Month: August 2015

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

“A woman, not yet thirty, who had already fallen out of love with life.”

I remember a collection of Hindi short stories I had read while in school. It was syllabus-prescribed. Each story was preceded by a short note on the author. One of those stories, whose title I don’t remember, was written by an author, whose name also I don’t remember but whose work was described as “a painting done with words.” That phrase stuck with me, as I dreamily and vainly imagined someday, someone might describe a work of mine with a similar phrase (this is funny, because back then I wrote only gore filled stories – what a painting they would make!)

Describing Jhumpa Lahiri’s work as a painting would be wrong. Her work is far superior and cannot be described in words so simple. A painting, a finished painting, that is, is not what I would equate it to. But if we must compare her writing to artwork, I would compare it with an intricate landscape freehand sketch that we see an artist draw right before our eyes, that seems so effortless when he picks up his pen, as though he were merely doodling, when the landscape appears as if by magic on paper, and by the time it’s finished, it’s astonishing.


Jhumpa Lahiri is the queen of “Show, Don’t Tell”. Her prose is incredible and flawless. With her storytelling finesse, she breathes life into her characters as well as her plots. Stories of everyday people told in an extraordinarily simplistic style. There are nine stories in this volume, and in each of the characters, the reader might find something to relate to – I know I did. I can’t say for sure which is my favourite story among them – I seem to like them all, but if I had to choose, I think it would be The Real Durwan. I liked Mr. Pirzada’s story a notch above others too. And Bibi Haldar’s story… OK, it’s really hard to decide! It is the description of human relationships, their developments and failures that captivated my interest. At the end, we are all human, and so are Lahiri’s characters, flawed and everything. It’s mesmerizing. If I were to rate the stories individually:

1) A Temporary Matter – 4/5
2) When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine – 4.5/5
3) Interpreter of Maladies – 4/5 (The quote at the beginning of this post is from this story)
4) A Real Durwan – 5/5 (This story is merciless. The ending is sad, made worse by the fact that the blow was delivered with absolutely no fanfare or drama. A devastating, beautiful read.)
5) Sexy – 4/5
6) Mrs. Sen – 4/5
7) This Blessed House 3.5/5. (This story funnily reminded me of the time I used to collect crucifixes, and Mr. used to tell me to stop, convinced that people would find the habit odd. I used to tell him I collected them for purely ornamental reasons (in fact, any religious stuff at home is just ornamental or placed by our moms). I still have one from my collection)
8) The Treatment Of Bibi Haldar – 4.5/5
9) The Third and Final Continent – 4/5

Overall rating: 4.5/5
Don’t miss this one. It’s available at Flipkart, Amazon, and I am sure all bookstores.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami

Books rated three out of five are always hard to review. Anything higher and I can tell you why you should drop everything you’re doing and head to the bookstore; anything lower, and I can give you a good laugh. But three – three is tough.

Truth is, I almost DNF’d this one. But I drudged through it until I finally reached the last page. I am not rejoicing exactly that I changed my mind, nor am I saying it was a mistake. I am just rather blah about it.

Actually I am rather blah about the whole book.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories. Out of these, I really enjoyed Crabs, Hanelei Bay, Seventh Man, and the one with the Sharpie Crows. Seventh Man gives you that eerie feeling up the back of your neck that you can’t quite shake off. Crabs was written so well that while reading it, I nearly threw up. That’s probably the wrong way to tell you that it was a good read, but believe me, if you like to (to put it delicately) read unpleasant stuff, then Crabs is simply brilliant.
Also, it is one of the few stories in the book that had a definite outline, a proper conclusion. Which brings me to my next point:

Some people say Murakami’s stories have elements of magical realism. If you have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie, you’ll know how seamlessly magic blends into the story, without seeming out of place. On the other hand, Murakami’s stories, (when I say “stories”, I mean this edition alone, not any of his other work) do not seem to contain magical realism. They do not even seem surreal. They seem vaguely unreal, that’s all. Removed from reality, but not so subtly as to blend in. For example, in the last story, The Shinagawa Monkey, when the monkey begins to talk, I laughed. It was a serious story, dealing with topics like suicide, yet the insertion of a talking monkey made me laugh.

Before the above paragraph, I mentioned my next point was going to be about definite outlines. But it was not. Did that annoy you? Yeah, that happens a lot in this book. Imagine a set of colorful threads laid out. Each one leads to a conclusion. You clutch at quite a few, follow them, but in the end, an empty grey one is all there is, with no sign of the ones you clutched. Where did those beautiful threads go? No idea! You’re just hung out there to dry. Like a huge wave carried you on its crest pleasantly for a while then dropped you without a warning.

Too many metaphors in that passage above? The book suffers from that too. Too many extended metaphors. And too many inane dialogues that need not have been there at all. For instance, in the story with the kangaroos, the girlfriend is just frighteningly annoying. Really, who asks such silly questions! Even if she did, for the sake of a story, not every dialogue needs to be put down.

Final word on this book is (actually this review is in reverse. You already know what my rating is!) that you can read it for the beginnings and the middles of each story. By the ends though, if you feel you are lurching in the dark, well, I don’t know, I felt the same way.

Rating: 3/5

You can get it online on Flipkart, Amazon, or at offline stores.

Book Tour: The Replacements, by David Putnam | Summary and Excerpt


THE REPLACEMENTS



BY DAVID PUTNAM
Bruno Johnson, ex-detective with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and an ex-convict, is hiding out from the FBI in Costa Rica, tending bar to support eight children he illegally rescued from abusive homes. Partway through a normal day, Barbara Wicks, a former colleague and the chief of police for Montclair, California, walks into his bar. Bruno is shocked to the core.  Is she there to arrest him and take him back to California? Turns out she’s there to request Bruno’s help.  Two children have been kidnapped. 
The kidnapper, Jonas Mabry, was himself a victim whom Bruno rescued as a small child.  Now Mabry demands a fool’s retribution, a million dollar ransom, and Bruno to put his life on the line to get the money. In this twisted turn of fate, Bruno returns as a wanted criminal to California.  Despite the risk of arrest and even his life, he cannot turn his back on these kids.  And neither can Bruno’s girlfriend, Marie. 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR


During his law enforcement career, David Putnam worked primarily in California on special teams for Patrol, Investigations, SWAT, Narcotics, Violent Crimes, Criminal Intelligence, Internal Affairs, Detective Bureau and as child protective services coordinator.
He rounded out his law enforcement career with a few years in the Hawaiian Islands as a Special Agent-part of a real-life “Hawaii-50″ team.

He’s now retired from law enforcement and spends his time growing organic California avocados and writing, with his wife Mary and their two dogs.

EXCERPT

The day the house bled started out sunny and warm. I was a rookie street cop in South Central Los Angeles. I worked uniform patrol for the sheriff ’s department, a job that could impact the community in so many positive ways. I ferreted out the predators, either put them in jail or prodded them until they moved on to another neighborhood. I liked working with the kids the most. I tried to find them before they were corrupted by the cancerous part of the street. There were the lost causes, but most kids wanted to better themselves and were hungry for guidance.
The absolute worst part of the job was bearing witness to the lowest ebb of humanity. I never could understand the motivation, the reasoning, the excuses for harming children. Because there weren’t any. Not in this world or any other.
The day of the horrible bleeding house incident started out great. A Blood by the name of Little Ghost had been dodging me for weeks. Anytime I was able to feed my handcuffs with a predator gave me a warm feeling. He’d set up shop slinging rock cocaine two blocks from a middle school, and I hadn’t been able to nab him. That day I put on a gray raincoat over my uniform and snuck up on him through a back alley, caught him right in the middle of a hand-to-hand deal.
So I was having a good day until the call to “keep the peace” came my way. I pulled up to a house in East Compton. White Street, west of Atlantic. A house like any other on the street, light blue with dark blue trim, maybe maintained a little better with a mowed lawn and a trimmed hedge. A man in slacks and a long- sleeve blue dress shirt stood out front wringing his hands, his expression one of genuine concern. I pulled up and parked half in the driveway, half in the street, and got out. “How can I help you, sir?”
“My name’s Micah Mabry, and I’m worried about my kids, Jonas, Betsy, and Sally. Jonas is five, Betsy’s seven, and Sally, she’s…she’s eight. Yes…yes, she’s eight last October. I knocked and knocked and they won’t answer the door. Please, you have to help me. Please.”
“Okay, Mr. Mabry, slow down and start from the beginning.” “Right, right, sure. My wife Bella and I are separated. We’re
getting a divorce.” “I’m sorry.”
He waved off the apology. “It’s okay, it’s a long story. But two nights ago she was supposed to meet me at McDonald’s. I was supposed to get my three kids for the weekend.”
Dispatch hadn’t told me this was a hostage exchange—the term used for child custody conflicts. The adults never acted like  adults,  and  the  losers  were  always  the  children  caught between  parents  they  loved,  with  their  petty  conflicts  and wounded egos. The parents’ bitter emotions were the worst to deal with in these incidents. People became irrational. Child custody calls tore at my gut. I couldn’t stand to see children cry and I always had to suppress the urge to do something about it.
Mabry continued, “She never showed up. I’ve tried to call her for the last two days, so I came over here. Listen, I’m going to tell you up front, she has a restraining order against me, and I’m not supposed to be here.”
No wonder she wasn’t answering the door. I  couldn’t allow him to stay if he was telling the truth about the TRO, the temporary restraining order. I said, “Do you have the court custody papers signed by the judge?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” He pulled them from his back pocket. I checked; they were complete and in order. He was right, it was his turn to have the kids. “Okay,” I said, “Here’s the deal. All I’m allowed to do in this case is take a report and submit it to the DA as a violation of a court order, a PC 166.4—”
“You can’t make her give me my kids?”
“No, you have to have your attorney pull her back into family court.”
“Come on, that can take forever.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” I sat in the front seat and filled in the report form while he stood in the open door of the patrol unit staring down. I knew he was staring at me, and I couldn’t look up at him. He pulled out his wallet. “Deputy Johnson, you have kids?”
I was raising my daughter on my own and found it damn difficult to juggle her upbringing with an ever-shifting patrol schedule. I knew how hard it was to raise children and disliked him a little for throwing the kid card.
He held out his wallet, the plastic sleeves cloudy from overuse. The kids were cute. What child wasn’t? I wrote the case number down on a business card, got out, and stood in the open door. I handed it to him. Micah Mabry stared at the card as if it were a disappearing lifeline.
I said, “Ah, hell. You knocked?”
“Yes, yes. I’ve been here for an hour. I’ve knocked again and again the entire time. I know they’re in there. Please, Deputy?”
Son of a bitch. I reached in and picked up the mic. “Two- fifty-five-Adam, start another unit to back. I’m going to force entry.”
I’d hardly unkeyed the mic when Sergeant Foreman came up on the air. “Negative, Two-fifty-five-Adam. Stand by, I’m responding.”
Once Foreman arrived, no way would he do  anything other than what the book said.
I tossed the mic onto the seat. The window configuration of the house, outlined in dark blue paint against the light blue of the house, made the windows look like the eyes of a monster.  I walked with purpose to the front door. I’d made up my mind and didn’t want to think about the consequences. I knocked loud enough for the neighbors to hear. No answer. “What’s your wife’s name?”
“Bella. Her name’s Bella, but this won’t do any good. I’ve tried.”
I believed him and was beginning to have a bad feeling about the entire situation. I yelled, “Bella, this is Deputy Johnson with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. I need you to open the door. Come to the door and talk to me. Now.” Something was wrong about the whole setup. Anxiety rose up in me, and I could no longer follow proper protocol.
I looked down just as water, a little at first, then more, seeped under the door and out onto the porch.
I stepped back and booted the door.

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri


Magnificent.

That is my one-word review of this book. I feel like going around telling people to grab a copy and read it – now! That is how good this book is. I can’t find the right words, so I am just going to get increasingly metaphorical and cheesy in this review! Forgive me!
Here’s why you should read this book: if all books were cloth, this book would be the richest silk. If all books were lovers, this is the one that will slow-kiss you all night long.
Do you see how smitten I am by Jhumpa Lahiri’s storytelling skills? The Lowland is the only book of hers that I have read before and while I loved it, I liked Unaccustomed Earth even more. Part 1 is a set of short stories and Part 2, titled Hema and Kaushik, is a longer story, divided into chapters. The beauty of the stories lies in the unhurried pace at which they are narrated. But by unhurried, I do not mean slow, because you effortlessly move from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph, from pages to pages. Unhurried, and yet you sort of glide comfortably through the book.

The stories are all about Indians settled in the US, about how their lives have panned out and how the second generation is more or less trying to break the mould while their Indian parents try desperately to make them stick to their Bengali roots. The stories explore human emotions and relationships. It is the story of Hema and Kaushik that I liked the most – it strangely affected me and was all I could think about for two days straight!

I must admit, I once read a quote from the book, a little over a year ago, and it struck me so much that that’s when I decided to read the book (it took me a while to get to it, I’ll say!) Ironically, of all the stories in the book, that one was the only one I did not like as much as the others. The quote is “The last two letters in her name were the first two in his – a silly thing he never mentioned to her but caused him to believe that they were bound together.”

Lovely quote isn’t it?

If you want to know what good writing is, pick this one up without delay. Reading Unaccustomed Earth is sheer joy.

Rating: 5/5

Available at: Amazon, Flipkart

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

I shall invite the wrath of many a fan by rating this classic work thusly.

No, don’t give me that look. Don’t call me stuck up and hard to impress. Quite the contrary when it comes to books. It’s just that I don’t take things at face value, and here’s why in my opinion, Dracula, for lack of a lovely Victorian era word, sucks.

Summary: Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, who has purchased some property outside London. Jonathan is warned by the locals to take care of himself, though he does not know why they seem so scared. The Count tells Jonathan to not go to any of the locked up rooms as it is dangerous. Jonathan disobeys and finds himself with three women about to suck his blood. Dracula rescues him, and Jonathan believes it is all a dream. But pretty soon he realizes he is a prisoner, and the Count is – dead, sleeps in a coffin, and has never been seen in daylight. Jonathan escapes, and Dracula comes to London. Anything I say after this may be a spoiler, in case (however impossible it may be) you don’t already know the story.

There are a few reasons why I wanted to read Dracula.

a) it is a classic
b) I saw one of the film adaptations as a kid and developed a crush on the Count (yeah, weird, I know; don’t worry, I’m over him after reading the book)
c) it is considered the daddy of all vampire novels

For a moment, let’s forget this is a classic. It is hard to do so, because we know even before opening the book that the titular character is a vampire. This is something that we are not supposed to know, because Bram Stoker’s work is one massive buildup – which unfortunately falls flat on its face when we read it today, having already seen a gazillion adaptations. But that really can’t be the book’s fault, because Stoker had no idea of knowing that. No. His ambitious (?) work has other flaws. So let me rephrase, let’s try and forget this is a classic.

The characters all sound like one person. They all seem to have similar ideas and voices, they’re all shaking hands all the time, addressing each other as “my dear friend” and worst of all – they all write journals. This whole book has been told through their journal entries. It might have been an interesting writing technique, the whole multiple-POV idea could have turned out great, IF, they all didn’t sound so startlingly similar! All of them even write in the same manner, writing down dialogues between the characters as is, instead of using condensed reported speech, as would be the case in reality. Accents, dialects, even grammatical errors (of Van Helsing, who is Dutch) have been consistently noted down in these entries!!! How condescending do you have to be to write down dialogues in dialect?! Who does that? It is so unrealistic [You could argue that it’s a vampire novel and isn’t strictly speaking “realistic”, but that’s the whole point – an author is supposed to convince me vampires are real. If he can’t even convince me a bloody journal entry is real, then vampires can kiss my ass!]
Not only do the characters sound like one person, they all sound like offensive, racist, sexist people. But they refer to each other “Godsend good people” repeatedly. Lucy’s last entry is the worst and most unbelievable of it all – the woman is dying, but she writes a detailed entry, concludes it and only then faints. It’s not like she stayed up a minute after or before putting her concluding remarks. Surely, when there’s a scary monster in the locality, the intelligent thing to do is write (in excruciating detail) about the goodness of the men and women in one’s life. Frankly, Renfield was the only interesting character in this whole book. Oh yeah, he thoroughly disgusted me; it was wonderful!

When you read a classic, you learn a lot about the era it was written in – whether it be ballroom dancing or wars. The characters have distinct voices and they do not end up sounding like the author. Bram Stoker does not do this convincingly – all characters, as mentioned, sound same, and they sound like it could be him pushing his ideas into their mouths. Or journals. You learn nothing about the surroundings except – there’s a castle, there are letters, stamps, lots of telegrams, there are trains. There’s a bat outside the window. That’s about it.

The titular character – dude, where exactly are you in this book? Why is the book even named after you? You hardly have a role! It should probably have been titled The Never Ending Dehydration Of Lucy’s Gums. That would have made more sense.

The book does not end at all! Frankly, it began well with Jonathan Harker’s journal entries. Once that part was over, I honestly thought I was almost done with the book. I thought someone would come kill Dracula now. When I checked the progress on my eReader, it said 20% complete! Then I went on and on and on, and then Van Helsing entered the scene.

If I was a nineteenth century vampire, I would have killed that old bugger first!

The man is – strange. Speaks funnily, gives a name to his laugh (he calls it “King Laugh”) and in general, has verbal diarrhea. He never gets to the point, keeps gasping in shock, and just keeps praising people.

Now let me get to the main point – isn’t this book supposed to be creepy and scary and all? The movie adaptation I saw was quite scary, to be honest. Granted I was about 8 when I saw it but I was still pretty scared and probably would still be if I saw it today (don’t ask me which adaptation it was; I don’t know; I don’t even remember the story, just that it was scary). But as a book, no. In the beginning, when there were a lot of wolves howling; to be fair, that part was good. But then the bat flapping its wings at the window was just, funny. I mean if there was a bat outside my window, I would probably be freaked out, but if you’re writing it down to scare people, you should do a better job of it. Overall, the whole stretched out narration does not leave room for suspense or chills – you know Lucy is turning into a vampire without being told, you know when they open their coffin, you’re not gonna find her, you know who the “bloofer” lady is. You just do! Even RL Stine’s Fear Street is more creepy than this classic!

This book has so many adaptations that I am wondering if I am missing something. Or have I found a movie that’s better than the book? Or is it just popular because it’s the first of its kind? I know a lot of fans are offended by this review and their nostrils are flaring and all. Which is good. Because in this whole book, nostrils have more personality than any of the characters.

Rating: 2/5 (would’ve been 1 or less, but I liked Renfield’s bits and the first few chapters)

Analysing Sidney Sheldon’s Illustrious Heroines [#MondayMusings] [#MondayBlogs] [#MicroblogMondays]

I’ve read nearly all of Sidney Sheldon’s books. Not “nearly”, I have read them all. (Not Tilly Bagshawe’s books because I can’t make out what she is, a fanfic writer or something else? Anyway, irrelevant to this post) If you’ve noticed Sidney Sheldon was famous for his powerful, beautiful, strong female protagonists. Once you get author fatigue (phrase origin: hoping I coined it. Meaning: a condition where you have read so many books of an author (and his/her formulaic fiction) that you start predicting the plot no matter how different the setting is.) and study the man’s work, you’ll know they were all rags to riches tales.

How did these women go from rags to riches? Were they intelligent? Smart? Strangely, they were all naive at the beginning. They got pregnant, raped, wrongly arrested, conned, whathaveyou. These incidents always turned them into the cunning, ruthless seductresses that they were later on in the tales.

That verily is the key word here. All of his heroines were seductresses, and nothing more. Sure, maybe it takes some level of intelligence to seduce high profile men, I suppose, but we are forced to draw parallels between Sheldon’s men and Sheldon’s women (that sentence came out wrong!)

In one of his books, I think it was The Best Laid Plans (which I always disliked for its rather anti-climactic ending), there’s a line, “If you are beautiful and have a vagina, you can rule the world.” If you look at the men, tycoons, businessmen, mafia dons etc. they all had dicks. Some were dicks. But that wasn’t the reason they were ruling the world. Their histories were perfectly laid out maps of cunning design, loss, sacrifices, and ultimate success. Not once did they have to sleep with someone to get a job or to get places. Sheldon’s imagination seems quite fertile when portraying the rags to riches stories of men.

But with women, there was just one route – be hot, then just do it. It begs the question, are women incapable of achieving anything without having to sleep with someone? We know that isn’t true. But think of it from a naive, easily impressionable reader’s perspective: the message coming across is a woman can only be successful if she pawns herself out. Not a very healthy message or even a true message when coming from a successful writer whose stories are centered around female protagonists. Even the alien from Doomsday Conspiracy got that same message!

His books are still very popular, among teens as well as adults. To be fair, the man’s books were good works of fiction (If Tomorrow Comes is listed in my top ten favourites). Fast-paced, page-turners, all of them. His characters (ironically) are unforgettable. But I do think girls need a better role model than Noelle Page.