Archive for September, 2018

I first heard about Richard Bach when I was a college. My teacher recommended his book ‘Illusions‘. I later borrowed it from a friend and read it and loved it. Then later, I read ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘. I remember reading it while waiting to be called for an interview at a college, for which I had applied for admission as a student. I remember finishing it before my turn came up and feeling very inspired when stepping into the interview room. I never got around to reading a third Richard Bach book. Yesterday, when I was thinking on which book to read next, this book leapt at me. I have had this book on my bookshelf for years and yesterday finally the stars got aligned and the time arrived.

In ‘Out of My Mind‘, Richard Bach is flying his Piper Cub and one day encounters a problem in his plane. He ponders on how to fix the problem but is not able to come up with a solution. He goes to sleep that night and when he gets up the next day morning, the problem is still there in front of his eyes. But when he looks at the image in front of his eyes carefully, he discovers that the image contains both the problem and the solution. The solution is simple and elegant and ingenious. Bach goes and writes down and sketches the solution in his notebook, before he forgets it. Bach thinks that while he was sleeping, his mind probably solved the problem. He nearly forgets all about it. But a few weeks later, he has a different problem in his plane. This time, when the solution appears in front of his eyes, he sees an image behind it. It is the image of a woman, like a reflection that we might see on a glass window. When Bach looks at her face, she looks back, and she is surprised and startled. And before he realizes it, the image disappears as if nothing was ever there. Bach ponders on this for a while. He wonders whether he was hallucinating. But he feels that he wasn’t. The problems he had in his plane were real. The solutions to the problems were real – they were carefully thought out and ingenious. The woman looked real too – because she looked back at him and was startled. He feels that she came from another world to help him. He wants to meet her again and talk to her. He concocts new problems on his plane and tries to get her back. But this woman doesn’t respond to fake problems. Bach contemplates on what to do. What happens after that – is he able to get this mysterious woman to come back, why does she help him, is she really from another world – the answer to these questions form the rest of the story.

Out of My Mind‘ is vintage Richard Bach. In it, the author shares his love for planes and flying, there is a mysterious, spiritual dimension to the story and there are beautiful passages scattered across the book, like sparkling diamonds, written in Bach’s soft prose. The book also discusses alternate universes and multiverses, time travel and quantum mechanics, which are beautifully embedded in the story.

Richard Bach was probably the Paulo Coelho of his era. Or maybe the Antoine de St.Exupery of his era. Readers loved his books because it made them think of planes and the glorious beauty of flight. Readers imagined that they were the ones doing the flying in small planes, rising to impossible heights, exhilarated by the wind rushing at them, blowing their hair. But the years passed by, and readers moved on. I don’t know whether people read him still. I thought that even I had grown out of Richard Bach. It looks like I haven’t. I loved ‘Out of My Mind‘.

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

“Our recognition of random objects fails, I’m told, at exposures of less than half a second. Of geometrical objects, at less than a fiftieth of a second. But our perception of a smile will remain from a flash as short as a thousandth of a second, so sensitive are our minds to images of the human face.”

“A long time ago I learned that everything is exactly as it is for a reason. The crumb is on our table not only as a remainder of this morning’s cookie, it is there because we have chosen not to remove it. No exceptions. Everything has a reason, and the tiniest detail is a clue.”

Have you read Richard Bach’sOut of My Mind‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Richard Bach book?

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I got this book at Strand Book Stall, Mumbai a few years back. The author was unknown to me and it was a historical novel. It was a beautifully produced edition and I couldn’t resist it. A few days back, when I was thinking on which book to read next, this book leapt at me.

Exit Lady Masham‘ is a historical novel set in England during the early 1700s. During the time, Queen Anne is the reigning monarch, Britain is at war with France on the succession to the throne in Spain (I need to read on the politics of that time – it was too complicated for me) and the Duke of Marlborough is leading the English army to one victory after another. At one point the Queen orders a halt to the war, which is surprising, because this kind of stuff never happens – the winning side almost never stops the fighting till the other side has conceded. All these events are part of history. This story tells us what might have happened behind the scenes and why Britain pulled out of the war. We hear the story through the voice of Abigail Hill, who is working as a laundress in a lady’s house. Her cousin Sarah visits her one day, and takes her under her wing and employs her to work at her own place. Sarah is a very influential person and is best friends with Queen Anne. After this, Abigail’s fortunes improve and before she knows it, she is working at Queen Anne’s palace, tending to the queen. As time passes, Abigail becomes a close friend and a trusted confidante to the queen and how she becomes a part of and influences the historical events of her time is told in the rest of the story.

It is always nice when we pick a book by an unknown writer and it turns out to be wonderful. This is what happened when I read this book. Louis Auchincloss – who is he? Why haven’t I heard of him? I later went and checked Wikipedia and discovered that he has written many books. I am glad I have read one of them now. The historical facts as presented in the story are quite accurate – I did my research later on Wikipedia and confirmed it. So, the book is a good history lesson too. Of course, some parts of the story are imaginary, but the author says in his introduction that they are consistent with the facts. Auchincloss’ prose is elegant and moves the story along beautifully. There are many interesting, enjoyable dialogues. Jonathan Swift (Yes, the creator of ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘!) makes an appearance two-thirds into the story and his portrayal is very interesting.

I loved most of the main characters in the story – Abigail, our narrator, who rises from humble beginnings to become the queen’s confidante, Queen Anne, who is affectionate, warm, quiet, but also strong when the situation demands it, the Duke of Marlborough, who makes only a brief appearance in a few scenes, but who is dashing and cool and whom we can’t resist falling in love with, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who is kind, fair but tough, and who ends up on the opposite side of Abigail and the queen. I also loved the way the book depicts how a humble woman, who yearns for the simple life of comfort, because of a combination of her humility and sincerity and hardwork, and the strange workings of fortune, ends up in a position of influence and is able to shape the course of great events.

The edition of the book I have is a 1984 first edition hardback and privately printed. It has a beautiful red leather cover with a golden leafy design – the kind of edition which only libraries and rich people could afford. The paper is thick, there is a lot of spacing at the borders, the black-and-white illustrations are beautiful, the endpaper design is exquisite, there is a nice introduction by the writer, and there is a letter from the publisher, typewritten and signed in ink. (Have shared some of the pictures in the comments). As a physical object, the book is exquisite and a collector’s dream. They don’t make books like this anymore. Why someone would give away this book – I have no idea. When I got it, it was still in pristine condition. It still is.

I loved Louis Auchincloss’ ‘Exit Lady Masham‘. The only problem I had with the book was the title – it could have been better. I hope to read more on the British history of this era, especially about Queen Anne, Abigail Hill who later became Lady Masham, Sarah Churchill who later became the Duchess of Marlborough and the Duke of Marlborough. I also want to explore more books by Louis Auchincloss.

I will leave you with two of my favourite dialogues from the book.

Scenario : Masham seduces Abigail and gets her pregnant. He tries to use the situation to get a favour from the queen.

“And has Your Majesty seen fit to consider his petition with any favor?”
“No, Mr. Masham, I have not. Your conduct to Mrs. Hill may be deemed a fault that marriage will rectify. There is no occasion for reward, beyond the happy possession of a worthy spouse.”
Masham’s smile became even brighter. “Perhaps Your Majesty has not been apprised of my circumstances. I am in no position, alas, to afford a wife.”
“You should have considered that before you became so intimate with Mrs. Hill, sir. Future promotion will depend on how you treat her.”
“And if I decline the honor, ma’am?”
“Then I am afraid we shall be deprived of the pleasure of seeing you at court. There are islands, however, in the New World where my officers can usefully serve.”
Could the great Queen Elizabeth have put it better?

Scenario : Jonathan Swift and Abigail Hill discuss card games

“And is this a source of keen pleasure to you?”
“It is a source of pleasure, Mr. Swift. My life has not been so filled with pleasures that I can ignore cards. Besides, whist is like life. You cannot expect to win with a poor hand, but with skill you may reduce defeat to a minimum.”
“In chess there is no element of chance. I should think a person of your intellect would prefer it.”
“Perhaps I should, were I a man. But as a woman, with so many disadvantages, I prefer the cards. They reflect the struggle as I see it around me : so much for luck, so much for skill. The high trumps may come to the undeserving, but there is always the chance that they may misuse them. And then, too, the contest proceeds so smoothly, so intellectually! There is no blood, no squalor. It is a world of form. Or ideals, if you wish.”

Have you read ‘Exit Lady Masham‘? What do you think about it? Have you heard of Louis Auchincloss?

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When I was reading Volker Weidermann’sSummer Before the Dark‘, I saw Arthur Koestler making a brief appearance in the book. I remembered that I had a book by Arthur Koestler somewhere in my bookshelves. I thought I should read it next. This is that book.

Stranger on the Square‘ is the last book by Arthur Koestler. It is jointly authored by his wife Cynthia Koestler. It is supposedly the third volume of his autobiography. It wasn’t published during Arthur’s lifetime. In March 1983, one day, Arthur and Cynthia Koestler were found dead in their home. They both had a glass of drink in their hand. It looked like they had committed suicide together by having sleeping pills. It shocked their friends and readers at that time. There were papers found on Arthur’s desk which looked like part of an unfinished book. His editor took those papers and organized them into publishable form. They became this book.

This book covers the period 1940-56. It has two parts. The first part has alternating chapters written by Arthur and Cynthia. The second part is wholly written by Cynthia. Arthur’s chapters give a summary of his life till 1940 and then take the story forward, describing his new experiences, the new friends he made, the books he wrote and the controversies they led to, the new projects he got involved in, his love life. Cynthia’s chapters talk about how she came to work as Arthur’s secretary, the exciting happenings and meetings in Arthur’s place, her thoughts on Arthur’s wives and girlfriends, how she moved in and out of Arthur’s life and how she finally came back. Arthur’s and Cynthia’s voices are very different and it is very interesting to read alternating chapters in two different voices. The story suddenly ends in 1956 and we feel disappointed and yearn for more.

So, what do I think about the book? When I started reading the book and reached around 30 pages, I wanted to drop it many times. I knew that it was an unfinished book. But I don’t think that was the reason I felt that way. I think the fact that Arthur Koestler pursues multiple women at the same time and many times cheats on his current girlfriend and he himself mentions this and Cynthia also writes about it – that put me off, I think. Once upon a time this kind of behaviour by writers and artists was accepted and readers and fans let it slide, but it is hard to continue to do that. At one point, Arthur Koestler has a problem with Bertrand Russell’s wife because she disagrees with him on something and refuses to stand down and concede the point. When later Bertrand Russell defends his wife in a letter he writes to him, Arthur has a problem with Russell too. (I loved the fact that Russell stood up for his wife and defended her, especially on an intellectual issue. It was so cool.) This made me more annoyed with Arthur and I wondered why I am continuing to read the book. But I decided to continue reading, because I was still in the first chapter, and I wanted to hear Cynthia’s voice in the second chapter. I am glad that I persisted. At one point, Arthur says this about himself – “…I must confess that in early middle age I was still to some extent what is now called a male chauvinist, unable to take women who set themselves up as political philosophers altogether seriously. It was not a conscious attitude, and if accused of harbouring such reactionary sentiments I would have hotly denied it. Yet it may have played a part in the row with Peter, Bertrand Russell’s wife, and on some other occasions.” I smiled when I read that, because I can’t remember any writer calling himself a male chauvinist. Later in the book, Arthur discusses a play he wrote and is pretty ruthless in the way he criticizes it. I felt that he was being hard on himself, because after reading the plot of the play, I felt that it was pretty good. He didn’t criticize just the people he had differences with, but he frequently turned the critical gaze on himself and he was not afraid to do that. It was refreshing to see that. The book started flowing more smoothly after that and I was excited to continue reading it.

Arthur Koestler’s chapters zing when he is offering social and political commentary of his times. It is interesting to read about how his books came into being and the stories behind them. His sense of humour is intelligent and wonderful. I remember reading excepts from his most famous novel ‘Darkness at Noon’ and loving his prose and insights. We experience the same pleasure when his prose zings here. Cynthia Koestler’s style, on the other hand, is very different. It is more simple, down-to-earth and she is at home when she discusses everyday happenings.

I loved the first part of the book more than the second. In the second part of the book, Cynthia alternates between relating her own experiences and describing Arthur’s life when she is not around. The parts where she describes Arthur’s life – they are based on Arthur’s diaries, their correspondence etc. – and though they flesh out the story, they don’t feel satisfying – at some point we feel that we are reading one diary entry after another in a third person’s voice. I wish those portions of the book were fleshed out properly, but given the extraordinary circumstances under which this manuscript was discovered, we can’t really complain.

I am glad I persisted with this book inspite of the initial hiccups. It gave insights into an interesting era and we meet many interesting literary personalities within its pages and we get to see how their real selves are behind their public faces. I loved the first part of the book more, because it was more fully fleshed out. I want to explore some of Arthur Koestler’s books now, especially his masterpiece ‘Darkness at Noon‘. There are stories that George Orwell borrowed significant parts of ‘1984‘ from this book, and I want to find out whether it is true.

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

“Oh, if she could only go back to the infinite comfort of father confessors and mother superiors, of a well-ordered hierarchy which promised punishment and reward, and furnished the world with justice and meaning. If only one could go back! But she was under the curse of reason, which rejected whatever might quench her thirst, without abolishing the urge; which rejected the answer without abolishing the question. For the place of God had become vacant, and there was a draught blowing through the world as in an empty flat before the new tenants have arrived.”

“Neutralism was indeed the most refined form of intellectual betrayal and perhaps the most contemptible. It showed a forgiving attitude towards totalitarian terror but denounced with unforgiving venom any failing or injustice in the West. It equated the Hollywood purges of suspected Reds in the film industry with the purges which had decimated the Soviet population.”

“We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, but yours isn’t a complex – it’s a cathedral.”

“In this man,” writes Kepler, “there are two opposite tendencies : always to regret any wasted time, and always to waste it willingly.”

“Dostoevsky had once written that, even in solitary confinement and ignorant of the calendar, he would still sense when it was Sunday.”

“But changing languages is an immensely complex process of metamorphosis, especially for a writer. It involves several successive phases which are difficult to describe, because most of the changes occur gradually below the level of consciousness. In the earliest phase you translate the message to be conveyed from the original into the adopted language; at a later stage you catch yourself thinking in it – occasionally at first, and at last permanently. The final stage of the transformation has been completed when you not only think, but dream, in the language you are now wedded to.”

Have you read ‘Stranger on the Square‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other books by Arthur Koestler?

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Summer Before the Dark‘ covers one summer during the year 1936, when a few Austrian and German writers got together in a Belgian seaside town called Ostend and bonded together, had conversations and discussed the state of their countries, fell in love, had intellectual fights, wrote books and had fun. The two main writers that the book focuses on are Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. It also talks about Irmgard Keun, who became Joseph Roth’s lover during this summer, and touches upon a few others like Hermann Kesten, Ernst Toller and Arthur Koestler.

I loved the way the book presented the bleakness of the situation in Europe, with the Nazis gaining power in Germany, Austria and England signing agreements with Hitler hoping to pacify him and keep him in check, and Jewish people being harassed and books of Jewish writers being banned, and contrasted all these with the good times a few writers were enjoying in a holiday resort, for probably the last time. The contrast between the bleak overall situation and the sunny interlude was interesting and fascinating. Though the book starts with a depiction of Stefan Zweig (which was the reason I started reading it), a significant part of the book is reserved for Joseph Roth, in which the book describes his background as a poor Jewish person from the east and how he made it into the Vienna and Berlin literary circles, how money or rather the lack of it plays an important part till his final days. I also loved the way his relationship with Irmgard Keun is depicted – how two very different people got attracted to each other. While nearly all the writers who were staying in Ostend were Jewish, Irmgard Keun was odd because she was not – she was a Catholic German and she was not harassed by the Nazis, but she was in exile by choice. It added to the complexity of her relationship with Roth. By the end of the book, I fell in love with Joseph Roth. I have read one book by him before, called ‘Flight Without End‘. Now I want to read more books by him, especially his masterpiece, ‘The Radetzky March‘. I loved Irmgard Keun too and I hope to read her books one of these days.

When the summer ends, the book also ends and we feel sad, because we know what awaits most of the characters we meet. Most of them die before the war is over and the ones who survive live hard lives carrying the scars of that difficult time. Irmgard Keun was presumed dead, but she survived and lived in secret till a journalist did detective work and discovered her decades after the war got over, and wrote about her, and after years of living anonymously, she came back into the public eye and a new generation of readers fell in love with her and made her feel wanted and she spent the last few years of her life feeling happy. I got goosebumps when I read that.

I loved ‘Summer Before the Dark‘. It may not interest everyone. But if you like the above writers and have wondered what they did when their books were banned by the Nazis, this is a fascinating book to delve into.

I will leave you with one of my favourite lines from the book, written by Joseph Roth.

“It is true that you cannot share your pain without doubling it. But this doubling also contains an immeasurable comfort. My suffering moves from the private sphere to the public and thus is easier to endure.”

Have you read ‘Summer Before the Dark‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Laurent Seksik’s book last year, when I got many books by Stefan Zweig – books written by him and books about him. I finally got to read it yesterday.

Seksik’s book is a novel. But it is based on actual events of Stefan Zweig’s life, especially, the last six months. Zweig was one of the great writers of his times. He wrote many books – his speciality was the novella which stretched to around a hundred pages. In most of his novellas the main character was a woman who was complex and fascinating, and Zweig’s portrayal of her was so realistic and wonderful and authentic, that many women readers loved his novellas and could identify with the main characters. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Zweig who was Austrian but also Jewish, felt that it wouldn’t be long before Hitler invaded Austria too. Having felt that, he left his native country and lived as an exile for the rest of his life, first in England, and then in America and then in Brazil. This book gives an account of his last six months in Brazil.

Laurent Seksik’s book is written beautifully – his prose is soft and gentle and introspective, we get to see the story through Zweig’s and his wife Lotte’s points of view, the anguish that they feel for everything that they had left behind, the guilt that Zweig feels for running away from his country and not staying back and fighting, their experiences with new friends in a new country, their feelings about the horror that is engulfing Europe and how it looks like it might spread to the rest of the world. Most of the book alternates between the bleak overall situation and the sunny beautiful moments which intersperse the gloom. The ending is heartbreaking. For readers who know about Zweig, you already know what it is. For readers who don’t, I will let you read the book and find out.

The Last Days‘ is a beautiful, poignant, haunting meditation on the last months of Stefan Zweig’s and his wife Lotte’s lives. I loved it. I hear that there is a play version and there is probably a movie version. If there is a movie version, I would love to watch it.

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

“He bent over the trunk and examined its contents : there were about forty tomes in there. The books had accompanied him on his journey, all the way from Salzburg. He had sworn to bring them out only once his spirit had regained a measure of calm. That moment had finally come.
He pulled the books out one by one. He slowly perused their covers and ran his fingers over their edges. Then, taking his time, he absent-mindedly – and a little comically – stuck his nose in the pages and sniffed them. These books hadn’t seen the light of day since they’d fled their house in Austria. The last fixed address they’d known had been his library in Kapuzinerberg. The passing of time and the crossing of oceans and continents hadn’t diminished their perfume. They exuded the scent of his living room in Salzburg. Over the years, the books had become impregnated with its smells : it was a mixture of pine, firewood, autumn leaves, earth after the rain, cigar smoke, apples, old leather, feminine scents and Persian carpets. After the initial enthusiasm and solemnity with which he had opened the first books, he stuck his nose into the other tomes. He inhaled their smell, filling his lungs with it. The pages had kept the fragrances intact. The past was neither dead nor buried. It had been kept alive between the pages of these books.”

Have you read Laurent Seksik’sThe Last Days‘? What do you think about it? Do you like Stefan Zweig’s stories? Which is your favourite?

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I have wanted to read an Ali Smith book for a long time. When I got this collection of her short stories as a birthday present, I couldn’t wait to start reading it.

The First Person and Other Stories‘ has twelve short stories. In the first one, ‘True Short Story‘, the narrator is sitting in a café, when she overhears two people in the next table discussing the difference between a short story and a novel. The narrator calls her friend, who is in the hospital, and discusses this with her. The rest of the story is about multiple conversations that these two friends have and we also get to know more about why the narrator’s friend is in the hospital. Towards the end, the narrator quotes descriptions of the short story by different writers. Those descriptions are fascinating.

In the second story, ‘The Child‘, a child mysteriously ends up in the narrator’s trolley in the supermarket. She tries to get rid of the child, but it keeps coming back. How the child ended up in the trolley and what happens in the end form the rest of the story. There is a story later in the book, which has a similar theme, called ‘Astute Fiery Luxurious‘. In this story, a parcel is left by the postman at the narrator’s home. The address on the parcel is correct, but the name mentioned on it is not the narrator’s or her partner’s name. The narrator and her partner try to find out what is inside the parcel and later try to get rid of it. This story features alternate endings.

In ‘Present‘, there are three people in a bar. Two of them are having a conversation while the third one is quiet. The third one imagines what would happen if the other two were her friends and what shape the conversation between the three of them would take. In ‘Fidelio and Bess‘, a couple is having a conversation on an opera composed by Beethoven and how the audiences of different eras would have responded to it. While this conversation is going on, we also notice how the relationship between the two people evolve and change.

In ‘The History of History‘, a mother decides one day to start living her life and not be the person who sacrifices everything for her family. We hear this story through the words of her daughter. ‘No Exit‘ is about an exit in the movie theatre which leads nowhere and what happens when the narrator sees someone go through that exit.

In ‘Writ‘, the narrator meets her fourteen year old self and they have an interesting conversation. It was very Borgesian.

The title story, ‘The First Person‘, is a love story in which two people talk about their relationship. It is beautiful. Of course, in a book with a story called ‘The First Person‘, there has to be a story called ‘The Second Person‘ and another called ‘The Third Person‘. ‘The Third Person‘ is the more interesting of the two. It contains many different stories in continuous narration – we can’t tell easily when one story ends and the next one starts – but all the stories have one thing in common. In every one of these stories, two people are talking or doing something, and they don’t realize that there is a third person on the scene. Sometimes that discovery leads to some surprises.

I loved ‘The First Person and Other Stories‘. I found many of the stories inventive with a Borgesian element of surprise in them. Smith’s prose is spare and contemporary and flows smoothly. One of the specialities of an Ali Smith book is that the font size is big and that is one more thing I loved about the book. I am happy to say that my first Ali Smith was awesome and I can’t wait to read more of her works.

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

From ‘True Short Story

“Franz Kafka says that the short story is a cage in search of a bird. (Kafka’s been dead for more than eighty years, but I can still say Kafka says. That’s just one of the ways art deals with our mortality.”

“Tzvetan Todorov says that the thing about a short story is that it’s so short it doesn’t allow us the time to forget that it’s only literature and not actually life.”

From ‘The Third Person

“The third person is another pair of eyes. The third person is a presentiment of God. The third person is a way to tell the story. The third person is a revitalisation of the dead.
It’s a theatre of living people. It’s a miniature innocent thief. It’s thousands of boots made out of glass. It’s a total mystery.
It’s a weapon which is shaped like a tool.
It comes out of nowhere. It just happens.
It’s a box for the endless music that’s there between people, waiting to be played.”

From ‘The History of History

“My mother’s gone mad, I told my friend Sandra next day at school.
Mine too, Sandra said…
No, I mean really mad, I said, not just normal mad. She won’t cook anything. She says I’m to call her by her real name.
What’s she mean, real name? Sandra said.
Margaret, I said. She keeps saying that’s the name she was born with. She won’t answer to anything other than that anymore. I mean, I can’t call her, like, Margaret. I can’t say, I’ll be back at ten, Margaret, I’m going out with Roddy. I can’t say, I’m home, Margaret, when I get home after school. It sounds stupid.”

From ‘Writ

“…before he died, the poet John Keats, right, apparently he said to someone, put it in my gravestone that here lies a poet whose name is written water. Water that was written on. I think that’s really beautiful. Here lies a poet whose name was written water.”

From ‘The First Person

“You’re looking at the sky. I follow your gaze and see you’re watching the flight of the summer swifts; they’re just back from the south.
Is it them that are the birds that sleep on the wing? you say.
Yes, I say.
Wow, you say. And never land in the ground? And keep flying and flying, and have to have their nests up high so they won’t touch the ground, and have to keep the momentum going?
Yes, I say.
Imagine, you say. Like a song that never ended, like a constant ever-evolving music, like you’d just keep going and keep going with it, even when you’re asleep.”

Have you read ‘The First Person and Other Stories‘? What do you think about it? Do you like Ali Smith’s books?

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I saw Donald Henderson’sMr.Bowling Buys a Newspaper‘ at the bookshop sometime back and the title got my attention. I read the blurb and I was tempted to get the book.

The story told in the book is set during the Second World War. Mr.Bowling lives in London. He is, what used to be called, a gentleman. But, unfortunately for him, he is not a man of means and needs to work for a living. He is a composer of music. But because it is wartime, jobs are hard to come by and he works in an insurance company on a commission basis. He is married, but his marriage is not going well. Before long, we discover that there is a bombing which happens and Mr.Bowling’s house is destroyed. In the confusion of the bombing, Mr.Bowling kills his wife. The police decide that the bomb blast killed her. Before long, Mr.Bowling starts pursuing his new hobby of murdering people. His aim is to get caught. So, after he kills someone, he checks the newspaper the next day for news of the murder. He hopes that the police will walk into his home and arrest him. But he is disappointed. Because some odd thing or other happens after every murder he commits and the police declare that things happened by natural causes or it was an accident. Mr.Bowling is more and more disappointed. Does Mr.Bowling stop? Does he get caught? The answer to these questions form the rest of the story.

Mr.Bowling Buys a Newspaper‘ is an interesting novel. I would call it a noir crime novel. The main character is a murderer, but we see the story unfolding through his perspective. It is hard to tell who is good and who is bad. But it is possible to see why Mr.Bowling does what he does. The identity of the murderer is not the revelation in the story. Because we know that in the first page. Whether he gets caught or gets away with it, is what the story is about. Did I like the book? I am not very sure. It was interesting and I enjoyed reading it. There were some interesting, insightful sentences in the book. But is it one of my favourite novels? Probably not. Because, I think this theme and style have been explored by other writers. So it doesn’t feel new, it doesn’t feel fresh. It was probably unique when it first came out. It was definitely unique among British crime writers of that era (this book was published in 1943), because I don’t know of another British crime author of that time who had the murderer as the main protagonist. So, I can understand why it was famous when it first came out. Raymond Chandler seemed to have raved about it. It cannot get better than that. I also feel that I might have grown out of classic crime. I used to love stories written in that era. I need to dip my toe into the water again and try another classic crime novel sometime – maybe Freeman Wills Croft’sThe Cask‘, which I enjoyed as a teenager. If that doesn’t work too, I should call it a day.

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

“Did people realize that places were sometimes haunted by the future -as well as by the past?”

“Places, thought Mr.Bowling, like tedious people, never seemed so pleasant as when we were about to leave them.”

“…who could say if life’s minutes and hours and days were ever wasted – until you could judge the thing as a whole? And when, indeed, could you judge it as a whole? Not ever, on this side of the Styx. There was a modicum of beauty and comfort in that, wasn’t there?”

“There were a thousand forms of slavery, under the title Freedom; ought the title to be improved? and it might be that under the horror of slavery, there was much freedom, beauty and rest. This was frightening, it needed thought. And where, then, the happy medium?”

Have you read ‘Mr.Bowling Buys a Newspaper‘? What do you think about it? Do you like classic crime novels which came in the ’30s and ’40s? Which ones are your favourites?

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I have wanted to read Jesmyn Ward’sSing, Unburied, Sing‘ ever since I read one of my friend’s review of it. I finally got a chance to read it and I am so glad I did.

Sing, Unburied, Sing‘ tells the story of an American family and the complex relationships between the family members. When the story starts we hear the story through the voice of Jojo, who is a school-going boy who lives with his grandparents. His grandparents – his mother’s parents – have brought him up, and he calls them Mam and Pop. He calls his own mother by her name Leonie. Jojo has a younger sister, Kayla. He loves Kayla very much and is very protective of her. Jojo’s life is complex because while his maternal grandparents and mother are black, his father Michael is white. His paternal grandparents – Michael’s parents – don’t acknowledge the existence of Jojo or his sister or his mother. When the story starts, we discover that Michael has been in prison and he is going to be released. Leonie wants to take her kids to the prison and meet Michael and bring him back. Pop doesn’t approve of her taking the children on a long drive, but Leonie doesn’t listen to him. Jojo protests too, because he knows that the trip is going to be a hard and tough, as his relationship with his mother has always been a difficult one, but Leonie overrules him. What happens during this long road trip, and after that, forms the rest of the story.

I loved the realistic portrayal of the characters in ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’. My favourite characters were Jojo, Pop and Mam. I wish I had someone like Pop and Mam in my life. I mostly hated Leonie, but she was portrayed beautifully too in all her imperfect and flawed glory. The story runs at an even pace and the pages turn themselves. Jesmyn Ward’s prose glides along elegantly and unobtrusively and is a pleasure to read. The story is told alternately through the voices of Jojo and Leonie and occasionally a new character called Richie pops in and narrates his story. There are many beautiful moments in the story, especially when the relationship between Pop and Jojo are described, and that of Mam and Leonie are described, and when Pop narrates his relationship with Richie. There are also heartbreaking moments, especially when a surprise is revealed in the end. I can’t tell you what it is – I will let you read the book and find it out yourself. At one point in the book, Leonie thinks – “I can’t be a mother now. I can’t be a daughter. I can’t remember. I can’t see. I can’t breathe.” When I read that, I wanted to scream at her and say – “What is your problem? You have inspiring, kind parents. You have beautiful, well behaved children. Why can’t you do one thing right? How long are you going to make one bad decision after another?” At another point towards the end, Leonie says this about her son, Jojo – “And then he’s looking at me and he’s hard as Pop and soft as Mama. Censure and pity. I’m a book and he can read every word. I know this. He sees me. He knows it all.” I cried when I read that. That is how good the book is. It makes you happy, it makes you sad, it makes you angry, it breaks your heart.

I loved ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing‘. It is a story of love, loss, family, the complex relationship between parents and children, how different communities find it difficult to tolerate each other and struggle to live with each other and inflict pain on each other, the questionable choices we make as flawed human beings, the redemption that might be open to us. It is no surprise that it won the National Book Award. I can’t wait to read Jesmyn Ward’s other acclaimed novel ‘Salvage the Bones‘.

Have you read Jesmyn Ward’sSing, Unburied, Sing‘? What do you think about it?

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