Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”

“By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the ‘H’ in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him. Me? I am Levi who is called Biff. No middle initial. Joshua was my best friend.”

Angel Stephan tells Angel Raziel to go down to Earth (or “dirt-side” as they call it) and resurrect Biff - who has been dead and buried for about 2000 years - so that he could complete the missing parts of the Bible. I thoroughly enjoyed this creative, irreverent, warm and funny story by Christopher Moore about the ‘lost’ years of Jesus Christ.

Under the watchful eye of Raziel (who is really only interested in soap operas and Spider-man, and who doesn’t get the difference between television and real life) Biff completes “The Gospel According to Biff” - the true story of Joshua’s childhood and youth, and how he came to finally become the Messiah he is known as today.

Borne of an utter helplessness as to how to fulfill the prophecy, Joshua decides to travel eastward to seek out the Three Wise Men who attended his birth, in hopes of getting some tips on how to be a Messiah. Leaving behind their childhood home, with all its memories - their lessons, their crush on Mary of Magdala, the bully Jakan, the village idiot Bartholomew, the sin of Onan (look it up!) … the two best friends go on a long journey, where - between inventing sarcasm and discovering coffee - they gather precious bits of knowledge in preparation for their final destiny.

From Balthasar, an African magician living in Kabul, Afghanistan, they learn everything from Taoism and alchemy to life with eight concubines and a dragon. The Buddhist monk Gasper, who runs a monastery in the mountains of China, teaches them meditation, the martial art of judo (well, ‘jew-do’, originally) and the ultimate secret of the Yeti. In India, the yogi named Melchior teaches them about the Divine Spark (which later forms the basis of the idea of the Holy Spirit) and how to multiply rice and fish. India is also where Biff learns all about the Kama Sutra.

These are the experiences that form the basis of the future of Joshua and his devoted band of 15 disciples who help him with everything from writing the speech for the Sermon on the Mount to being active members in the unfolding of the final drama.

The two main characters, Joshua and Biff, were brilliant. Biff is as funny as he is smart, and remains a staunchly loyal friend to Josh till the very end. Angel Raziel may call him an a**hole; but that’s probably because Biff refuses to let his aura blind him to the fact that the angel is extremely dim witted, at one point even asking him if he’s sure the glow around him isn’t his stupidity leaking out of him. Joshua has also been portrayed as a really cool person - sure, he heals people and talks about the love of God - but when the situation calls for it, he also drops the ‘F’ bomb, and teaches a small girl to show the middle finger to a corrupt Roman soldier.

And that’s really at the core of that added ‘feel good’ air about this story. It doesn’t portray a histrionic god or an extremist religion. If at any point the story tries to ‘teach’ anything, it’s really just a gentle reminder of a back-to-basics view of religion, of being kind, of doing good. And of not taking anything too seriously - “remember bacon”.

Although it didn’t need to be said, the author’s epilogue - an absolute must-read for those who harbour unease - summed up his intentions perfectly. When all is said and done, as Moore says, “This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

I actually had to wait nearly two months to check this book out of the library … and I see what the hype is all about. I count The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, among one of the better, more intense reading experiences of my life.

When the book starts off - with the narrator taking a quick side trip from the funeral he has come to attend at his childhood hometown - the one overwhelming sense I had was that of nostalgia. What was ‘eerie’ about that was the fact that even though the narrator was not describing the kind of place I have ever lived in, or the kind of people I have grown up with, the power of his descriptive journey was so strong, I was getting emotional about the literal and metaphorical trip down memory lane.

The story however does not remain in that earthly mode for very long. As the narrator remembers his childhood years - mainly his interaction with the family of Lettie Hempstock who had said that the pond behind her house was an ocean - weird bits and pieces of memories come to his mind. Starting with the dream that ended with a shilling in his throat, and the walk in the forest that ended with a worm in his foot, the story takes on that fantastical and supernatural hue that is always at the heart of Gaiman’s creativity.

This work was slightly reminiscent of Poe, in that the story wove together elements of horror and poetry so very beautifully. The saga of Ursula Monkton’s attack and elimination by “varmints” in the forest, and the subsequent ripping of the very threads of the fabric of the universe was one of the high points of this story. Another one was, undoubtedly, the sequence of events following the narrator’s dip into the mysterious bucket of ocean water:

“Lettie Hempstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe from Egg to Rose. I knew that. I knew what Egg was - where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void - and I knew where Rose was - that peculiar crinkling of space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next big bang, which would be now, I knew now, nothing of the kind.”

This was a brilliant story that entered a beautiful and nostalgic real world - and then used that as a lift-off point for a world of endlessly imaginative fantasy, and I loved it. At the end of it all, there was an overwhelming sense of, “I just had the weirdest dream ever”.

… Or was it all just a dream?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Unnatural Creatures”

When you read stories selected by a good writer you can be confident that most, if not all, of the stories will be good. In this collection of short stories selected by Neil Gaiman, we see Gaiman’s childhood desire to visit a “Museum of Unnatural History”. For, as he says, such a museum exists - werewolves and dragons, manticorns and unicorns do exist - in the pages of books, and in stories like these! My top 5 favourites in this book were:

5. Gabriel Ernest by Saki (H. H. Munro)
I loved this very creepy story about a strange young boy encountered in the woods. The continuing sense of whether or not he is a werewolf, makes for a very interesting read.

4. (----) by Gahan Wilson
This is the story about the day Reginald Archer’s house was invaded by a (----) and, along with him and his butler Faulks, we live through the growing fear as (----) transforms from an annoying spot to something quite horrific as Sir Harry Mandifer comes to discover. Ps: Anyone else reminded of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who?

3. Sunbird by Neil Gaiman
This story about ultimate foodies brings together myth, fantasy and mystery in a brilliant manner. Sunbird is the story of the Epicurean Club, the members of which have eaten all kinds of strange and exotic creatures … except the mythical Sunbird. The journey to the feast, as well as enchanted memories of days long gone, adds so much to the grand finale.

2. The Sage of Theare by Diana Wynne Jones
Part of the series of tales featuring Chrestomanci, the powerful sorcerer, this story sees the future Sage of Dissolution sent to Chrestomanci’s world by the order-obsessed gods of Theare, who are trying to subvert a major crisis regarding the prophesied chaos accompanying the Sage. Just for being set in the world of science fiction and fantasy, the story was awesome. What really added an interesting spin was Chrestomanci’s taking the abandoned and confused young Sage under his wing, and showing him the invaluable need for asking questions - a concept very alien to his home planet.

1. Come Lady Death by Peter S. Beagle
Tired of always throwing the perfect parties, a highborn London socialite finally decides to top her last best effort - and invites the one famous guest no one else has: Death. What will the guest of honour do when the dancing stops and the party is over? An excellent narration of a brilliant idea.

As with all anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories, some really good, some less so. What pervades all, however, is the unabashed abandonment to a world of fairy tale and fantasy, with no hidden ‘meaningful’ allusions to the ‘real’ world. The Cockatoucan or Great-Aunt Willoughby by E. Nesbit, The flight of the Horse by Larry Niven, Prismatica by Samuel R. Delany or The Griffin and the Minor Canon by Frank R. Stockton are just some examples of this great flight of fantasy.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Maze of Death”

Think of a world with its people and their politics, their fears and prayers, their religions and their faiths … now imagine this world with 14 people. Who don’t know how they got here. Or what they are meant to do. And, in the end, how they are supposed to get out.

In yet another fantastic work by Philip K. Dick, we follow the life-changing events of the colonists of Delmak-O, and travel from concepts of god (whom you can actually communicate with, through a network of prayer amplifiers and transmitters!) to questions of reality (what does ‘Persus 9’ mean?)

To talk too much about this story - in terms of the plot or its telling - would quite ruin the fantastic reading experience. From Ben Tallchief’s very tangible transfer, to Seth Morley’s very inexplicable one; from Maggie Walsh’s undying faith in ‘The Book’, to Milton Babble’s declaration of “there are no miracles … a miracle would be a sign of god’s weakness … If there was a god”; from the enormous gelatinous ‘Tench’ that gives out advice, to the ‘Building’ that raises more questions … this is the story of “rats in a maze of death” in the kind of surreal world that only PKD can create.