Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith

First published:- 2013
Published by:- Princeton University Press

Star rating:-

How should we like it were stars to burn 
With a passion for us we could not return? 
If equal affection cannot be, 
Let the more loving one be me.

My association with W.H. Auden and his literary output has been restricted to the occasional browsing through which gave rise to a somewhat fickle love for Lullaby (which I couldn't help but read more than once) and As I walked Out One Evening. But somehow the lines faded away from memory as soon as I closed the browser window, sometimes mere beautiful words and perfect cadence aren't sufficient to stimulate further intellectual curiosity. But Alexander McCall Smith's near fanboyish enthusiasm for one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century has forced me to reconsider my views on Auden and maybe even provided the much needed push to delve into his oeuvre further.

This is not literary criticism per se, but rather a mixed bag of Smith's views on the poet's personal life, his body of work and the way his worldviews figured in his poetry. It goes without saying, literature students may find this book vastly redundant as it contains nothing that hasn't already been recorded by academicians who have analyzed and dissected Auden's poetry from all probable angles. And Smith acknowledges this right at the beginning, very clearly stating that his intention behind writing this has been to offer a tribute to Auden who was, in a way, his personal literary icon.

There are separate chapters devoted to Auden's early years at Gresham's School, another one in the long tradition of stiff upper-lipped English boarding schools, and later at Oxford, his lifelong friendship with Christopher Isherwood who had been inspired to write the renowned Goodbye to Berlin after Auden's visit to Berlin in 1928, his homosexual dalliances, his desire to drive an ambulance during Spanish Civil War which resulted in one of his celebrated, but subsequently disowned, poems 'Spain'(vehemently denounced by George Orwell who of course was accredited with a deeper understanding of the politics of the Civil War), his growing admiration for socialism in the wake of the rise of fascism in Europe prior to the Second World War and his eventual disillusionment with Communism. 

Auden's poetry is widely criticized as a hollow compilation of sublime imagery and flowery writing with little to no depth but Smith, in the tradition of most Auden lovers, defends the sanctity of his work with assertions like the following:- 

"'In Praise of Limestone' contributes greatly to the appeal of what he wrote. It is easy on the ear - and ease here has no pejorative implications: the fact that something is easy to listen to does not make it less intellectually significant."

"There are plenty of poets, especially those given to the writing of confessional verse, who are ready to tell us about their particular experience of love. We listen sympathetically, and may indeed be touched or inspired by their insights. But few poets transcend the personal when talking about love. They are talking, really, about how they felt when they were in love; Auden digs far deeper than that. He talks about love and flesh as it can be experienced by all of us - he transcends the specific experience in a particular place and time, to get to the heart of what we are."

Smith also makes a significant point in regard to Auden's disposition as a poet, he was known to acknowledging misrepresentations of facts in his earlier poems instead of quietly hoping for the work in contention to be erased from public memory like the other writers of his time did. He humbly acknowledged whenever he was wrong and was extremely self-critical.

To conclude, this is a fine book to gift to the random Auden devotee and perfect for introducing Auden to a neophyte who knows virtually nothing about the great Anglo-American poet (like myself for instance).

Also published on Goodreads and Amazon.
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Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013: A year in books Part 2

7)Apocalypse after Apocalypse

My only Stephen King this year and it had me thoroughly engrossed from beginning till end. First there is a worldwide breakout of a killer flu (Which is of course a biological weapons experiment gone wrong. What else do you expect from the US military?) which turns our dearest planet into a graveyard. A handful survive and picking up the pieces split up into two rival camps led by the son of Satan (called the Dark Man) and Mother Abagail (an old Black lady with some supernatural powers) who take a stand against each other. Sounds clichemax right? But King is a writer who just knows how to draw his readers in irrespective of how unrealistic the premise sounds. This is your good-triumphs-over-evil tale but with a Stephen King-esque flavor. 
Read my review here

6)That summer of her awakening

Doris Lessing passed away this year leaving behind a body of work touching upon diverse issues and nearly every genre out there. This one was published in 2009 and essentially encapsulates the thoughts and feelings of a middle-aged woman anticipating the onset of old age and her declining significance in the lives of her husband and children. I know this sounds very banal but Lessing's masterful writing unveils hitherto unknown dimensions of a woman's misgivings about growing old, about rendering selfless service to maintain her family's welfare making this an absolutely rivetting read. She didn't win the Nobel prize for nothing people!
Read my review here.

5)A matter of sadness

A dark and brutal look at a man's coming to terms with his new identity of being a father to a brain-damaged son. And the 'man' in this case is none other than Kenzaburo Oe himself. Semi autobiographical, deeply moving, yet mercilessly realistic. This is a book which does not make one shed tears or become mawkishly sentimental anywhere but assaults the reader with the most hideous truths of our existence. 
Read my review here.

4)Book inside a book inside a book...

Well what to say about this one? Either you have heard of this book, read it already and have been won over by the deviously metafictive tricks that Calvino pulls on his readers. Or you haven't. In which case, do yourself a favor and read this without delay. This is a book within a book within a book. You are a character as well as the reader and the writer makes you go through a set of events. Don't understand what I am saying? Just read the book okay?
Read my review here.

3)Born equals

There's so much to say about July's People that I don't know where to start. It is a meditation on race relations, an acknowledgement of the humanity of the ones considered inferior. This is a highly atmospheric novel and Gordimer skilfully creates an environment taut with repressed violence and turbulent emotions threatening to boil up to the surface. An unforgettable read without a doubt.
Read my review here


What do we say about Jane Eyre that hasn't been said already and much better than I ever could? This is Charlotte Bronte's classic tale of a young woman who lived life on her own terms and never bowed before pressure be it from the might of the wealthy, be it from the tyranny of religious dogma, stubbornly remaining true to her own lofty worldviews. Brilliant book. Brilliant writer. Brilliant Jane. 
Read my review here.

1)To the lighthouse, towards salvation

My most favorite read of the year and most favorite Virginia Woolf novel till date. I believe everything there is to know about life lies ensconced within the pages of this gem. Read it and discover Virginia and her genius.
Read my review here.

And this concludes the list of favorites for the year. I hope the new year has many more excellent reads in store for me and everyone. 
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Friday, December 20, 2013

2013: A year in books Part 1

A year in which you have read 126 books (and still counting ) does put a strain on your ability to decide your top 10 favorites from an already long list of favorite books. So what I'll do to make this problem a bit more approachable is make a list of my personal top 15. Just cannot shorten it anymore.
So here are the first 8. I would list the remaining 7 in another post soon. Hopefully.

15)No magic up on the magic mountain but....

If you are not acquainted with Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, perhaps his most revered work aside from Buddenbrooks (which was mentioned by the Nobel committee), then either you are living under a rock or your preferred mode of entertainment is more new age and of little depth. Or you are 12. (Just kidding!) This is famously touted as his literature of ideas and that's largely true, but what isn't mentioned in the blurb is what a rigorous slog this is. I spent three excruciatingly slow months navigating the world of Hans Castorp's queer illness, his bizarre invalid set of companions keeping him company in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps with their quirky and often provocative worldviews. It was a rewarding read, a book which must be read for Mann's elegant language (get the John E. Woods translation not the Lowe-Porter one which is pathetically horrendous) and his statement on Europe's inner conflicts prior to the onset of the First World War. But it didn't leave me with any sense of satisfaction and slightly cheated to be honest. 
Read my review here.

14)The embers that refuse to die

Don't worry I won't chastise you if you haven't ever heard of this book. Sándor Márai is an obscure Hungarian writer after all who was virtually unknown all his life and hounded by the Communist government who eventually drove him away first to Italy, later to the United States. He was published first in the U.S. where he lived till his death in 1989. Now Embers is a very quiet, introspective kind of book. It delights in recalling the old-world extravagance of the Austro-Hungary empire and merging the past with the present. It has some ornately crafted sentences which are bound to be admired by any reader with an appreciation for great prose. Embers is atmospheric, melancholic, eerie and drips with a regret and longing for that which is no more. 
Read my review here.

13)Ooh scandalous!

Zoe Heller is known for this one book which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2003 and unfortunately enough she is often questioned by fans, readers and reviewers alike about why she creates such perfectly despicable characters (seriously people why do you ask such silly questions?). My point is, do not be so narrow-minded like them. What makes literature so priceless is that we get to be acquainted with alternative points of view, even the blasphemous, contentious and seemingly taboo ones. This is one such book which challenges the reader's idea of social decency and walks the thin line of divide between deviance and normalcy. Her characters are all wonderfully crafted, realistic and their conflicts force us to question established notions of morality. Her prose is beautiful and elegant yet easily readable. I couldn't stop myself from giving this book 5 stars. 
(Just in case you are still debating whether or not to read this, the story features a juicy sexual affair between a young attractive female teacher and her underage male student, a boy her son's age. Incentive enough? Also remember the Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett-Judi Dench starrer based on this novel?)
Read my review here.

12)The gift of tragedy

This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and tragic books I have read this year. And since the tragedies that descend on the life of the protagonist here are more clearly delineated than say in Embers, the entailing heartbreak is greater in intensity. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent years of Japanese occupation of Malay (present day Malaysia), this tale of troubled times connects the lives of people of different nationalities and conflicting allegiances in the most poignant manner and creates a moving picture of a collective human tragedy. In terms of narrative sweep, it can almost be called an epic. For a debut novel this book was nothing short of a towering literary achievement and its Booker longlisting in 2007 is thoroughly deserved. The prose is lush, there are gorgeous descriptions of Malaysian culture and its landscapes with a generous sprinkling of Chinese history and Japanese arts. This is the perfect book on south east Asia. And I certainly look forward to reading more of Eng in the future. (His The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted in 2012)
Read my review here.


That sub-heading may not sound ingenious or witty but it's the best I could come up with. And frankly, no phrase or sentence will accurately describe this book without the word 'misogyny' in it. Particularly here in India, where we are exactly one year ahead of the barbaric gang-rape of the medical student which sent shockwaves through the fabric of our society and misogyny is deeply ingrained in our psyche and our way of life, this book is relevant now more than ever. Horrifying, coldly brutal and prophetic, The Handmaid's Tale imagines a dystopian society in which women are nothing but baby-producing machines, stripped of their basic human rights and personal liberties, only utilized like inanimate incubators to ensure mankind's survival in terms of numbers. This book will make your hair stand on end. Literature students worldwide are acquainted with this book as a very standard feminist novel and I believe the entire canon of feminist literature will be incomplete without the inclusion of The Handmaid's Tale. And dear men of the world, READ THIS if you haven't already. Please? (This was also shortlisted for the Man Booker in 1986)
Read my review here.

10)An ode to the third sex

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West need no introduction and their memorable affair led to the creation of this slightly under-appreciated masterpiece. Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, The Waves and To the Lighthouse are more universally worshipped while Orlando is often overlooked whenever Woolf's oeuvre is under discussion. Magical, otherworldly, beautiful and fraught with symbolism, Orlando talks about the woman, the man and their mystical united exploration of all dimensions - spiritual and physical. Virginia Woolf is not everyone's favorite but for someone like myself, who will perhaps adore even a meaningless mark she had made with a pen, Orlando was pure bliss. Exquisite prose, phantasmagorical imagery and an unforgettable protagonist. This was Woolf's tribute to Sackville-West and their affair and lifelong friendship. And boy what an incredible homage this is!
Read my review here


A collage of the human consciousness is what this is. Hauntingly beautiful images stitched together with the patience and devotion of a true mistress of the craft. Eerie, surreal and utterly breath-taking. For all those who know Anaïs Nin as a writer of only literary erotica, do not believe that piece of false information. She has written literature, proper literature with the capability of triggering flights of fancy and infusing your reality with the color of your most bizarre dreams. See talking about this book is very difficult without going into hyperbole. So hey, read my review here.

8)The price of motherhood

This is one of those unheard of books that you discover on your random visit to a well-stocked library or a used book store or after a whimsical clicking of the 'request' button on the Netgalley page for Open Road Integrated Media (in my case). And this is one of those surprisingly moving and relevant books that make a powerful statement on a subject less talked about, less discussed. Written in the first person narrative voice, Letter to a child never born, tackles issues like the seriousness of giving birth, a to-be mother's misgivings and the controversial matter of abortion rights. Oriana Fallaci, a powerful Italian war correspondent wrote this book in the 70s when it supposedly became quite a publishing phenomenon. But I believe it has become buried in recent years (only less than 200 reviews on Goodreads) which is why the Open Road Media guys decided to republish it in a new avatar. (Thank god for that!) Even though this book deals with a host of predominantly feminist issues, Ms Fallaci has also done well to give the humanist's point of view here. 
Read my review here.

Phew that concludes the first part. 
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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: We need new names by Noviolet Bulawayo

Noviolet Bulawayo (Bulawayo is presently the name of Zimbabwe's second largest city) aka Elizabeth Tshele (her real name) was the surprise name in the Booker shortlist this year since she is the first Zimbabwean to be considered for the prestigious honor. I read 'We need new names' after it was longlisted since my foray into African literary landscape has been very limited so far. And this review was written before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest I didn't expect it to be included. The book starts out with a novel intention but somehow isn't able to achieve its target, which is to help the reader develop an emotional connection with her characters. Or that's what I thought. Obviously, the Booker committee thought differently. Now begins my former review:-

First published:- May 21st, 2013
Star rating:-

Books like this one have me fumbling around for the right approach to review them, because they try to cram in too much within the scope of a regular sized novel and consequently just stop short of resonating strongly with the reader. 

It's like Bulawayo had a message to give me, something potent and fiercely honest enough to burn right through all my prejudices and cherished misconceptions and leave me staring right at all the cold, hard facts. But then halfway into it, her voice went off in various tangential directions in an effort to tackle too many issues at one go and lost most of its intensity. 
As a result the message that she had set out to deliver, gave off the impression of poor phrasing and ended up sounding half-hearted and rather dubious.

If I try my absolute best, I can only delineate this as a search for identity, a raw account of coming to terms with the after-effects of displacement. Or an attempt at summarizing in a few hundred pages the feelings of being neither here nor there. 

But then Bulawayo let me know so much more. She told me about the experiences of surviving on a few stolen guavas, walking barefoot on the burning asphalt of the dusty road and yet enjoying the smug satisfaction of playing 'Find Bin Laden'with equally destitute and miserable kids of your age. And what it feels like to flee from and forget the tattered remains of a land you were born in simply because it could not offer you the promise of a fulfilling life ahead anymore - a land torn apart by strife, ethnic violence and unstable, unsympathetic governments. The irony of silently selling away your dignity in a foreign country in exchange for a life better than what your own motherland could afford to bestow upon you. The feeling of being swept up in the vortex of too many rapidly occurring changes as an illegal immigrant and the utter hopelessness of never really belonging anywhere. 

Bulawayo may not be capable of subtlety or stringing beautiful words together into lengthy sentences fraught with imagery, but she has a compelling and unique voice of her own nonetheless. 

I will surely look out for her other works in the future.

**A 3.5 stars that could not be rounded off to a 4**

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

First published:- 1927
Star Rating:- 

Oh Virginia! How is it that you make your words spring to life from the barren pages and hit my senses with the force of a gale every time? How is it that you peel off the layers of the banal and reveal the terrible beauty of the core? How is it that you steer my consciousness so deep into the murky waters of uncharted territory that resurfacing takes a toll on my strength?

I wonder what spirit possessed you every time you picked up your pen, brimming over with confidence or maybe unsure of your own craft, to pour every ounce of what weighed on your mind fluidly into the empty pages waiting in anticipation. I wonder if you heard the voices of decades lost in the spiral of time whispering into your ears the truest wisdom of all, as you sat at a desk in a room of your own, pursuing the tail end of some stray thought. I wonder if you ever realized the worth of what you wrote or the gift you have left for generations to cherish after your bones and flesh have been turned to dust and returned to where they rose from. 

I wonder if I have ever known a woman like Mrs Ramsay in person - been enamored of her ethereal beauty and grudgingly admired her command over the hearts of those who lived in her shadow and the way she let go of that same command as and when her whimsies deemed fit. I wonder if nearly every marital bond ever forged between two individuals has been or is a replication of the interplay of words and emotions, spoken and unspoken, between the Ramsays. I wonder if Lily Briscoe is truly a personification of the unified spirit of the man and the woman, their dichotomies conjoining imperfectly in the splotches of color she dabs on to her empty canvasses.

I strive to make sense of the lighthouse and what it illuminates in a rare moment facilitating cognition, when my eyes have become well-adjusted to the darkness. I don't get the purpose of its existence but I do. I see the lighthouse, hazy and sprayed white by the sea imprisoning it on all sides, standing tall in all its majestic grandeur merging with the horizon, out of my reach and I wonder how it looms so large yet recedes into the distance as a mute, inanimate witness to the play acts of life. I see it as I turn the pages, sometimes not understanding what it is that Virginia wants me to grasp and sometimes struck speechless by the impact of a realization in an instant of profound lucidity.

No other book has rendered me so completely helpless in my measly efforts to encapsulate its essence. No other book has required of me such prolonged contemplation. 
Think of the usual quota of trite responses to a question like"How're you?". Think of the quick "I'm fine" or "I'm well, how are you?" that comes without a moment's delay and how untrue and inadequate either response is each time. If somebody asks me to pronounce judgement on TTL, I'd perhaps respond with an equally predictable 'It is the best book I have read yet' and realize instantly how vapid and insincere this answer is, how silly it is to call this Woolf creation merely a "best book".

Currents of erratic thoughts, many of them contradictory in nature, are zipping past each other inside my head this moment and I am unable to articulate into words the fact of their individual existence as I open my mouth or let my fingers move over this keyboard. That is what attempting to dissect To the Lighthouse feels like. Irrespective of what I write or attempt to write, it is sure to be of little significance and ineffective in giving anyone even a teeny glimpse of what Virginia succeeds in capturing so flawlessly.

Sights and sounds and smells and emotions - strong, subtle, indescribable. The ephemeral quality of an instant when a man and a woman watch their little girl play with a ball, a rare moment in time when each of their individual actions and thoughts are somehow in perfect harmony. The resolute constancy of life and it's cautious but sure-footed tread on the newer ground of change and our bittersweet relationship with this change. A melding together of past, present and future in a blur of color and meaning. All of this and much more. A pure cerebral extravaganza, a celebration of the collective spirit of our existence on this ugly and beautiful world of ours, an acknowledgement of both pain and joy. That is what I think it is. 

I dream of going to the lighthouse one day like James, I dream of letting it guide my progress in the lightless, labyrinthine pathways into the heart and soul of this narrative once again. I dream of not allowing any sentence, any word to whiz past me uncomprehended when I read this again some day. 
Till then I only delight in swaying to the rhythm of her words, in her immortal lyrics in the song of life.

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