Month: August 2016

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo

“Doesn’t his tongue feel cold?”

1533682Someday when I look back, I might think of 2013 as the year of horrible reading choices and good music. 2016, on the other hand… This year, I have come across books purely by chance and have unexpectedly and thoroughly enjoyed them. Touchwood.
One of these books is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo, that I found on the Amazon Used Bookstore. On the surface, ACCEDL isn’t a wholly remarkable plot – girl meets boy (man twenty years her senior, in this case), a whirlwind romance, [SPOILER, AVERT YOUR EYES] a realization that they have no future together, and an eventual, quiet and resigned heartbreak. [SPOILER ENDS; CALM DOWN]

What sets ACCEDL apart is the way it examines the West through the eyes of a Chinese girl who can barely speak the language, and how this culture clash causes problems in her relationship with her English lover. And what makes ACCEDL wholly unique is the way in which it’s written – in deliberately bad English.

Books with poor grammar are tedious to read. But ACCEDL works. Whether it works because the reader knows the terrible grammar is a deliberate plot device (yes, it does add to the plot) or in spite of it, I will never know. What I do know is that it was a delightful little read – perfectly paced, flavored just so. Each chapter begins with the definition of a new word that the protagonist, Zhuang (Z for the westerners), has learnt, and how she learnt it. Funny at times (“In France, their fish is poisson, their bread is pain, and their pancake is crepe. Pain and poison and crap. That’s what they have every day.”), profound at others (“Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.” ); the wit is balanced with poignancy. It is presented without unnecessary drama or loud colors, yet with a beauty specific to itself. As for the prose, it is a testament to the author’s skill that even with the poor grammar it is written in, it manages to evoke such vivid images and convey such precise thoughts. Consider the quote at the beginning of this post. Z meets a man who has lost several of his teeth. I was struck by how she thinks about his tongue feeling cold! It is funny, yet so clever.

The story of a naive, homesick girl who finds love, and also learns to live on her own. Do grab a copy and let me know how you like it!

Goodreads | Amazon

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The Autobiographical Elements in The Shining, by Stephen King

7133789Have I ever told you about the time I discovered Stephen King? It was at a wedding. A classmate’s wedding. An unlikely place to discuss horror books (or is it?) I can’t remember which classmate it was (I had attended quite a few underage weddings that year), but I remember this conversation so well. A few of us were discussing books and one of our teachers, dressed in one of the most beautiful lavender silk saris I’ve ever seen, told us how she had bought four Stephen King books at a second hand book store for 80 bucks the previous week. We made the right noises to convey our jealousy towards that cunning bargain. Another classmate then told us how she herself had read a King’s book recently and was blown away by it.

I was known as the book lender of the group, and was in no mood to reveal that I had no clue who Stephen King was. What I did, instead, was get a copy of the only Stephen King book I could find at a second hand book store. Quite possibly, the same one my teacher had gone to.

The book was Dolores Claiborne and I hated it. It felt, in my head, rather noisy. I swore off King’s books.

Four years after the events described above, I found myself running for King’s books like it was winter and they were warmth (weird, yes, I know. Creepy, yes, I know that too). I eventually realized he mainly wrote horror stories (which I didn’t know at the time I read Dolores). I read all his short stories, and to this day, I haven’t read anything that is as terrifying and disturbing as Gray Matter, from the collection Night Shift. I read his works with slight distaste and a perverse need. Something bigger than guilty pleasure, and almost as enticing as slow self destruction.

I’ve realized now that I keep going back to King not because of his skills. It’s admirable that he’s written more stories than most authors we know. But it’s not just about the volume either – they are all good stories. Although, I am not particularly a fan of his writing skills. Sure, I love his metaphors, I love the vivid imagery. But I’ve found faults with how swollen his books are, when they could easily have been much more compact. All that padding lessens the impact of the horror he wants to conjure up in the reader’s mind, and which is why, I have repeatedly and truthfully insisted that his books don’t scare me. In all honesty, I find Shaun Hutson’s no-brainer slashing scarier than King’s works and I’ve read Japanese thrillers that can give you far worse nightmares. I’ve read King’s On Writing, and I remember literally and exactly only two sentences from it, and I liked the memoir part more than the writing part. But I go back to King’s books, always. With a lot of respect and a deep sense of loyalty that – one that I cannot fully comprehend myself. I feel defensive of him in a way I don’t about authors I like more. It’s strange, and perhaps that is why The Shining affected me so much. And I’m not even talking about the supernatural elements (although, yes, this book will go down in history as the first King book that scared me).

It is a well known fact that authors leave pieces of themselves in all their characters. But often, the heroes we create are the superhuman versions of ourselves. Ideal, better men and women than we really are. It is a question that has often nagged me: do we only glorify ourselves through our characters, or do we dare to write the worst about ourselves? The dirt and the mess? Do we dare? I found my answer in Jack Torrance, the unlucky, alcoholic, down-on-his-last-buck protagonist of The Shining.

When asked about how he came up with the story, King narrated the incident where he and his wife spent a night at a Colorado hotel which was closing for the season. He had a nightmare involving a fire hose, which provided the inspiration for what later became one of his best known works. The room they stayed in was, no points for guessing: 217. But the real source of inspiration lies much deeper. And its clues lie in King’s anger at what the movie version did to his book.

Movies, in general, do not do justice to the books they’re adapted from. We know this. Authors have every right to be peeved. We know this too. But King’s anger draws itself from a personal well. An episode of Friends refers to The Shining as “a book that starred Jack Nicholson”. I bet that made King cringe, and why shouldn’t it? The character whom Nicholson portrayed on screen was a crazy axe-wielding maniac. It isn’t just that he wasn’t the Jack Torrance King wrote about. It was that it wasn’t who King himself was.

I read the book over a period of a few weeks (given my limited reading time, and the fact that this too is a well-padded book). One evening, the Mr. was watching a video on YouTube about the differences between the book and the movie. It was a coincidence; till I said something about a scene in the book, I did not know what he was watching nor did he know what I was reading. The video covered unimportant, secondary details (such as how book-Danny is 5, telepathic and intelligent, but movie-Danny is 7 and ordinary), but not the finer points that really mattered. It mattered to King that Wendy, a strong, sensible, caring woman in the book, is portrayed as a “screaming dishrag” in the movie. “That’s not the woman I wrote about,” he says. It mattered to him that the supernatural elements in the book were written off as psychological issues in the movie, thereby negating even the title [The Shining refers to Danny’s psychic abilities. He sometimes speaks to a “friend” Tony, who tells him things that are about to happen. The movie dealt with this… differently. It is interesting to note that the book is dedicated to King’s son, and he writes “keep shining”]. It matters that Jack, an ex-alcoholic like King himself did not slowly descend into madness because of the evil hotel, but was already crazy to begin with, someone whom the audience would never really sympathize with. And King has sympathy for all his characters. Torrance was not given a chance at redemption in the movie, but in the book, he does have a moment of clarity. The book has a heart, the movie does not.

The book is King’s confession – of his rage (especially directed at his children), his alcohol and drug abuse, his fears of failing as a writer. It cuts closer than On Writing. Jack Torrance is him, or who he was. The Shining was written at a time when King had some financial stability to speak of. But that does not erase the years he grew up watching his mother’s struggles, or the early years before he sold a story. Jack’s innermost thoughts are King’s innermost thoughts – why doesn’t Jack leave the Overlook hotel knowing how suicidal it is to stay? Fear. He has absolutely nothing to fall back on. All of these are King’s wounds and bruises that he smashes with roque mallets on to paper, exorcising his own demons, giving them forms of bloated dead bodies and blood and brains on the wall.

In The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, King all but says it out loud that he and Roland are the same person. You see King in all his characters, but not as loud, as neon, as obvious as you do in the villainous Jack Torrance, the angry man you somehow sympathize with (so much so that I felt guilty using the word “villainous” above). Why? Because it’s an angry side we all have, but we dare not talk about it. The real ghost of The Shining isn’t the Overlook hotel or the fire hose or the topiary animals, it is the mirror it holds up to ourselves. By showing us how he could have turned out to be when he was at his weakest, King shows us how we could be at our weakest. It shows us the evil inside our own hearts.

And it’s scary as hell.

Goodreads | Amazon

References: Rolling Stone | Salon | Guardian | The Dissolve 

Sprinkling Some Book Love

For some time, I’d been thinking I should do something bookish, but non-reviewish, non-new-releaseish… maybe listish (or is it called listicleish these days? oh I don’t know!) here. I thought of listing down my favourite literary heroines. But that post is still a little ways away, since someone new got added to it recently, and sent the whole thing for a rearrangement.

Lucky for me, I found this on Lata’s blog. How perfect! So here’s me, listing out some favourites.

I don’t think for many of these I can list just one book. I’ll list whatever comes to mind.

  1. A book you’ve read more than once: All the Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Gone With The Wind, 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair, God of Small Things, Pygmalion, The Zahir, The Alchemist, LOTR, Great Expectations, and so many more.
  2. A book you would take on a desert island: A deserted island or a desert island? Why desert island? Who am I asking these questions to? Anyway, should be something long. Maybe I’ll finally finish Anna Karenina or Ulysses. Or Les Miserables.
  3. A book that made you cry: The Book Thief, Eleanor & Park, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rage of Angels, Lessons in Forgetting, Girl on the Train, Unaccustomed Earth (Hema and Kaushik).
  4. A book that scared you: I am currently reading The Shining. Apart from that, in school, I read an RL Stine called The Secret Bedroom. Remember being truly scared after reading it!
  5. A book that made you laugh out loud: How To Be A Woman, Bossypants, Hyperbole and a Half
  6. A book that disgusted you: Dolores Claiborne. I would like to revisit it someday. I think I was too young to read it when I did. I have also been pretty disgusted by some Shaun Hutsons and Chuck Palahniuks that I never finished.
  7. A book you loved in preschool: Hehehe, it was Sleeping Beauty that turned me into a reader. But I liked Cinderella more later on. Was also a big fan of Tintin and The Black Island.
  8. A book you loved in elementary school: Tom Sawyer. Some Enid Blytons too, especially the Famous Five series.
  9. A book you loved in middle school: Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, SVUs, Gone With The Wind
  10. A book you loved in high school: The Outsiders, If Tomorrow Comes, Tell Me Your Dreams.
  11. A book you hated in high school: Doomsday Conspiracy
  12. A book you loved in college: The period in which that I discovered Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho. I’m sure there were others. Can’t seem to remember
  13. A book that challenged your identity: Not challenged, but more like reinforced, How To Be A Woman and Bossypants. Also, The Namesake.
  14. A series that you love: Harry Potter (duh), The Dark Tower
  15. Your favorite horror book: All of Stephen King’s short stories (his full length works, not so much, as you would know if you’re a regular reader of this blog). Can I also say Silence of the Lambs? That’s not really “horror” horror, but it’s still one of my favourites.
  16. Your favorite science fiction book: Not a fan of this genre. No favourite books. There was a short story I once read called They’re Made of Meat, by Terry Bisson. If it can be classified as sci-fi, then I’d highly recommend it in this category.
  17. Your favorite fantasy book: Same as #14. Also, The Hunger Games.
  18. Your favorite mystery: The Millennium Trilogy, Girl on the Train, Sherlock Holmes, A Pocketful of Rye, Evil Under the Sun.
  19. Your favorite biography: Haven’t read any. Have been meaning to read Che’s biography for a long long time now.
  20. Your favorite classic: Gone With The Wind
  21. Your favorite romance book: Is #20 a romance? How about Great Expectations?
  22. Your favorite book not on this list: The Fountainhead, The Book Thief, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Oh, so many! Goodreads me, okay?
  23. Your favorite translated book: Like Water for Chocolate.
  24. What book are you currently reading: The Shining and An Equal Music. (The latter may soon be the answer to #21)
  25. What book have you been meaning to read: Love in the Time of Cholera. Oh, when will I read it!

Care to take this forward? Make a chain out of it!

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

There’s so much in your head that you can’t bear any distractions, you want to pay attention, careful attention, otherwise everything is going to explode.

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I am not quiet about the books that I like. I talk about them. To whoever’s willing to listen. But I’m reviewing Em and The Big Hoom really late. Why? Because I was still trying to gather my thoughts around its beauty.

While I regularly shout out book recommendations from here, I sometimes share them on goodreads with selected people. On rare occasions, I write a personal note with my recommendation, because I want people to know that I’m not just clicking a button. I genuinely want to know what they thought about a particular book. I want them to know that they crossed my mind while I was reading this book – whatever the reason may be.

In the case of Em and The Big Hoom, I recommended it to only one friend. Not because I did not want others to read it. In fact, most others already had. I sent it to my friend because he is often hard pressed for time, and is therefore choosy about the books he invests his time in. I recommend to him only those that I believe he would enjoy, and those whom I want to discuss with him, during the few and far occasions that we meet or speak. At that moment, I wanted my recommendation to be exclusive, and thus Em and The Big Hoom went only to him. I decided to write a note. That is when it struck me.

I cannot describe in words how beautiful this piece of literature is. If I’m recommending it to others, I can’t help but turn into a bumbling idiot, unable to convince people that if you read one book this year, or this decade, let it be this one.

2016 has been a good year for me where books are concerned. Forget that my own depression has resurfaced, or that I have decided to stop updating my other blog. At least, I have good books to keep me company through this. I have discovered and read some great books this year. I’ve learned something from each; each had its own merits, and its own beauty. Out of all those wonderful books, Em stands out with its simplicity. It is a profound book, yet utterly unpretentious. It deals with truth. No glory, no gilded-frame of self-pity, but stark truth. The reality of living with a depressed parent. The lightheartedness of that parent narrating to the children the story of how she met their father. The fear of living with a parent always on the verge of suicide.

The book is so fabulously effortless to read. But as Pinto himself describes,

I have discovered since that such effortlessness is not easy to achieve and its weightlessness is in direct proportion to the effort put in.

Pinto’s prose isn’t the musical kind like Zusak’s or the slow, glide-into style of Lahiri’s or the heavy, engrave-this-into-your-memory style of Rushdie’s. It is a class apart. It stands its own, with its head held high (and rightfully so) in a scenario where simplicity is often confused with stupidity. There is no dumbing down for the reader here, much like Em never talked down to her children, however young they were. This here is a book that tells us a story directly to the reader, considering the reader as an equal who can understand the issues of this dysfunctional family, but one who does not offer false sympathy.

Em has no time for these falsehoods.

Goodreads | Amazon

This is a book I will read again. And again. And again.