Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: In the Woods by Tana French

Reviewer's note:-Before I begin, let me state that 'In the Woods' has been reviewed in this space already but that was Scarlet's take. The following is mine. (The only thing evident in both reviews is how emotionally riveting we found this debut Tana French novel. Seriously, you must read this if you haven't.)

First published:- 2007

Read in:-November-December, 2013

Star rating:-

It's been a while since I have read a book that has left me so utterly devastated, a book entailing such a profound emotional investment that having finished it I feel a gaping emptiness within, a sense of loss. It feels like my heart has been simultaneously crushed into pulp under the weight of the tragedies that descend on the lives of a handful of characters and blown to smithereens. And I would never be able to pick up the pieces and glue them back together into a throbbing whole again.

I read In the Woods while on vacation, whenever I took breaks from watching wave after wave crash on to the shore with the familiar rip-roaring intensity of the sea. I read this even when I was too tired to stay up till late, lying on an unfamiliar bed with a sheet of dubious hygiene standards. I read this during prolonged car rides. And every time I had to tear my eyes away from its pages, I felt a pang of irritation.

As I made my way toward the bone-chilling climax of this narrative, awake at an unholy hour, I distinctly remember breaking out in a sweat on a cool December night to boot. Sleep became an alien entity and, come hell or high water, I knew I would not wrench myself away from this fantastic make-believe world of a small town and the sinister occurrences that tied the lives of its residents in the most twisted way possible. I longed to stay trapped in the eerie magic spell cast by the woods, under the ominous shadows of leafy canopies of pine and beech, caught up in a hazy daydream playing hide and seek with Peter, Jamie and Adam. My heart ached for the two children who never returned home from their beloved woods, who were never found again and the way the tragedy of their mystifying disappearance dealt a crushing blow to the life of their traumatized playmate who returned unharmed. It wept for Rob and Cassie and their missed chances.

This book isn't about crime and punishment, it isn't about the science of deduction or smooth-talking, fedora-sporting detectives smartly arriving at inference after inference and nabbing the culprit in style. I almost crave for the standardized simplicity of regular crime thrillers at this moment, the stories which conveniently compartmentalize the crime and the police procedure, the good guys and the bad guys. At least a book like that would not have left me feeling so desolate and bereft of any happy feeling. 

But this book took my breath away with its ability to instill so much life in each one of its characters that their distress became my own, with its ornate but never ostentatious prose and the way it deftly narrated a story infused with the dull shades of a sadness so affecting. Tana French foregoes all the spick and span categorizations here, thumbs her nose at the usual pigeon-holing. Instead with consummate skill, she outlines the faint traces of humanity in the most brutal impulses, acknowledges the messed up ways in which this bizarre drama of life plays out and how a neat tying up of all loose ends seldom happens in reality. More often than not, life is that merciless and cold. 

This book is about the labyrinthine pathways of our mind which treacherously conceal our most terrifying memories and how our subconscious prods us to replace the unpleasant truths with self-justifying falsities and even establishes our faith in them. It is about the seemingly innocuous, small cruelties of mundane everyday life that are capable of triggering much bigger disasters that destroy the lives of children and the unforgivable cruelties oblivious, ignorant children are themselves capable of.

I refuse to label this electrifying debut novel mere crime fiction because, in all earnestness, it is not. Rather, it is literature which delves deep into the causality of crime and meticulously brings out the humanity of all the people involved, literature capable of wringing out empathy from even the least sensitive reader. And it is an exploration of the convoluted workings of the human mind, of evil and barbaric urges lurking somewhere in its darkest nooks and crevices. It is a cerebral suspense thriller and, without a doubt, one of the best I have ever read. But it is also a beautiful, bittersweet story about people who carry on with their broken lives shouldering the unbearable burden of past trauma, an unforgettable human drama which left me emotionally drained, agitated to the extreme and yet gasping for more.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

First published:-2006

Read in:- February, 2013

Star rating:-

When I had first come across rave reviews of Gone Girl, I was bowled over by the fact that there's after all a woman who is brave enough to try her hand at a genre rarely ventured into by women writers. And apparently, she excels at it too. Surely, she couldn't have hoodwinked hordes of unsuspecting readers into giving her books such high ratings.
So I had decided I'd devour Gillian Flynn's entire oeuvre starting with her first published work. 

Needless to say, that it is with obvious disappointment I'm giving this book only 2 stars. I had high hopes for Flynn's first published novel.

Sharp Objects comes off as a classic case of trying too hard. The set up feels too contrived, the world building, shabby and the writing, unimpressive and awkward. ('bucolicry' Ms Flynn? is that even a real word?) And to heap on to the negatives, Flynn rushes us through the scenery, the murders, the facts with such alarming speed that few things get time enough to make a powerful impact.

The eerie, secluded little town of Wind Gap never comes alive for the reader. All the characters appear to be caricatures of stereotypical suspects in a murder mystery novel. 
Even the central characters seem to be rather blurry outlines of real people instead of full-fledged human beings of flesh and bone. My mind failed at conjuring up even a single image of Wind Gap, its inhabitants or Camille and that's when I knew things were going downhill. After I had made some headway with the book, my attention kept drifting away and this doesn't usually happen with a thriller novel.(Proof of my steadily dwindling interest in thrillers maybe?)

Neither did I care about the murders nor did I think much of the disturbing imagery that Flynn shoves right in the reader's face from time to time. Even if you keep the somewhat macabre murders of pubescent girls aside, there are themes of self mutilation, sexual abuse, descriptions of horrific serial killings, slaughtering of pigs and chickens to make you cringe and wince as you read every alternate passage. Still I wasn't repulsed.
Instead what I felt acutely was Flynn's desperate desire to create a truly unsettling narrative. You can tell she is trying to offer you a blend of all things gory, disturbing and wicked just to titillate your senses. It's as if the central story became secondary to Flynn somewhere while she was writing this and only the deeply perturbing elements assumed primary importance.

Even the ending fails to pack in a punch, because if you have read a slew of whodunits at any point of time in your life, you will sort of guess the culprit. 
The only part which successfully creeped me out was the protagonist's tendency to inflict injuries on herself as a way to purge herself of emotions. But that one feeling doesn't help you sail through a book which is, otherwise, ceaselessly dreary and simply put, lacklustre in every way.

Hence, 2 very unsatisfied, very bored stars.

I am holding out hope for Gillian Flynn though. Maybe my opinion will change after reading Gone Girl.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Anaïs Nin, my beloved witch

Anaïs Nin has been a favorite author for a while now. So today I'll just use this space to review two of her books at one go:-
House of Incest

First published:- 1936 (Nin's first work of fiction)

Star Rating:-

What do they say about pretty words strung together into passages pregnant with symbolism and implications, some of them beyond the grasp of a dilettante like me? How do they compartmentalize Anaïs Nin's writing? 
'Erotica' they like to call it, perhaps, putting focus on the sexual imagery Nin invokes with the flair of her pen. 

But I would rather not enclose Nin's genius inside the banal prison of a genre like erotica. Her words, like splotches of the most exotic water color, coalesce into an abstract painting of such acute beauty that one can only stare at the phantasmagorical picture that forms in front of the mind's eye, with a deep sense of wonderment. 

Her words are magic. Her words instill life into the seemingly lifeless form of a road stretching ahead. Her words transform a taboo subject like incest into a fathomable, even an acceptable reality of our existence and temporarily divorce us from the social conventions, of the material world, as we know them. Her words whisk us away to a secluded, floating world where only surreal landscapes of Nin's imagination sprawl far and wide in all their majestic splendour. And the reader can only be a besotted traveller enjoying a one-of-a-kind sojourn - soaking up all the incomprehensible loveliness of Nin's prose in small bursts.

"I felt only the caress of moving - moving into the body of another - absorbed and lost within the flesh of another lulled by the rythm of water, the slow palpitation of the senses, the movement of silk..
Loving without knowingness, moving without effort, in the soft current of water and desire, breathing in an ecstasy of dissolution.
I awoke at dawn, thrown up on a rock, the skeleton of a ship choked in its own sails."

Her words accord a kind of literary immortality to so many hackneyed humane emotions and sentiments.

"But Jeanne, fear of madness, only the fear of madness will drive us out of the precincts of our solitude, out of the sacredness of our solitude. The fear of madness will burn down the walls of our secret house and send us out into the world seeking warm contact. Worlds self-made and self-nourished are so full of ghosts and monsters."

Her words are exquisite poetry. 



First Published:-1964

Star Rating:-

Anaïs Nin is my beloved witch, capable of making the nebulous frontiers between imagination and reality dissolve away into oblivion with one well-maneuvered flourish of her metaphorical pen, her personalized magic wand. Or I see her in my mind's eye, as a lovely but shabbily dressed seamstress, patiently weaving a patchwork quilt of exquisite beauty out of the gossamer strands of time. 

Does art imitate life or does the opposite hold true? 
Where does life begin? Where does it end? What lies in between? What does it all mean?
Anaïs Nin attempts to answer these hazy, unanswerable questions by giving us a snapshot of the perpetual movement of time and the phantasmagorical spectacle of humanity caught in its web, establishing without a doubt that there's no end, no beginning and no middle. Life is ad infinitum.

Dreams and reality collide in her writing, exploding in a dazzling array of fireworks illuminating the obscure part of our consciousness, giving us brief flashes of the realm in which the ultimate truth lies cocooned in the protective covering of the mundane, slumbering peacefully - the truth about life and beauty, love and lust, happiness and grief, the extraordinary and the common.

Collages is exactly what its title implies and much more than what our feeble imaginations can conceive upon the utterance of this word. It is not about a nation or a set of natives, a single protagonist or many, one life event or a set of discrete occurrences. Anaïs Nin renders perfect delineation unnecessary, makes clearly visible lines of divide vanish without a trace. Instead, vignettes, eerie and abstract, tangible and solid, merge and fall into each other, clumsily yet seamlessly, to create a surreal painting, a collage of the human consciousness holding the random admirer in thrall, glaringly all-encompassing in its wild, colorful abandon even though the viewer strives to make sense of it. But isn't life just like this baffling, bizarre work of art that Anaïs Nin begets? Comprehension stays forever out of reach. Even when we feel it floats mid-air at arm's length, attempts at trying to grasp it remain thwarted.

As Renate pours her beautiful, meaningless dreams into her empty canvasses, falls in and out of love with Bruce, drifting through space and time, touching the lives of many we get an impression of life's fluid grace and its capacity of encasing the infinite. The diseased, old man who shuns the company of his loved ones, preferring to live in a cave by the sea with a few seals as companions, the heart-broken French consul's wife who grieves for her broken marriage and vindictively contemplates finding a Turkish lover, the clairvoyant film critic who describes for Renate the scenarios written by struggling writers which never saw the light of the day, Nobuko who fights to free herself from the suffocating, rigid civility of the Japanese way of life - these are but a handful among the many myriad shades and facets of humanity shuttling in and out of Renate's life causing vague but perceptible upheavals. The quietly floating gondolas of Venice, the ochre-hued sand dunes of an African desert, the peaks of Peru and palaces of Marrakesh, upscale avenues of New York and streets of Arcadia, California all make fleeting appearances in this stunning collection of interlinked snippets, dismantling in the process all man-imposed barriers between nations and cultures and presenting to the reader an eerily arresting picture of life in all its glory and imperfection.

I don't care about Anaïs Nin being mostly recognized as a writer of literary erotica since I beg to differ on the subject of this categorization. I don't care about the fact that she shared an incestuous relationship with her father. But what I definitely care about is discovering and appreciating more of her splendidly assembled collages.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

First published:- 1997

Star rating:-
Read in:- From September to December, 2013

A quick perusal of my 'In-By-About-America' shelf will reveal a wide variety of titles ranging from popular fiction by the likes of Stephen King to the brand of post-modernist razzmatazz by the wonderfully perplexing Pynchon. Yet none of those books seem as American to me as American Pastoral is. Forget all the Great American Novels which swoop down on some of the 'Great American Issues' (this term is my invention yes!) like the Great Depression, racism, slavery, brutal and merciless killing of the Native Americans in the US-Mexican borderlands. Forget the illustrious names like To kill a mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, The Great Gatsby, Blood Meridian and the other works which constitute the edifice of classic American literature. Even though every one of them focus either on watershed events in American history or relevant socio-cultural issues which form the basis of America's national identity, none of them are so glaringly American in spirit as this Philip Roth creation. I know my claims of being able to determine the degree of Americanness of any book are questionable at best since how can the internet and books supplant the experience of actually breathing American air. But I'll let Mr Roth speak on my behalf here -
"Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over.The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together. If that wasn't sufficiently inspiring-the miraculous con-elusion of this towering event, the clock of history reset and a whole people's aims limited no longer by the past-there was the neighborhood, the communal determination that we, the children, should escape poverty, ignorance, disease, social injury and intimidation-escape, above all, insignificance!"

American Pastoral takes a plunge into the depths of America's heart and soul and analyzes its curious multiculturalism, its unrestrained self-love and its misdirected self-hatred. And speaking of 'depths', please bear in mind that it does go really deep, probing unmapped territory like the complications at the root of every human relationship be it between husband and wife or between a father and daughter who feel a subtly obsessive, nearly incestuous love for each other. On one hand it recounts a series of tragic events which result in the slow disintegration of a rich Jewish businessman's inner world while on the other it rapidly moves back and forth between various American issues, from the postwar economic boom to the Newark Riots of '67 to the violent anti Vietnam War protests bordering on terrorist activity, thereby weaving an intricate network symbolizing the web of America's inner conflicts. It's like AP revels in its own Americanness and its unabashed disdain for anything that is considered outside America's sphere of influence. But the surprising thing is, despite the self-absorbed tone of the narrator's voice and his blatant apathy for anything unAmerican, none of it sounds remotely offensive. On the contrary, everything put together, it comes off as a mockery of America's self-obsession. Every sentence, every stream of thought, every conversation that Roth has painstakingly put together to construct this masterpiece is rife with underlying implications. So much so that in order to squeeze out every last drop of meaning from one passage or a long conversation, a literature student reading this for coursework may need to pore over one particular page for hours on end. This, however, does not mean it is a difficult read, it isn't by a long shot. It is simply a book which requires a tremendous amount of patience and an effort on the reader's part to remove all the layers of obfuscation.

I have come across people criticizing Roth for portraying Jews in an unflattering light here but I find myself nodding my head in disagreement with them. The book smacks of anti-heroism if anything and it looks down upon the rich white American's idea of familial bliss, material prosperity and his hankering after a squeaky clean reputation free of any incriminating smudges. Roth tramples on the idea of hero-worship and stomps on it until it is so bent out of shape that it is beyond recognition. I also beg to differ on the subject of Roth's widespread infamy among the critic circle as a misogynist. Any writer capable of rustling up such fleshed out female characters like the ones depicted here, cannot be accused of nurturing a conscious hatred of women. Sure, there is a sprinkling of barely noticeable sexist remarks but I suspect it is done with the purpose of defining a particular character's perspective rather than simply out of contemptuous indifference (or maybe I need to read more Roth before pronouncing judgement). Some of the scenes of a sexual nature are disturbing to the point of being slightly cringe-worthy, but none of them demean women as such. And it will be hardly fair to indict Roth for sexual vulgarity when women erotica writers of today can be accused of much worse (rape and stalker fantasies anyone?).
To wrap up, this is a hard book to review as it obdurately resists deconstruction. But it is an ingeniously written one with long drawn out sentences which are a delight to savour if you love your share of linguistic acrobatics. Roth rambles a lot and gets side-tracked often, like an old man suffering from an early onset of dementia, frustrating the reader with his abrupt jumps from one subject to another almost in a stream-of-consciousness like manner and his penchant for detailing something as maddeningly boring as the art of glove-making. But eventually, when he makes his point you can't help but marvel at his ability to accurately deduce the hidden motives at work behind seemingly unremarkable action. And as schizophrenic as his writing may seem, one can't deny that it is also the work of a true master. 

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: In Love by Alfred Hayes

First published:- 1958
Republished by:-New York Review of Books
Republished on:- July 23rd, 2013
Star rating:-

Love, that misused, overabused idea, the tendrils of which coil around our everyday existence and refuse to loosen their collective tenacious grip. The illusion of which is sold in glittery packages of puce and pink to the masses like Marx's opium in the form of songs, messages and merchandise wrapped up in artifice. A full-fledged day devoted to singing its praises every year and the carefully orchestrated alignment of our feelings with soulless consumerism. 
Too much cynicism? Perhaps.
"Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin."
 - George Herbert

On a sombre wintry Sunday afternoon, while browsing my kindle shelves I tapped the lovely NYRB cover image of 'In Love' which had been lying ignored, buried under a burgeoning heap of newer additions and purchases (Thank you Kris, for your beautiful review which caused me to request this on Netgalley). A few pages into it, and my faith in humanity was restored partially with the realization that not all finer nuances of this emotion have been sacrificed at the altar of the virulently corporatized culture of our times.

There's still poetry in living. There's a strange kind of fulfillment even in grief and disenchantment. There's Alfred Hayes and his pain-soaked hymn to a doomed love affair. (And there are publishing houses like NYRB who are taking the initiative to republish buried works of genius in these distressing times of profit-making frenzy.)
"Now she had passed into another life. She inhabited a world from which I was excluded, and she had left me in an immense empty space."

Narrated by a man in his forties in conversation with a random young woman at a bar, this is essentially a tale serenading the transience of love and its undeniable link with the core of our being. The interplay of feelings, words and gestures that a romantic relationship revolves around, the acute sense of everything else paling in comparison with the object of our affection, the unreality of the extent of our involvement with a person that descends on us once passion wanes - Hayes dissects all these familiar and much talked about aspects of romantic love with a lyrical flair and with the wisdom and emotional depth of an author unwilling to shy away from depicting the entailing bitterness and despondency of heartbreak. 
"...nothing we want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be.."

If not for the thoroughly original handling of a commonplace subject explored ever so often, read this for Hayes' lucid, understated but veritably charming writing style.

Also posted on Goodreads and Amazon.

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