Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “N0S4A2”

Nurse Thornton walks in to her regular job at the hospital and checks in on her regular comatose patients; and as she passes by one of the regulars, Charles Manx grabs her violently and tells her her son would be much happier in Christmasland. And right there we know that nothing is what it seems!

N0S4A2 (Nosferatu) is the second Joe Hill novel that I have picked up, and it has been a really enjoyable read. Travelling back and forth between the 1980s and the 2000s, and told mainly through the perspectives of Charles Talent Manx and Victoria "Vic" McQueen, this is a story that bridges together the real and the imagined, the physical world and an "inscape" in a very interesting manner. A manner, I must add, heightened by the unique narrative style whereby most chapters end mid-sentence, with the remainder of the sentence continuing as the title of the following chapter.

A 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith journeys to "Christmasland". A Raleigh Tuff Burner bikes across the "Shorter Way Bridge" to reach faraway places within moments ... and all the while Margaret (Maggie) Leigh, the librarian, uses her Scrabble tiles to race alongside and interpret events as they occur, in a desperate attempt to finally solve the multiple disappearing and murders that have been going on for years.

Given the events that occur, this could have easily settled comfortably into a generic horror story, but I liked how it was primarily crime / mystery. That said, there are certainly some horrific parts, mainly, the inhabitants of Charlie Manx' Sleigh House, the events at Bing Partridge's House of Sleep, and of course the final showdown at Christmasland (dead children can be so creepy, isn't it?!)

While every character in the story was truly memorable, I especially liked Louis "Lou" Carmody a lot. Till the very end he was "the kid on the motorcycle again, hauling skinny Vic McQueen up on to the seat behind him." He combines the likeability of a regular guy with that fierce loyalty and bravery that makes him an awesome person to know.

In one of the final scenes Maggie, explaining to Vic how Manx has remade children into his idea of perfect innocence, says, "Innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be ... Innocent little kids rip the wings off flies, because they don't know any better. That's innocence". It really made me think.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall”

I quite liked this collection of short stories by Kazuo Ishiguro, all based on the theme of music and musicians. I especially liked the way how - within the confines of one evening or one weekend - an entire slice of life with all its hopes and regrets is presented. A fading singer serenades his wife in a gondola ... to mark a dying marriage. A young guitarist runs away from life ... and meets an old couple wistfully reminiscing the passing of youth, of life, and the slow onset of the end.

My absolute favourite of this collection was the title story, “Nocturnes”. It is the story of a saxophonist who cannot get famous, not for any lack of talent, but because - as both his manager and his wife tell him constantly - he is too ugly. Tired of being called a 'loser' by both, he finally gives in to the pressure and accepts a donation by his wife's rich lover.

I was expecting this story to run the usual course of social pressures, and become yet another generic moral lesson on outer versus inner beauty. But, as the artist recuperates in a room next to a very rich and famous socialite out on a routine face lift, what Ishiguro presents in this story is a very unique relationship between two people who have absolutely nothing in common other than - ironically - faces hidden under bandages the entire time they are together. With each passing moment, a little bit more of a hitherto buried characteristic reveals itself in this off-key note of music, that lasts but for a short while.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Notre-Dame de Paris”

Set in and around the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris of 1482, this 1830 novel by Victor Hugo (history within history indeed!) is a beautiful picture of the life and times of 15th Century France. The most beautiful part about this book (I read the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood) was the way the scenery shifts, changes and reveals, as we follow the characters around. We begin our journey on Epiphany, the day of the Feast of Fools in Paris, where Quasimodo is crowned the Pope of Fools. We follow the poet Gringoire to the Cour des Miracles which reveals the dark underworld of fake beggars and lepers, the blind and the lame. We dance along with Esmeralda and get a glimpse into the world of the rich and the royal. (While I did think that there were some sections dedicated to the architectural history of Paris, that I could have had a little less of) there is no denying the grand mural that Hugo paints in this book.

As fascinating as the Parisian landscape is the varied presentation of characters in this story; from Clopin Trouillefou ("Charity Please") the King of Truands, to Jehan Frollo an over-indulged younger sibling and a troublemaker, to the less than moral and rather weak Phoebus de Chateaupers, Captain of the King's Archers, to the beautiful young gypsy street dancer Esmeralda, to Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame, the novel's protagonist and Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, the novel's antagonist. (What an absolutely insane character, by the way)! I do have to make a very special mention of the poet Pierre Gringoire. Whether pleading not to be hung in front of the "king" of the court of miracles or in front of King Louis XI, this failed starving poet still has an immensely positive outlook and still talks about having a thousand reasons to live... the sky, the air, the mountains of Paris.

Through the inclusion of small incidents Hugo also shines a very deep light into the heart of this society: the court cases of Quasimodo in front of an equally deaf Master Florian Barbedienne; that of Esmeralda accused of killing Captain Phoebus; and even that of Gringoire at the Court of Miracles, all reflect a deep-seated bias for pretty facades no matter how shameful the secrets behind them.

Adding tragic dimension to this tale is of course the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda; a story of a relation that never could have been, but also, sadly and paradoxically, the only one that was - a story that was always fated to doom, riding as it was, on that other doomed relationship - that of Claude Frollo and Quasimodo, parent and child, Magician and Demon.

One observation in conclusion; I am not sure why the title has been translated - and the book come to be known - as "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame"; while Quasimodo is certainly one of the main characters of this story, to say that this is his story alone, would be to demean the rich and wide, almost epic, scope of the novel.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “A Scanner Darkly”

"Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair."

I started 2014 with a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick and had mentioned in my blog that this could be the year I declare him to be among my top favourite writers of all time. Yes, with this semi-autobiographical story by PKD I have reached that point.

A Scanner Darkly is the story of Robert Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent assigned to spy on Arctor's household. Living in his scramble suit as "Fred", out to catch high-level dealers of Substance D, this is the story of the slow and surreal breakdown of a human into the two co-existing yet conflicting hemispheres of the brain. Under the influence of the very drug he set out to catch users and dealers of, he undergoes increasing confusion about reality. His progressive meltdown and the final stages of identity shift made for absolutely fascinating reading. When the surveillance cameras are set up and we see Bob/Fred's degeneration as his consciousness weaves in reality and out films - those sections were absolutely brilliant.

From the comedy of trying to figure out where all the 10 gears on a 10-speed bike are, to the tragedy of the addict whose mother kept injecting him with heroin as a baby so he wouldn't cry and she could sleep ... from the horror of the teenage girl whose brother introduced drugs into her system so he could rape her, to the sadness of Fred thinking of Hendrix and Joplin and how they ended up, while ‘All is Loneliness’ plays in the background ... the final recognition of everyone as "a lump of flesh grinding along, eating, drinking, sleeping, working, crapping", makes this is a heartbreaking fantasy film that keeps rolling not just in the characters' but also the readers' heads. From Bob to Fred to Bruce, this is the story of - as PKD mentions in his Author's Note - "some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did." And one is left wondering if Fred hoped in vain that - unlike himself who could see only darkness when he looked into himself - the scanners at least would see clearly and not darkly, or all would be lost with no knowledge gained.