Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Summer Before the Dark by Dorris Lessing

First published:-2009
Star rating:-
Read in:-November, 2013

Before it all slips away from my feeble psychological grasp, before the after-effects start wearing off, let me write it all out. About the summer before the dark.

The first thing that struck me while reading was this - Fuck purple prose. Or red or maroon or magenta prose for that matter. (And I say this in full acknowledgement of the fact that my prose is often closer to purple than any other color.) Screw post-modernism and its deliberate way of being obtuse, obscure, snarky. Screw all that.

Because this is it. This is what I want to achieve if I were to attempt writing a stream of consciousness novel some day. This laying bare of all the everyday inner battles a woman wages with her conscience, with society, with those hunters lined up on the sidewalk eyeing her with the interest of a sexual predator as she walks home in that form-fitting dress. Delving this deep into the psyche of a human being who navigates the space of a few months rapidly changing disguises never knowing which of them are closer to her real self, but in prose so beautifully self-evident. The things nobody in the world is bothered about because all of it is so awfully pedestrian. After all, there's nothing remotely tantalizing about an upper class woman having perfunctory sex in a passionless affair or caring for her husband, her children, molding her existence around their schedules. There's barely any appreciation for what she is doing for society at large by playing the forever-at-your-service comfort-giver. The way she is working a thankless job, drifting through life mostly invisible in the eyes of the ones who surround her. 

This is how Virginia Woolf would have written if she had been alive right now. Because Mrs Kate Brown is nothing but a slightly modified modern day avatar of Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs Ramsay. Her insecurities about her steadily whitening hair and declining sex appeal maybe belittled as a rich white woman's first world problems but pay a little attention to them and you will see how universal and all-encompassing her gripe with patriarchy is. 

"She marries because to get married young is to prove herself; and then it must be as if she has inside her an organ capable of absorbing and giving off thousands of watts of Love, Attention, Flattery, and this organ has been working at full capacity, but she can't switch the thing off."

This is what I can only hope to do some day. Make my words bite, sting and burn those who read them. Force them to ponder upon devoured words for extended periods of time.

But does it really deserve 5 stars? Perhaps not, especially in light of the portions where the narrative loses sight of its destination in one of its countless meanderings and gives us the impression that we are trapped in the quagmire of Kate's own inner chaos. But then I am already in awe of Doris Lessing's voice and its power, her way of systematically eviscerating an unequal partnership where the husband is somehow in command of his own life but the wife isn't, her way of cutting open and dissecting motherhood, magnifying each one of its ignored, glossed over aspects for us to see clearly. I love the way this perfectly ordinary Kate Brown with her ordinary name gets under my skin and burrows through my insides, making me so deeply uncomfortable, coercing me into reconsidering my view of the women I have known closely over the years. 

How elegantly she bridges the gap between the inner and outer worlds of an individual and yet in the simplest of manners! And that, for me, is a 5-star achievement. 

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review : What Was She Thinking [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoë Heller

First published:- June 1, 2003

Star rating:-

Read in:-January, 2013

Notes on a Scandal is a multi-layered story. While keeping up with the pretense of titillating readers with the lurid details of a much older woman's romance with an adolescent boy, it skilfully but subtly exposes the hypocrisy practiced by each one of its characters. How each one of them remained so painfully aware of Sheba's perversions while being stubbornly dismissive of their own. 
Zoe Heller also forces us to rethink what we consider moral and immoral and ask ourselves whether we can really patronize Sheba Hart for what she did.

At the heart of the story is a theme of social deviance but there's also a tender love story at its core, albeit entirely one-sided.
The story of the scandal is narrated from Barbara's point of view who scribbles down whatever she feels about Sheba and her life in her notes while occasionally giving the reader a glimpse into her own sad little existence. Although she may come off as a woman with slightly sociopathic tendencies, keeping tabs on Sheba and meddling with almost every aspect of her life right from the time of their first meeting, one also feels for the profound loneliness she suffers from. She takes pleasure in watching Sheba's picture-perfect family life crumble bit by bit while she waits on the sidelines for a time to arrive when only she will remain by her side. While Sheba, subconsciously dissatisfied with the way her life has turned out to be, gets sucked deeper into the madness brought forth by her own deviance, Barbara observes silently and patiently. Till the time all hell breaks loose and both women-somewhat cut off from the mainstream of society-find a safe haven in each other's company.

A very significant question raised by the author in this book is - whether the supposed victims could sometimes be the culprits themselves? Whether a minor or a teenager can really be capable of manipulating an adult and bend him/her to their own will?
Not that this is an attempt at absolving Sheba of her actions but it's a question worth pondering. 

To sum it up, this is a twisted and complicated tale revolving around relationships which cannot be labelled and the notions of culpability and hence right up my alley. No this does not mean I'm twisted (okay maybe a little) but merely that I love a good conundrum.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

First published:- Jan 1st, 1992

Star Rating:-

Read in:- November, 2013

"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things - naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world."

Oh this vile bunch of snot-nosed college brats, fattened on their parents' money like ticks on blood. Oh their ennui and way of seeking solace in esoteric practices believing them to be the one-way ticket to some metaphysical dimension which will exclude us mere working class mortals with our worldly woes from entering and interfering with whatever unearthly pursuits they busy themselves with. Well guess what kids? We would like to be rid of over-confident, smug, self-important, world-weary bastards like you too. I almost wish I could go on a mad rampage during an eye-roll inducing, unbelievably ridiculous Dionysian rite and kill every single one of you as well.

The Secret History is one of the best crime thrillers I have ever read. And this is perhaps because this is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense of the term but literary fiction with moral ambiguity and loss of innocence as central themes. The actual crime(s) is a minor part of the narrative and doesn't eclipse the gradual build up to it or the domino effect it triggers subtly, a devastating chain reaction which results in the collective crumbling of the fabric of 5 young lives. And it is the shadow of this crime, the anticipation of its occurrence and the crushing psychological aftermath of it that lends the narrative its true substance. A discrepancy between the occasional sting of conscience felt by the perpetrators of the crime and their previous heinously selfish justification of the act of murder is what makes this book so utterly engrossing and a veritable unputdownable. Because here we aren't dealing with the solution of a complicated police case but instead getting acquainted with a thread of events which also happen to include a murder from the narrator's point of view who is a reluctant accomplice to the crime. 

But then why the conflicted 3-star rating? That's because I foresaw every unimaginative turning point or cliched plot device thrown in for the sake of heightening the drama. A third of the way into the narrative, with the grand revelation (which is not very grand to be honest), the unravelling of the rest of the story becomes very guessable. This is not to mention the 'Argentum'-Argentina fallacy. Any attentive reader who has a grasp of high school level basic chemistry will realize that 'Aurum' refers to gold,'Argentum' refers to silver. But these aren't even the major irritants. My biggest problem is with the ludicrous contrivances that are passed off in the name of a premise for the story to build itself on. There's a tinge of unreality to the idea of a super close knit fraternity of 5 snobbish students of classical Greek in a college in 80s Vermont mentored by an even more snobbish and elitist professor, the narrator conveniently finding an entry into this brotherhood sort of grouping out of the blue and becoming a passive spectator to the sequence of events which follow. And lastly the main characters are hardly believable, especially the sole female character who remains a vaguely outlined one at best. 

The 3 stars are for Tartt's writing which is never showy or deliberate but graceful and quite excellent. I hope The Goldfinch is more impressive and free of proof-reading errors.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

First published:- October 1st, 2013
Published by:-  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) 
Star rating:-

There are two kinds of rambling I have come across in literature - the good kind of rambling wherein the narrator jumps from one topic to another sub-topic quite abruptly, dwelling on one subject for a good many number of pages before attempting to make a point of some sort and succeeding in that endeavour. And the bad kind of rambling wherein a reader, realizes with a growing certainty, that the author's intention has been merely to dawdle and haphazardly branch out into topics with little to no substantial connection, occasionally inserting a philosophical musing or two to dispel some of the aimlessness of the narrative but with less than satisfactory results. 'The Pure Gold Baby' is an adherent of the latter kind of intolerable rambling. And Margaret Drabble is an eloquent rambler. It's good to hear her talking but there's also the moment of irritation creeping in intermittently when one is tempted to abandon reading and wonder aloud 'is this going anywhere?'.

Is this about the perils of motherhood? a feminist take on the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship? a commentary on mental illness and neurological conditions? an ode to children afflicted by congenital disorders? 

I could not fathom. And that's majorly responsible for the half-hearted 3-star rating.

But a few days ago, by a stroke of good luck, I found Margaret Drabble's article in The Guardian on the deplorable treatment of senior citizens worldwide and her well-argued pitch for allowing them their right to die a dignified death (legalizing euthanasia in other words). And I found the connection with 'The Pure Gold Baby' developing instantly. The concept of growing old is inextricably linked with the idea of growing more and more incapable of being in control of one's life and that's one identifiable theme in this book. 

The eponymous pure, gold baby, a differently-abled child of sunny disposition who doesn't comprehend the complexities of the world and smiles and stumbles along her way through an uneventful life with the aid of her competent and headstrong mother has very little to do with the narrative but everything described within somehow revolves around her pitiable existence. Throw in the life story of a single mother, some theoretical anthropology, case studies of Zambian 'lobster-claw' children (born with physical deformities), examples of famed winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature with brain-damaged children like Kenzaburō Ōe, Pearl S. Buck and Doris Lessing, top it off with references to Jane Austen's mentally ill brother George Austen and what you get is a jumbled mess named 'The Pure Gold Baby'

To be fair to Ms Drabble, it is quite an aesthetically put together mess since she surely possesses the ability of fashioning a narrative out of sensitive issues without venturing into drippily sentimental territory. But that's about the only redeeming feature of this mess. 
That and the correct usage of the word 'prolepsis'

**Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Netgalley for an advance reader's copy**

Also posted on Goodreads and Amazon.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman

First published:- 1999
Star rating:- None

This is the first time I am reviewing a book that I have tried and failed to rate.

How do I decide on a rating anyway? Should I judge the prose? the content? the author's style of presentation? his narrative voice? the quality of the translation?
Do I even have the right to? 

Awarding a star rating to this man's unbelievably harrowing and miraculous tale of surviving a war which claimed the lives of 6 million of his fellow brethren for no reason at all, seems a more sacrilegious act than calling Infinite Jest a bad book on Goodreads. 

So I choose not to.

Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist working for the Polish radio station, takes us through the years of Nazi occupation of Poland and Warsaw, in particular, and the insensate violence that had the Jewish inhabitants of the city (the ones who were fortunate enough to be spared the concentration camps) living the most brutal and unforgiving of nightmares for a period of almost 5 years.

                                                 Wladyslaw Szpilman

Szpilman writes with a kind of unnerving indifference, as if this were someone else's tale of horrors he is narrating and not his own. It is obvious that since he had written this in 1946, immediately after the war, his senses may still have been numbed under the influence of the barbarous acts he had witnessed through the 6 years of the Occupation. His voice doesn't sound sarcastic, debilitated or even a little bit acerbic. Instead, he gives us a neat, uncluttered, unemotional, chronologically ordered account of events which saw him narrowly escaping certain death many, many times.

But this is not just his story. A surprise awaits the unsuspecting reader at the very end, in the form of Wilm Hosenfeld, a Nazi officer who saved Szpilman's life in the last few months of 1944. An astonishingly mild-mannered, generous soul who not only kept the knowledge of Szpilman's existence a secret from the other SS officers, but saved him from certain death out of starvation and the unbearable cold.

But true to the nature of war which justifies countering violence with more violence, Hosenfeld was taken as a prisoner of war when the Soviets finally recaptured Poland. He was tortured to death years later (1952) in some unnamed labor camp in the icy swathes of Stalingrad. His tormentors were especially cruel with him, angered by his claims of having saved the lives of many Jews and Poles during the Warsaw occupation. Which, of course, was nothing but the truth.*

                                             Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld

It goes without saying, while reading this book I had no sense of time or any movement around me, I had no idea whether it was still daytime or whether night had fallen. Turning over the last page, when I finally took note of my surroundings I discovered my pillow was half-wet with tears and that I had a dreadful headache.

Some of the most poignant, haunting and reflective passages of the narrative are in Wilm's journal which was recovered years later and incorporated into Szpilman's memoir -

"Evil and brutality lurk in the human heart. If they are allowed to develop freely, they flourish, putting out dreadful offshoots...."

A mere German officer seems to have had the moral strength to admit - 

"Our entire nation will have to pay for all these wrongs and this unhappiness, all the crimes we have committed. Many innocent people must be sacrificed before the blood-guilt we've incurred can be wiped out. That's an inexorable law in small and large things alike."

And yet the "great" Der Führer, in front of whom a vast Empire bowed down at one point of time, could only choose the coward's way out by committing suicide in the end. 

A million stars to the courage of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who aided the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, disregarding the constant threat to his own life. A million stars to his unflinchingly honest attempt at looking back at a terrible past. A million stars for enabling the citizens of the world to read, know and derive lessons from the story of his life. A million stars to Wilm Hosenfeld for holding on to his conscience at a time when morality and compassion were in short supply. 

And a million stars to the triumph of the human spirit. 

(So you see the correct rating of this book should be 5 million stars which is beyond the scope of any conventional rating system.) 

*Wilm Hosenfeld was posthumously recognized as a Righteous among the Nations in 2009 by Israel.

P.S.:- This review maybe updated after I watch the movie.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

First published:-1924
 Star rating:-

Imagine being stuck in a place where all sense of time is lost in the web of inactivity, a place which enables people to lead a life devoid of any greater purpose and only focused on recuperation from a queer illness, a place almost hermetically sealed and self-controlled, successfully keeping the repercussions of wars and diplomatic feuds between nations at bay. Imagine being rid of all your earthly woes of finding means of survival and all the elements that stand as pillars supporting the normative structure of life during a sojourn in a special, secluded place. Imagine a miniature diorama of a society thriving on its own, divorced from society at large. 
If you haven't been successful in imagining a real life scenario fitting aforementioned descriptions, do not despair. You can always discover this specially constructed safe haven in a certain fictional sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where our protagonist Hans Castorp languishes for seven whole years.

The experience of reading this book is akin to a painstaking hike up a dangerously steep slope. (Excuse the overused analogy but it happens to be quite apt)
There are long dry stretches requiring ritualistic finding of one footing after the next, ensuring that as a reader you do not slip and tumble headfirst into the gaping chasm of incomprehension. And then there are the moments of perfect clarity when snippets of Mann's wisdom filter in like errant rays of sunshine through the drear of many tedious descriptions of long walks and repetitive conversations, making the long and difficult climb seem worth it all of a sudden.

"But he who knows the body, who knows life, also knows death. Except that's not the whole thing - but merely a beginning, pedagogically speaking. You have to hold it up to the other half, to its opposite. Because our interest in death and illness is nothing but a way of expressing an interest in life..."

The summit of this "magic mountain" becomes the location of a metaphorical watch tower from where the spectacle of our collective civilizational march is viewed, dissected and analyzed with precision. The quirky patients inhabiting the sanatorium become mere proxies for some nations or disparate points of view, their inter-relationships often symbolic of some deeper ideological conflict woven intricately into the fabric of existence.
But despite the sheer brilliance of this premise, there's something off about this book. Something that prevented me from according that final star. 
Even if this remains a lengthy and eruditely presented discussion on Europe's inner contradictions, its juxtaposition of progress in all spheres of life and violence brewing under the veneer of that sanctimonious progress, as a work of literature it is somehow imperfect and rough around the edges. Since I was often tempted to believe it would have worked better as a nonfictional philosophical discourse. It's sort of like what my eloquent friend Dolors says - 'The book lacks a soul.' How succinctly put. (Read her well-argued review here)

The characters are employed as mere mouthpieces, never resembling well-drawn sketches of actual people with their own stories. The situations and backdrops are mere contrivances specifically begotten to tout ideas on life and death. It's as if the whole narrative is an elaborate ruse developed to convey Mann's thoughts on the state of Europe prior to the First World War. During my moments of exasperation with the book I was able to recall a few of Nabokov's thoughts in his article onLolita

"...All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann."

Clearly a jibe at TMM if I have ever seen one. 
Not that I agree with Nabokov's opinion on TMM being topical trash but it surely gives rise to the suspicion that if you strip the book of all its allegorical significance, almost nothing substantial remains. And with the turn of the last page, it leaves the reader with a sense of indescribable dissatisfaction about having just finished a journey neither very rewarding nor enjoyable. 

Maybe a re-read some time years later on in life will restore the elusive star. Maybe it will not.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...