Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I discovered ‘Showa : A History of Japan‘ by Shigeru Mizuki last year. I have coveted it since then 😊 Finally last week I took the plunge and ordered it and got the final volume a few days back.

Mizuki’s book is a 4-volume nonfiction manga comic. It describes the history of the Showa era in Japan starting from 1926 when Emperor Hirohito was crowned and it continues till 1989 which was the end of the Showa era. So it gives a significant account of 20th century history through a Japanese point of view. Each volume has an introduction, a different one, and the artwork is exquisite.

In the best manga tradition, I have put the volumes in the picture in the classic manga order. You have to start with the book on the top right and then proceed to the top left and go counterclockwise to the bottom left and then bottom right, to view the covers in sequence 😊

I started reading the first part ‘Showa 1926 – 1939 : A History of Japan‘ as soon as I got it a few days back. This first part of the 4-part book covers the history of Japan from the beginning of the Showa era in 1926 till the beginning of the Second World War.

The book has two strands of stories which are woven together. The first is the history of Japan as the title indicates. The second is the author’s own memoir. So we get to see the Japan of that era through both the big and the everyday – the major political and social happenings and things which are considered news, and the everyday happenings of the author’s own life. Shigeru Mizuki does an interesting thing to differentiate between these two story strands – the artwork is very different. For the historical events and happenings he uses a realistic style of art, while for the memoir part he uses a comic style of art. It is fascinating. We hear the story through the author’s voice, but sometimes (or many times) a new narrator comes on the scene and takes the story forward or handles the transition between history and memoir. This new narrator is a yokai character (a supernatural being from Japanese folklore) called Nezumi Otoko (translated in English as Rat-man). Nezumi is a fascinating narrator and I loved this aspect of the book – a supernatural being narrating history.

I know only the broad outlines of Japanese history in the 20th century and I learnt a lot from this book. One of the interesting things that I learnt was how hard it was for democracy to put down roots in Japan. The book describes how the military felt that the civilian government wasn’t decisive enough and how military officers repeatedly tried orchestrating coups to overthrow the civilian government (once even assassinating the Prime Minister).

I loved Shigeru Mizuki’s style of storytelling – dispassionate, sometimes critical but always sticking to the facts, and following the golden rule ‘Show, don’t tell’.

I loved the first part of ‘Showa‘. I can’t wait to start the second part.

I’m sharing the pictures of some of the pages to give you a feel of the artwork. The first picture is the comic style artwork for the memoir. The second and third pictures are the realistic style artwork for historical events. The fourth picture has Nezumi Otoko narrating the story.

Have you read ‘Showa‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Shion Miura’sThe Great Passage‘ ever since I discovered it last year.

The Great Passage‘ is about the making of a Japanese dictionary. The main characters work for a publisher which brings out dictionaries. The editorial department decides to bring out a new, big dictionary of the Japanese language. They recruit a person called Majime from the sales department, who is unsuited for his current job but who is a word-nerd. The rest of the book is about how the dictionary project proceeds through different phases and what challenges the main characters face. There are also a couple of romantic stories which form part of the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Great Passage‘. This book is a beautiful love letter to words and the art of making dictionaries. I learnt a lot about dictionary projects and the art and science of lexicography through the book. It is amazing how long it takes to compile a dictionary from scratch. In this story it takes 15 years. One of my favourite parts of the book was about the paper which is used in dictionaries and how the paper company designs the right kind of paper for this particular dictionary. It is very fascinating. The book inspired me to dip into a dictionary I have and order a couple of more dictionaries 😁

One of the things I love about contemporary Japanese literature is this. Sometimes Japanese authors take a field of study or a thing or an activity or a profession and write a beautiful love letter to it and shine a light on its glorious beauty. Yoko Ogawa’sThe Housekeeper and the Professor is about the beauty of mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa’sThe Restaurant of Love Regained is about the pleasures of food, Natsu Miyashita’sThe Forest of Wool and Steel is about the beauty of piano tuning. Shion Miura’sThe Great Passage‘ follows in this beautiful tradition and sings an ode to the beauty of words and dictionaries.

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

“Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long agoβ€”a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart . . . Words gave things form so they could rise out of the dark sea.”

Have you read ‘The Great Passage‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Daisy Hildyard’sThe Second Body‘ serendipitously when I was looking for something else. The premise sounded interesting and I couldn’t resist getting it. This is my first Fitzcarraldo nonfiction book, so yay!

Daisy Hildyard’s main thesis in the book is this – that each of us has two bodies, the first one is the physical body which we have and experience each day, and the second is the impact and footprint we leave on the environment by our lifestyle choices and the things we do. She says we experience the first body at the individual level everyday and though we don’t experience the second body at that level because it is global, it is also a physical, real body. In the rest of the book, Hildyard tries to find out how she can bring both the bodies together, and for this she talks to different scientists to get more insights.

The Second Body‘ is an interesting book. There is lots of food for thought and Hildyard’s prose flows smoothly and the pages fly. I didn’t find Hildyard’s second body thesis very convincing though. The book doesn’t appear to give any clear answers and I’m not sure which side Hildyard is on with respect to questions like ‘Is it better to drive a car or is it better to walk?’, ‘Is it better to eat meat or is it better to be vegetarian / vegan?’, ‘Are humans part of the environment or is the environment there to serve humans?’ But the book explores interesting ideas which makes us think. One of my favourites was the research on bacteria that a scientist called Paul did and the insights it revealed on whether an organism is an individual or a part of a mega-organism and whether this insight could be scaled up to humans. It is a fascinating thing to think about.

Daisy Hildyard’s book has won good praise. One of my favourite descriptions of the book was this – “In its insistence on the illusion of individuality and on the participation of human animals in the whole of earthly life, ‘The Second Body’ might be an ancient text; in its scientific literacy and its mood of ecological disquiet, Daisy Hildyard’s book is as contemporary as the morning paper.” However, this description of the book – “her sly variety of scientific inquiry is incandescent” – made me smile 😁 What does this even mean? So many adjectives!

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

“I always wanted to be a scientist, Paul told me, but I started off with this impression that there is universal truth – you find out a truth and then that is the fact. But now I know that most of the things you read are not right. No research project I have done has given me the answer I have expected.

The way that Paul talked about his work made it sound like a process of painstaking, almost painful disillusion. He spoke of learning as a process of realising his own mistakes. When he made a discovery, there was no self-congratulation, but another set of problems. His errors would outlive him. My impression then was that his research was only the container for a force – a sense that something was missing – that would have driven Paul even if he had been a hairdresser, writer or account manager.”

Have you read ‘The Second Body‘? What do you think about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you liked Hildyard’s thesis and found it convincing.

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I have wanted to read Fumiko Enchi’sThe Waiting Years‘ ever since I discovered it last year. I finally got around to reading it today.

Tomo is the wife of a powerful government official. One day her husband tells her that he wants a concubine and asks Tomo to find the right woman who will play that role and who will fit into the household, as Tomo knows her husband and her household best. It is a difficult and painful thing for Tomo, but she does what her husband asks. What happens after that and the twists and turns her life takes forms the rest of the story.

Fumiko Enchi’s portrayal of Japan of that time is very fascinating. I initially thought that the period portrayed in the book was the post Second World War years. Then while reading it, based on information that is revealed, I thought it was the time leading up to the Second World War. After reading the book, I discovered that the story is set in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. It is fascinating that the story could fit into any of the periods that I’ve mentioned.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it is not judgemental. It depicts that particular period in Japanese society in intricate detail with delicate nuances. If we look at the story through our current 21st century lens, we might say that one character is good and another is bad and rage against some of them. But that is not what Fumiko Enchi does. Her nuanced portrayal is fascinating. Anton Chekhov once said –

“The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness.”

Fumiko Enchi’s book is a beautiful example of what happens when an artist does that.

Tomo is one of the great characters in Japanese literature. The way she handles her husband’s request, and the way she manages her relationship with the new concubine, how it starts with pain and some jealousy and how later she becomes like a big sister and a mother is beautifully portrayed. Tomo made me think a lot of the central mother character in Kyung-Sook Shin’s famous contemporary novel ‘Please Look After Mom‘. I am wondering whether Kyung-Sook Shin got inspired by Fumiko Enchi’s book when she wrote her own Korean version if it.

Towards the end of the book, Fumiko Enchi reserves the best for the last and writes these lines.

“The small houses she saw before her each time she halted were an undistinguished collection of secondhand shops, grocers, general stores and the like, yet the orange light from their electric lamps had an infinite brightness, and the odors of cooking appealed to the senses with an ineffable richness and warmth that shook Tomo’s heart to the core. Happiness – a small-scale, endearing, harmonious happiness – surely dwelt here beneath the low-powered lamps in the tiny rooms of these houses. A small-scale happiness and a modest harmony : let a man cry out, let him rage, let him howl with grief with all the power of which he was capable, what more than these could he ever hope to gain in this life?

Tomo felt a sudden, futile despair at herself as she stood there in the road alone in the snow, loath to go on, with her gray shawl drawn up close about her neck and an open umbrella held in the hand that was frozen like ice. Everything that she had suffered for, worked for, and won within the restricted sphere of a life whose key she had for decades past entrusted to her wayward husband Yukitomo lay within the confines of that unfeeling, hard, and unassailable fortress summed up by the one word β€˜family.’ No doubt, she had held her own in that small world. In a sense, all the strength of her life had gone into doing just that; but now in the light of the lamps of these small houses that so cheerlessly lined one side of the street she had suddenly seen the futility of that somehow artificial life on which she had lavished so much energy and wisdom. Was it possible, then, that everything she had lived for was vain and profitless? No: she shook her head in firm rejection of the idea. Her world was a precarious place, a place where one groped one’s way through the gloom; where everything one’s hand touched was colorless, hard, and cold; where the darkness seemed to stretch endlessly ahead. Yet at the end of it all a brighter world surely lay waiting, like the light when one finally emerges from a tunnel. If it were not there waiting, then nothing made sense. She must not despair, she must walk on; unless she climbed and went on climbing she would never reach the top of the hill.”

I cried when I read that.

I loved ‘The Waiting Years‘. I loved Fumiko Enchi’s portrayal of those times. The story had many strong women characters who do their best to survive during a time when life was tough for women. Some of them do questionable things. But it was hard not to like them and not be fascinated by them. The book is just 183 pages long, but in that short space, Fumiko Enchi covers a period of many decades. It doesn’t feel rushed which, I think, is a triumph of her storytelling skills.

Fumiko Enchi seems to be the mother-figure for all contemporary Japanese women writers. Her earliest books date to the 1920s. Just three of her books seem to be available in English translation. It is a shame. Wish more of her books get translated into English. I can’t wait to read the other two.

Have you read Fumiko Enchi’sThe Waiting Years‘? What do you think about it?

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In J.L.Carr’sA Month in the Country‘, the narrator and one of the main characters are soldiers in the First World War, and that experience leaves a permanent impact on their psyche. After I read the book, I thought I’ll read a First World War memoir to understand this more and I picked up Edmund Blunden’sUndertones of War‘.

I discovered Edmund Blunden when I was in school. An excerpt from his book ‘Cricket Country‘ was one of the lessons in our English textbook. In that section, Blunden talks about the beauty of the English cricket season and mentions the great allrounder Frank Woolley. After I read that excerpt, I wanted to read the book. But I discovered that ‘Cricket Country’ was long out-of-print. Years later I searched for it in Gutenberg and at other places online and it was still not possible to find. But while looking for this, I discovered that Blunden has written a First World War memoir. I was amazed! I always thought that Blunden was a cricket writer. It turned out that he was a poet who fought in the First World War. Blunden’s cricket book is almost never mentioned anywhere and it seems to be just a footnote in his career. I am not giving up though – I’ll still keep looking for it.

On the book itself, ‘Undertones of War‘ is regarded as one of the great memoirs of the First World War. It has been compared to Robert Graves’Goodbye to All That‘. Blunden is frequently mentioned together with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon as the three poets who fought in the First World War and survived to tell the tale.

Blunden’s memoir is not long. The edition I have is 190 pages long. Blunden doesn’t beat around the bush and start the book from his childhood and describe his family to us. He just gets to the point and describes how he signs up and gets called up to serve in the army. This happens on the first page. The rest of the book is about his war experiences. The book ends with Blunden coming back home, and the war not being over yet.

So what do I think about the book? Blunden is a poet, and it shows in every page. If it is possible to describe something in plain language and describe the same in poetic language, Blunden almost always chooses the second option. So there are many beautiful sentences and descriptions in the book. Sometimes it feels like we are reading a Wordsworth poem. For example, these lines –

“I heard an evening robin in a hawthorn, and in trampled gardens among the language of war, as Milton calls it, there was the fairy, affectionate immortality of the yellow rose and blue-grey crocus.”

And these lines –

“The village was friendly, and near it lay the marshy land full of tall and whispering reeds, over which evening looked her last with an unusual sad beauty, well suiting one’s mood.”

Even when he describes the war, he describes it like this –

“On the blue and lulling mist of evening, proper to the nightingale, the sheepbell and falling waters, the strangest phenomena of fire inflicted themselves. The red sparks of German trench mortars described their seeming-slow arcs, shrapnel shells clanged in crimson, burning, momentary cloudlets, smoke billowed into a tidal wave, and the powdery glare of many a signal-light showed the rolling folds.”

Blunden describes nature poetically at every opportunity he gets. This book has been described as an extended pastoral elegy in prose, and that is what it is.

There are, of course, descriptions of war, and shells exploding, and people getting killed, but those descriptions are not graphic or gruesome but brief, unlike war memoirs which might be written today.

Blunden also has a wonderful sense of humour and that peeks out at many places in the book. For example in this sentence –

“The weather had turned heavy and musty, the pre-ordained weather of British operations.”

And this sentence –

“No protection against anything more violent than a tennis-ball was easily discernible along that village street…Our future, in short, depended on the observance of the ‘Live and Let Live’ principle, one of the soundest elements in trench war.”

I laughed when I read that 😁

Blunden also describes incidents in the book, which can only be called dark humour of the Kafkaesque variety (or the Coen brothers’ variety). I don’t want to mention them here and spoil the surprise for you. I’ll just say that they are funny, but also tragic. Blunden also describes many of the people he worked with during the war and some of them are fascinating. My two favourites were Corporal Worley and Colonel Harrison. A couple of dogs also make their appearance in the story at different times, one of whom is adopted by the army and another who is adopted by Blunden.

When he ends the book, Blunden calls himself ‘a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat.‘ It made me smile. I couldn’t resist comparing Blunden with Pierre from ‘War and Peace‘ – both nice people, both fight in a war, both have a dog, both are harmless young shepherds.

Undertones of War‘ is like no other war memoir I’ve read. It is beautiful and poetic, it demands attention and involvement, and it bestows rich rewards if one reads it slowly while savouring and lingering on its beautiful sentences. The book also has a forty-page poetry section in the end, which has poems which cover some of the same themes and sometimes events described in the book. I didn’t read that part, but have saved it for a rainy day.

I loved ‘Undertones of War‘. I am glad I read it finally. Now I want to read Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That‘ and compare it with this. And I’ll continue my search for that elusive pearl, Blunden’s ‘Cricket Country‘.

Have you read ‘Undertones of War‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Ramachandra Guha’s new book ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘ when I was browsing a few days back. The subtitle of the book read ‘A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind‘. I thought I’ll get it for my dad, as Guha writes about cricketers from the ’70s and sometimes goes back to old times, the cricketers whom my dad is fond off. But when the book arrived, I read the blurb and the first page, and before long I was deep into the book. I immersed myself into the book, for the past few days, and when I came up for breath after I finished the book, it was the wee hours of today morning.

The Commonwealth of Cricket‘ starts as a cricketing memoir. Guha talks about how he started watching cricket, when he started playing, his school and college cricketing days. At some point the books paints a wider canvas as Guha talks about cricket history, his favourite cricketers, the cricketers he has met, about the matches he has watched. Then he comes down to almost today, and spends some time on his brief stint as a cricket administrator and the interesting things that happened and the controversies that ensued.

If you are into cricket books, you know exactly what this is – memoir, cricket history and culture, descriptions and anecdotes of great players and favourite players from school, club, state and national teams, commentary on contemporary cricketing issues – this is exactly what C.L.R.James writes about in his masterpiece ‘Beyond a Boundary‘. Many Indian cricket writers, especially the good ones, are obsessed with C.L.R.James’ book. Some of them have tried writing their own versions of it. Rajan Bala did, Mukul Kesavan did. This is Guha’s version, his nod to the master. Most of the other books are interesting reads, but that’s it. But Guha’s book, it is better than that. It is amazing. Every page is beautiful. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure. I even took delight in finding mistakes in a couple of cricket statistics that Guha quotes 😁 The chapter on Sachin Tendulkar dragged on a bit, but outside of that, the book was beautiful and perfect.

My favourite chapters were the early ones which were autobiographical and the chapter on Guha’s favourite Pakistani cricketers. There is a long section in it on Javed Miandad, which I loved, and which made me smile. Guha also describes a anecdote in which he has a beautiful long conversation with a Pakistani cricket fan in Copenhagen (of all places). That was one of my favourite parts of the book. I also loved the parts of the book in which Guha talks about cricketers from a bygone era who had retired before I was born. I was delighted when I read a section dedicated to Keith Miller, one of my favourites. There was also one on Vijay Hazare which was very beautiful.

In the last chapter of the book, in which Guha gives a nod to philosopher William James by calling it ‘Varieties of Cricketing Chauvinism‘ (William James wrote a book called ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’), he says this –

“There are two fundamental axes of cricketing chauvinism : of nation and of generation. Every cricket fan almost without exception is born with them, and most cricket fans never outgrow them.”

I smiled when I read that. It is a beautiful chapter on being a cricket fan and of outgrowing this chauvinism and I felt that Guha’s own experience mirrored mine.

I loved ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘. The only problem I had with the book was the title. It could have been better. Guha has written four cricket books and edited a fifth one, and surprisingly this is the first cricket book of his that I have read. I don’t know how this compares to his masterpiece ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field‘, because I haven’t read that yet, but when I compare this to other cricket books I’ve read, I can say that this is one of my favourites. Cricket has a rich body of literature compared to other sports, and cricket books have been around for more than a century and a half, longer than any other sport. Guha’s newest book is a beautiful new addition to this vast, rich ocean. The master, C.L.R.James, would have been proud.

Guha’s last cricket book came out in 2004. After a long hiatus he has published his new one. I hope this is not his swansong and there is more left in the tank.

Have you read ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered J.L.Carr’sA Month in the Country‘ recently when I read a quote from it. I got the book a few days back and finished reading it just now.

In ‘A Month in the Country‘, the narrator, Tom Birkin, goes to a village in the English countryside. The time is the summer after the First World War. Birkin has been hired to restore a centuries old wall painting, which has been painted over across the years. In the village, he meets different kinds of people, most of them friendly and warm. He also meets Moon, who has been hired to find a grave of an old ancestor of an important family. Like Birkin, Moon had also been a soldier in the recent war and had gone through some terrible experiences. The two strike an easy friendship. What happens as Birkin uncovers the wall painting, and the experiences he goes through during the summer form the rest of the story.

A Month in the Country‘ is a beautiful love letter to a time gone by, when horses were still used for transport, when there were villages whose residents hadn’t travelled more than a few miles from their home. It is beautiful and charming but also poignant and haunting. It was like reading one of Wordsworth’s poems. It made me remember a French novel I read a few years back called ‘The Lost Estate‘ by Alain-Fournier, which had a very different story, but which was haunting in a similar way. When I read this passage towards the end of the book – “We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass” – I cried.

A Month in the Country‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I am so happy that I discovered J.L.Carr. He has written eight novels, all of them slim works like this one, one of which is intriguingly titled ‘A Day in Summer‘. I want to read them all.

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

“Ah, those days…for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.
If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”

Have you read ‘A Month in the Country‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Cao Xueqin’sA Dream of Red Mansions‘ for a long time. I tried once but got distracted after reading 50 pages. When Di from ‘The Little White Attic’ invited a few of us for a readalong of the book, I couldn’t resist and jumped in.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is one of the four great Chinese classics. It is an epic novel. The translation I have by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang runs into three volumes and a total of 1900 pages. If I finish reading it, it will be the longest book I’ve ever read, beating Vikram Seth’sA Suitable Boy‘ comfortably.

The book follows the fortunes of one family and their relatives and their near and dear ones. But the book doesn’t start like that. It starts with a goddess trying to repair a hole in the sky and using many big stones to do that. When she finishes it, one stone is left. She abandons that stone on earth. Across time over the eons, that stone becomes sentient, starts thinking and it feels depressed that it is alone and it is not able to experience the world. A Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest pass by and when they hear the stone’s story, they take pity on it and decide to place it in the middle of a human family so that it can experience worldly joy and sorrow. This is the reason why the book is sometimes also called ‘The Story of the Stone‘. What follows is the story of one family as the stone perceives it.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is a very classically Chinese book. If you have read a Jin Yong book, you’ll know exactly what this means. That is, there are only three things in the book. The sentences in the story describe events in the story and move it forward, or they describe the physical surroundings and set the scene, or there is conversation between characters, lots of it. There are just these three things. There are no long monologues, or philosophical musings, or exploration of the inner worlds of the characters. Sometimes there are philosophical musings which are part of a conversation, in which the characters quote classical poetry and old Chinese proverbs to make a point, but that’s it. Everything contributes to moving the story forward. So once you get into the flow of the story, the pages fly. Atleast they flew for me. But there is one thing that might slow down one’s reading pace. There are lots of detailed descriptions. If there is a party, it is described in a lot of detail. If a guest visits home, we get a primer into Chinese culture on how a guest is received and treated. If there is a funeral, there is a description of every detail and ritual. The book depicts 18th century Chinese culture in rich detail and it is probably based on the author’s own experience. It is fascinating to read. It might also be overwhelming if you are not into details.

The other thing about the book is that there are lots of characters, hundreds of them. It is sometimes hard to keep up with who’s who. Sometimes the characters’ names are so close to each other that if you are not familiar with Chinese names it can get confusing. For example, there is Chia Cheng, Chia Chen, Chia Chiang, Chia Chian. At one point, I didn’t know who was who. One way of handling this is to make a family chart and include atleast the important characters in that. Another way of doing it is to go with the flow. I decided to do that. At some point, I discovered, for example, that Chia Cheng was Baoyu’s dad and the other three Chias weren’t that important. Then there are Hsi-feng and Hsi-jen who were important characters and their names looked close to me and so could be potentially confusing. But after reading for a while, I could recognize them properly – Hsi-feng is an important daughter-in-law in the house, and Hsi-jen was Baoyu’s maid. They were two of my favourite characters and so it was easy for me to remember. One more thing that was confusing for me was that the translation I read used the Wade-Giles naming system, while I am more comfortable with the modern Pinyin system. In some cases, translation of names between Wade-Giles and Pinyin was pretty straightforward. For example Pao-Yu in Wade-Giles was Baoyu in Pinyin, Tai-Yu in Wade-Giles was Daiyu in Pinyin. But at other times it was not that straightforward – for example, Hsi-Feng in Wade-Giles was Xifeng in Pinyin, Chin Ko-Ching in Wade-Giles is Qin Keqing in Pinyin. Sometimes the names were so far apart that I couldn’t guess the Pinyin names. This posed problems when I was discussing the book with fellow readalong participants, because I had to be sure that we were discussing the same character. There was a further complication here, because in a newer translation, the translators had changed the names of some of the characters – Hsi-jen was called Aroma in that. No one, of course, can make this leap from Hsi-jen to Aroma 😁 One has to consult the Wade-Giles to Pinyin dictionary frequently to get a sense of things. I hate doing that and so I just muddled along.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ has also been described as the love story of Baoyu and Daiyu. That is, of course, part of the book, and it is fascinating, but because it is an epic book, there cannot be just one story in it. There is Baochai who is as important a character as Daiyu and till now, it is not clear whether Baoyu likes Daiyu more or Baochai more. Both Baochai and Daiyu write beautiful poetry, but while Daiyu is deeply emotional and gets affected by the smallest happenings and bursts into tears, Baochai is more mature and more graceful. My two favourite characters till now though are Hsi-feng and Hsi-jen (or Xifeng and Xiren, if you prefer Pinyin). Hsi-feng is a strong woman who manages her relationships with her family members skillfully, takes additional responsibility when required, is tough when required. The way she handles the maids in the family is interesting to see – tough at times when they slack at work during important occasions (sometimes a bit too tough – on one occasion she gets a maid whipped for coming late, to set an example – I felt the punishment was too much and too cruel), and kind and friendly at other times during informal occasions. I am looking forward to seeing how her character arc develops. Hsi-jen is Baoyu’s maid and is almost like his best friend, governess and lover. She is the closest to the perfect character in the book – all nice and nothing bad. It is hard not to like her. I am looking forward to finding out what happens to her as the story progresses.

The book depicts Chinese culture of the 18th century in a realistic way – the good and the not-so-good together. Sometimes the not-so-good things are heartbreaking, like when someone is unhappy with a maid or a page and gets them whipped, or sometimes gets them dismissed from work. Getting dismissed was the worst thing for a maid working in a distinguished family, because it means she is disgraced and she has slid back into poverty. One of the maids in the story is so heartbroken after she gets dismissed that she commits suicide. It was heartbreaking to read.

There many beautiful scenes depicted in the story. There are frequent quarrels between Baoyu and Daiyu, and sometimes we feel that they are being silly, and at other times we feel that they are just spoilt brats from rich families who don’t realize how lucky they are. But sometimes their fights remind us of ourselves when we were young and being silly and fought with our partners or siblings or cousins and sulked for days and wasted lots of time which could have been spent in more pleasurable ways, and it makes us feel young again and we identify with our silly younger selves, and it makes us smile. Cao Xueqin captures the way young people behave towards each other quite beautifully and it is one of the wonderful parts of the book. In one of my favourite scenes, Daiyu feels heartbroken after a silly fight (or rather about something she imagined) that she composes a poem and recites it and the poem is beautiful and moving and heartbreaking and Baoyu who is hiding behind a tree, listens to it, and bursts into tears. It is such a beautiful scene. Another of my favourite scenes, or rather chapters in the story is when Baoyu’s sister tells him that they should all start a poetry or literary club, and all the young people get together and decide what they’ll do as part of the club, and they meet again and compose poetry and recite them and discuss their merits and decide whose poems are their favourites. This chapter comes out of the blue and almost feels like a digression from the main story, but it is very beautiful. Another of my favourite scenes is when Keqing is seriously ill and one day when Xifeng is deep asleep, Keqing comes in her dream and they have a beautiful conversation which is very moving. Of course, this kind of dream is almost always a dark premonition, but I won’t tell you more, you have to read the book to find out what happened next.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ was hard reading after the first few chapters. The hundreds of characters and the rapid succession of events and the infinite number of details was overwhelming and it nearly sunk me. But halfway through the first volume, at around 300 pages, the story acquired a life of its own, it started flowing smoothly like a serene river, I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened next and what my favourite characters were up to, and then I knew that the book had started to grow on me and I’d fallen in love with it. It took some time but it was worth it.

I have finished reading the first part of ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘ now. That is 40 chapters, 600 pages in. I’m loving it so far. Two more parts, 80 chapters, 1300 pages to go. Wish me luck 😁

Have you read ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘? What do you think about it?

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This book arrived today morning. I read the first page and the first few pages, and they all went over my head. I don’t know why I keep getting into these things. I thought that I have read many popular science books on quantum mechanics, and I thought that if I picked a textbook and started reading, the knowledge I gain will be more deep and it will be the kind of knowledge scientists acquire. But when I opened the book, it looked at me with contempt and laughed at me. And it threw all these complicated equations at me. I should have guessed when I first discovered this textbook. When I saw ‘Springer’ on the cover, all kinds of alarm bells rang in my mind. Springer books are classics, but they are hard and inaccessible to a normal person. They are meant for professionals and scientists in the field and for masters and doctoral candidates who study in premier institutes. Not for the likes of me. I use a simple rule while buying textbooks. I look at different textbooks online, I don’t ask people who know about it because I like discovering stuff myself, and if there is more than one book on the subject, I pick the biggest, thickest one. My reasoning here is that both thin and thick textbooks cover the same material, and if a book is bigger, it is because the author has taken more time and space and explained things better. I did the same thing here. Other quantum mechanics books were around 500 pages and Florian Scheck’s was around 700 pages. So I assumed that Florian Scheck has taken time and explained things in simple language. But my assumption was wrong, and it is Florian Scheck’s book 1 – Vishy 0.

In addition to the fact that it was published by Springer, which sent the alarm bells ringing, there were other clues that the book offered. If I had looked properly, I would have discovered them. For example, the author Florian Scheck is German. His name is a dead giveaway, of course. This book was initially written in German and it was used in German universities by German students for many years. It was translated into English only recently. A book written by a German professor / scientist for German scientists and students – well, it is a book which is going to laugh at punks at me. Florian Scheck also seems to be an old fashioned German professor – he loves classical music, his dad was a classical musician and he is deep into high-end physics in a way which someone like me can’t comprehend. He made me think of the great German scientists like Max Planck, who was an amazing scientist and loved classical music and performed classical music compositions when he had invited scientists for dinner. Of course, we have our dear old Einstein too, who loved playing the violin. Physicists playing classical music is a very German thing. Playing classical music and doing amazing research which is outside the realm of understanding of most of us science fans who are not scientists – this is a very German thing. I think I’ll put this book in the next room, light a lamp or candle and pray that one day it decides to be kind and come down to my level. I also hope that my mathematical muscle gets stronger that one day I can pick this up and read the first page, and understand it, and hopefully progress till page 10 or page 50. I will be happy if I can do that. Till then, I will keep to my George Gamov, Bill Bryson, John Gribbin, Christophe Galfard and occasionally dip into Roger Penrose.

Lots of admiration and love for all my scientist friends who keep reading stuff like this everyday, like it was a romance novel or cozy crime mystery! I admire you all very much!

Do you try reading a textbook when you like a particular subject? Or do you keep to popular books on the subject? How has your experience been? Do share.

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I decided to start October with ‘Uncle Vanya‘ by Anton Chekhov. This is my third Chekhov play after ‘Three Sisters‘ and ‘The Seagull‘.

Uncle Vanya‘ starts in typical Chekovian fashion. There is a country estate, there are family, friends and relatives there, they talk for most of the time and there is not much of a plot, there is inappropriate kind of love with one character being in love with another character’s wife or husband, some of the characters contrast the beauty of thought and ideas and aesthetic sensibilities with the humdrum and boredom and challenges of everyday life (I noticed this last thing for the first time when I watched the Russian film adaptation of Chekhov’s play ‘Platonov‘). There is even a gun which goes off in the end. All typical, vintage Chekhov. There are beautiful lines spoken by different characters throughout the play. Many of my favourites were spoken by a doctor called Astrov. The story ends in typical Chekovian fashion. Was it happy or sad? I am not going to tell you that 😁

I loved ‘Uncle Vanya‘. I don’t know why the play is called ‘Uncle Vanya‘, because another character, the doctor Astrov, has a bigger part in the story and speaks many of the beautiful lines. The translation by Laurence Senelick reads very well and is filled with footnotes in which Senelick explains the finer points of translation or describes what Chekhov or someone else thought about a particular line or scene. The play has a beautiful introduction by the translator which describes how the play came into being, analyzes the characters and the story and sets the play in context in the Chekhov pantheon. It is best to read the introduction after you read the play.

If you have a Russian soul – you don’t need to be Russian to have a Russian soul, some of us have a Russian soul though we were not born Russian – or if you have literary, artistic, aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities which are embodied in a Russian soul, you will love this play.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite lines from the play, spoken by, who else, but Astrov.

“Russian forests are toppling beneath the axe, the habitats of birds and beasts are dwindling, tens of thousands of trees are perishing, rivers are running shallow and drying up, gorgeous natural scenery is disappearing irretrievably, and all because lazy human beings can’t be bothered to bend down and pick up fuel from the earth. Am I right, madam? A person has to be an unreasoning barbarian to destroy what cannot be re-created. Human beings are endowed with reason and creative faculties in order to enhance what is given to them, but so far they have not created but destroyed. Forests are ever fewer and fewer, rivers dry up, wildlife is wiped out, the climate is spoiled, and every day the earth grows more impoverished and ugly.”

Well, Chekhov wrote these lines in 1898, and it has been 122 years, and nothing has changed. Human beings continue to be stupid. Einstein once said, “Two things are infinite : the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Human beings continue to prove him right. It is sad and tragic.

Have you read ‘Uncle Vanya‘? What do you think about it?

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