him and delivers them to their respective addresses. But in the night after having dinner, he is a different person. He takes out personal letters which he was supposed to deliver during the day, and which he has hidden inside his jacket, and steams them open and secretly reads the correspondence, taking a peak into the private lives of strangers. After reading those conversations and taking copies of those letters, he delivers the letters the next day.

At any point many such postal conversations are going on – by people who don’t like email, but love putting pen to paper and writing beautiful letters and enjoying the pleasure of anticipation by waiting for the reply. As the book describes it :

“More alluring by far were letters from others. Real letters, written by real people who preferred the sensual act of writing by hand, the delightfully languorous anticipation of the reply, to the reptilian coldness of the keyboard and instantaneity of the Internet – people for whom the act of writing was a deliberate choice and in some cases, one sensed, a matter of principle, a stand taken in favour of a lifestyle not quite so determined by the race against time and the obligation to perform.” 

Reading those letters marks the highpoint of Bilodo’s day. Out of all the epistolary conversations, Bilodo’s favourite is the one between Ségolène and Gaston Grandpré. Ségolène lives in Guadeloupe and she and Gaston have been corresponding for a while. Bilodo is able to read Ségolène’s letters because those are the ones he has to deliver, but he is not able to read Gaston’s replies to them. So he imagines what Gaston’s replies could be and enjoys making up that part of the conversation. Ségolène and Gaston correspond by poems and when Bilodo researches more on the poetic form they favour, he discovers that it is the Japanese poetic form Haiku. He reads more about that and he is able to understand Ségolène’s poems better. And then one day the unfortunate thing happens. Gaston, while trying to post a letter, gets knocks down by a truck and dies. And with that, our hero Bilodo’s only link to Ségolène is severed. His life is no longer interesting and he always feels dull and tired. And then one day he hits on plan. It decides to impersonate Gaston and continue the correspondence with Ségolène. But before that he has to learn how to write Haiku.

Is Bilodo able to successfully impersonate Gaston? How does his poetic correspondence with Ségolène go? How does their relationship progress? Does Ségolène discover his real identity? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman’. It is a beautiful, poignant love story. I loved the main characters – Bilodo, Ségolène, Gaston and the waitress Tania who likes Bilodo. I loved Denis Thériault’s beautiful prose throughout the book. At many places, I had to step back, read the passage or the sentence that I just read, linger on it for a while, and then move on to the next sentence. It was a very enjoyable experience. The book is also a love letter to the Haiku and Tanka poetic forms. I have read Haiku poems before, but reading them in context in this book was very beautiful. When Ségolène and Bilodo move from the Haiku to the Tanka form and start writing love poems and then later revert back to the Haiku form – as the book describes it :

“And so the history of the haiku’s birth repeated itself : stripped of superfluous words…the naked essence of the poetry emerged.”

it was quite wonderful to follow the evolution of their relationship through their poetic journey. The book also inspired me to read more Haiku and Tanka poems and books on Haiku and Tanka. The ending of the book was interesting – it had a Zen, Joycean, (Alexis) Smithian perfection to it – but it was disappointing for me. I am not going to tell you what it is and spoil it. If you want to know what it is, you should read the book.

The story’s main character Bilodo, made me remember the great introverted heroes from Patrick Süskind’s novels – ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’. When I read in the author’s interview at the end of the book that ‘Perfume’ was one of his favourite novels and Süskind was one his favourite writers, I realized that Bilodo could have been inspired by those great introverted characters.

It is still early days yet, but I have to say that this book is going to be one of my favourites of the year. Beautiful love story, introverted main character, love letters, poetry, beautiful prose, unexpected ending – what is not to like? J I will definitely be reading it again. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

No doubt Ségolène’s penmanship contributed greatly to this exceptional magic, for she expressed herself in a more delicate, more graceful Italian hand than Bilodo had ever had the good fortune to admire. It was a rich, imaginative handwriting, with deep downstrokes and celestial upstrokes embellished with opulent loops and precise drops – a clean, flowing script, admirably well-proportioned with its perfect thirty-degree slant and flawless interletter spacing. Ségolène’s writing was a sweet scent for the eye, an elixir, an ode. It was a graphic symphony, an apotheosis. It was so beautiful it made you weep. Having read somewhere that handwriting was a reflection of a person’s soul, Bilodo readily concluded that Ségolène’s soul must be incomparably pure. If angels wrote, surely it was like this.

She was calling. She was calling him, and he answered, also with a song, because that was how you communicated when you were a whale – you sang into the void, unafraid of the darkness that grew ever darker, ever deeper.

Here are some of my favourite haikus from the book. 

Haiku No.1

Swirling like water

against rugged rocks, 

time goes around and around.

 

Haiku No.2

The perfect beauty 

the divine architecture 

of a soft snowflake.

Haiku No.3

My neighbour Aimee 

gardens in a floral dress 

You would water her.

 

Haiku No.4

In the ocean depths 

gloom is a meaningless word 

Down there the light kills

Haiku No.5

Being a frog and 

breathing through the skin,

truly the best of both worlds.

Haiku No.6

Raindrop on the leaf,

for a ladybug

a natural disaster.

Have you read ‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman’? What do you think about it? Do you like Haiku poems? Which of the above is your favourite? 

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I know that it is not November yet, but the German literary wind has started blowing early in these parts of the blogosphere 🙂 Here is how I discovered Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ and what I think about it.

 

I discovered Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’ by accident. I wanted to read something by Judith Hermann, and before getting one of her books, I thought I will read about her in Wikipedia. There I discovered that there were a group of contemporary German women authors who were known together as ‘Fräuleinwunder’ and whose works have won awards and who were critically acclaimed. Other than Judith Hermann, there were some familiar names there – Julia Franck, Juli Zeh, Jenny Erpenbeck. Then there were Felicitas Hoppe and Zoë Jenny. I have never heard of both of them. Felicitas Hoppe’s works are hard to get in English, though she is famous in Germany and has won the Büchner award. Zoë Jenny’s first novel ‘The Pollen Room’ came out in 1997 and has been critically acclaimed and is a bestseller. I was able to get it and thought I will read it.

 

Memory is, of course, an unreliable thing. We think we discovered something in a particular way and then we find out that we were wrong. Keeping that in mind, I did some research and surprise, surprise – I discovered that my friend Caroline (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) has recommended Zoë Jenny’s book in this post on German women writers. Also my friend Andrew has reviewed Zoë Jenny’s book here. All this can mean only one thing – that I first discovered this book earlier, before I re-discovered it again. The fascinating things that one learns about one’s memory everyday… 

The Pollen Room By Zoe Jenny

Now about Zoë Jenny’s book. I started reading it yesterday and finished it in one breath. When I say that, you probably know what that means – I loved the book. More about that later. First about the story. ‘The Pollen Room’ starts with the description of life at home by the narrator called Jo, who is in kindergarten. She tells us that her parents are separated, and she is living with her father. Her father prints books, but because they don’t sell he makes ends meet by driving a truck during the night. Jo meets her mother during the weekend. Her father, meanwhile, meets a new woman gets married to her, and then things don’t work well with her too and this new wife leaves him too. Jo’s mother takes her aside one day and tells her that she has fallen in love with someone she met and she will be moving to a new country. And then Jo doesn’t hear from her mother for the next twelve years. The scene then shifts to the current time and Jo is living with her mother. She has graduated from high school, and has taken a gap year to spend with her mother. Initially, she had planned to visit her mother for a short period of time, because she was hesitant whether her mother would be ready to talk to her. Her mother, though, welcomes her with both her arms. But sometime after that, her mother’s new husband dies in an accident, her mother has a depression and Jo ends up taking care of her. And that gap year stretches to more than one. The rest of the book is about nineteen year old (I am guessing the age here) Jo’s account of her everyday life and her reminiscences of the past.

 

That is the barebones plot – Jo’s account of her life with her dad and with her mom. She also talks about a couple of young men who were attracted towards her – and to whom she was attracted to. One of them rapes her and gets her pregnant and she has to have an abortion after that. Another of them wants to become a singer. Jo also describes her relationship with a girl she becomes friends with, Rea, who is from a rich family, but who rebels and becomes a street musician.

 

That is all about the plot of ‘The Pollen Room’. That is not the reason I loved it, though. The book has beautiful images and thoughts and descriptions from the first page. Starting from the first page in which the narrator describes her dad’s work till the last page when she describes the snow falling on to the ground and melting on impact, Zoë Jenny never lets go – she creates beautiful scenes, thoughts, ideas one after the other and floods our hearts and minds with dollops and dollops of beauty. The whole book was a bundle of exquisite, delightful beauty like a newborn baby. I thought that at some point – maybe fifty pages into the book – Zoë Jenny would slacken up a little bit with respect to the style and will get on with the narration of the story, but thankfully, she never lets go till the last page. To me that was the greatest strength of the book and the source of its greatest beauty and joy.

 

Zoë Jenny’s writing style made me think a lot about another of my favourite writers, Alexis Smith, and her book ‘Glaciers’. Both the writers have a remarkably similar sensitive style, bringing out the delicate beauty and joy of everyday scenes and objects and happenings, though Jenny wrote in German and Smith wrote in English. That legendary scene from Alexis Smith’s ‘Glaciers’ in which the introverted heroine holds a hot cup of coffee to warm her hands – that is there in Zoë Jenny’s book too. I really loved that. I also wondered what would happen if Zoë Jenny and Alexis Smith met and had a conversation. I would love to be part of that conversation, though I would probably be doing most of the listening. They will probably sit quietly for most of the time, in beautiful companionable silence, and wrap their hands around a hot mug of coffee, enjoying its warmth. 

 

It is early days yet, but I think ‘The Pollen Room’ will be one of my favourite reads of the year. It is perfect in every way – it is short, it has beautiful prose, thoughts, ideas and images, the plot is contemporary and sums up a time, there are book-ish scenes in the story, and most of the characters are likeable, though complex. It is a delicate, elegant work of literary art. This is a book that I will definitely be reading again. 

 

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

The darkness crept out from every corner like a starving beast. I went to the kitchen, flipped on the light, sat at the table and wrapped my fingers around his coffee cup, empty but still warm. I scanned the rim for brown splotches of dried coffee. If he didn’t come back, they would be the last signs I had of his existence, his life. As the cup gradually cooled in my hands, the night pervaded the house completely spreading into every cranny.

I lean forward and watch the water pour over the edge in a fat stream, a polished rod of crystal that shatters with a roar into a cloud of white slivers at the bottom.

I close the book with resignation and watch the smoke from my cigarette take on the shape of animals. The little creatures climb from my lips to the ceiling, which is a field for them to play in, though most never make it that far. They erase themselves before they get there. I try to blow them out in big enough puffs that they will survive the trip.

I imagine that the earth that I tread on is the top layer of skin of a living creature, perhaps some sort of sea lion. Somehow this idea makes me feel at peace…

The words Rea and Milwaukee shrivel up into tiny balls of anxiety. I am stuffed so full of such balls that they stretch and disfigure me, and I am in danger of bursting at the seams on every side. Each and every one of them is an independently functioning organism. They fight with one another constantly, as each of them wants me to itself. The Lucy ball is the biggest. Sometimes it goes away, but its here now and growing within me, battling against the others.

When I sit down on a bench nearby, they look over at me. There is nothing friendly in their eyes. I know I’m bothering them, but stay where I am nonetheless. I don’t tell them that I’m sitting here just to watch the snow fall to earth. This kind of snow doesn’t stick at all. It doesn’t coat the ground in a layer of pure white, because it melts as soon as it hits the earth, always keeping me waiting for the next flake, for the microsecond when it hits the ground but has not yet melted. I will wait here with the ladies for the snow to coat the ground in a layer of pure white, a white blanket of snow.

Have you read Zoë Jenny’s ‘The Pollen Room’? What do you think about it?

 

Other Reviews

Andrew Blackman

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I have wanted to read Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ for a while now. I got a hardbound edition of the book as a present from a friend sometime back. When my friend Delia (from Postcards from Asia) also said that she wanted to read the book, we decided to host a readalong. After a lot of hardwork and many despairing reading moments, I finally finished reading the book. Here is what I think.

Lolita Readalong Badge 1

The story told in ‘Lolita’ is very simple. The narrator is a forty-something year old man who lusts after girls who are between ten and thirteen years old. He calls them nymphets. The story describes his affair with one such girl whom he calls ‘Lolita’.

Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov

Once when our narrator tries to move to a new town to work on his writing, he discovers a house for rent. He doesn’t like the landlady much. But when he discovers that his landlady has a daughter and he feels attracted towards her, he immediately rents the house. He plots and fantasizes about things. But things don’t happen according to plan. The mother – the landlady – falls in love with him. Our narrator doesn’t give up easily. He marries the mother. Now he believes that he will have the license to behave in whichever way he wants with the daughter. But the mother discovers the ugly truth. And she tries to expose it. But, unfortunately, she gets killed in an accident. Our narrator, Humbert, then takes his step-daughter Lolita out of school and the two unlikely companions go on a road trip which stretches for months, during which time they live in motels every night and become lovers. They finally decide to settle down in a town and Lolita goes to the local school. But Humbert is jealous whenever Lolita attracts the attention of boys of her own age. At some point he decides to move out of that town and they embark on a road trip again. During the road trip, Humbert has a suspicion that they are being followed by someone. But he is not able to find out the identity of their pursuer. Lolita also disappears briefly for a short while whenever they are making stops and seems to become friendly with a stranger. At some point Lolita disappears. Humbert searches for her, but is not able to find her. He spends the next few years just floating around with another woman. And one day he receives a letter from Lolita asking him for money. He tracks her down and asks her who kidnapped her and why she disappeared. What happens after that is the rest of the story.

‘Lolita’ was hard for me to read. For most of the first half of the book, Humbert tells us a lot about his fantasies and it was quite difficult to read those parts of the book. Many times I stopped and asked myself why I was reading the book. And precisely at that time, Nabokov would come up with a beautiful sentence like this :

If a violin string can ache, then I was that string.

It was sentences like these that kept me going.

As Humbert says on the first page of his account :

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

When I finished the first part of the book, I found it extremely hard to get started on the second part. That is when I read this piece about the ’51 Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature’. There was a quote from ‘Lolita’ in that article, which went like this : “And the rest is rust and stardust.” That sentence touched me deeply and gave me goosebumps. I wondered how Nabokov had taken the creepy narrator with his creepy story to the place where this beautiful sentence springs out of the story like a beautiful star. I wondered how that happened. I wanted to find out. That made me read the rest of the book. I did finally manage to find that sentence, but it didn’t have the same impact as part of the text. Outside the text, standing on it own, it shone like a bright beautiful star.

I have to say something here about Nabokov’s prose. There were passages and pages which were filled with Dickensian sentences and these were interspersed with passages and pages filled with sentences in our everyday, contemporary style. It clearly showed that Nabokov had one literary foot in the Victorian age and another in the modern era and he was trying to navigate between both these universes with easy felicity while trying to come out with one coherent unique style. I don’t know whether he managed to succeed in that, but I felt it was an interesting experiment. (I have seen some contemporary Australian authors do that – writing in a combination of Dickensian ornate prose and contemporary plainer style. One of my favourites, Elliot Perlman, pulls it off successfully.)

The book is littered with beautiful sentences and passages, like beautiful pearls. That is what kept me going. As someone said, how in life beautiful happy moments come only after long gaps and how we have to keep working hard during those dreary long gaps to reach those beautiful moments, I kept working hard to reach those beautiful sentences. They brightened my day of hardwork.

This is a spoiler and so if you haven’t read the book, please be forewarned.

Towards the end of the book, Nabokov pulls a rabbit out of the hat. He introduces a new villain who is even worse than Humbert. I don’t know whether we were supposed to feel sympathy for Humbert after that. At that point, Lolita is also portrayed as a not really innocent girl. I didn’t know what to make of that. If we look at it from an outsider’s neutral perspective, it looked like two grown up men used their considerable influence and power to exploit a young girl. Whether she was innocent or not was irrelevant. The fact was that she was young, she was a girl and she was exploited. When we look at it from this perspective, it is hard to like the narrator even if he is the one who is telling the story.

While reading the book, I remembered two things. One of them is a book by Yoko Ogawa called ‘Hotel Iris’. It has the exact same story as ‘Lolita’ – an older man lusts after a young girl. The difference is that in Ogawa’s book, the story is told by the girl. I found that narrator likeable. Also Ogawa’s book doesn’t spend time on fantasies and imagination, but describes events as they happened and in the end, the girl survives to tell the tale, while the man disappears.

The second thing is a Spanish movie called ‘La Flaqueza del Bolchevique’ (‘The Weakness of the Bolshevik’). It has a similar story – an older man and a schoolgirl have a relationship. But what the scriptwriters have done in that movie is that they have removed all the things which are uncomfortable to the reader in ‘Lolita’ and have created a beautiful love story. It is a convincing story, the main characters are adorable and it is one of my favourites. If you want to read ‘Lolita’ but are not ready to take the leap because it makes you uncomfortable, I would recommend this movie to you. If you have read ‘Lolita’ and decide to watch this I would love to hear your thoughts on they compare.

La Flaqueza Del Bolchevique

So what is my verdict on ‘Lolita’? I am not sure I can say that I liked the book. The first half of the book made me really uncomfortable. (I have read a few disturbing books in my time, but still…) It was impossible to like Humbert but it was equally impossible to resist knowing his insightful thoughts on different things. I felt sad for Lolita – she must have had a hard time with perverted older adults around. I loved parts of Nabokov’s prose and I will be reading some of those beautiful sentences again.

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

There are two kinds of visual memory : one when you skillfully re-create an image in the laboratory of your mind with your eyes open; and the other when you instantly evoke with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors.

I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth, I once read a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not McFate’s way – even if one does learn to recognize certain obscure indications.

I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘king Lear’, never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.

Have you read Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’? What do you think about it?

Other Reviews

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

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