February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
At first I wasn’t going to say anything. But the more I think about it the more I realize that while I did not not like Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy I didn’t like it either. And I’m interested in thinking through why it didn’t work for me.
The first book was the best. The heroine’s development feels true and in commensuration with the challenges she faces. In books 2 and 3 by contrast, some of the major “battle” scenes are too tame—they lack the scope of imagination that one comes to expect after reading the first book in the trilogy. Not only that but also the heroine’s triumph in those scenes feels too contrived, and quick. Overall those scenes, that one would expect would help in the development and the rounding out of the heroine, did not register with me as events of great import. As a consequence Elisa (the heroine) never felt like a fully fleshed out character.
[SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL] At the end of the third book Elisa’s godstone rolls off her navel and this was such an obvious attempt to make her view all her earlier actions as things she did of her own volition, to help bolster her self-confidence, that I felt disappointed. I wish Miss Carson would have come up with other ways of achieving this. Moreover, the rolling off raised questions about the earlier plot resolutions that Miss Carson had affected and that featured the godstone heavily.
Also, the romance arc in the 2nd and 3rd books is irritating. Neither the heroine nor her love interest were developed well enough for me to be emotionally vested in their relationship. I will give Miss Carson full marks for effort for her first trilogy but I’d suggest that you wait for her later books. In the meanwhile, I would rather recommend Guy Gavirel Kay, another author whose stories failed to engage me emotionally but an author whose characters and plots have a satisfying depth to them.
February 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Hard at work, Master Will?”
The careful dot that Will was placing over ‘i’ turned into a glop of ink.
“Master Kit.” Squaring his shoulders, he turned around. “And how are you this fine day?”
“Gloriously well. It has been a few weeks and my apartments have not been disturbed.”
“What are you up to Will?”
“Why what do you mean, Master Kit?”
The puckered brows and the two steps that Kit took towards Will were enough for Will’s hands to shoot forward out in a plea to stop.
“I know things have not been well between the two of us in the past but is it not possible to set aside our differences?”
A glare was all the response that Will received before Kit stormed out.
Heaving a sigh at Kit’s departure Will focused on getting his racing heart under control. An unholy gleam came into his eyes. Oh he would stay well away from Master Kit’s apartments. He no longer needed a nudge of help or inspiration as he had liked to call it. Not now.
He read the words he had put to paper just a moment ago. The curve of the letters on the paper was more pronounced than the curve on the worn-out surface. He was still awed at his stroke of good fortune. He was a dramatist, not a scrivener but he thanked his stars for not refusing the last minute engagement that had come his way four weeks ago.
Whistling the tune that he and his friends had been singing the night before, Will dipped his quill into the ink, straightened the sheet of paper, and settled down to transcribe. As usual, the words broke through the skin of the wood and arranged themselves in a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables, a pattern that Will had come to recognize only that morning.
A desk, even a moody one, that believed its purpose was to compose verses and tell stories was indeed a handy object to come by.
February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Namesake is probably one of the very few novels in the recent years to have struck home so closely. And not just because of its exploration of the immigrant experience (which is what everybody talks about. also, I’m a recent expatriate).
To me, the central tension in The Namesake arises from Nikhil’s ideas about who he is being at odds with his parents’ conception of who he is or rather who he should be. While the immigrant experience serves to throw this contrast in a sharper relief, the tension that arises from the desire to forge your own identity amid the burden of the expectations of your parents and the very milieu into which you are born, is true for any parent-child relationship, immigrant experience or not. It’s especially true for generations of Indians and perhaps for successive generations of other Eastern cultures as well.
I like the way Miss Lahiri treats the issue of identity. That one cannot gain a modicum of peace by outright rejection of one’s roots seems self-evident. And through the course of the story, in his own slow and roundabout way, this is the realization that Nikhil aka Gogol reaches as well. His journey is bookended by his two acts—the rejection of the name his father endows him with in the beginning of the story; and the slinking to a quiet corner in the middle of a party to read the book by “the man who gave [him] his name,” Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, 20 years after his father gave him the book, towards the end.
I cannot wrap-up this section without a quote by Edwidge Danticat that I came across recently:
[t]he idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life. And honestly, maybe it never was—except, perhaps, in literature.
I don’t think that the last sentence is entirely true but I do think that The Namesake might be a story about a certain generations’s immigrant experience. Globalization’s incessant march forward has meant, if not a narrowing, then certainly a bridging between any two worlds.
Now, on to the writing, that is completely un-showy and yet also exquisite. Here’s the thing that to me is exquisite: each word in the story has something to say; each word in the story builds on the one that precedes it till one is left with the impression that each word can stake a claim to its place in the sentence; nay, not just the sentence but also to the story that it is helping to reveal word by word. For example, here’s how Lahiri describes the act of adding on one’s fingers:
The tip of her thumb strikes each rung of the brown ladders etched onto the back of her fingers, then stops at the middle of the third.
There’s a sparse beauty to the detailed description of counting on one’s finger, isn’t there? The prose is just bursting with such details. Details that my description-leery husband didn’t actually skip through (he read the book too):
She stood behind her father as he’d drawn it, watching as he crouched over his easel, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his shoulders wrapped in a black Kashmiri shawl.
I just LOVE the way she uses all these details to give a sense of the character to the reader! (I’m sure other novelists do it too but for some reason I never noticed it till Lahiri).
The Namesake has no specific plot per se. Some folks might also call it a bit sad (the story does tug at one’s heartstrings and also made me cry at two places but the overall tone is one of hope and optimism). It sags a teensy-weensy bit in the center. BUT I loved it. And if any thing that I’ve written snags your interest, I would urge you to check it out.
The Namesake has also whetted my appetite to try out Lahiri’s most recent novel, The Lowlands. Hopefully, there will be more to it than just another version of the immigrant experience!
February 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
I’ve been thinking about the act of storytelling. And how storytelling really is a two-part act. There’s the story itself that you want to share. And then there’s the words upon whose shoulder falls the the burden of doing the actual work of transplanting the reader from his own world into another, one that is peopled by characters and plays out episodes that you dreamt of in your own head. Often, one act supersedes the other, like in the Harry Potter books. And then there are stories that just are perfect—that alchemical balance of an actual good story and of exquisite writing. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, and Juhmpa Lahiri’s The Namesake are two examples of the latter (two stories that I’m alternating between right now).
Then there are books where the writing is so glaringly bad that it jars you right out of the story. No actually it does more—it makes you want to stop reading all together. Maria V. Snyder’s third book in the healer series is what has prompted this chain of thoughts. Having put the e-book on hold as soon as it was released, I started reading as soon as it became available. And came to an abrupt halt with pretty much the first few lines themselves.
Because I don’t remember having any such problems with the first two book in the series I am also wondering how much of my reaction stems from reading Snyder’s writing while in the middle of Stenger’s and Lahiri’s.
Has it happened to you? Did a writer whose books you enjoyed ended up becoming a DNF? (for whatever reason)
January 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
For the longest time I could not imagine how or why any poet would choose to write a paean to summer (or really any season for that matter). Indian summers are bristling, oppressive, and inconvenient and I’ve never found anything even vaguely poetic about them. Add to this the fact that for the last ten years I’ve experienced the four seasons as gradations of heat—hot, hotter and hottest is how I would describe the triumvirate of winter, monsoon and summer.
So you can perhaps understand my awe at living in a place that has seasons with not only clear-cut boundaries but also seasons that span the scale from 100 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This past year I’ve seen the trees around me bloom to life and then slowly wither away to stark bareness. It’s fascinating how life in all its forms adapts itself, or rather has to adapt itself to nature’s rhythm.
As winter slowly started poking its head out I found myself wanting to read more winter themed books. Adam Gopnik’s Winter appealed to me particularly. The subtitle is “Five Windows on The Season” and that’s exactly what it is—five essays on the season of Winter. I’ve finished just the first one so far and find myself enchanted with both Gopnik’s musings as well as his writing.
The first essay called “Romantic Winter” traces the very evolution of winter in our collective imagination for as Gopnik says:
We see and hear and sense in winter emotional tones and overtones that our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers did not.
He posits that
The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as to live through.
I love how Gopnik takes something as routine as a season and gives it layers that provoke thoughts. For instance, winter in the early 19th century became “a form of national self-assertion” by the Germans (and also the Russians) in the face of a little French aggression called Napoleon Bonaparte. He gives examples of how winter is “potently labile,” and has the capacity to allow both the “sublime” and the “picturesque” to bloom from its folds.
He goes on to talk about the subtle influence of the “Japanese aesthetic” with its sophisticated sensibility of a “stylish winter and stylish snow” on the musicians and artists from Europe in the late 19th century and that immediately put in mind the New Yorks and the Londons of today’s world with their Christmas décor and grand window displays. And that in turn made me think of history’s influence through time—of how subtle influences 150 years ago trickle down through time to become a cultural mainstay.
I thoroughly enjoyed his final analysis on how the progress in science and its demystification of “the vast, scary iceberg [that became] a sort of image of the über-soul, in the same period the tiny, sweet snowflake [came] to represent distinctiveness of the human personality” has not in any way taken away from the wonder and refuge that we humans continue to find in nature:
The nine-tenths of the iceberg sunk beneath the water simply follows a natural rule of physics and is not a peculiarity of glaciology. . . . Snowflakes, it seems, are not only alike, they usually start out more or less the same. It turns out that, while it’s true that snowflakes often start out alike, it is their descent from the clouds into the world that makes them alter. (“As a snowflake falls, it tumbles through many different environments. So the snowflake that you see on the ground is deeply affected by the different temperatures, humidities, velocities, turbulences, etc., that it has experienced on the way,” Australian science writer Karl Kruszelnicki writes.) Their different shapes are all owed to their different paths downwards. So snowflakes actually start off all alike; it is experience that makes each one just different enough to be noticed.
In a way, the passage from “Snowflake” Bentley to the new snowflake is typical of the way our vision of nature has changed over the past century . . . Romantics generally, believed in the one fixed and telling image. We later moderns believe in truths revealed over time—not what animals or snowflakes or icebergs really are, mystically fixed, but how they have altered to become what they are. . . . The sign at Starbucks should read “Friends Are Like Snowflakes: More Different and Beautiful Each Time You Cross Their Path in Our Common Descent.” [rather than saying, “Friends Are Like Snowflakes: Beautiful and Different] For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall; that buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever stranger and more complex patterns, until at last they touch the earth. Then, like us, they melt.
January 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
A Winter’s Tale
And so I would like to begin this new year with where I left off last—A Winter’s Tale. (Here’s my thoughts on part 1 by the way). Halfway through I’m still not entirely sure about the overarching theme of the novel. From the bits and pieces that Helprin drops here and there I get the feeling that he’s talking about the necessity of the existence of both good and evil for there to be any sort of equilibrium in this world. Then there’s the fact that the two lovers, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn whose lives we were following earlier have completely disappeared to be replaced by Hardesty Marratta and Virginia Gamely. In the middle there was a 50-60-page sequence between Hardesty and a giant dwarf called Jess that was hilarious. Of course Jess died and doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the rest of the story. Then again, the mysterious way in which almost all the previous characters have disappeared has made me pretty sure that they’re all going to turn up somewhere or the other. I’m impatient to know how and of course Helprin is in no hurry while he continues to frolic around in a lush prose that’s teeming with words that I frequently have to look up.
This far in the novel I also realize that Winter (yes, the season) and the Lake of Coheeries are central to the story. Both Hardesty and Virginia make their way to New York City on the heels of a winter that is unforgiving. And the Lake of Coheeries is a “place” that’s “not on the map, and [where] mail never gets through . . . It’s hard to explain.” It’s as if Lake of Coheeries is a living, breathing presence, one that condescends to allow only certain people into its folds.
I was also a bit bemused by the scenes of madness Hardesty encounters—
Bakery trucks raced on the main avenues at 125 miles per hour, assassinating bicyclists and pedestrians. Balkan pretzel vendors in two-foot-thick-padded clothing and fleecy aviator caps charged each other with their flame-holding wagons, bumping like buffalos, to lay claim to a corner.
They have me wondering whether Hardesty actually saw these. What if they were merely a product of an imagination that had taken a violent dislike to a city that we’re told “wanted fuel for its fires, and it reached out with leaping tongues of gravity and flame to pull people in, size them up dance with them a little, sell them a suit—and then devour them.”
Helprin captures the beingness of New York City in all its beauty… and also its cruelty. I’m hooked and impatient to know how it all comes together.
This last month I also read my second Guy Gavirel Kay novel. He writes gripping stories that for some reason I just don’t find as satisfying as the rest of the world does. In Tigana the issue is a question of identity and how much of it stems from a shared past. What does it mean when nobody other than the people of your own country can recall the nation-state you’re from? What does it do to your sense of self to have that culture and history that you perhaps took for granted obliterated from the minds of the rest of the world? As I said Mr. Kay writes about interesting themes and packages it in fast-moving action but for some reason both Tigana and A Song for Arbonne failed to capture my imagination. I’m thinking of reading one more of his books—Under the Stars—before making up my mind.
Some other books I’ve been occupied with included the second Earthsea book Tombs of Atuan, Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot. Aaronovitch’s book is very much like what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the London police force.
I’ll leave you with this poem that I found while reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter:
The Winter Evening by William Cowper written in 1785
O winter, ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d, . . .
A leafless branch thy scepter, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slippery way,
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art! . . .
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.
December 4, 2013 § 3 Comments
There is nothing simple about A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It sprawls over 768 pages. It demands that you keel over and give yourself up completely to the story. It resists a breezy acquaintance and insists that you focus on each and every single word that adds up to its 768 pages. And as far as I am concerned, it’s a story that I just cannot complete in a single sitting—the sort of absolute attention that it requires is exhausting. And yet the deeper I move into it, the stronger becomes its allure.
The setting is turn of the century (the dawn of the 20th century that is) Manhattan. The main characters (from what I can ascertain by reading the first section of the book) are a thief, another thief, a horse that can virtually fly, an amorphous white wall composed chiefly of clouds that extends for miles both vertically and horizontally and that lurks off the shore of the island of Manhattan, perhaps a boy who was presumably dead, a girl who is definitely dead and the city of New York itself.
Here’s what Helprin has to say about Manhattan:
Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace . . . [B]uilt upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland . . . it took in nearly all who wished to enter . . . [I]t was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.
Its forms and geometry entranced him . . . shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages . . . the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noises of machinery . . . and acres of beautiful upright women.
I love how generous Helprin is with his words, piling them one on top of the other till I feel intoxicated. I think that I initially persevered with this book purely because of the sentences that make up its girth. Helprin is a master describer. My favourite chapter in this first section is an episode called, “Lake of the Coheeries.” Its setting is a winter landscape that is probably brutal and yet one that Helprin succeeds in making you yearn for with the utter beauty that he renders it.
Beyond the words there are the characters themselves. They’re quite unique and also not quite normal. Not normal not because this is a book filled with magical realism (1. I hope I used that term correctly 2. There is an incident where a pair of adolescent boys are very nervous because they’re afraid that magazine with the pictures of the almost naked women they’d been drooling over would burn a hole through the floor of the room right above them and drop down onto the table where everyone was having the family dinner. That the scene a sentence later alludes to there now being a hole in the floor above was quite funny). The characters are not normal because each of the characters has something going on that makes them appear slightly touched.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever come across a thief who steals because he’s held in thrall by colors. The greatest heist that he plans—to seize a cargo of gold so that he can build a room made entirely of gold—has nothing to do with greed or pride:
My plan . . . is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever. . . . In the center, I will put a simple bed, and there I will repose in warmth and gold. . . for eternity.
The book is divided into four sections and I finished the first one today. I’d become confused enough within the first few pages to want a sense of where all this led to and to see if it was worth investing my time into this story. I was careful though to not read anything spoilery about the ending, as it’s supposedly controversial. So I have a 30,000 feet overview of what probably happens. And yet I find myself bemused at this unusual tale. I don’t know what motifs, if any, form the backbone of this book. Given that I’ve finished just a quarter of this compendium that might not be surprising. I’ll be back as I find out more!
Edit: And here’s part 2