Month: April 2016

Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata (Translation: Howard Hibbett)

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Ah. Lost love. Adultery. Two extremely mishandled subjects in literature, yet so immensely powerful when done right. What do I say about Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Beauty and Sadness that has not already been said? What is it about this deeply haunting novel that lingers behind the dusty drapes of your mind long after you have turned the last page?

Beauty and Sadness is the story of Oki, a famous novelist, and Otoko. While in his early 30s, Oki had an affair with the fifteen-year old Otoko. Oki is already married and has a son. His wife, Fumiko, finds out about the affair, and Oki abandons the now-pregnant Otoko. Otoko delivers the child prematurely, and the child dies even before she could see it. All she ever finds out is that the child had jet black hair, like her own.

Oki then writes a novel about his affair with Otoko, which is considered to be his most accomplished work. He makes his wife type it out for him, and though jealous, she proceeds to do so. As it is obvious that the girl in the novel is Otoko, she is forced to leave Tokyo and move to Kyoto. All her prospects of ever getting married are ruined by the novel.

Now, over twenty years later, Oki wants to visit Kyoto and celebrate the New Year with Otoko. She is now a famous painter, and lives with her protege and lover, Keiko, a girl of volatile temperament. Convinced that Otoko is still in love with Oki, Keiko wants revenge – both on Otoko’s behalf, and also, out of her own jealousy.

Thus begins this strange and simple story of lost love and human nature.

This story reminded me in part of Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) but perhaps only because of how delicate both these love stories are, in essence. They have very different plots.

Beauty and Sadness is one of the most visually enchanting books I’ve ever read. Consider this: The misty spring rain softened the outline of the mountain across the river and made it even more beautiful. Such beauty, such vividness. Granted that the book has the slightly stilted quality that nearly all translations have. But it only made me wonder how much more beautiful this book would have been in the original Japanese; how much it would have appealed to a native speaker who understood all its nuances.

It also explores the painful landscape of lost love, with all its demons – jealousy, heartbreak, rage, revenge. And the quietness with which those who have once loved someone continue to love them, though that part of their lives has forever ended: Even now he’s there within you, and you’re within him.

Most importantly, the book does not offer you everything on a platter. You fill the story in, in its little blanks. Never has a story of such passion been narrated so dispassionately, thereby severing all connection between the writer and his characters – describing them with no judgment at all – the very part where other writers fail when writing about adultery. Do we hate Oki? We must, but we don’t – we see him through the eyes of Otoko, one whose love for him has transcended everything else. Where does one find such love, except in art and literature?

And as it gradually culminates to its tragic end, you sigh and weep, for the love that once was. For one that will, perhaps, for eternity be.

Goodreads | Amazon

False Ceilings, by Amit Sharma

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We seek to make our own lives complicated, because we are drawn and addicted to drama, pathos, chaos and noise. And thus we turn simple tales to highly charged, emotional tragedies or comedies.

As it turns out, I have made yet another error in judgment while choosing my weekend read. But I will hold back my characteristic harshness and trademark vitriol. Why? For the simple reason that I could have chosen not to read it. Yet I did. And because I did, I must now speak about it. But it’s not nice to act all tart about the book, when it was my own fault that I chose to read it in the first place.

Another reason why I’m holding back is the fact that False Ceilings is a highly ambitious novel. I don’t mean it succeeds, but I cannot deny that ambitious is what it is or tries to project itself as. At least, it’s not a run-of-the-mill love story, and for that we should thank our stars, I must say!

The narrative follows a non linear sequence, a technique that I’m quite fond of [aside: if you think you’re reading a “but” at the end of that statement, you’re right. But tarry a while, my friend, we’ll get to it]. Due to this, I cannot properly summarize this book for you. Well, that, and the fact that there are way too many main characters, all just strewn about in the book like scrambled eggs. The sequence of events takes place from 1930 to 2062. While the story begins with one of the main characters, Aaryan, who seems to have lost his marbles, that part of the narrative is set in 2001. If I were to try summarizing, I should give you a glimpse of Shakuntala’s life – she is born in 1930, to a rich builder named Kanshi Ram. His mother, disappointed that his wife, Kusum, did not give birth to a son, keeps torturing and taunting everyone in the family. Kusum dies giving birth to her second child, a boy. Contrary to the custom of the time, Kanshi sends his daughter to a convent, so that she gets a proper education. However, soon after she turns ten, Kanshi dies in an accident. She decides to leave the convent and goes to live with her uncle. A few years later she gets married, and on the day of the wedding ceremony, her uncle hands her a “secret” and asks her to use it wisely. Does she? Doesn’t she? Who does? What is it?

Nothing turns me off of a book quicker than poor editing. In addition to that are those sentences that leap at you like artificially ripened fruit – the ones injected with a word from the thesaurus that is just slightly… off. Most importantly, it is the little things that matter. Even if the sentences are laid out perfectly one after the other, one misplaced preposition just turns the whole thing around. I know I make a lot of typos on my blog, and sometimes misspell words, or leave some out, leaving you to wonder who am I to judge? But the reason is, I don’t pay an editor to look for typos, and I rarely go through my posts before hitting Publish. Hell, I’m lazy, so sue me! But a book isn’t like that. It has a wider reach. It has a responsibility, so to speak. So when I turn to the first page and I see the word “Acknowledgment” without the “s” at the end, when clearly there were more than one person being acknowledged, I get a wee bit irked. And everything that follows is like an annoying hiccup in my head. A sentence  that does not quite sound right or even outright wrong makes for some tedious reading. As a reader investing my time in someone’s work, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of something so tedious, so hiccoughy, like a jagged cut in a piece of wood.

Now let’s talk about why I called this an ambitious work that did not succeed. It had the ingredients of ambition. But a few things must complement that ambition: complexity, research, layers. For a book set in the pre-independence era, one that records the horrors of partition etc, the right atmosphere needs to be set through the narrative – which isn’t. Sure, a paragraph about bloodshed, but that’s it. Secondly, even in the later parts, a simple mention of when Maggi noodles or colour televisions made an appearance in India does not constitute as research. Show me details, show me intricacies.

Why else couldn’t I be convinced of the setting? The dialogue. We have people from the 1930s and people from the 2060s. They all sound the same. None of them even remotely sound like they belong to the eras they’re supposed to belong to. The dialogue’s potential in a novel has not been utilized at all in this case.

There are several instances where I felt the chronology was all wrong. For instance, Shakuntala’s father dies in 1940. An actual sentence from the book reads, “A few months later, the Quit India Movement begins in the year 1942.” Let’s forget the syntactical blunder in the sentence for a minute, and only look at the timeline issue – how are 1940 and 1942 a “few” months apart? Something similar happens  between 1942 and 1946. Four years. Separated by a “few” months. Apparently. Is this science fiction set in some parallel universe?

I could go on – in 1984, Aaryan is 5. He spends three years in school with his friend Priya, assuming his age to be 8 by the end of said three years. The year should be 1987. He is an excellent student and participates in all kinds of extra curricular stuff [aside: in my personal opinion, I find him too young to be as competitive as he is described] However, his family moves away from Priya and the school in 1986. So much anachronism that I have a headache trying to keep track of all these events.

Coming back to language, the sentences sound too literal (example: “she pointed her nose to the sky” “He uprooted his hair from his head” uprooted? really?). Too literal. There are no idioms, no style, no phrases. It’s all thrown in the face.

And now back to the plot. Why did I keep reading if I kept groaning after every few sentences? Well, I now know there’s some sort of secret, might as well find out what it is, yes? But the climax left me rather deflated. I don’t wanna give out any spoilers, but once you reach the climax you say, “What? Is that it? You built all that up for this?” Then you realize there were hints right in the beginning. There usually are, of course, but this one leaves you meh. Which explains the line I started this review with – by the end of this book, you feel everyone involved was just being irrationally over-reactive. Reminded of those Indian soaps where they repeat a word thrice and then a loud clap of thunder is heard.

Overall, a giant plot that topples on itself without the support of the right legs to stand on. You may still pick it up if you wanna read something slightly different from the usual fare. But do I recommend it? I’d like to safeguard my credibility as a book reviewer, so no.

Goodreads | Amazon

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from The Tales Pensieve.

 

 

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

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Before I begin my review, I want you all to picture me on a rocking chair in front of a fireplace, rubbing my hands together. Don’t ask me why, just picture it.

Did you? Good.

I finished this book some time ago – a few hours, that is. I’ve been since reflecting on the story, examining its nooks and corners, of which there seem to be quite a few. But most of all, I have been trying to make sense of that ending. Not a pun, believe me.

It isn’t that the ending isn’t clear – it’s perfectly laid out for the reader in so many words. The trouble is, I am unable to comprehend it in all its open ended glory. Like Tony, the protagonist, I “don’t get it”. Turns out, I’m not the only one either, if you check out GR. But that’s beside the point, because the answers in there (yes, I read, but you shouldn’t – there are spoilers) are what we already know. I have this nagging thought at the back of my mind that there is something extremely crucial that I’m missing. Like I’m reading the answer in front of me, but I’m missing something vital.

Oh, sorry, look at me go on and on about the ending when I haven’t said anything about the rest of the story. I am such an unreliable narrator. Much like Tony.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a story about a group of friends, Tony, Colin, Alex, and Adrian. Adrian is the newest member of their group and is cleverer (more philosophical, if you will) than the rest of them. For some reason, he reminded me of Private Quelch from the short story The Man Who Knew Too Much. The guys are your typical show-offs, pretending to be more important than they are. You know the kind – spouting “wisdom” at every turn, pretentious, etc. One of their classmates, Robson, commits suicide after getting a girl pregnant. They make fun of him, even as Adrian tries to get philosophical about it.

Tony, a few years later, meets and goes out with Veronica Ford. She is haughty and constantly makes Tony feel inferior. He stays over at her house one weekend, when her mother, Sarah, tells him not to let her “daughter get away with too much”. Tony does not know what to make of it (neither do I). Later, Tony comes to know that Veronica is involved with Adrian. Later still, Adrian commits suicide. Tony, Alex or Colin do not know why, but they assume he probably had a deep, philosophical reason. Maybe he was too intelligent to live in this world.

Years later, Tony recollects this whole episode. He is now retired, divorced, on friendly terms with his ex-wife and daughter. He has just received a letter from an attorney stating that according to Veronica’s mother’s will, he is now the owner of Adrian’s diary. Confused, he manages to contact Veronica, who is as rude to him as she was when they were young. She refuses to give him the diary, but instead gives him a letter which he had written to them (Veronica and Adrian) when they got together, all the while telling him “You don’t get it.”

Now my lips are sealed.

The Sense of an Ending is a thin book (150 pages) but somehow it seems to pack a lot. The narrative style is simple, conversational; like Tony is talking directly to the reader. Just slightly different from most first person narratives. There is some repetition, like the narrator is trying to drive home a point, even as he tells us his memory is now weak and he is thus, unreliable.

This book is proof that you must never leave a book unfinished. Because the story unravels slowly and the twist, or the Big Reveal happens on the last page. But the trouble is, you do feel like leaving the book unfinished. You feel like Tony is has lived too carefully, and his life is so uninteresting that you don’t care either way. And yet, you are mildly curious about what’s gonna happen.

Considering this book is slightly different from what I’m used to, my mind was developing some bizarre theories about the ending – for instance, I thought Tony suffers from a terrible disease related to his memory (cos he just states too many times that he is afraid of Alzheimer’s) and he doesn’t know it. But of course, the ending was nothing like that. It’s a whole other thing. However, Tony’s observations and examinations are accurate, and I almost got worried that in some parts my thoughts matched that of a man in his sixties! Oh dear!

Maybe years later, if I re-read this book, I will discover facets that I have missed this time. Get a few more answers. I also feel that Julian Barnes’ writing is something that grows on you. It’s not a world kind to outsiders – it has to trust you before it shows you all it is. So all I have for now is an open ended conclusion, which I wish I could make more sense of.

Goodreads | Amazon

 

Suffer Love, by Ashley Herring Blake

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When it comes to YA Lit, there are simply too many books to choose from nowadays. The numbers are out there, you could pick up whatever you want as long as you’re willing to read. Which I doubt most young adults nowadays are. Keeping this in mind, the next bit might come off as a bit preachy. I have no intentions to offend anyone with my next statement, but here goes nothing:

Shouldn’t young adults be reading better books?

The best books to read as a teenager, pretentious and condescending as this sounds, are classics. No other time in your life will you have the time or the patience to read them, or the wisdom to grasp their underlying textures and not-so-smooth surfaces. On the other hand, what teenagers have nowadays are capsules – swallow with water, forget before you pick up the next one. All YA nowadays fits into either romance or dystopian sci-fi. Think about it – 99% of YA lit can be classified in one way or the other into these two broad categories. Which really isn’t giving the most impressionable age of our lives a good mouthful, is it?

So that was my mini rant against the grim state of YA Lit. I don’t hate all YA. But it feels like kids these days have limited options, despite the numbers. Now, on with the review.

Genre: I was just ranting about YA Lit. So the genre this one fits into, in case you haven’t guessed it yet, definitely isn’t Shakespeare (upcoming pun unintended).

Summary: Hadley St. Clair, a girl with an unusual name and massive daddy issues, has earned quite a reputation at her school. Sam Bennett, a new student, is also from a dysfunctional family, falls for her the moment he sees her, but when he learns her last name, he realizes they can never be together (too melodramatic for a bunch of seventeen year olds, but whatever). He knows something about her that links the two of them together, but he really does not want to reveal the truth. A few months before the occurrences described in the book, Hadley comes home to find a bunch of notes about her father’s affair. No points for guessing with whom he’s having said affair.

Narrative technique: Told from both Hadley as well as Sam’s points of view in alternating chapters. This would have been great, but their narrative voices are almost identical – this results in the reader getting constantly confused about whose dad is involved with whose mom. Not that taking away the infidelity/dysfunctional family will change this story in essence.

Language: Amateurish.Some editing errors.

While we’re speaking about the language and narrative, I feel I must mention this subtrend I’ve noticed in YA Lit lately – all the characters make a gazillion references to notable works of literature. As if the author is trying to tell the reader “I’ve read these books. Take me seriously.” It all comes out looking pompous and callow, though the intent was probably the opposite. In this book, both the main characters become friends while working on a Shakespeare project (the title of the book is from a line in one of his plays). All the subcharacters are into TS Eliot’s poetry and conversations often end up being synonym wars (not kidding, I swear). Authors nowadays seem to be going out of their way to prove their grammar is impeccable by turning their characters into grammar nerds (I hate the phrase grammar nazis). This would have been fine, had the book not contained sentences like, “Her eyes literally lit up.” This reminded me of a cartoon I saw once where Tweety pulls a string to “turn off” Sylvester’s eyes.

Large chunks of the book could be taken out without affecting the overall story. Avoid the done to death cliche of girl-with-daddy-issues-and-a-reputation and you have the same story. Remove the dysfunctional families, you have the same story. Remove the obvious “big reveal at the end”, you still have the bloody same boy-meets-girl story.

There are some books that you go in hoping to love them but you don’t. With this book, I went in prepared to hate it (I believe the first words I said after reading the first page were, “I’m too old for this shit.”), but in spite of everything I’ve said above, I did not hate it as much as I thought I was going to. It’s an extremely lazy read, a silly story, an escapist novel that does not evoke any emotions. If there’s too much on your mind, maybe this book will help you forget it for a few hours.

Rating: 2.5/5

Goodreads | Amazon (Pre-order)

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group

 

 

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

“We are expected to love our husbands from the day of contracting a kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step above a servant. We love our parents because they take care of us, but are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We are raised by one family for another.”

In sixth grade, we were taken for a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. They were having a historical exhibit at the time (they even had Egyptian mummies – I honestly don’t know/can’t remember if they were real or just dummies, but I wanna believe they were real, so please don’t take this away from me). Among other things, I remember a painting quite vividly. It was a painting of Chinese women with their feet bound. It was a strange painting though, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.  In the painting, the women had their legs (legs, not feet) tied up like they were rope! These women had knots where there ankles should have been.We were told they did this so their feet never grew beyond a certain size and this intrigued me. Or, more accurately, I should say, this bothered me. Which is why I remember the painting to this date.

Bulisa-see-snow-flower-sreeshadivakaran-rainandabookt the funny thing is, I can’t remember how Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ended up on my TBR list. It’s just been there since, forever! The book presents the true picture of foot binding – so unlike the painting I saw, but all the more brutal. The feet are bound in cloth, and the kids (yes, they do it to little girls) are forced to walk with their toes underneath them so that the bones break and… do you want me to go on? Why did they do it? To enter into “good marriages.” What did marriages have to do with breaking the bones in little girls’ feet? Read this for a brief summary. Warning: May piss you off.

Anyway, back to Lisa See’s book.

Genre: Historical, Cultural

Summary: In 19th century China, when women were treated like dirt, the protagonist Lily finds a “laotong“, Snow Flower. A laotong relationship is a lifelong friendship between two women, and is considered more sacred than that between a husband and wife. Lily and Snow Flower communicate using the secret Nu shu script used by Chinese women. They even have their feet bound at the same time, are born in the same year (the year of the horse) and are matched on almost all points, except social standing. At first, Lily believes herself unworthy of Snow Flower, because the former belongs to a family of farmers, whereas the latter’s family is quite well off. The story is narrated by Lily as an old woman, and she begins the tale by implying something went terribly wrong with their friendship. It’s all very tragic.

Good: Had this been a work of non-fiction, it would have been worth devouring! The detail, right to the smallest dot, is fantastic. A lot of research has gone into this book. So fascinating – the secret script, the folk tales and songs, the culture and customs, even the horrid-sounding foot-binding.

Bad: When the narrator tells you something bad is gonna happen, as a reader, you would get this sense of foreboding. That was absent in this case. I knew something was gonna wrong, but it made me go, “Oh yeah? So?” I just couldn’t bring myself to care. You reach the 40% mark before the story actually begins. So you tend to wonder what were you doing up until this point. It’s really slow, and I didn’t expect to finish it for another two days. I did, somehow. I don’t even feel a sense of accomplishment or anything. I just feel like taking a break from books! Happens, when a narrator is particularly drony.

Ugly: Look at that quote I’ve shared in the beginning. Almost every page has at least one paragraph that tells you women are worthless. I mean, okay, I get it, it was the “system” or whatever. But this is a work of fiction! You can turn your heroine around, you know! Make her question the “system”! There’s another popular work of historical fiction, also set in the nineteenth century, but in a different part of the world – Gone With The Wind. The heroine of that book was Scarlett O’Hara and believe me, if she were the heroine of this one, this would be a completely different book, a mindblowing one. She didn’t take the system lying down, I don’t know why Lily did. Or Snow Flower, for that matter. Snow Flower was built up as a strong character, one just waiting to fly off. But she didn’t. Not only that, Lily’s voice almost sounded like she wanted to be treated like crap. Like, all women should be grateful for being treated like crap. It was terrible. The sheer repetition of the words, “We are women. This is our fate.” will make you wanna put a bullet through your mouth. Or six.

I know this book has a high rating on Goodreads and seems to be wildly popular (though I still can’t remember how it ended up on my TBR!) So I may be entirely wrong here in my interpretation. But I can’t overlook the fact that this was so slow, so cliched, so boring, so irritating. Again – it should have been non-fiction. My rating is a reflection of that alone – the research and the depiction of history.

Rating: 2.5/5

Goodreads | Amazon

 

A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

22999175Plunging right into it. No preamble. Not now, kids, I just can’t be bothered.

Summary: Merry Barrett narrates the story of her sister Marjorie’s battle with schizophrenia as a teenager. Merry, now 23, was eight years old when she began to notice the changes in her fourteen year old sister and hear her scream at night telling “them” to “get out of her head”. Marjorie, who once entertained Merry with stories, now rarely invites the younger girl to her room. When she does, she tells her dark, macabre-tinted stories that leave Merry upset. When the medication stops working (or Marjorie simply refuses to take any), their fanatically religious father decides to take the kids to church and also decides to get Marjorie exorcised. Their mother scoffs, but he disregards her. In addition to bringing a priest home, he also decides to make a reality show about his daughter’s condition, titled “The Possession.”

Format: The story is told from Merry’s POV. The book is divided into three parts and each part begins with a chapter written in a blog post format, followed by a chapter where Merry is interviewed by the bestselling author, Rachel, who’s writing a book about the Barrett family and the TV show they were once part of. This is followed by chapters in which Merry describes what “really” happened.

The Good: About 1/3rd of the book was eerie. While the “scares” employed mere shock-and-disgust techniques, the atmosphere of the first part was definitely creepy. The book pits science against the church and how many people suffering from mental illness do not get the medical aid they need because their families are busy believing that they’re “possessed”. The story also questions deep-rooted patriarchal belief systems, and a lot of questions the “possessed” Marjorie poses to the priest make you go, “Yeah, take that, patriarchy!”

The Downright Terrible: Let’s forget about the shock tactics (warning: involves vomit, faeces, menstrual blood), let’s also forget the eerie atmosphere the first few chapters established. What does the book have to make the reader finish the book? Questioning patriarchy is great, all thumbs up, but why clobber the reader on the head with it? Since this is a horror book, shouldn’t Marj be doing scarier things than engaging in discourse with the priest? That is all she does. Kid, the demon in you talks way too much. As a result, there isn’t any, how shall I put it…  excitement? Then there’s adult Merry’s super annoying blogger voice. She explains every. Single. Thing. Where’s the subtlety? Where’s the Show, Don’t Tell? And she makes too many references to popular films/books of the horror genre. And may I add, she is SO enthusiastic (so fake). The whole blog post format was unnecessary (the posts seemed like unflattering fillers) and could have been completely avoided. It adds absolutely nothing to story – only takes off the burden of “thinking” from the reader. The 23 year old Merry repeatedly mentions she does not remember much and the show, hearsay, fading memories have all added to what really happened. But when the POV shifts to 8 year old Merry, she gives scene-by-scene, day-by-day descriptions of events, right down to the clothes she was wearing.
The worst of all was the ending – I had a doubt about the narrator from the beginning, which has grown a bit in size since I found myself on the Acknowledgments page rather abruptly – no explanations whatsoever. I cannot mention the doubt here cos it could be a possible spoiler, but not knowing isn’t really killing me either. Basically the ending was jumbled and underwhelming and I honestly don’t care if I’m right or wrong at this point.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: Never falling for this man’s recommendations again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!