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.