Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Four Weird Tales”

This is a collection of short stories by Algernon Blackwood; my first time reading this author, known for his works in the fantasy, horror and weird fiction genres. My two favourites of this collection were The Insanity of Jones (A Study in Reincarnation) and The Man Who Found Out (A Nightmare).

The Insanity of Jones is the story of John Enderby Jones, and the two facets of his life and mind. On the one hand is Jones, the hard-working clerk at an insurance office, whose greatest achievement was being promoted to private secretary to the General Manager; and on the other hand is Jones, the man who can recollect his previous lives and who can communicate with the dead! This tale started off with two realities - one a metaphorical interpretation of the other (haven’t we all had bad dreams where the Manager is a dark and sinister man that we need to watch out for!) - but where the story really grabbed me was when Jones met the man in the restaurant and the lines between reality and fantasy really started blurring. The resultant relationship between Thorpe and Jones and the latter’s actions based on his “past dealings with the Manager” formed a fascinating read.

The Man Who Found Out is about Professor Mark Ebor, a scientist by day and ‘Pilgrim’ by night, the anonymous author of “sanguine, optimistic, stimulating little books” that help people bear the burdens of life. Ebor’s belief in the existence of the “Tablets of the Gods”, his trip to Assyria and his discovery of the Tablets form part of this very intriguing story. The other part deals with the handing over of the knowledge brought forth by this discovery to his assistant Dr. Laidlaw - and the maddening consequences thereof. This story reminded me of the movie “pi” where the search for the ultimate answers ended in helpless self-annihilation.

I also really liked the sheer poetry of The Glamour of the Snow. Although the ending did not come as a surprise, it was nevertheless a beautifully written story, each sequence on the slopes of the Valais Alps absolute poetry in motion, as Hibbert finds ultimate freedom and intimate love with a woman who forever remains a mystery.

For me the weakest story was Sand, the story of Felix Henriot and his sacred contact with the sand and the deserts of Egypt. I felt that the story seemed to drag at times, and some of its truly awe-inspiring moments were buried in a somewhat tedious tale.

There is a recurring theme of the call of the unknown that runs through all four stories - stories that are about the supernatural and the mystical - and I liked that. Overall, I liked the stories and will definitely be reading more works by this author.

“Adventures come to the adventurous, and mysterious things fall in the way of those who, with wonder and imagination, are on the watch for them; but the majority of people go past the doors that are half ajar, thinking them closed, and fail to notice the faint stirrings of the great curtain that hangs ever in the form of appearances between them and the world of causes behind.” These stories were first published in the years 1907 to 1912… fascinating words that reverberate across a hundred years!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Yukoku” (Patriotism)

I read Yukio Mishima’s Yukoku (translated by Geoffrey W. Sargent) as part of the collection “Manatsu no Shi” (Death in Midsummer) and other stories. One of my earliest blogs was Mishima’s “Kinkaku-ji” (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and, of the Japanese writers whose creations I have read so far, Mishima continues to be one of my favourites.

Yukoku, roughly translated to mean Patriotism, is the story of Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his wife Reiko, and their ritualistic suicide following the Ni-niroku jiken, or the 2-2-6 (February 26) incident: the attempted coup d’état in Japan, from February 26 to 29, 1936 carried out by 1,483 troops of the Imperial Japanese Army. Spanning three days, this is the story of a couple - their love, their life, and their gory death by seppuku. Unable to choose between his duty to the Emperor and his loyalty to his comrades, whom he has been commanded to attack for their act of mutiny, Lieutenant Takeyama decides to choose a third option, and his wife expresses her wish to follow him.

I really liked the entire collection of short stories (my favourites included Death in Midsummer, The Seven Bridges, Dojoji and Onnagata) and while I might talk in greater length about one of those in some later blog, the reason I picked Yukoku first is because it was a brutal push into a whole new world of literature I had not experienced before. As I have come to recognise now, Japanese literature has a way of being violently honest and shockingly brutal - yet, inherent in that attitude is a philosophy that seeks, not to shock or titillate, but to be accepting and inclusive.

That fact, and the brilliant coming together of such stark opposites as the couple’s intense sexual passion for each other and the highly descriptive seppuku - simultaneously poetic and violent - are what made Yukoku such a fascinating read.

I had actually read this collection quite some time back, since which time I have read a fair number of Japanese books (the more well-known ones anyway). Today my mind has learnt to accept a lot more, but when I picked up this collection, I was just about getting into the scene… the honesty and the open-mindedness that I have now come to recognize as a natural component of their writing was truly an eye-opening experience, and for that reason, this story will always hold a special place in my heart.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”

I have seen one of the two film adaptations of this short story by Philip K. Dick. I liked 1990’s Total Recall a lot, however, barring the starting ideas of the protagonist’s desire to go to Mars, his botched procedure at Rekall (Rekal) - the company specializing in vacation memory implants, and police officers out to kill him, the two stories follow completely different paths.

The very long title of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is the very short story of Douglas Quail, an ordinary clerk, and the curious events that unfold once he decides to follow up on a long-held desire to go to Mars. Without giving anything away, I will say that the best feature of this story was the fact that the two most fantastic desires that Quail had, proved to be true! Moving quickly from dream to reality, from fantasy to fact, this power-packed story made for a very interesting read.

I wonder, though, when all is said and done, were Quail’s two alternate memories recalled or ‘rekal-ed’? And if he were to go back a third or a fourth time, would more secrets emerge? The imagination flies!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Life of Pi”

Starting in India, the country of my birth, ending in Canada, the country of my life, and with a final wrap-up by Japan, the country of my dreams, this adventure novel by Yann Martel is one of the better examples of rich and creative writings that I have come across!

Life of Pi is the story of Piscine Molitor (Pi) Patel, a South Indian boy and his 227-day saga of survival while stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In exactly 100 chapters, the story - divided into three parts, “Toronto and Pondicherry”, “The Pacific Ocean” and “Benito Juárez Infirmary, Tomatlán, Mexico” - deals with the three themes of Pi’s discovery of religion, his experiences with zoo life, and of course the story of his survival.

Owing to the fact that I am not at all religious, my least favourite part was the unfolding of Pi’s experiences with different religions. That said, the writing was so captivating, I kept reading anyway, and actually discovered some interesting ideas, such as, “It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsamane… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

Again, in the section describing his childhood years at the family zoo, I got a whole new approach to the concept of animal life in a zoo. Like most people I guess, I sometimes pity zoo animals, and their captive lives in tiny jails; yet as Pi points out, “Animals in the wild lead lives of hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food is low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, now in their personal relations… In the wild, animals stick to the same paths for the same pressing reasons, season after season”.

The main reason I found this book so absorbing and memorable was its powerful storytelling; a tale - fantastic enough to begin with - is narrated in such a rich manner, it was sheer joy reading this book. The descriptions were so vivid, the imagery so powerful! That wonderful reading experience started at the zoo - a notable incident being when Pi’s father teaches his sons a lesson about how dangerous the animals could be… after going through the cages of the more ferocious animals, when they finally reached the guinea pigs, I realized I had been holding my breath!

That fantastic imagery is of course best showcased during the narrative of Pi’s days and months on the lifeboat. From the first time he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with three animals, to the horrific sequence of events between the hyena and the zebra, to the first time he discovers he is with a tiger, to their experiences at a carnivorous island… the imagery is so very powerful. Pi describes the sea as a city, complete with “highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine traffic. In water that was dense, glassy and flecked by millions of lit-up specks of plankton, fish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians were madly racing about, no doubt honking and hollering at each other.” So picturesque!

The other feature I found absolutely fascinating was how human as well as animal nature evolved - or devolved - when it was thrown into a seemingly helpless situation. In the grotesque events that pitted the hyena against the zebra, the tiger against the mako shark, we saw the desperate levels to which an animal will go to, when survival is all that matters. What was more horrific was when we saw man’s descent to those same levels. A very religious, strictly vegetarian South Indian boy was not above eating everything from the liquid in a turtle’s vein to a tiger’s faeces to even another human, just to stay alive, that most basic of all human instincts.

On the other hand, this same fight for survival also led to the amazing relationship between the boy and the tiger - and how it shifted from one of fear and power, to that between a master and his servant, to one of mutual understanding where they finally began to understand each other’s presence, and the sounds and movements they made.

In an interesting take on events, the third part of the novel features the conversation between Pi and two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport who are trying to ascertain why the ship sank. Pi’s alternate survival story ends with a question (thrown just as much to the reader, I think) as to which of the two stories they preferred… To all of you who ask, ‘is Life of Pi a true story?’ I will quote Pi’s answer to Tomohiro Okamoto: “The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Rendezvous with Rama”

The tragic meteor impact of 2077… gigantic cameras, probes and satellites launched into orbit… that momentous event of 2131 when an asteroid 40 kilometres across and a day lasting four minutes came hurtling towards the sun… humankind’s first ever contact with an alien civilization - and all in the first 20 pages! This is the reason I call Arthur C. Clarke the pioneer of science fiction, and consider him one of my all-time favourites.

Rendezvous with Rama is the story of survey ship Endeavour and its mission to gather as much information as possible in this first extra terrestrial contact before Rama touches perihelion and starts on its way back.

The best thing I liked about this book - which in fact is the best thing I like about Arthur C. Clarke - is that I was immediately taken to a world way into the future without any slow or pointless preamble! And that started with the very title of the book - having gone through Greek and Roman legends to name newly discovered objects in Space, scientists in this future date have now turned to Hindu mythology (Rama being the name of the main protagonist of the epic Ramayana). And right away the tone is set - yes, in the future, scientists would have run out of the names that are common today!

The story starts with people of different planets sitting in conference, discussing an asteroid that came from a million light years away. As we follow Commander Bill Norton and his team into the heart of Rama, we quite literally leave our present day Earth behind. This is the world where monkeys, the ‘superchimps’, do chores as housekeeping, elementary cooking, tool carrying and dozens of routine jobs, so that humans can be free to do human work (as all progress should really aim for). This is the world where a ballpoint pen is a prized possession of a few collectors. This is the world where Mercury, which by the way has cities like Inferno and Port Lucifer, is an inhabited planet. This is the world where religions like ‘Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut’ exist, the main tenet of which is that Jesus Christ was a visitor from space.

Clarke takes us out of our comfort zone to enter a totally alien world. When Commander Norton is at Rama’s central axis: a hollow cylinder of indefinite length, he tries to assign words like crater, wall and sky to his surroundings, but immediately forces the ‘false impression’ out of his head with the realization that “he must discard the instincts both of earth and of space, and re-orientate himself to a new system of coordinates.” In the face of proof that life exists outside our solar system, that’s exactly what we also must do. I have to say; there were moments when, like the space travellers, I also experienced a disturbing sense of vertigo. When you are in endless - literally endless - space, with no colours of blue sky to denote ‘above’ or green grass to denote ‘below’, and not even the pull of gravity to tell your brain that that is ‘down’, so the opposite is ‘up’, what a sense of disorientation that would lead to. To the writer’s credit, this is exactly how I envision outer space and alien worlds to be - I do not expect them to follow Earth’s laws of physics. Even in the one scene where Rama seems to be following Earth’s creation, and moves from the ice age, to water and oxygen formation, to the making of planktons… it all takes mere hours and days - not 375 million years!

Jimmy Pak’s flight on his low gravity skybike, to the southern end of Rama, takes the story to an exciting new phase - from an endless world of ‘cities’ with ‘buildings’ and ‘streets’ (significantly built in threes) and a sea, to a weird world with cones emitting strange magnetic fields, crab-like robots and even alien flora!

What really took the story to a whole new level for me was the fact that in every step of the adventure there is such a sense of waiting… but for what, we don’t know! As the Endeavour team walks along the endless stairways and plains of Rama, the one thing they are all subdued by is the almost palpable silence. “Every footstep, every word, vanished instantly into the unreverberant void”. But there is also the constant sense that something is coming - a sense that is heightened with the intensified race against time as Rama’s outer hull changes from 270 degrees below, to molten lead as it races towards the sun.

Books like this are the reason why Science Fiction is my favourite genre. Anything can and does happen! And that is what should be at the core of all creative processes. It should not be bound by any possibilities or probabilities. There should be a constant sense of wonder and discovery and innovation!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Pickwick Papers”

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club is the first novel by Charles Dickens. Led by Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, the ‘founder and perpetual president’ of the Pickwick Club, it is the story of the adventures of the founder and three other “Pickwickians” - Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, Mr. Augustus Snodgrass and Mr. Tracy Tupman - as they journey from London to remote places and report back to the other members of the club.

That theme automatically makes for an interesting story of course, but for me, the most fascinating feature of this book was the brilliant level of writing, interwoven as it was, with sparkling wit and humour! And as I was reading this book, I realized, this is the kind of work that great eras in literature are defined by.

Let me try and pick one example to illustrate the brilliance of this book -
“There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress or meets with so little charitable commiseration as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness and a peculiar degree of judgement are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head - smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.”

Even the chapter headings make for fantastic reading! -
Chapter 7. How Mr. Winkle, instead of shooting at the pigeon and killing the crow, shot at the crow and wounded the pigeon; how the Dingley Dell cricket club played All-Muggleton; and how All-Muggleton dined at the Dingley Dell expense - with other interesting and instructive matters.
Chapter 45. Descriptive of an affecting interview between Mr. Samuel Weller and a family party. Mr. Pickwick makes a tour of the diminutive world he inhabits, and resolves to mix with it, in future, as little as possible.

I also really liked the characters; they come so brilliantly alive on the pages! And I don’t feel a special bond because “I have met people like that and therefore can identify with them” - as is usually the case with some of the better examples of character sketches in stories - but just because they are so very well drawn out! Other than the main characters of Winkle, the sportsman, Snodgrass, the poet, and Tupman, the self-confessed romantic lover, I was truly impressed by the memorable Alfred Jingle - part actor, part embezzler, who adds a whole new level of story-telling to this story with his endless and extravagant anecdotes! Absolutely fantastic!

This was the second time I read this book - the last time I had read it from start to finish; this time I read selective chapters, just slowly letting the brilliance of Charles Dickens’ writing sink in. This is the kind of book I would recommend you own; so that you could - every so often - read one chapter / one adventure per sitting, and just bask in the warmth of the wit and wisdom of one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Not After Midnight”

Not After Midnight is a collection of five stories by Daphne du Maurier. One of her more famous works is the novel ‘Rebecca’, the film version of which I have watched and liked immensely. Based on that, I had some idea of what to expect from this book: seemingly simple events with a constant underlying presence of something strangely indefinable.

I liked “Don’t Look Now”, the story of John and Laura Baxter in Venice, trying to deal with their daughter’s death. Their chance meeting with a couple of old psychic ladies, and the mysterious little girl in a short coat over her skirt, a pixie hood covering her head, forms the basis of this story. The ‘surprise’ ending however, only partially surprised me.

Similarly, even though I figured out the major twist right at the beginning, I still found “A Border Line Case” very interesting. Following her father’s death, actress Shelagh Money decides to meet with his estranged friend Commander Nick Barry. The meeting offers her - as well as the reader - a fresh perspective on life, while challenging standard categorizations of right and wrong, normal and psychotic.

I really liked the idea of “The Breakthrough” a lot. Stephen Saunders moves to Saxmere to assist James MacLean in what starts off as a normal engineering project, but turns out to be a futuristic experiment of creating energy by trapping the life force at the moment of death. The idea however was not explored enough and the story ended too abruptly.

For me the weakest story was “Not After Midnight”, the tale of schoolmaster Timothy Grey on a vacation in Crete, living in chalet 62, and his encounters with Mr. and Mrs. Stoll of chalet 38, whom he is most welcome to visit any time up to midnight. The story confused me a little and did not have a good enough payoff for its lengthy build-up.

My favourite story was “The Way of the Cross”, the story of seven parishioners on an excursion to Jerusalem. When young Robin suggests a walk to the Garden of Gethsemane to recreate a 2000-year old story, it sets off a series of events that changes their lives forever. They are all going through life, safe in their familiar beliefs, yet through bits of overheard conversations and bizarre accidents, each and every member is forced to rethink life-long beliefs. “Perhaps the soldiers didn’t actually mock Jesus at all. It was just a game, which they let him join in. He might even have thrown dice with them. The crown and the purple robe were just dressing-up. It was the Romans’ idea of fun. I don’t believe when a prisoner is condemned to death the people guarding him are beastly.” What a revolutionary thought! Although set against a religious backdrop, the point of the story was not a religious one; it was about seeing an accepted belief in a new light. Was the relationship of Lady Althea and her husband Colonel Mason as perfect as it seemed? Was Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s honeymoon a sign of things to come? Was Miss Dean really the vicar’s beloved?… For the first time, questions are raised. What is also said is, when your belief structure breaks down, where do you - if at all - find the strength to carry on?

Overall, I liked this collection; it may not have been the best thing I have ever read, but it did have quite a lot of interesting ideas presented well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Rasen” (Spiral)

Spiral is the second book in Koji Suzuki’s ‘Ring’ trilogy. Starting a day after the events of the first book, it is a seamless continuation of the story.

Mirroring the duo of Kazuyuki Asakawa and Ryuji Takayama who were the lead investigators in the first book, we now have Ando Mitsuo and his colleague Miyashita following up on the story of the deadly Ring virus. Mitsuo, who is assigned to do the autopsy of Ryuji Takayama, discovers a secret code on a bit of newspaper sticking out of the sutures of the corpse’s stomach. Mitsuo’s uncovering the message from beyond the grave launches a heady story full of mystery, terror and shocking revelations!

At this point, I realize that it is actually very difficult to go into the story much, without giving away essential plot points and twists in the tale! Suffice to say that things - as they were wrapped up in Ring - are not what they seem at all! Yes, it is a continuation of the same theme, involving the Ring virus; yes, we visit a lot of the same places, most notably the well where Sadako died; and yes, some familiar faces return, most notably Mai Takano… but it was mind blowing how everything is either shown in a whole new light, or completely overthrown in favour of a whole new explanation.

When we last saw Kazuyuki Asakawa, he was driving down with his wife and child, having decided to give the deadly tape to his in-laws - what really happened after that? How had the Ring virus really affected Ryuji? And how does that affect the one person closest to him, Mai Takano? How is the beautiful Masako involved in this sordid tale? Why is Junichiro Asakawa publishing his brother Kazuyuki’s report as his own horror novel? And what does ‘spiral’ refer to?…

A small flashback story about young Ando’s encounter with a baby snake that he had killed on his way back from school one day, which created a deep impression on his mind, serves as a significant omen of events and their shocking climax.

So many fantastic new things happen; so many new discoveries are made as the story moves quickly and effortlessly forward. In tone, there is a slight difference as the story - in addition to the supernatural aspect of its predecessor - adds some intense scientific explanation of the Ring virus. For me, that made the elements of the story a little more plausible, and thereby a little more frightening.

By the way, I thought the subliminal touch of the mention of Ring as a best-selling book and on its way to be made into a popular movie was interesting, albeit a little scary with its “what if –” moment!

I absolutely loved this book, and cannot wait to read the concluding Rupu (Loop)!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Of Human Bondage”

A novel by W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage is generally considered to be his masterpiece. While I have also read and greatly enjoyed Cakes and Ale, reading this book was a very moving experience with many emotional touch points that I will remember for a long time to come.

Strongly autobiographical in nature, the story follows the chief protagonist Philip Carey starting from the age of nine, and takes us through an entire life’s worth of experiences from home to school to work to relationships to some inevitable goodbyes.

First of all, I love a story set in early 1900s England! - especially when it is this well written, where it takes you right out of whatever dull world you are in, and slowly sets you down in a big old armchair beside a wooden desk with an antique mirror, surrounded by old and musty bound books, and across from the fireplace where your boots have been kept for warming, as you get to meet amazing characters and hear their fantastic tales!

For me, the greatest feature of this novel was the myriad of deep topics it dealt with and the great thought processes they ignited. “The new-born child does not realize that his body is more a part of himself than surrounding objects, and will play with his toes without any feeling that they belong to him more than the rattle by his side; and it is only by degrees, through pain, that he understands the fact of the body.” “If you keep His laws I don’t think He can care a packet of pins whether you believe in Him or not.” “The only reason that one paints is that one can’t help it… One paints for oneself otherwise one would commit suicide.” “Before I do anything I feel that I have choice, and that influences what I do; but afterwards, when the thing is done, I believe that it was inevitable from all eternity.” “Life had no meaning… Man, no more significant than other forms of life, had come not as the climax of creation but as a physical reaction to the environment… Life was insignificant and death without consequence… Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing.”

These were some of the more memorable ideas that burst into my mind and startled me into deep thought. Perhaps the most impressionable one was when Philip discovered the joys of reading and, “Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of everyday a source of bitter disappointment.”

I also loved the fact that as we go through Philip’s life and experiences we meet such a wealth of characters and see such perfectly drawn character sketches. Character sketches are done, not based on tedious adjectives, but rather just hints at common practises. Just to take the example of the Vicar’s household, when the vicar catches a cold, the fire is lit - but not when Mrs. Carey falls sick; the vicar gets an egg at breakfast, and gives just the top bit to the hungry Philip who would “rather have a whole egg to himself”; “due to economy” the vicar goes on holidays alone, his wife does not accompany him.

Not only was each character very unique, they also came to life in a most amazing way… I felt I have known a Cronshaw, I felt I have met a Mildred, and I felt I have had a family of Athelnys in the neighbourhood… But above all, eerily, I feel that in many ways I am a Philip, whose every behaviour and action was, till the end, a violent emotional reaction to the way he was treated. From wanting to be ordained to not believing in God, from being friends with the languid Hayward to being friends with the sensible Weeks, from Germany to Oxford, from London to Paris and back to London… with the heart of an artist, the brain of a doctor, and the insecure job of a shop walker, Philip’s life was a saga of endless emotional upheaval, one given evenly to disappointments and discoveries.

Perhaps most disturbing was his relationship with women - disturbing for the bizarre base they were built upon. And this was the one point of this novel that I could not fully enjoy or even understand. From Miss Wilkinson to Miss Price, from Mildred to Norah, Philip was always in a relationship with women he confessed were too ugly to even consider a relationship with. What I also found disconcerting - and this might just be a reflection of the times - was the fact that almost all the women seemed to be rather weak. Philip treated them deplorably yet they continued to throw themselves at him, with one even committing suicide. Philip’s on-again / off-again relation with Mildred - whose name, face and common station in life he openly looked down upon - took up a large portion of this story, and occasionally left me questioning, even annoyed! Perhaps, Philip’s club foot, which made him a misfit everywhere in life, dictated all his relationships as well.

When I turned the last page of the book, there was such a feeling of having witnessed - and lived - an entire life; from early childhood and foster parents, to the first school and a first best friend, from a first love to a first break-up, from a first job to a first visit to Paris… with the culmination in a marriage proposal, I came to the end of a wonderful journey, one that started so long ago with waking up a sleepy 9-year old boy and dragging him out of bed so his dying mother could hug him properly one last time.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Thakurda” (Grandfather)

Thakurda is a short story by Rabindranath Tagore (translated by William Radice). I have reviewed a short story by Tagore previously on this blog, so I will not repeat that unmatched resume that is Tagore’s alone! But I will once again say how much in awe I am of Tagore’s poetic genius, which lifts simple, everyday events into a realm of literary brilliance; and how much I am amazed by the creative heart that places the strength of human dignity above all the petty joys and sorrows of this world.

Thakurda is about Kailaschandra Raychaudhuri, or Kailas Babu, one of the last remnants of an era gone by - an era of ‘zamindars’ and ‘babus’, of titled landowners and noble gentlemen, of an old and aristocratic Calcutta. The core struggle of the story comes from the passing of that era, the coming of a new world, and the struggle faced by Kailas Babu, who was never quite able to make a successful transition.

What was most fascinating about this story was the characterization of the two main characters - the narrator and Kailas Babu - and a beautiful narrative that made me start off by identifying with the narrator, and end up with empathizing with Kailas Babu.

As the story starts off and the narrator describes an aging Kailas Babu and his annoying pretentious ways, I easily felt the irritation he did! Haven’t we all met with or heard of some old man, financially wanting, yet with all the airs and mannerisms of the wealthy? But then, there came the day when the narrator decided to play a trick on Kailas Babu - partly irritated by the endless stories of the past glory of the Babus of Nayanjor, and partly to amuse himself at the expense of the ridiculous old man. Building on Kailas Babu’s self-confessed close relationship with the rich and the famous, he told him that the Lieutenant-Governer was coming over for a visit. Confident beyond reason, Kailas Babu did not question this, and started preparing for the visit. What followed was a detailed plan, including a fake Lieutenant-Governer in a horse-driven carriage with liveried footmen, and an elaborate preparation by the host Kailas Babu and his faithful old servant… And yet, as the drama unfolds, the joke slowly begins to gain an air of pathos. Dressed up in the one presentable yet old-fashioned outfit, offering the last carefully preserved family heirloom, and making a final attempt at creating an old world charm with the last rose-water sprinkler… the old man’s near worshipful treatment of the fake Lieutenant-Governer was no longer funny. When Kusum, Kailas Babu’s granddaughter, cries out “What has my grandfather done to you? Why have you come to trick him?” realization hits us and - along with the narrator - we see the cruel joke for exactly what it is - a mean attack on a scared and insecure person.

For, in the end, that’s all Thakurda was: an old man desperately clinging to a bygone age because he was confused by all the changes in the world; he was too old to understand it and too tired to move with it, but above all, he was too afraid to let go of the only world he had known and lost… And suddenly his mannerisms were no longer comical; his self-importance just brought tears to my eyes… Thakurda’s final acceptance of the narrator - with a complete breakdown of all bravado - took me to the very core of the human heart.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”

I will begin this blog by saying that I did not like this novel by Stephen King at all. Everything that follows from this point on will just be my reason why.

The Girl Who… is the story of 9-year-old Patricia (Trisha) McFarland who, while on a family hiking trip, takes a bathroom break in the woods and gets lost. The story consists of her trying to stay alive and be rescued. For the most part, she draws strength from thoughts about her idol, baseball’s Tom Gordon.

Here is my main reason for not liking this book: nothing happens. Girl gets lost. Girl walks through the forest. Girl is rescued. The end.

In all that nothingness, there were a few glimmers of hope - when the three evil entities appeared, I thought it finally got interesting. Barely had I finished the thought, when they left - only to come back very rarely, and very briefly through the remainder of the book. Worse, it was very possible that the supernatural beings were just her hallucinations.

To add to those false hopes, every now and then, there was a spooky mention of “the cold voice” - was that intended to scare the reader? For it was quite obviously her inner voice.

Also every now and then, a “scary” image was abruptly thrown upon us - like the deer’s head, or the bloody intestines - again, was that supposed to shock us? It’s a forest. It is natural to find dead animals that have fallen prey to some other animal.

That reminds me: all attempts at comedy were so feeble. Example, when Trisha was fleeing, petrified by the sight of the head, her running was awkward, and - in the midst of all her fear - she actually managed to picture herself in a leotard, as a guest on a T.V. exercise show and even branded the “getting away from the torn-off deer’s head” move. Considering she was genuinely scared, that comment seemed to come from an outsider - the writer - trying to be funny, and was one of the many jarring moments in the story.

In fact, like the humour, all the dialogue, all the likes and dislikes of the girl and her friends as she reminisces, were quite cheesy. I got the impression that an older person created the character of a young girl, but was quite out of his depths when it came to writing what would be considered “cool” by the next generation.

The “supernatural” being that was hinted at briefly along the way, finally appears in about the last 30 pages of the book. Unfortunately by this time I had lost all interest in this creature from hell… Which was good, because it was actually a bear. Trisha hallucinates (again) about it. But it was just a bear. To add to that weak end of a dull adventure, hitherto unknown Travis Herrick, a random passer-by, emerged as one of the - if not the - final hero.

The cover of the book I read has this quote from a major newspaper - “Frightening… feverish terror”. I think it was meant to be printed on some other book.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Salmon of Doubt”

The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time is a posthumously published collection of Douglas Adams’ notes, excerpts, speeches, interviews, journal entries… what Stephen Fry refers to as his “bottom drawer”. I already knew that he was a very funny man; I now got to see a man who was well read, intelligent, and always questioning; a man who had a great passion for traveling and a great love of technology. I have developed a deeper admiration for this man, and that was a very moving experience.

All the matter in this book has been categorized into three sections - Life, The Universe, And Everything. (By the way, I have to say that I was thrilled to see the Foreword by Stephen Fry. He has introduced all the P.G. Wodehouse books I have read/own, and so I know that he recognizes true wit. It was fitting that he should have his say here as well).

“Life” is a collection of little snippets of Adams’ life. A remarkable introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings; a look at some funny boyhood experiences arising from his exceptional height (he grew to be 6 feet, 5 inches); his great fascination for the Beatles; teaching children the difference between Friday and fried egg and teaching Americans how to make tea; calling the lame ‘placeholder’ lyrics of “La a note to follow so” one of the great unfinished businesses of this century; talking about his travels around the world including a fascinating ride on a Sub Bug along with manta rays in Australia… this section was a wonderful glimpse into the heart and mind of Douglas Adams.

“The Universe” focuses on two main concepts: Technology and Religion / God. From the former we get to know how passionate Adams was about gadgets and gizmos! From the latest in computers to the greatest in cameras, he kept up with the most up-to-date in technology. The other chapters deal with his views on Religion and God. ‘Is There an Artificial God?’ - the speech he gave at Digital Biota 2 in September of 1998 - was a phenomenal read. An “out-and-out atheist” as he called himself, Douglas Adams explores the concept of God - where and why it originated, its importance in shaping the history of mankind, and its relevance in a scientific world.

“And Everything” contains various interviews as well as letters (one of my favourite sections was the frustrated letter Douglas Adams wrote to David Vogel of Walt Disney Pictures, after being strung along for about 20 years, while Hollywood was trying - or not trying, it seems - to make a movie out of the hugely successful book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)! The highlight of this section was of course The Salmon of Doubt assembled from various versions of this work-in-progress. The search for half a cat; a friendship with Thunder God Thor; a dog named Kierkegaard; a mysterious weekly deposit of over ₤3000; a botched stalking; a carjacking at gunpoint; a forecast about meeting a rhinoceros named Desmond - that actually comes true; a haunted manor… it is a pity this book could not get completed - it would have been awesome.

Richard Dawkins’ epilogue read like I imagine news of Douglas Adams’ death would have: a rude interruption of joyous reading. It was an honour to go inside the mind of the man that created such a unique world, combining the best of science fiction and comedy.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Ringu” (Ring)

Some of the books that I count among my favourites are Japanese books, and Ringu, the first of the horror trilogy by Koji Suzuki is one that I now add to that list!

Ringu (translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley) follows reporter Kazuyuki Asakawa as he, with the help of his friend Ryuji Takayama, investigates the sudden and mysterious deaths - on the same day and at the same time - of 4 teenagers: Tomoko Oishi, Shuichi Iwata, Haruko Tsuji and Takehiko Nomi.

A row of condominium buildings… the oily surface of the ocean… a single two-story home… a beam of fluorescent light from an open window… and we are launched into the story and into a world of fear and mystery right away! The story moves rapidly and takes us through a slowly rising sense of dread as we see the first two victims - as we drive to cabin B4 - as we read the journal entries - and as we discover the tape with the anti-erasure tabs broken off.

A surreal introduction. Red fluid. An erupting volcano. An old woman. A new-born baby. A man whose face gives rise to inexplicable feelings of hatred… “Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly– …” Asakawa’s frenzied efforts to work out what the deleted instructions are form the basis of this story.

On the one hand, this was a good spooky story - the kind of horror I like: minus all the clichéd trappings of gore! At its base is a story of two generations of psychic powers, with the recovered statue of En no Ozunu possibly at the heart of it all. On the other hand, it was also a very good murder mystery; we follow the clues as each frame and every element of the video is painstakingly and thoroughly studied, deciphered and its meaning traced right down to the secret that was and should have been Sadako Yamamura’s alone.

One section especially stands out in my mind. During the course of their investigation, Ryuji and Asakawa have a conversation regarding smallpox. As they wonder if a virus can ever become truly extinct, they raise some very interesting ideas about the co-existence of opposites. Asakawa is of the opinion that no matter how much you try to kill a virus, eventually it would mutate and find a way to survive. Ryuji offers the idea that genes could escape from our cells and become another life form, and then develops that thinking to believe that all opposites were originally identical. Light and darkness. Male and female. God and the Devil.

I have not watched the Hollywood version of this book, but from what I hear, that movie lays a lot of stress on the ultra-psychokinetic and the ghostly. Where this original story differs, is in its powerful combination of the supernatural and the scientific, with smallpox being as important a factor as psychic powers in this saga of the Ring Virus.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Dreamcatcher”

This is the second book by Stephen King that I have read in as many weeks (broken only by a brief stopover for a Dean Koontz book that I started but abandoned in such haste, it does not warrant a ‘review’). Originally created under the working title of “Cancer”, Dreamcatcher is the story of four childhood friends Gary Ambrose ‘Jonesy’ Jones, Pete Moore, Joe ‘Beaver’ Clarendon and Henry Devlin, and Douglas ‘Duddits’ Cavell.

There are two events of prime significance in this book; totally unrelated at first, but inexplicably and inextricably woven together as later events prove. One occurs in their early teen years, when the four save Duddits from a group of sadistic bullies. The other occurs some years later, on their annual hunting trip to the Hole-in-the-Wall.

Let me start with what I liked about this book. I thought the central theme of the novel was awesome. I liked the way the childhood encounter with Duddits explains as well as resolves the alien invasion years later. I also liked the characters of this story. Each of the four friends had traits that were distinct as well as something we could all relate to. I was especially in awe of Duddits who grows from a helpless bullied boy with Down’s Syndrome, to the powerful force that brings it all together in the end. And without giving too much away, I will say that I really liked the element of telepathy - how it was first discovered, and - even more brilliant - how it is finally tied in to the novel’s title.

And now for what really put me off! First - and this, from what I hear, is just the way Stephen King writes - I found the narrative unnecessarily long-winded. A very good idea seemed buried under an avalanche of words, words, and yet more words! The other major problem I had with this book was its very gross obsession with the victims of alien invasion breaking wind and releasing the “shit-weasels” out of their… yes, anus. There may be no logical explanation to my next point, but I found the incessant references to movies, directors, actors, books, authors… quite annoying. And finally, I thought the liberal spray of bad language could have been turned down just a notch!

Having only read two books by Stephen King (one of which was by “Richard Bachman”, and obviously not intended as horror) I cannot with any authority say if this is a typical example of horror by the universally acknowledged king of horror or not; but I will say that although this book had elements ranging from grossness to science fiction, it was not Horror. That said; I have liked enough to give King a few more tries!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Long Walk”

This is the first Stephen King book that I have read, and it elicited the most changing reactions to any book that I can remember! As I was reading, I went from like to dislike, from boredom to fascination, from Oh this sounds interesting to Ok this is going nowhere, from Oh that was really good to Oh that’s just too repetitive, from That was scary to Oh that was so sad to Wow that was awesome!

Generally, people’s interpretation of this book seems to revolve around a somewhat autocratic view of corporate USA or just modern society in general. My reading is different. In the final analysis, I have come to identify The Long Walk with Life itself.

The story is about an annual walking contest called “The Long Walk” that participants or “Walkers” embark upon. There are some basic rules such as not straying from the path, maintaining a certain speed and sticking to a fixed food intake. Each infraction incurs a warning, to a maximum of three, after which the offender gets “ticketed”. The last man walking is the Winner and receives “The Prize”, which is anything he wants.

Amid all my vacillating reactions, and presented in the form of a national sport, as I read each chapter - headed, interestingly, by a quote from famous television game shows - the story slowly took on deeper levels of meaning.

When the story starts off, there is no clear concept of what is to come. As the boys begin to gather, all we know is that something big is about to start. Slowly, very slowly, we are introduced to the purpose of the gathering. And then the long walk starts. And continues. On and on and on… And we meet memorable characters like Raymond Garraty and the ever-loyal Peter McVries. We get to know of the sad past of Stebbins and see the tragic future of Hank Olson. We see the transformation from foul-mouthed bravado to madness and mayhem in Gary Barkovitch and Collie Parker. We bid farewell to Arthur Baker and Scramm and Mike. We feel the fear of dying, and see the horror of a nervous breakdown; we see some hide behind facades and some shine through with defiant dignity. And at all times we have the age-old question of “Why?” thrown at us…

And somewhere it clicked. This is what life is all about. When we start, at best, we only have a vague idea of what to expect, based upon stories that others have passed on. All we know for sure is that we need to be prepared for the road ahead, the rules to be followed, and the consequences for breaking those rules. Along the way we meet new people. Some we like, some we don’t; some always have a helping hand ready for us, and for some, we will some day be willing to die for. And if we can beat all odds, we will get exactly what we want. The simple fact is: we’re all in it. And we’re in it till we die. Against a constant reminder of our mortality, we may say it is all so trivial or we may wish we were insane just so we could bear the madness of it all. But ultimately it is up to us to decide if we want to buy our ticket at the start line, or keep walking even when half our stomach has been blown off and our entrails are hanging out. Oh, and yes, we do have the option of being a nameless member of The Crowd and cheer the heroes or just collect souvenirs including faeces from the roadside.

The narrative of an average life could get monotonous. Got up. Got dressed. Took the bus. Went to work. Came back home. Had dinner. Did the dishes. Watched TV. Went to bed. Got up. Got dressed… You get the picture! But in all this monotony, there are moments, big and small, which touch our lives and leave an impression for all time to come. Within this “pointlessness” we just have to find a point, a reason to live, and keep an eye on the Prize. It may all come to naught. But not trying just makes it worse.

On a final note, I have to highlight the section “The Importance of being Bachman”. This is the first Stephen King I have read, so I had no idea who Richard Bachman was, but once I finished the book, I read the prologue and it gave me a greater appreciation of the book and its driving theme.

This was a fantastic read, and I think I might give this book another read some day… like my life, there may be some points I have overlooked that bear revisiting.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Confessions of a Crap Artist”

On the surface, Philip K. Dick’s books can come across as anything from slightly odd to very weird! (“Ubik”, a happy medium, continues to be my favourite). However, scratch the surface, and you will discover a world of novel ideas and a mirror of naked reality.

Unlike most of Dick’s works, Confessions of a Crap Artist is not science fiction, but a slice of life set in 1950’s California. It is the story of Jack Isidore, his sister Fay Hume, her husband Charley Hume, and the young couple Nathan and Gwen Anteil. So far, so normal. But as I got deeper into the book, I discovered a very weird, even twisted world.

Ostensibly the title refers to Jack Isidore, so called because of his obsession for things that other people consider junk - cataloguing old science magazines, collecting worthless objects, and for his ideas that others consider rubbish - notions that the Earth is hollow or that sunlight has weight. But once he moves in with his sister and brother-in-law, and we are introduced to the manipulative Fay Hume, the boorish Charley Hume, the philandering Nat Anteil, and the fanatic Claudia Hambro, we begin to realize that Jack may in fact be the only non ‘crap’ character.

I think the narrative style - switching the voice from character to character - enforces that belief. Jack may have accepted this title, but as every character speaks within this title, every character in essence confesses to being a crap artist. Jack may genuinely believe that the world will end on April 23, 1959, but Charley thinks it is acceptable to beat his wife brutally if she asks him to pick up tampons from the store; Nat reasons “on and on” in order to justify an extra marital affair with a woman whose husband lies in hospital, while his own wife waits at home; Fay thinks it is all right to control people and dictate relations through spreading misery; Nat and Fay see nothing wrong in coming together to fabricate an entire story attacking Gwen in court to obtain a divorce decree.

It was also interesting reading about certain interactions, which the characters took in the greatest earnestness, but which were in fact quite comical! Nat Anteil’s lengthy ruminations as he tried to rationalize his affair with Fay; Claudia Hambro’s “hypnosis” session to pick one among the “SEB”s to announce the last day of Earth; and most of all, Jack’s theatrical reporting to Charley about his wife’s affair, are striking examples!

This book was weird, not in terms of scientific fantasy or futuristic imagination but more a weirdness of characters, or relations, of motivations in this life. The shocking event that took place upon Charley’s return from the hospital was the last layer that the story descended to, with Jack’s final decision to seek psychiatric help effectively cordoning off this weird world with its crap artists.

I will end with this lament by Jack Isidore; “The irony of a slob like that… who never got through high school, calling me a “crap artist” lingered in my mind… I can just see all the Charley Humes in the world… that slack, vacant expression on their fat red faces… and it’s slobs like that who’re running… everything… A man like that in a position to blow his nose on the rest of us, on anybody who has sensitivity or talent.”

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Warlord of Mars”

“Kaor”! This third book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series picks up right where the previous book had left off, and gets into the adventure right away. We see John Carter settle the issue of the rulers for the Blacks and of Helium, follow Thurid, the Back Dator to discover a secret alliance between the two enemies Thurid and Matai Shang, Father of Therns, their common goal to eradicate him and defile Dejah Thoris, and find out the secret entrance to the Temple of the Sun.

There are some very interesting places and ideas showcased in this book. We go inside the Temple of the Sun, which is “password protected” by light! We go through the brilliantly lighted labyrinth of crystal glass at the base of the temple. We barely escape with our lives in the Chamber of Reptiles. We survive the madness of the alternating darkness and illumination of the Pit of Plenty. And we visit the fabled Carrion Caves and meet the supposedly extinct Yellow Martians in secret domed cities at the poles.

I also liked how, at moments when all seems lost, suddenly and from unexpected quarters, a ray of hope bursts through to save the day. The actions of Thuvan Dihn of Ptarth, the recollection of the ring of Prince Talu of Marentina, and the dramatic entry of a Tars Tarkas led army of allies down the streets of Kadabra were especially memorable.

On the minus side, the writing sometimes tends to be simplistic, almost contrived. Some events are deliberately placed only to serve as a comprehensive solution to a complex problem. As an example, in the beginning, when John Carter is following Thurid and Matai Shang along the River Iss, he finds a hiding place where, for the convenience of all, Matai Shang says, “Let us stop here a moment that I may hear your plans”, which Thurid then proceeds to outline in detail. Again, when Carter is escaping from the Pit of Plenty, he overhears the conversation between Solan and Thurid, where, having discussed their goals, Thurid proceeds to announce the entire plan with an introductory, “Let me repeat it to you, that you may see if I be letter-perfect”.

That apart, this was still a fun adventure to embark upon! “Twenty-two years before I had been cast, naked and a stranger, into this strange and savage world. The hand of every race and nation was raised in continual strife and warring against the men of every other land and color. Today, by the might of my sword and the loyalty of the friends my sword had made for me, black man and white, red man and green rubbed shoulders in peace and good-fellowship. All the nations of Barsoom were not yet as one, but a great stride forward toward that goal had been taken…” Sometimes the inane acts of discrimination in today’s world disturb me - and this concluding speech really touched me.

This ends the first trilogy of the “John Carter of Mars” series (after which, the main characters appear only sporadically through the next 8 books). For me, A Princess Of Mars remains - by far - the best. That book fascinated me because it contained elements of science fiction and inspiring social commentary. We discovered a new world with new races and new cultures and a whole new way of living. That unique feature is, for the most part, missing from the next two books, which tend to be more of action/drama.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Feast for Crows”

As I organize my thoughts on this book, I feel that this review is more an invitation to one who has read the book and would like to have a discussion, and not so much a standalone review of a book; for, with each successive blog on George R. R. Martin’s series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, I find myself only mentioning what’s new or outstanding.

This story revolves around King’s Landing, where the 8-year old Tommen Baratheon ‘rules’ under the aegis of his mother Cersei Lannister, who, more than ever, proves that no deed is too evil for her, no liaison too taboo, and no trust too sacred. A lot of the main characters are absent in this book. However, while I definitely missed the likes of Tyrion Lannister (mostly!), Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, it was interesting to know more of Brienne of Tarth, Sansa Stark a.k.a. Alayne Stone, Samwell Tarly, Asha and Victarion Greyjoy of Pyke and Aeron Damphair, the priest for the drowned god. Of the lesser characters, Septon Meribald remains memorable, especially his thoughts on religion and war: one, a tolerant view of the many forms of God, and the other, a poignant observation of “a broke man [who] lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man.”

The intense sense of drama continues in this book - but what adds excitement is the fact that we are privy to certain events that are unknown to the characters themselves! When, for example, Lady Olenna Redwyne and Cersei meet, and Cersei doesn’t know what we do, it’s very interesting to see how the conversation and events unfold!

Another favourite section of mine was the House of Black and White in Braavos, the temple of the Faceless Men, where we spend some time along with Arya Stark, or “Cat of the Canals”! The house itself is gorgeous, its people, very mysterious!

Also very interesting is the slow mirroring of Cersei Lannister in Margaery Tyrell! Not only is she the only one who can stand up to Cersei, she is also the only one who shows streaks of the older woman in all her charming ways - in all the sweet manipulations, and even to the point of a jokingly referred to relation with her brother Loras! The concluding scenes involving Margaery, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, were especially remarkable!

In my blog on A Storm of Swords, I had said that Daenerys Targaryen seemed to be a worthy heir to the Iron Throne; in this book, Maester Aemon, with his dying breath, tells Samwell Tarly that she is the one. This and some other thoughts are left for us to mull over as we wait for the next book… how far will the predictions of Maggy the frog come true? What will happen to Arya’s affliction caused by drinking that warm milk? What did Lady Genna mean when she told Jaime, “Tyrion is Tywin’s son, not you”? Will there be a revival of Arianne Martell’s plan for Princess Myrcella Baratheon? And what provoked Petyr Baelish to say, “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them”?

There is an overriding sense of grittiness and violence - including violence of language and sexual violence - that encompasses this book. As Jaime reflects at one point, “This is a time for beasts, for lions and wolves and angry dogs, for ravens and carrion crows.”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Driving Blind”

I have always been in awe of the genius of Ray Bradbury… with this collection of short stories, I marvel, for the umpteenth time, how much this writer takes me through the entire gamut of emotions from “Yes! I know that feeling!” to “Wow! I have never known such emotions”! (In no particular order) here are my favourites:

* Someone In The Rain - My website features a thought by Kahlil Gibran, “The biggest thing in today’s sorrow is the memory of yesterday’s joy.” This story reminds me of that thought. It talks of a very special memory that was created in childhood, and was cherished for an entire life. It undergoes a very specific attempt to recreate that memory exactly. And it realizes with a breaking heart that what once was, never can be again.

* Mr. Pale - The idea presented here was fantastic enough to be simultaneously incredible and plausible! Is it possible that there has existed a creature since the beginning of time that lives off the lives of people? Could it be that we die so that it can live? What if its death would mean immortality for us? Are we sure we can risk finding out? And if we do find out, are we sure we can bear immortality, with its “immense burden of memory”?

* Nothing Changes - Starting from an old bookstore with forgotten high school yearbooks, this unusual journey takes us through an eerie coincidence involving different pairs of people separated by several years but sharing identical faces, and finally to a metaphysical, almost surreal, truth of life where - across generations - nothing changes.

* The Mirror - This was a story about twin sisters who mirror each other in every little way. The great divide came the day one of them met a man, leaving the other alone. From then on, they grew apart, much to the shocked disbelief of the whole town. Their final meeting after a long estrangement was a fantastic one, and one that I did not see coming!

* Remember Me? - The eye-opening truth in this simple story touched my heart. Most of us go through the motions of Life, Job, Household Chores. We follow the same routines at the same times; we meet the same people at the same places. But what would happen if one of those fixed elements was removed and presented in a whole new setting? How would you react if you met your local butcher while vacationing in a different country?

* Driving Blind - What if you wore a mask - perhaps to hide a deformity, or perhaps just because you were shy? What if after many years you realized you had forgotten why you had put it on, and had been making up sad stories to justify it? And then, what if, instead of discarding that useless mask, you were so confident in your perfection, you did not feel the need to prove any point? Via conversations between an out-of-town salesman and a 13-year-old boy, these are some of the very soul searching questions this story raises.

I must also mention the sheer horror of Fee Fie Foe Fum, the poetic love of Grand Theft, the tragedy of I Wonder What’s Become Of Sally, the novel idea of Madame et Monsieur Shill and the life and death of Hello, I Must Be Going. It is this range of emotions and ideas that makes Bradbury one of the best creators, and his stories, some of the finest!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Hangman’s Hymn”

Paul C. Doherty creates historical crime / mysteries set in the Middle Ages, taking, as his setting, well known stories, legends and myths from Classical Greek, Ancient Egypt etc.

Prior to reading The Hangman’s Hymn, I had read The Cup of Ghosts (from the Mathilde of Westminster Series) and The Mask of Ra, The Horus Killings and The Anubis Slayings (from The Egyptian Mysteries). Those books had been amazing discoveries; I had not read anything along these lines, and was also very impressed with the style of writing - simple, yet powerful enough to take me back hundreds and thousands of years with each read, and with an urgent and undying sense of intrigue!

The Hangman’s Hymn is part of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ series of books (based, of course, on The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which depicts a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral).

Before I go any further into this review, I have to say, when I borrowed this book from the library, I did not realize I was picking up a book that was part of a series - and not even the first of a series, at that! So this review is for this book alone. Perhaps in conjunction with the whole, it might have been a better read; unfortunately, this tale, narrated by the Carpenter, was not one of my more memorable reads.

The story seemed to waver between horror and a murder mystery - and ended up being weak at both. The horror parts were barely spooky; all the typical ingredients were there - the witches, the un-dead… but it just was not scary (and this coming from a relatively squeamish person!) The mystery element was not enough either - the plot was too dragged out, and eventually the payout was just not there. As an example, one person who is, after a long time, discovered to be in league with the witches, says he took that route, as he was bitter about a missed promotion he felt was rightfully his.

The description of the period and the details that go into creating the ambience (that I have known in Doherty’s other books) are still good.

I do realize it might not be fair to review this book as a standalone… perhaps read as a whole, this portion of a series might not seem quite as weak… in time, I will read the entire series and revisit this Tale!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Farewell Summer”

Farewell Summer is a novel by Ray Bradbury, and is a sequel to his novel Dandelion Wine. Based on Bradbury’s own childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, Dandelion Wine is set in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, and depicts life in a small town with all the simple joys that go with it. It ends with the conclusion of summer and Farewell Summer, set in October, picks up from that theme.

The story depicts a desperate attempt to stop summer from drawing to an end, to stop youth from passing by, to fight the very passage of time. That strenuous effort is reflected in the running theme of the ‘War’ that is waged by Douglas, Charlie, Will, Bo, Pete, Sam, Henry, Ralph and Tom against old Braling and old Quartermain, and also in the historic attack on the town clock.

Woven with references from Dandelion Wine, such as Mrs. Bentley - the old lady who was never a girl, the Green Machine, the Lonely One, the ravine and the Time Machine, the story starts off with a sharp and bitter divide between the old and the new, goes on to a point where the lines start blurring and the face and regrets of youth and old age become interchangeable, to finally end off in the ultimate handover.

That ultimate handover is the passing of the torch of youth, so to say. As Calvin C. Quartermain and Douglas Spaulding meet one last time on the former’s front yard, the two identities and the two ages merge in and out of each other in that brilliant conversation set to a seesaw. To round off the life cycle, Quartermain’s manhood visits him one last time, and Douglas’ manhood appears to him for the first time ever.

There is a first and a last of everything; there will always be the first kiss, there will always be the last summer… but with every passing, there will also always be hope! Even as Doug and Tom lament the end of summer, they realize that autumn brings with it - the much anticipated - Halloween!

If I had to pick one, I would say Dandelion Wine was a better read - it portrayed a deeper slice of life and evoked a lot more emotion. That said, I don’t think Farewell Summer is meant to be read as anything but a seamless continuation of its predecessor. “Some summers refuse to end”, and the memories of our childhood - no matter how recently or how far back they were created - will always be a cherished part of the rest of our lives.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Haunting of Hill House”

Created by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House marks my foray into the genre of horror! It is about the experiences and relationships of four characters with some past experience in the paranormal; Dr. John Montague, who studies the science of the supernatural, Eleanor Vance, who is led by a freedom from oppressive filial responsibilities, Theodora, who is continuing on her flamboyant way through life and Luke Sanderson, who is attempting to fulfill the obligation of a host. They come to stay at Hill House, an 80-year-old mansion with its own history of suicide and violent deaths.

The first and most lasting impression this book made on me is its atmosphere. From that “first genuinely shining day of summer” to that final night of horror and bleak morning of forced separations, it was the ambience that made it such an amazing read. As Eleanor drives from her sister’s apartment to Hill House, we pass cities and villages, oleander fairylands and country restaurants, tiny cottages, dirty houses and crooked streets, greasy diners and tasteless coffees, rocky roads and unattractive hills, dead leaves and thick tree branches, to reach a clearing by the gate of Hill House… and we are ensnared forever!

Hill House was “a place of despair… with a watchfulness… arrogant and hating… Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed”. When Eleanor first saw it, she felt, “Hill House is vile… get away from here at once”. Earlier I said this story is about four characters; actually it is about five! The fifth - and most intense one - is the house itself, with its bizarre structure, its eerie personality and the inexplicable ‘cold spot’ at its heart.

I also liked the way character sketches are created: no trait is mentioned; personalities are conveyed just based on conversations. It is never said, Mrs. Dudley followed a strict routine - her monotonous repetitions of, “I set the dinner on the dining-room sideboard at six sharp… I have breakfast ready for you at nine” suffice to relay that character trait. It is never mentioned, Mrs. Montague was a strong lady with no time for social niceties. When she arrives at Hill House and her husband hurries out with a “How nice that you got here”, her response of “Did you ever know me not to come when I said I would?” conveys that personality!

Some recurring imageries in the story also add to this weird world - most notably, two lions guarding a house, and the blue cup of stars!

Set in this sinister world, the story is chiefly about Eleanor’s desire to create an identity for herself, her gradual descent to madness and her final identification with the House. I won’t tell you how it ends, but in any case, this book is not just about the ending; it is about a journey, and every moment and every experience of that journey.

I am not a fan of using gore to create horror. It is easy to shock the senses. Anyone can talk of putrefying limbs or slimy intestines. But if one can describe a cold dark day, in a way that the darkness creeps in slowly till the thick blackness suffocates the reader, and the cold enters every pore of his skin and touches the core of his bones… Ah! Now that’s an art! And that’s why this book was such a good read! Journeys end in lovers meeting

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Gods of Mars”

In this second book of the series “John Carter of Mars”, Edgar Rice Burroughs (again, as John Carter’s nephew) continues his narration of Carter’s life on Mars. Since we last met him in ‘A Princess of Mars’, Carter has spent 12 years trying to return to his beloved planet. Finally he does, and once more we visit the wildly creative world of Barsoom!

When I saw the title of the book, I thought it was in reference to the theme of war, and “gods” were the great warriors the Barsoomians looked up to as gods… but no, it is quite literally about their Gods! From the banks of River Hudson on Earth we travel to River Iss on Mars, on the other side of the planet; in fact, on the other side of Life! We reach Heaven, a land of beautiful trees and gorgeous blossoms, brilliant flying creatures, blue seas and amazing cliffs made of gold! The idea of afterlife introduced in the first book, is explored at length, as we journey through Valley Dor and meet The First Born, the Plant Men, the White Apes, the primaeval Black Man, the Holy Therns, and Goddess Issus!

What was really interesting was the handling of topics like religion, heaven and gods. The book questions, and - in most instances - debunks, superstitions usually linked to these topics. For example, when Thuvia, Tars Tarkas, and John Carter are discussing escaping the Gods’ lair, Tarkas has doubts, and Thuvia considers it sacrilegious to even try. It is Carter who shows the folly in blindly following baseless beliefs, and speaks in favour of exposing reality, even at the risk of being hated or tortured by their own people.

Unfortunately however, thereafter the brilliance of the book dropped. The balance of the story seemed to be a series of unlucky imprisonments and ingenious escapes. While definitely action-packed, the sequences started getting monotonous, which was a bit of a letdown, especially in view of the preceding abundant and brilliant themes.

I also felt that, beyond a few characters, such as Pirate Xodar, the slave girl Thuvia, the young Carthoris, and Zat Arras, a Jed of Zodanga, no one was especially memorable.

I also noted one or two incongruities in the character sketch of Carter, where he seemed to say what would best suit the scenario. One such example was on the aircraft, fighting the Black Pirates. Justifying throwing a sleeping pirate off the aircraft, Carter feels, “This was no time for fine compunctions, nor for a chivalry that these cruel demons would neither appreciate nor reciprocate”. Yet, moments later, when Phaidor suggests he repeat the attack on another pirate, he says, “I am no murderer, I kill in self-defence only”.

The book did however end on a fantastic note! The closing events of the Temple of the Sun, whose rooms open only once per year, and where Dejah Thoris, Thuvia, and Phaidor are imprisoned, leave us with a shocking murder attempt and a cliff hanger!

Overall, although not as good as the first one, this book was still an interesting read… I shall leave you with this thought: John Carter goes to a new land, finds the existing value system faulty, and tries to teach people a new way of thinking… do you think the choice of his initials was intentional?!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Storm of Swords”

* * Spoiler Alert * *

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. Once again, as I mentioned in my review of the second book, this is a seamless continuation of the story; I will only mention some high points that touched me deeply.

The one lasting memory I am left with is the fast, almost frantic pace at which the drama unfolds. The book plunges into the story right away: in the prologue, three horns are blown, signifying the advent of the ‘Others’, and the ride begins!

It is fascinating how each and every chapter, without exception, has an event, which is sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic, and sometimes horrific - and always, always moving the story rapidly forward. Dramatic decisions abound! Davos Seaworth’s decision about Melisandre’s fate, Catelyn Stark’s secret arrangement regarding Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister’s covert meeting with Shae, Squab (whom we last knew as Arry) and her meeting with Harwin, the tragically horrific Red Wedding, and of course one of the most dramatic events of all, Tyrion Lannister’s trial! Dramatic people abound! Some make short appearances with long-lasting effects, such as Lady Olenna Redwyne, and some are there to stay, such as the Spartan-like race of The Unsullied! And some names are dropped, with just enough information to make us gasping for more, such as the mysterious Lady Ashara Dayne, and Wylla, who might be Jon Snow’s mother!

There is immense character development in this third book. A lot of people move from the background to a very prominent foreground. Catelyn Stark’s decision regarding her captive Jaime Lannister, was one example of a hitherto passive character taking some very positive actions. Samwell Tarly emerges from the shadow of cowardice that he has been under all his life, to single-handedly confront the wights and the Others (in, what was one of the most horrific scenes of this book!) The greatest transformation, perhaps, was Petyr Baelish and his emergence as a ‘player’. He tells Sansa Stark at one point, “In King’s Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces.” Littlefinger is certainly no ‘piece’, as later events prove!

Since this whole series is about who eventually gets to sit on the Iron Throne, it was also interesting to see who deserves that seat. Based on this book, two people showcased leadership, guts and glory. One was Daenerys Targaryen: the events that Dany masterminded in Astapor and Yunkai were specifically glorious. Robb Stark also proved to be a brave (his unwavering heroism in leading successful battles) and just (his decision to name Jon Snow as his successor, despite his mother’s profound objection to the bastard) ruler… but then again, was Catelyn right in saying that giving in and kneeling could sometimes be better than leading a brave march to the throne?

Even more fascinating, however, was a complete role reversal in some characters. People, who have been established beyond a shred of doubt as heartless villains, suddenly have their past revealed or present uncovered to show a human touched by tragedy and muffled by dictates of duty. A Slayer of Kings may have earned that reputation only as a cover-up for political intrigue that went far deeper. The men of the Night’s Watch have been established as made up of ordinary men accused of being thieves or rapists but when it comes to doing their sworn duty of protecting the Wall, the sense of pride, honour and valour they exhibit is truly moving - the war led by Jon Snow against the wildlings was a shining example of this… Perhaps in the face of all the characters that change, all the heroes that reveal villainous undertones, and all the villains that show deep humane sides, one person alone shows no human trait, and that is Queen Cersei Lannister!

In a world where enemies are becoming allies (a member of the Night’s Watch and a Wildling!) and unlikely relationships are forming (a king slayer and a king’s guard!), marriage begins to play a huge role in the political structure of the kingdoms, and some unheard of nuptials are finalized, most notably that between a Beauty and a Beast!

Speaking of relationships, the theme of the special ‘bond’ between Brandon Stark and his direwolf Summer is developed to include more than animals and more than just Bran!

The other remarkable feature about this story was the ground it covers, literally. We travel along with the principal characters and see how much the world has turned! One of the more memorable such trips was along with Jon Snow, as his ploy (started in the previous book), now takes us beyond the Wall for the first time - and what a fascinating world! We meet Mance Ryder the King-Beyond-The-Wall, Ygritte the wildling spearwife, and Tormund Giantsbane who shows Jon the giants… “And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth”! And as we live with and learn about the Wildlings - a race made notorious for two books as one to be feared and avoided at all costs, in fact, one for whom the very Wall was set up - we realize how easily we can fall into a trap of, what can only be termed as, racism. When Ygritte (who is, by the way, my favourite Wildling character) talks of ‘takers’ and ‘kneelers’, it is perhaps a pointed remark on modern day land usurpers.

On an interesting side note, a reference is made to the title and theme of the series when Melisandre encourages Davos to see the truth that is all around in terror-filled dark nights and hope-filled bright days; the fact that there has always been a choice between only two, not a multitude of contenders. “…There is ice and there is fire. Hate and love… Evil and good… Death and life. Everywhere, opposites. Everywhere, the war… The war has been waged since time began, and before it is done, all men must choose where they will stand. On one side is R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire… Against him stands the Great Other whose name may not be spoken, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice…”

So far, this is my favourite book; I am truly moved by the intense and incessant drama that starts from the first page and ends with such fantastic events in rapid succession, as Tyrion Lannister’s encounter with his father, Jon Snow’s fate on the Wall, Petyr Baelish’s drama with Lady Lysa, and the final note on Catelyn Stark’s quest for revenge.

This storm of swords has left in its wake such a trail of death and destruction in its brutal rampage… so much sorrow… such irreparable damage… Valar Morghulis.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Postmaster”

I am actually still reading A Storm of Swords, so for this week, I decided to blog about a short story I recently re-read: The Postmaster by Rabindranath Tagore (as translated by William Radice).

Winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore (or, Thakur, as it is pronounced in Bengali) was a poet, short-story writer, song composer, playwright, essayist and painter.

What draws me most to Tagore each and every time is the sheer poetry that is used to describe simple everyday events, and the perfect harmony in which he presents joy and pathos to create that oxymoronic yet perfect balance of victory and loss that always co-exists. There is always a strain of sadness, yet, above all, there is forever the trait of human dignity in the face of all odds.

The Postmaster is about a young postmaster - referred to as ‘Dadababu’ - who is re-allocated from the metropolitan city of Calcutta to the small and remote village of Ulapur; his complete inability to adapt to the changed pace of life; and his relation with the 12-year old Ratan, the orphan girl who does his housework.

One of the most beautiful things about this story was the amazing ambience created by the writer. Within moments I was lifted out of my surroundings, and instantly transported to a quiet and peaceful, lush green village in the summer / monsoon season, where smoke curls up from the village cowsheds in the evening, strains of Baul singers float in from a distant village, and a rain-laden soft breeze envelops smooth, shiny wet grass and leaves.

Even though I was raised in Delhi, I was born in Calcutta, where most of my family still is; I know the language, and have at least passed by or briefly visited some of its countryside. The setting of the story therefore, came even more alive for me, and I connected to it in a very personal way.

The other factor that made this story leave such an indelible mark on my heart was the unique “relation” that Dadababu and Ratan shared. Where the educated, self-important, city-bred Dadababu vacillates between complete oblivion and philosophical reflections, the simple and illiterate villager Ratan can only express a silent and unwavering devotion, however unreciprocated, however illogical.

Yes, there is parting, and yes there is the tragic sorrow that comes with parting… what raises The Postmaster above ordinary tragedy is the final note of the quiet strength of human dignity and of the writer’s own reflection of life and the human heart: “O poor, unthinking human heart! Error will not go away, logic and reason are slow to penetrate. We cling with both arms to false hope, refusing to believe the weightiest proofs against it, embracing it with all our strength. In the end it escapes, ripping our veins and draining our heart’s blood; until, regaining consciousness, we rush to fall into snares of delusion all over again.”

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Koga Ninpocho” (The Kouga Ninja Scrolls)

The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (translated by Geoff Sant) is a historical fantasy novel by Futaro Yamada. It led to several adaptations in the manga, anime and movie genres; I had seen the movie “Shinobi” (Shinobi: Heart Under Blade) some time back, and liked it a lot.

The book tells the story of two ninja clans, Tsubagakure of Iga and Manjidani of Kouga, and the deadly battle between 10 ninja selected from each clan to determine which grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu will become the next shogun. Surrounding this battle are elements of love, of a deep mistrust borne of a 400-year old enmity, of enhanced physical prowess and serious physical aberrations due to years of inbreeding, and of some fantastic displays of supernatural ninja powers.

I have actually never read a story solely about ninjas. This one, in fact, went one step further by bestowing the ninja with magical abilities! This was fantasy on a whole new level! Although it took some time for me to familiarize myself with all the names, it was fascinating reading about Kouga Gennosuke and his basilisk eyes that can reverse any murderous intent aimed at him; Kisaragi Saemon and his ability to take on another person’s identity via a facial mud pack; Kasumi Gyoubu and his technique of becoming invisible by completely merging into any solid surface; Udono Jousuke and his ability to turn into a ball that can be hard as a boulder and yet light enough to roll uphill; Jimushi Jubei who has no limbs and attacks using a spear that he keeps inside his oesophagus; Yakushiji Tenzen who can always come back to life even when decapitated; Amayo Jingorou who is able to dissolve into a liquid form; Hotarubi who can summon swarms of glowing pink butterflies…!

A word of warning - and if you have read any Japanese literature, this will not come as a surprise - but the clashes can get quite descriptively gory.

One of my favourite characters was Udono Jousuke. He was a faithful friend to Gennosuke; he was the first to discover the secret scroll… and that is why his encounter with Jingorou was especially shocking.

Amid the heated battle, is a tragic love story that engulfs two generations of opposing clans - from Kouga Danjou, lord of Kouga Manjidani and Ogen the elderly chieftess of Iga Tsubagakure, to Kouga Gennosuke, heir to Kouga Danjou and Oboro, Iga princess.

Although this was not the best Japanese book I have read, it was the first of its kind, and for that reason it was a unique and memorable reading experience.

“… ninja wars are a blood-soaked hell”, says Kisaragi Saemon at one point… it really and truly was… at times underhand, at times clever, at times downright treacherous, but always, always tragic. The inherent tragedy is that the reason behind this terrible battle to the death is a secret that remains with the ninja till the very end. As the blue moonlight is reflected on the Suruga waters, and the hawk takes the scroll up one last time, no one, but no one knows the horror of the past 10 days.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Princess of Mars”

A Princess of Mars is the first book in the series “John Carter of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Created in the genre of science fiction, it is the story of John Carter of Virginia who gets transported to planet Mars (or ‘Barsoom’) and the adventures he encounters there. The story presents a social drama where we are introduced to new people, fascinating creatures and astounding customs!

I had watched the movie prior to reading the book, and liked it so much that I decided to check out the book. Compared to the movie (this was bound to happen!) whereas the movie is more fantasy/action (the opening scene sets the tone of the movie as a story of warring factions in Mars), the book is more fantasy/sci-fi; it reads like a journal, recording the experiences of John Carter and telling us about the life and ways of Barsoomians… war is only one part of it.

I loved the style of writing. It was such an easy read. On one hand it is the kind of writing that employs simple words to evoke grand pictures. (I had the same reaction to Burroughs’ “Tarzan”: simultaneously effortless and majestic). On the other hand, it is the kind of writing that takes you on a long and luxurious journey! At a slow pace we live, walk in and experience a whole new world along with John Carter.

The world of Barsoom completely enamoured me. Depleting natural resources and the resultant wars have taken their toll on this beautiful landscape, and yet, there is so much life, so much living. There are villains and there are heroes; yes, there are acts of petty betrayal, but there are also grand moments when a true friend selflessly arises.

My favourite character was the kind-hearted, yet strong Sola - although brought up in a tribe predominantly closed-minded of thought and savage of action, she dares to break out of the mould and speak up against injustice.

I also liked how certain established concepts are questioned. ‘Fear’ is but relative to your previous experiences; ‘heroism’ is but relative to your thoughts at the moment of action.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a nice, slow read, much akin to a long and lovely walk through a wondrous new world! A world with a fascinating geography, extraordinary creatures, different languages, food and customs, and different interactions: from the unemotional routine of the Tharks to the touching stories of John Carter’s relation with Woola his pet calot, Dejah Thoris the woman he loves and Kantos Kan his friend and ally.

This book is only the first part of a long series, so the ending is an open one. Although it does not seem to be the intent of the writer to provide neat, rounded off answers to all the questions and/or improbabilities in the adventure, based on just this book, I wonder if the “red Martians” are just a materialization of the “red warriors” from whom he was running in the beginning, if the “desert planet” is just a manifestation of the Arizona desert, and if, when all is said and done, Dejah Thoris is really just a déjà vu?!