Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I’ve wanted to read a Junji Ito book for a while. So finally decided to read ‘Tomie‘ which was his first book.

High school students go on a hike up the mountain, as part of a class trip. One of them goes missing. Her name is Tomie. It is later discovered that she is dead, brutally murdered. No one knows who killed her. After her funeral, the students go back to class. Their teacher tells them that they have to be careful as the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. At that point, there is a knock on the door. Everyone looks at the class entrance, and who do they find? It is Tomie! She’s alive and kicking and acts as if nothing has happened! Some classmates feel that the dead person must be a different person and it was a case of mistaken identity. But other classmates seem to know something that we, the readers, don’t. They are sure that the real Tomie is dead. So according to them, there can be only two explanations. One is that the new Tomie is an impostor. The second is that Tomie has come back from the dead. The first explanation is simple and logical. It will probably lead to an old-fashioned revenge thriller. The second explanation is scary and offers delightful possibilities in the telling of the story. Junji Ito being the smart guy, chooses the second one. And we have this beautiful, scary, delightful 750+ page horror manga book.

There are 20 stories in the book. Some of them continue from where the previous story left off. Some of them tell new stories with the characters which appeared before. There are other stories which are independent, and which can be read as standalones. I loved stories from each of these categories, but I loved the standalones more. In some stories, Tomie does bad things or makes people around her do bad things. In other stories, Tomie is the victim and she suffers at the hand of others, and later she comes back to haunt her oppressors and take revenge. I liked the second kind of stories more. There were a few stories which were neither, which was very unusual in a horror book. Some of the third type of stories were very beautiful. Many of the stories were predictable in terms of plot, and relied on the horror aspect to create dramatic effect. Some of them were unusual and surprising though. Some stories seemed to be a nod to other famous horror stories and fairytales.

I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book, but I loved some more than others. One of my favourites was ‘Little Finger‘. In this story, a few brothers do bad things (won’t tell you more) and call their youngest brother to clean things up. This youngest brother is very ugly. While he is cleaning up his brothers’ nasty deeds, the law comes after him, and he ends up living in a cave. Strange things happen in the cave, and five ghostly women rise from there. Four of them are pretty and one of them is ugly. The pretty ones taunt and torture the ugly one. When this youngest brother sees that, he fights for the ugly one and defends her. This woman falls in love with him. She is a strange being though, and she is not human. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story. It is a very unusual love story. It makes us think of ‘Beauty and the Beast‘.

In another of my favourite stories, ‘Boy‘, a boy is wandering in the beach, when he finds a cave. Inside the cave is a young woman who is in bad shape. The boy brings food and clothes for her and the woman recovers. She treats the boy like her own son and the boy treats her like his mom. But the boy has his own real mother. And this new mother is unusual and may not even be human…

I’ll write about one more favourite story. It is called ‘Waterfall Basin‘. In this story, a travelling salesman comes to a village. He sells a strange package and says that it will bring people happiness. People refuse to buy anything from him. Then, one villager relents, and buys a small package from him. And, of course, only one thing can happen after that. All hell breaks loose. This story made me think of Stephen King’sNeedful Things‘, which has a very similar overall plot, though both these stories are very different in details.

The artwork in the book is very interesting – it changes in style depending on the way the mood of the story changes. When the plot moves, the artwork is simple and straightforward. But when the situation gets intense, and scary things start happening, the artwork is intricate and detailed and is beautiful and also gives us nightmares at the same time. Have shared some of the pages from the book, below. Have avoided the more scarier ones.

From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 1
From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 2

I enjoyed reading ‘Tomie’. I loved the stories in which Tomie is the good person and suffers at the hand of bad guys and later comes back to haunt them. Of course, these stories are not as simple as I’ve described them, but I loved them. I don’t think I’d have loved this book as much, if I had read it when I was younger. I remember reading Charles Burns’Black Hole‘ many years back. It was too dark for me and gave me nightmares and I never went near his books again. ‘Tomie’ is ten times more darker and more scarier. Being older and wiser now (or maybe the mind has become numb, after watching series like ‘Game of Thrones’), I could resist the impact of the violent scenes, and appreciate the beautiful scenes. Luckily, the last few days, while I was reading the book, I didn’t get any nightmares. It would have been scary to hear Tomie’s whisper in my dreams and then feel someone prodding me, and then get up in the middle of the night to see Tomie sitting next to me laughing in a nasty way. Doesn’t mean that it won’t happen tonight and Tomie won’t step out from the pages of the book into the real world. But I hope and pray it doesn’t happen. Please pray for me.

I read in Junji Ito’s afterword to the book that he used to work in a dentist’s office during the day, and work on ‘Tomie’ during the night. It is interesting to contemplate on – that he was a regular guy with a regular job, but when the sun set and he came home in the evening, he dreamt of terrifying fantasies and put them in this book to scare us. Life is always surprising!

Junji Ito is one of the legends of horror manga. There are two more famous books of his – ‘Uzumaki‘ and ‘Gyo‘. I’ve heard Junji Ito fans saying that ‘Uzumaki’ is their favourite. I’m hoping to read that, the next time I feel brave enough.

This book is not for everyone. If you are not a horror fan and you find these things scary and they give you nightmares, please stay away from this book. But if you are a horror fan, this is 750 pages of pure pleasure. Go read it now.

Have you read ‘Tomie’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Junji Ito book?


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Time for the next Natsume Sōseki book 😊 This time it is ‘Botchan‘.

Our narrator Botchan has just graduated in mathematics. He gets a job as a maths teacher in a school in a remote town. He is a person who makes casual, spontaneous decisions, and so accepts it. Though he has always been a city boy and has lived in Tokyo all his life, he doesn’t think too much about the challenges he’ll be facing. When he lands in the new town and the new school, interesting things start happening. People gossip about him behind his back. There is the internecine politics, of course, which is always there in every school, and teachers try to plot and stab behind each other’s backs. There are good people too, of course, and they help our Botchan. What happens in this small town and how Botchan navigates this forms the rest of the story.

‘Botchan’ is very different from the other Sōseki novels I’ve read till now. It seems to be based on Sōseki’s own experience as a teacher in a small town. There is a focus on the events and the plot throughout the book. Our narrator Botchan has a sharp sense of humour and he makes us laugh many times. There is a woman called Kiyo who works as a maid and a governess in Botchan’s house till he leaves to go to work. She treats him as her own son, and their relationship is depicted beautifully in the book. There is a landlady who comes in the second part of the book and she’s also a fascinating character. Botchan’s fellow teacher and friend, whom he calls ‘The Porcupine’ is also one of my favourite characters from the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘Botchan’. It is a great place to start for readers who are new to Sōseki, and for readers who are intimidated by his contemplative works like ‘The Three-Cornered World’.

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

“…when somebody treats you to something and you make no effort to decline it, whether it’s a dish of shaved ice, a cup of sweet tea, or whatever, well, it shows the kind of respect and goodwill you have for that person. The sense of gratitude that you feel in your heart when you accept a favor from someone, which you could easily have avoided by paying your own way, is a form of giving back that goes beyond anything that money could buy. I may not have the kind of title or position that will impress people, but I’m still a free, full-grown human being. And when such a person finds you worthy of respect, you should consider it something more precious than a fortune in gold.”

“Of course, I’d been involved in my share of pranks myself when I was in middle school, but when they asked me whether I was the one who did it, I would never, ever try to weasel out of it. If I did it, I did it, and if I didn’t, I didn’t; that’s all there was to it. No matter how much mischief I was involved in, I still had my honor. If you’re just going to lie your way out of the punishment afterward, well, you shouldn’t have done anything to begin with. Mischief and punishment go hand in hand – it’s knowing that the punishment comes with it that makes it fun to dare to do the mischief. Did they really think that there was some low-down country out there where people could play tricks and then claim immunity from the consequences?”

“I had already come to the conclusion that I wasn’t the kind of person that anybody could like and it didn’t bother me at all if people treated me as if I was just a block of wood, which only made me wonder all the more why Kiyo fussed over me the way she did. Sometimes when she was in the kitchen and nobody else was around, she would praise me for having what she called ‘a fine, upstanding character.’ I had no idea what she meant, though. I figured that if I really had such a fine character, other people should be treating me a little better. Whenever Kiyo said something like that, I’d tell her that I couldn’t stand being flattered. Then she’d say that it just showed how fine my character really was, and gaze at me adoringly. She seemed to be taking pride in some version of me that she’d created all by herself. There was something almost creepy about it.”

Have you read ‘Botchan’? What do you think about it?

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After reading my first Natsume Sōseki novel and loving it, I decided to read another. I decided to pick up ‘Kokoro‘.

In ‘Kokoro’, a young man meets an older man at the beach. Before long they have a conversation. The young man feels a kind of magnetic pull towards the older man. He calls him Sensei. And soon Sensei becomes like a mentor to him. But Sensei seems to be a mysterious person. Something tragic seems to have happened in his past. Which he refuses to reveal to his new protégé. The story starts like this. What happens after this and the events which unfurl and the past secrets which are revealed form the rest of the story.

‘Kokoro’ means ‘heart’ in Japanese. This story is about the complexities, the contradictions, and the unfathomable depths of the human heart. It is a tragic, heartbreaking story of love, of friendship, of betrayal.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kokoro’. It was very different from ‘The Three-Cornered World’ (‘Kusamakura’). Reading ‘Kokoro’ made me realize that my first impression was correct, that Natsume Sōseki is my guy, that he’s my favourite Japanese author of that time.

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

“I may be simply repeating what has always been known, but I do believe that for love to grow there must first be the impact of novelty. Between two people who have always known each other, that necessary stimulus can never be felt. Like the first whiff of burning incense, or like the taste of one’s first cup of saké, there is in love that moment when all its power is felt. There may be fondness, but not love, between two people who have come to know each other well without ever having grasped that moment.”

“You said just now that there was no one amongst your relatives that you would consider particularly bad. You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad humans. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one’s guard.”

Have you read ‘Kokoro’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Natsume Sōseki novel?

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I’ve wanted to read ‘The Three-Cornered World‘ by Natsume Sōseki for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

An artist is walking on a road through the mountains. He is there, because he wants to paint peacefully in solitude. It starts raining and he takes shelter in a small roadside shop. An old woman there offers him a cup of hot tea. While it rains, the two have a conversation. The artist asks about any place nearby where he can stay. The old woman tells him about a nearby inn. Later when the rain stops, the artist departs and sometime later reaches the inn. The inn is run by an old gentleman, and his beautiful, mysterious daughter. What happens after this forms the rest of the story.

This is just the story told in the book. But this is not what the book is about. When I finished reading the first page of the book, I was amazed. After reading the next few pages, I knew. That this was no ordinary book. And this was no ordinary writer. While reading those first pages, I got the same feeling of awe that I got when I had read some of my favourite writers and books – like Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’, the finest pages in Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ and ‘Joseph and his Brothers’, Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’, Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, and ‘The Moon and Six Pence’, Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’. I nearly highlighted every passage and every sentence in the first few pages. John Updike once said – “My reviewing habit, hard to break, was to quote extensively; just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.” I found this true about my favourite books, about the most beautiful books I’ve read. I wanted to highlight every line, I wanted to quote every passage. That is what happened when I read ‘The Three-Cornered World’. I thought the beauty will stop flowing at some point and there will be a break somewhere – no one can sustain this kind of magic forever. But Natsume Sōseki defies all expectations and delivers a whole book filled with exquisite literary and artistic beauty.

Out of all the classic Japanese writers of the 20th century, writers who wrote before 1970, my favourite till now was Yukio Mishima. Mishima-San’s prose is beautiful, and though his stories are mostly dark, I read his books for his prose. But now after reading this book, I realize that Natsume Sōseki, has waltzed past Mishima-San to the No.1 position. I’ll always have a soft corner for Mishima-San, and will always love and admire his work, but I think Sōseki-San has gone to the top spot in my favourites list now. I think that if we consider 1970 or thereabouts as the end of a particular era in Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki was the greatest Japanese writer of that era. Of course, this is always debatable, as this era had some of the greatest literary stars in Japanese literature – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, Fumiko Enchi, Kobo Abe, Osamu Dazai, Kenzaburō Ōe. But I’ll stick my neck out and say that Natsume Sōseki was the finest of them all.

Don’t take my word for it though. If you haven’t read ‘The Three-Cornered World’ yet, please go and read it. And tell me what you think.

Natsume Sōseki published his first book ‘I am a Cat‘ when he was 38. In the next 11 years, he published many books which went on to become classics, and he was regarded as the greatest Japanese writer of his generation. He died when he was 49, leaving an unfinished manuscript, which was later published as ‘Light and Darkness’. In such a short literary career which lasted just 11 years, he shone brightly like a star. He didn’t live to see the horrors of the 20th century (good for him), but it is heartbreaking that he died so young, with many more years still left in him.

‘The Three-Cornered World’ is a beautiful meditation on art and beauty. I loved it. It is one of my favourite books of all-time.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excerpts from the book. It was so hard for me to choose one, and so I’m sharing the first page here. Hope you like it.

“Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.

Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.

When the unpleasantness increases, you want to draw yourself up to some place where life is easier. It is just at the point when you first realise that life will be no more agreeable no matter what heights you may attain, that a poem may be given birth, or a picture created.

The creation of this world is the work of neither god nor devil, but of the ordinary people around us; those who live opposite, and those next door, drifting here and there about their daily business. You may think this world created by ordinary people a horrible place in which to live, but where else is there? Even if there is somewhere else to go, it can only be a ‘non-human’ realm, and who knows but that such a world may not be even more hateful than this?

There is no escape from this world. If, therefore, you find life hard, there is nothing to be done but settle yourself as comfortably as you can during the unpleasant times, although you may only succeed in this for short periods, and thus make life’s brief span bearable. It is here that the vocation of the artist comes into being, and here that the painter receives his divine commission. Thank heaven for all those who in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.”

Have you read Natsume Sōseki’s ‘The Three-Cornered World’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Temple Alley Summer‘ by Sachiko Kashiwaba by accident. The cover was enchanting, and I thought it was a manga book. After getting it and looking inside, I discovered that it was a regular book. I was mildly disappointed at the beginning, because of this, but as I continued reading, my disappointment melted away, because the book turned out to be what I had thought at the beginning – enchanting.

Kazu gets awake in the middle of the night and he sees a girl wearing a white dress coming out of one of the rooms in his house which has the family altar. She then opens the door and leaves his house. He has never seen her before. He thinks she is a ghost. The next day at school, he sees the same girl in his class. Everyone seems to know her except him. Kazu is puzzled with this mystery. Then when Kazu and his classmates are doing a project on their town, they discover that an old map shows a mysterious temple in his street. When Kazu tries to find out more, Kazu unwittingly ruffles a few feathers and some elders turn up at his house, trying to find out why he is doing this project. It looks like they are hiding a secret. Soon, a mysterious story from an old magazine turns up and before long, real events and fantasy and the mysterious story all start to merge together, while a mysterious lady with a black cat tries to stymie Kazu at every turn…

I loved ‘Temple Alley Summer‘. I read it in one breath. I know it is just the second book of the year, but I think it will end up as one of my favourites at the end of the year. The whole story is gripping and enchanting, the characters are charming, and the ending of the story is perfect. Sachiko Kashiwaba is one of the great writers of children’s literature from Japan, and after reading this book, we know why. This is the first Sachiko Kashiwaba book to be translated into English, I think. The next one, ‘The House of the Lost on the Cape’, is coming out in September. I can’t wait!

I always love discovering new Japanese food through Japanese stories. These were the two things I discovered through this book.

Manjū – “Manjū is a traditional Japanese confection. Of the many varieties of manjū, most have an outside made from flour, rice powder, kudzu, and buckwheat, and a filling of anko (red bean paste), usually made from boiled adzuki beans and sugar. Manjū is sometimes made with other fillings such as chestnut jam. In Hawaii, one can find Okinawan manjū that are made with a filling of purple sweet potato, butter, milk, sugar, and salt, but the most common filling is bean paste, of which the several varieties include koshian, tsubuan, and tsubushian.”

Takoyaki – “Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan. It is typically filled with minced or diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger (beni shoga), and green onion (negi). The balls are brushed with takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise, and then sprinkled with green laver (aonori) and shavings of dried bonito (katsuobushi)”.

They both sound delicious 😊 I want to try them one day.

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

“Listen, Kazu. Everyone says that humans are equal, but we don’t all get the same chances in life. You know that, don’t you? You’re a big boy in fifth grade. Some people are born healthy, and others are born with illnesses and disabilities. There are beautiful people who get adored by everyone, and people of fine character who never get any credit due to their looks. Some children get good grades without studying, while others study like crazy for nothing. Plenty of things in this world are not fair and equal, Kazu. But one thing is the same for everyone, Kazu. Not only on the surface, but through and through. It affects the smart people, the rich people—no matter what they do, they cannot get more of it than their due. Do you know what I’m referring to? Time, Kazu. Time is the same for everyone. Men, women, young people, old people—everyone. A day is a day. An hour is an hour. Time is the one thing applied impartially to all humans, and to every living creature.”

Have you read ‘Temple Alley Summer‘? What do you think about it?

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I like starting the new year sometimes with a fun read 😊 Last year, I started with the sapphic (lesbian) romance, ‘The Helion’s Waltz’ by Olivia Waite. This year I decided to start with ‘The Valiant Cricketer : The Biography of Trevor Bailey‘ by Alan Hill.

I love cricket biographies. But not those of modern cricketers. The biographies I love are of cricketers who had retired before I was born. I feel that this distance in time gives perspective, and it also gives a beautiful glow to their life and their career. Also, I feel that biographers write more eloquently about old times than about today. I’ve heard of Trevor Bailey as a highly-regarded commentator, and I have vaguely heard of him as a player. I thought of him as a defensive batsman who probably bowled offspin. I didn’t know much about him otherwise. So I was looking forward to finding out more about him, and reading about old anecdotes about him and fellow players of that time.

The first part of the book focuses on Trevor Bailey’s childhood and growing up and it is very informative and well-written. One of my favourite passages in that part goes like this –

“From his mother Trevor was bequeathed a lifelong love of literature. He was transported into other imaginative worlds. Muriel read to him from a very early age, not the usual childhood fare, but extracts from classic fiction, with Dickens as a favourite and colourful chronicler. Trevor was an enthralled listener and he developed an insatiable appetite for good books.”

How can we not fall in love with a sportsperson who loves books?  Trevor Bailey’s mom looks like my own mom. My mom used to tell me stories from Dickens and Shakespeare when I was a kid. P.G.Wodehouse and Lewis Carroll make guest appearances in this part of the book, and I loved that too.

I was right about Trevor Bailey on one thing, and wrong about him on another. He was a defensive batsman, one of the great stonewallers of his generation. But he was not an offspinner. He was a fastbowler. I was very surprised by that. He started off as a really sharp fastbowler, but as he was a genuine all-rounder and found handling both parts of his game together quite hard and physically demanding, he reduced his pace and focused on accuracy and variation and skills like swinging and seaming and bowling legcutters and offcutters. Sometimes he opened both the bowling and the batting, which is a very rare thing. I’ve known only Frank Worrell to do that.

Trevor Bailey batting
Trevor Bailey bowling

The second part of the book focuses on his career, including his international career. Many times, that part of the book digresses away from Trevor Bailey and talks more about the cricket history of those times. There is a chapter about Essex grounds and cricketers which was beautiful, but there is one person missing from that chapter, and that is Trevor Bailey 😊 There is another chapter which has quite a detailed account of Ian Botham’s exploits on the cricket field, and there is another about the BBC’s Test Match Special programme and the commentators who were a part of it. Trevor Bailey only makes a guest appearance in these chapters. I am not complaining and I loved those chapters and the digressions, but I thought potential readers should know about this. There is a chapter at the end of the book which talks about Trevor Bailey’s family, and it is one of the most charming chapters in the book. The book has a beautiful introduction by Trevor Bailey’s best friend and his captain at Essex, Doug Insole. The book also has beautiful photographs, which are a pleasure to look at.

Trevor with his wife Greta on their wedding day
The happy couple in retirement

Trevor Bailey, like many amateur cricketers of his time, was highly educated and he studied at Cambridge, and so his intelligence and knowledge can be seen in his analysis of the game during his playing days, when he helped his captains with tactics and strategy, and later when he led the team himself, and later during his time as a commentator. He was also one of the great all-rounders of the game in test cricket during his time, excelled probably only by the great Keith Miller from Australia and Vinoo Mankad from India. Since his retirement from test cricket more than 60 years back, his record as an international all-rounder has been matched or excelled only by three other English cricketers – Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Ben Stokes. His first class record as an all-rounder is up there with the best, and as a pure fast bowler, his first class record puts him up there with the all-time greats. It is sad that he is less known today, though he seems to have been feted during his playing days.

Trevor Bailey passed away in 2011 in a fire accident in his house. He was hale and hearty and healthy and had had lunch with his best friend Doug Insole just the previous day. It was heartbreaking. He was 87 at that time. If this tragic accident hadn’t happened, he would have been 99 today, on his way to a century in real life. Sadly, it was not to be.

I enjoyed reading Alan Hill’s biography of Trevor Bailey. It is a cricket biography written for the cricket fan, and so most of it focuses on cricket. But that last chapter about his family is very beautifully written. Trevor Bailey was famous for his commentary and the way he summed up the state of play in a particular match in a few words. I wish I had been able to listen to his commentary.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. It is about Trevor Bailey as seen through the eyes of his family and friends.

“Trevor was much happier with the old and familiar trappings of communication. He tended to be disorientated by modern technology. Muddled by the intricacies, he had to call upon the assistance of his grandson Luke to manipulate the television to bring up the sports channel. “He had three controls – we wrote them out for him – but he just couldn’t master them,” remembers Luke.”

“Justyn Bailey, the youngest son, subscribes to the expressed family view of his father as a duffer at household tasks. But he also believes that it was partly a generational attitude which meant that most of these duties devolved on his mother. There was, however, no mistaking the fallibility in even the most mundane of offices, as, for example, the repair of fuses. Doug Insole, in one choicely worded gibe, wrote that Trevor, after a futile attempt, was told to pour himself a gin and tonic and wait for the then eight-year-old Justyn to deal with it when he came home from school. Doug added: “Trevor seldom offers to assist because, being of a humble nature, he is very conscious of his ineptitude in such matters.”

“For such an intrepid cricketer, a fear of cut fingers might have deterred Trevor from undertaking domestic duties. Sharon recalls her father’s extreme squeamishness. “He hated the sight of blood, particularly his own. He once cut his hand opening a bottle of alcohol and was overcome by the flow of blood and immediately fainted at the sight.” The distress, very real for him, seems at odds with the batsman who suffered broken bones and faced the might of the world’s fastest bowlers.”

Have you read this biography by Trevor Bailey? Do you like reading biographies of cricketers or other sportspersons?

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I discovered ‘Out of Time : The Collected Stories of Samira Azzam‘ recently. I was very excited because this is the first time Samira Azzam’s stories are getting translated into English. This collection is published by Arablit Books.

Samira Azzam was born in 1927 in Palestine. When the Naqba happened in 1948 and Palestinians were thrown out of their homes and many of them became refugees abroad, she was 21. She worked as a journalist and wrote short stories. She died in 1967, just shy of her fortieth birthday, very young and many more years of life still ahead. It was heartbreaking. It was also the year when the next wave of violence was unleashed on Palestinians and many of them lost their homes.

This collection has 31 stories. Many of the stories are about simple people who are struggling to get through the day, and the joys and sorrows they experience, and how their social and economic situation tries to crush them and how sometimes they resist it with defiance. One of my favourite stories ‘No Harm Intended‘ is about a man who comes to a sweetshop everyday and tries samples but doesn’t buy anything. He can’t afford to buy anything and he knows it and the people working in the shop know it. How things unravel after that is told in the story. Another of my favourite stories ‘Lest the arteries harden‘ is about a old woman who visits the bar everyday at a particular time and the story behind that. ‘The Little Things‘ is about a young woman who doesn’t believe in love but suddenly find herself falling in love. ‘From Afar‘ is about a young man who has been cut off by his dad and who is struggling to pay his college fees, when his friend who has an unconventional job helps him out. It is one of the most beautiful stories in the book. ‘Her Story‘ is a moving letter that a sister writes to her brother. ‘The Ironing Man’s Apprentice‘ is about a boy who works with an ironing man and the small dreams he has. ‘The Bicycle Pump‘ is one of the most moving stories in the book. One of the main characters says in the end – “But isn’t it miserable that I can’t promise you I’ll stop this terrible behavior, unless I choose a life of hunger for myself and for my family?” We feel a deep pain in our heart when we read that. ‘When Wives Fall Ill‘ is structured like a play. ‘Night of Riddance‘ is about an old dog. It is a heartbreaking story and there is more to the story than meets the eye. ‘The Rival’ is about a washerwoman who has to compete against technology which makes her job obsolete. ‘Another Year‘, ‘Zagharid‘, ‘When Hajj Mohammed Sold Out His Hajj‘ are all about people who suffer because they’ve lost their homes or they’ve lost their families who are either dead or on the other side of the border where they can never go. ‘Zagharid‘ is about a mom’s sorrow at not being able to go to her son’s wedding, because she lives in Palestine and he lives outside and she’ll never be able to see him again. It is a story which makes us cry.

I loved ‘Out of Time‘. Many of the stories in the collection are poignant and heartbreaking. Some of them have happy endings. Some of them are fun reads. Ranya Abdelrahman’s translation is beautiful. The book has a beautiful essay by Adania Shibli in which she contemplates on the beauty and power of Samira Azzam’s stories.

The book also has a beautiful introduction which quotes what Samira Azzam said about the Arabic short story. It goes like this –

“It seems to me that the Arabic short story is going through difficult times. The reason might not lie in its nature, as much as it does in factors outside of it, including its subjugation to the novel. Writers of the short story have become convinced that writing a novel is the measure of their creativity, especially since short story collections are not heralded by critics the same way novels are : The publication of a story collection goes by without anyone even trying to say a single word about it… And publishing houses hesitate to accept story collections, as if publishing them is a risky venture.”

It is very fascinating, because this is very true today as it was then, and it is true, not just for Arabic short stories, but for short stories in any language. Writers use short stories as a stepping stone before they can publish their novel, publishers regard short stories as an inferior art form when compared to novels, novelists are rewarded with money and fame if they become successful, while short story writers struggle. Alice Munro said after she won the Nobel Prize that the short story is a beautiful art form and it is beautiful for its own sake, but no one is listening and nothing has changed. It is sad.

I felt sad after reading the book, because this is the only Samira Azzam book out there, this is all there is, and there’ll never be another new story by her. But I’m also glad I read it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from one of my favourite stories, ‘When Hajj Mohammed Sold Out His Hajj‘.

“People had become addicted to grief, and death seemed a logical, acceptable, and happy ending for everyone, no matter their age. The dead died once, and their deaths were certain and final; they knew why they had died, and they didn’t have to live wondering what they were living for, with their voices smothered by roaring tractors that sliced open the stolen land behind the barbed wire fence. The grief of the living was drenched in sunlight, and they had to grieve with their eyes wide open.”

Have you read Samira Azzam’sOut of Time‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered James Welch through a friend’s recommendation so decided to read his book, ‘Winter in the Blood‘.

Winter in the Blood‘ describes the life of a Native American man in a reservation, his work, his family, his joys and his sorrows, his kindness and cruelty, his family, his community and their history. It sometimes goes back and we discover his family secrets from the past, a past filled with some tragic events, and with a surprising revelation in the end. There is a beautiful horse character called Bird too. One of my favourite parts in the story is when the narrator’s grandmother tells the story of her past when she lived in a totally different era, when Native Americans lived in the traditional way like their ancestors lived across the centuries. Another of my favourite parts of the book is when the narrator goes to meet an old man and they have a fascinating conversation. I loved the parts in which the horse called Bird makes an appearance too.

This book has a beautiful introduction by Louise Erdrich. In her introduction Louise Erdrich says this –

“What astounded me after a while was that something so familiar could be made into literature. Welch had done something nobody else had – written about Indians without once getting pious, uplifting, or making you feel sorry for The Plight. That is why, finally, I love this book so much. Welch took all the chances in the world with it. He told it right out.”

I loved that.

James Welch was one of the first Native American novelists, I think. ‘Winter in the Blood’ is his first novel. I enjoyed reading it. I am ashamed to say that I’ve never read a Native American writer before. And so I’m glad I’ve finally got started now by reading this classic. Hoping to read more.

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

Young Man : “You’re a good housekeeper, old man.”

Old Man : “I have many years’ practice. It’s easier to keep it sparse than to feel the sorrows of possessions.”

Young Man : “Possessions can be sorrowful.”

Old Man : “Only when they are not needed.”

Young Man : “Or when they are needed – when they are needed and a man doesn’t have them.”

“I don’t know how they figure it, old horse, but one year to me is worth four or five to you. That makes you over a hundred years, older than that old lady, and you’re not only living, but carrying out your duties just like they trained you…Now, old machine, I absolve you of your burden. You think I haven’t noticed it. You don’t show it. But that is the fault of your face: Your face was molded when you were born and hasn’t changed in a hundred years. Your ears seem smaller now, but that is because your face has grown. You figure you have hidden this burden well. You have. But don’t think I haven’t seen it in your eyes those days when the clouds hide the sun and the cattle turn their asses to the wind. Those days your eyes tell me what you feel. It is the fault of the men who trained you to be a machine, to react to the pressure of a rein on your neck, spurs in your ribs, the sound of a voice. A cow horse. You weren’t born that way; you were born to eat grass and drink slough water, to nip other horses in the flanks the way you do lagging bulls, to mount the mares. So they cut your balls off to make you less temperamental, though I think they failed at that…”

“You must understand how people think in desperate times. When their bellies are full, they can afford to be happy and generous with each other – the meat is shared, the women work and gossip, men gamble – it’s a good time and you do not see things clearly. There is no need. But when the pot is empty and your guts are tight in your belly, you begin to look around. The hunger sharpens your eye.”

Have you read ‘Winter in the Blood‘ or other books by James Welch?

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I unearthed this gem recently when I discovered a box filled with books at home. There used to be a beautiful event called ‘Dickens In December‘ hosted by Delia (from ‘Postcards from Asia’) and Caroline (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) and  I loved participating in that. I thought I’ll do my bit to revive that and so picked this biography and read it.

Charles Dickens : A Life‘ is a 400-page biography of Charles Dickens. It describes how Dickens was born in a poor family, how he had to even work in a boot polish factory when he was a kid, how he rose up from those depths, became a journalist, and then became a novelist, and then a literary legend. By the time he was done, he was one of the greatest writers of the 19th century (Tolstoy called him ‘THE’ greatest writer of the 19th century – warm praise from one master to another), an amazing achievement by someone who didn’t even finish school.

Dickens was a complex person. On one side he was generous to people, particularly his friends and relatives, (and sometimes even strangers, especially poor women who were suffering because they were harassed by the law – the book starts with this anecdote which was very beautiful and inspiring), and helped them and their families when they were in financial trouble. His dad used to frequently get into debt and Dickens repeatedly bailed him out. This pattern got repeated when his brothers got into debt, and later his sons got into debt. He helped them all. If a friend died, he raised money for the friend’s wife and kids, and ensured that they lived a respectable life and didn’t slip into poverty. He loved inviting friends over, he cracked jokes and entertained them and made them laugh and sometimes even staged amateur plays for them. He enjoyed taking long walks with some of his friends and he continued this till the end of his life. He championed social causes and wrote about the plight of the poor in the paper and the magazines that he worked for or which he managed himself.

In my opinion though, the greatest thing he did was that he got the help of a rich sponsor and started a home for women who were sex workers, who wanted to leave their profession and live a normal life. This home offered them training in some skills, quiet time to recover, then advice and help in finding new jobs or migrating abroad. Many of the women who came to this home, went on to live happy, fulfilling lives. Dickens didn’t talk about this, and kept quiet about it. There is a whole book about this called ‘Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women‘ by Jenny Hartley. I want to read that sometime.

But there was also another side to Dickens. Dickens was also a controversial person in some ways. He fought with his publishers who had backed him, threatened to break contracts with them, if they didn’t offer more money, and negotiated his way to a more remunerative contract. He broke up with his friends if they didn’t side with him sometimes. But the biggest thing was what happened when he was around 45. He met a young woman, fell in love with her, and then broke up with his wife, trashed his wife in public, writing bad things about her in the paper. When some of his friends and relatives disagreed with him, he broke up with them. He behaved like an irresponsible prima donna. It affected his physical and mental health and he suffered many ailments, he suddenly aged too fast, and by the time he was 58 he was dead. During that stormy decade, he also wrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and one of his finest novels, ‘Great Expectations‘.

It is sad that when Dickens dumped his wife, most of his kids sided with him. The way it typically happens in families when kids side with the stronger parent who has more money and resources, when the gentler parent might be the one who was wronged. Even his wife’s sister Georgina, sided with him. Only his son Charley, in an act of defiance, sided with his mom and went to live with her. Dickens’ wife Catherine comes through as a saint, as she kept a dignified silence, while Dickens raged against her like a madman, in public, in the press, and in his correspondence with his friends. Catherine kept her dignified silence till the end. One of Dickens’ daughters, Katey, finally broke the silence many years after both her parents had passed, and said that she was ashamed that she didn’t support her mom enough and she wanted to do justice to her mom. Her revelations were published as a book called ‘Dickens and Daughter’ which created controversy when it came out and it was trashed by Dickens’ fans.

This book talks about all of this, the good and the bad. Claire Tomalin has done a wonderful job in presenting both the sides and showing us the complexity of Dickens’ personality.

This book is also a great introduction to Dickens’ work. The parts which focus on them are beautiful to read. In my opinion, Dickens’ finest novels, the must-reads, are The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Bleak House. If I can add one more, it might be A Tale of Two Cities, but I feel that this is probably a notch below the other five. I feel that Tomalin’s book confirmed what I thought, though it also raves about Dickens’ other work. I’m intrigued especially by The Old Curiosity Shop. I want to add that to my list and see how it is.

One of my favourite parts of the book was Dickens’ meetings with other great writers of that era, especially those from other countries, like Hans Christian Andersen and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s account of their meeting is fascinating. It goes like this –

“In 1862 the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, an admirer of Dickens’s work – he had read Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison – visited him at Wellington Street. Years later he wrote in a letter to a friend a remarkable account of what Dickens said in the course of their conversation about writing. Dostoevsky introduced Dickens’s words with his own :

“The person he (the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine…in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me : one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from that he disapproved of and yet could not control.”

One of the sad things I discovered at the end of the book was that many of Dickens’ children didn’t do well. One of his sons was a successful lawyer and he lived a distinguished life, but nearly every other son of his got into debt and died penniless. His daughters seemed to have fared better. It will be interesting to find out whether any of his descendants are alive today.

This book I read is also a beautifully produced edition and it has photographs and portraits of people and sketches of places and buildings which bring that era alive.

I loved Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens. It is beautifully researched and beautifully written. She has written many other wonderful biographies, and I want to read some of them, especially the ones on Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen.

Have you read this book or other biographies written by Claire Tomalin? Do you love Dickens’ novels? Which ones are your favourites?

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I’ve wanted to read D.H.Lawrence for a long time. But before getting into one of his novels, I thought I’ll dip into his shorter works. I have a huge book which has all his short novels, or rather novellas. So I read that in the last few days.

There are seven novellas in the collection. They range from 30 pages to around 110 pages, while many of them are around 50 pages long. Many of them have suggestive titles, like ‘The Captain’s Doll‘, ‘The Fox‘, ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy‘, ‘The Escaped Cock‘. But when we read them we can almost hear Lawrence laughing at us and saying, “What did you think? I’m a nice person. I write nice stories with nice characters. What, you thought that all these stories are going to be wild?” 😆 For example, ‘The Captain’s Doll‘ is about a doll that a woman makes, which looks like her lover, the captain. ‘The Fox‘ is about an actual fox while visits the farm in the night to catch some chickens. ‘The Escaped Cock‘ is about the bird which escapes from the farm.

The surprises don’t end there. I was expecting the prose to be old-fashioned and hard to read – after all Lawrence wrote his stories nearly a hundred years back. But the prose look very modern, the themes are very contemporary, it feels like the stories have been written today. Most of the stories are about love and desire. Sometimes the ending of a story is frustrating, at other times it is surprising. There is atleast one incredibly beautiful passage in every story. Typically there are more. In most stories, the main character is a strong woman who typically defies convention and breaks the rules. I liked all the stories in the book, some more than others. ‘The Ladybird‘, ‘St Mawr‘, and ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy‘ had the best endings. ‘The Escaped Cock‘ is very surprising in the way it uses the story of the escaped bird as a metaphor, to describe Lawrence’s own version of the Resurrection legend. The first part of that story is brilliant and is one of the finest pieces of writing in the book. ‘The Ladybird‘ has one of my favourite passages from the book. I read the first one-third of ‘St Mawr‘, plodded through it really, and nearly gave up. Then I started speed-reading it, and at some point, was browsing through pages to find out what was happening. It was the longest story in the book at around 110 pages, and though it started well, it was hard to read. But Lawrence shifts gears in the second half of the book and it becomes wonderful and the ending is brilliant. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the second half, I was not in the mood to read it, and so zipped through it. But I’m glad I discovered that the story improved and became much better. I’m hoping to give some space for a few days and then read the second part of the story slowly and savour it.

I loved reading Lawrence’s novellas. I was surprised by my reaction, because I wasn’t expecting to like them so much. But it is safe to say now that Lawrence has hit it out of the park.

Lawrence started his career as a schoolteacher and started writing full-time when he was twenty-eight. He died when he was forty-five. In that short life, he shone brilliantly like a star, defied the censors and the literary establishment and the moral police of his era, and sculpted beautiful stories like these. His reputation today rests on his most famous and controversial novel, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘. But he was not a one-trick pony. As can be seen from these fascinating novellas.

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

From ‘The Captain’s Doll

She : “But do you never count, then?”

He : “Well – very rarely. I count very rarely. That’s how life appears to me. One matters so very little.”

She : “But if you matter so very little, what do you do anything at all for?”

He : “Oh, one has to. And then, why not? Why not do things, even if oneself hardly matters. Look at the moon. It doesn’t matter in the least to the moon whether I exist or whether I don’t. So why should it matter to me?”

She : “I could die with laughter. It seems to me all so ridiculous – no, I can’t believe it.”

He : “Perhaps it is a point of view.”

From ‘The Fox

“It’s no good walking out into the forest and saying to the deer: “Please fall to my gun.” No, it is a slow, subtle battle. When you really go out to get a deer, you gather yourself together, you coil yourself inside yourself, and you advance  secretly, before dawn, into the mountains. It is not so much what you do, when you go out hunting, as how you feel. You have to be subtle and cunning and absolutely fatally ready. It becomes like a fate. Your own fate overtakes and determines the fate of the deer you are hunting. First of all, even before you come in sight of your quarry, there is a strange battle, like mesmerism. Your own soul, as a hunter, has gone out to fasten on the soul of the deer, even before you see any deer. And the soul of the deer fights to escape. Even before the deer has any wind of you, it is so. It is a subtle, profound battle of wills which takes place in the invisible. And it is a battle never finished till your bullet goes home. When you are really worked up to the true pitch, and you come at last into range, you don’t then aim as you do when you are firing at a bottle. It is your own will which carries the bullet into the heart of your quarry. The bullet’s flight home is a sheer projection of your own fate into the fate of the deer. It happens like a supreme wish, a supreme act of volition, not as a dodge of cleverness.”

From ‘The Ladybird

“Take actual fire…This is what I was taught. The true fire is invisible. Flame, and the red fire we see burning, has its back to us. It is running away from us…the yellowness of sunshine – light itself – that is only the glancing aside of the real original fire. You know that is true. There would be no light if there was no refraction, no bits of dust and stuff to turn the dark fire into visibility. You know that’s a fact. And that being so, even the sun is dark. It is only his jacket of dust that makes him visible. You know that too. And the true sunbeams coming towards us flow darkly, a moving darkness of the genuine fire. The sun is dark, the sunshine flowing to us is dark. And light is only the inside-out of it all, the living, and the yellow beams are only the turning away of the sun’s directness that was coming to us…we’ve got the world inside out. The true living world of fire is dark throbbing, darker than blood. Our luminous world that we go by is only the white lining of this.”

From ‘The Escaped Cock

“The man who had died looked nakedly on life, and saw a vast resoluteness everywhere flinging itself up in stormy or subtle wave-crests, foam-tips emerging out of the blue invisible, a black and orange cock, or the green flame-tongues out of the extremes of the fig tree. They came forth, these things and creatures of spring, glowing with desire and with assertion. They came like crests of foam, out of the blue flood of the invisible desire, out of the vast invisible sea of strength, and they came coloured and tangible, evanescent, yet deathless in their coming. The man who had died looked on the great swing into existence of things that had not died, but he saw no longer their tremulous desire to exist and to be. He heard instead their ringing, ringing, defiant challenge to all other things existing.”

Have you read Lawrence’s novellas? Which ones are your favourites?

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