J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Posted on | July 31, 2016 | No Comments

I’m a self-confessed Potterhead. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the books, heard the audio books (narrated by Stephen Fry), and even watched the movies despite hating them. I’ve been wary of Pottermore, and the stuff that’s continuously churned out, but hey – more Harry Potter’s a Good Thing, right?

So, I went to the midnight launch yesterday (today?), and got the book, and obviously, the Decent Thing to do in that case is to finish the book straightaway. And, I did.

Note: spoilers ahead. Many spoilers ahead.

I was left confused and unimpressed. And no, this wasn’t because it was written in a play format (more on that later).

The plot was easy. Uncreative. Almost like fan fiction, where you roll your eyes, but keep reading anyway, because hey – more Harry Potter.

Harry and Hermione hold high positions in the Ministry of Magic, and are still married to Ginny and Ron respectively. Their kids go to Hogwarts, as does Draco’s son: Scorpius. Scorpius is widely believed to be the offspring of Voldemort himself, and hence, there’s stigma against him.

Against all odds (or maybe not), Harry’s son, Albus Severus Potter, gets sorted into Slytherin and befriends Scorpius, and the duo don’t have any other friends. The other kids (Hermione and Ron’s daughter: Rose, and Harry and Ginny’s other two kids: James and Lily) don’t make much of an appearance.

So, two kids are left to themselves (Scorpius because of the rumour about his parentage and Albus because he’s not naturally talented or charismatic; he’s called the “Slytherin Squib” early in his Hogwarts life). Further, as Albus doesn’t really settle into Hogwarts life and has a massive inferiority complex, his relationship with his father is strained. In contrast, Draco and Scorpius are very close, and you can see Draco adopting the parent-of-the-year role, when he reaches out to Harry to quash rumours about his son’s parentage or when he threatens Harry due to how events unfold. This Draco is almost likeable compared to Harry.

The years come and go, and somewhere in the middle of his Hogwarts life, he overhears his father talking to Amos Diggory (Cedric’s father) about using a time-turner to go back in time to ensure that The Dark Lord didn’t kill Cedric. Yes, even I thought that all the time-turners had been rendered useless in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, but a new version had been created by Death Eaters, and confiscated by the Ministry.

And so, Albus decides that he must be the one that undoes Cedric’s death, by getting the time-turner and going back in time. Scorpius and a new character, Delphi, join him on this adventure. At one point, there’s that sense of deja vu, when they take Polyjuice potion to enter the Ministry. You can see where this is going: multiple alternate universes unfold, including one where Harry dies in the Battle of Hogwarts, Voldemort takes over, and Hermione is on the most-wanted list. All this because Neville was killed, and consequently, no one killed Nagini. At each point, the trio keep going back in time again to fix their previous mess.

For me, the plot seems absurd: would an untalented wizard who couldn’t even pull off the Expelliarmus spell really go back in time to change history? Or, was he just that foolish and naive? Perhaps I’m being harsh? Maybe he just thought that those are the lengths a son will go through to gain acceptance from his father: the famous, never-wrong, always-courageous Harry Potter?

Harry and Albus are both quite unlikeable in this book.

Harry strongarms Professor McGonagall (who’s still a great character) into spying on his son using the Maraduer’s Map to ensure that Scorpius and Albus don’t hang out. His rationale: Bain, the centaur, told him a dark cloud was looming over his son, and he assumes that it has to be Scorpius. For me, that goes against everything the first seven books taught Harry: that look beneath the surface. It’s hard to believe that after everything – after Snape – he still jumps to conclusions. And, that Ginny doesn’t have enough influence to change his mind. Maybe being a protective father means that you can’t see clearly when it comes to your own son, and hence make rash decisions and are downright obnoxious to professors like McGonagall?

Albus, on the other hand, well: you can see why the Sorting House put him in Slytherin: ambition. At least he doesn’t turn out to be evil?

Scorpius, on the other hand, is a pretty good character: the anti-Draco if you will (but for one of the alternate universes where he’s called The Scorpion King). He’s faithful, nerdy (like Hermione), and courageous. Here, I’m admittedly nitpicking, but wouldn’t it be really nice if he had Neville’s “will stand up to friends” attitude?

The book, winding through multiple alternate realities, is more a testament to how perfectly the events unfolded in the original series. It goes to show that it was the only way in which a happy ending could have occurred.

But, creating time-turners again, to just keep going back in time, as the main premise is weak and unimaginative. And, the way the ending unfolds, is incredibly disappointing, if I compare it to the original series of seven.

Here’s the problem: this is written as a play, which means that a lot of the detailed, descriptive and imaginative writing has to be forfeited, and new concepts (or magic) cannot be introduced. And, hence, the plot feels dumbed down. But even so, think back to the Philosopher’s Stone – the first book, the leanest book. The ending was so vivid, and definitely not dumb: the chess game, the flying keys, the three-headed dog.

Also, a lot of the typical favorites get what seems to be an obligatory nod: Dumbledore, Snape, Petunia. But, what about Ron and Ginny’s other siblings: nothing about George? And, nothing about why Ron is running the Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes? Not even a mention? And, nothing about Tonks and Lupin’s kid? No house elves? And no Trelawney (although there’s another prophecy? But where does this prophecy come from? Or rather, from whom?).

Again, I appreciate that it’s a play so it needs to be simplified, but, in my opinion, this is just capitalizing on the Harry Potter brand, without giving the fans a story that is worth resuscitating the brand for.

And, as a Potterhead, that disappoints me.

Betty Smith – A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Posted on | June 18, 2015 | No Comments

Oh, where do I begin? Remember Cassandra from I Capture The Castle? She is one of my favourite narrators and I believe you’d be hard pressed to find a character as charming as her. Betty Smith’s Francie comes close. She doesn’t have the pleasure of living in a dilapidated-yet-romantic castle as Cassandra did – instead, she’s over the sea and far away in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1912-1919.

At the outset, Francie is eleven years old and she’s a reader. That’s all I need to get that instant connection to a protagonist.

Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.

She lives with her parents and her younger brother, and despite being a family of slender means, they are cheerful and grateful. Her mother, Katie, desperately wants a better future for her children, and she leans heavily on the two pieces of advice her own mother gives her: ensure that her children are educated (“Everyday you must read one page of some good book to your child.”) and save every penny possible in order to purchase land which can be handed down to the children. In addition, this piece of advice from Katie’s mother – a first generation immigrant –  is priceless as she insists that the children must believe in ghosts, fairies, and Santa:

“[T]he child must have a valuable thing called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing things not of this  world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.” 

However, while Katie tries her level best to ensure a better life for her kids, her husband – a happy-go-lucky drunk – is a singing waiter whose priorities differ from Katie’s. He’s the good cop to Katie’s bad cop, as he looks out for their feelings and tries to ensure they’re happy. For example, while Katie’s focused on ensuring her children get educated at the local school where they’re treated like second class citizens, he acknowledges Francie’s desire to go to a school slightly further away where the quality of education is superior and makes it happen much to Francie’s delight.

It’s such incidents that make the book a treat. There’s heartbreak, grief, and loss, but still, there’s always a light shining at the end of the tunnel – a glimmer of hope, if you will. No matter how dire circumstances get, Francie and Katie do their level best to not get completely down and out. It’s almost like Pope addresses them in his poem:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is but always to be blessed. 

However, there are parts of the book that are bleak and  reflective of the times. One of their neighbours – a young, attractive woman with a child, sans a husband – is mocked relentlessly by her neighbours for having the gall to take her child out during the day. Yes, it’s rage-inducing, but then one has to remember that this was a century ago – and, sadly, there are parts of the world today where this is still the case.

Or, how Francie is the one who has to temporarily drop out of school to earn money while her younger brother carries on studying, despite she being the one more academically inclined and he being more than willing to take up a job.

But – I digress.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more likeable child in fiction, and you’ll be glad that you embarked on her journey with her as she finds her feet in the world and figures out the best course of action no matter what the situation.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Posted on | June 4, 2015 | 1 Comment

880 pages. All consumed on the beaches of Ko Samui, greedily, and when the book ended, I was sad. After all, wasn’t it Jane Austen who said, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.” So, I guess that makes Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winning novel “too short.”

The book is titled after the famous Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius – which exists – and yet, the tale is fictional. If you’re curious, the painting is displayed at Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. However, it takes a fictitious life of its own here – a journey so action-packed and unbelievable that it’s almost plausible.

The opening line of the book draws you in, reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

“While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”

An adult Theo Decker reflects on the series of unfortunate, coincidental events that have led him to the hotel room in Amsterdam. Early in his reminiscences, he concedes that “Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” and then the raconteur tells us about how his mother died: a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when he was thirteen. The pair had entered the museum together to take shelter from the inclement weather, and had split up in the museum. Theo was captivated by a young girl who was visiting the museum with her grandfather, and decided to follow them while his mother wanted one final look at one of her favourite paintings which she hadn’t managed to see up close.

Carel Fabritius – The Goldfinch (Oil on Panel), 1654

When the explosives hit, the grandfather lay bleeding but encouraged Theo to take The Goldfinch and run. He also handed over his heavy gold ring to the teenager, who, in all his naiveté, took both home not considering the ramifications. As he drifted through his adolescence, the painting became his cross to bear – a cross he bore alone. After all, there was no one he could turn to – he did consider his options but disregarded each for different reasons.

After his mother’s passing, he ended up living with one of his friends who had rich parents and lived in a rococo apartment in Park Lane. He found what can only be termed “the old curiosity shop” – the antique store run by the old man who gave him the ring and his business partner, Hobie. There, he discovered that the young girl that had captured his attention lay recovering and that her grandfather hadn’t survived the attack. He befriended both, and gradually dealt with his grief, almost forgetting the painting that still lay at his old apartment.

However, when his father and the father’s girlfriend finally make an appearance to whisk Theo to Las Vegas just as he’s settled into life in New York without his mother, he grapples with the dilemma of the oil painting – which makes the trip with him, wrapped in newspapers. I just sensed an entire group or artists, curators, and art restorers cringe at the thought. His existence in Vegas veers towards surreal – even by Vegas standards. In school, he’s an outsider and as outsiders are prone to do, he befriends the one other outsider: the worldly Boris.

It occurred to me that despite his faults, which were numerous and spectacular, the reason I’d liked Boris and felt happy around him from almost the moment I’d met him was that he was never afraid. You didn’t meet many people who moved freely through the world with such a vigorous contempt for it and at the same time such oddball and unthwartable faith in what, in childhood, he had liked to call “the Planet of Earth.”

As his father racks up gambling debts and the girlfriend indulges her junkie habits of snorting coke and popping pills, Theo is left to his own devices, which results in Boris and him drinking, experimenting with drugs, eating copious amounts of pizza, and talking about anything and everything – as drunken, neglected, philosophising teenagers who don’t know better do.

Well – think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, made no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no – hang on – this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?

It is this friendship and the stolen painting that sets the tone of the rest of the narrative, and eventually leads Theo to Fabritius’s country – all for the sake of the goldfinch; the painting almost being allegorical to Theo’s situation: a bird that’s chained and can’t fly away, can’t be free. And, one can hardly blame the bird. Likewise, one can hardly blame Theo.

That said, as an adult reading this book, I audibly protested as some events took place, urging Theo not to make the choices he did; there was no way some of those choices would end well. To be fair, Theo probably made a lot of those choices against his better judgement, but by that point, it’s too late.

So what makes this novel remarkable? Theo, I think. Yes, he’s flawed, but the candidness of the narrative makes him extremely likeable. Without making lame excuses, one can sympathise with his situation – how do you expect a child, orphaned for all practical purposes, do the right thing while he remains unsure as to the consequences? And, who’s trying to figure out who he is.

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?” 

Happiness is… The Bone Clocks

Posted on | September 2, 2014 | No Comments

I know I’ve been AWOL for a long time now, but I feel compelled to write today. You see, today was the launch date of David Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, and he was at Foyles signing their exclusive edition for two hundred-odd people. I was one of those lucky two hundred, and I was giddy – much like a teenage girl – at the prospect of meeting one of my favourite authors.


We arrived at the auditorium at 16:20, and then queued for about forty minutes, anxiously waiting for the clock to hit 17:00. We struck up a conversation with the man standing in front of us – a self-confessed “book collector,” who not only lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, but in the last week has also attended Sarah Waters’ talk at Nottingham and Murakami’s book-signing at the Waterstones in Piccadilly.

I had intended to go for the Murakami book signing, but come Saturday, I wasn’t feeling great, so I passed. Boy, in hindsight, that was the right decision – people queued from 16:00 on Friday (yes, they camped overnight!). The man we were talking to said he got there by 05:00 on Saturday morning, and he was 168 in line. Only the first 200 customers would be lucky enough to get their copy of the book signed!

And then the conversation turned to David Mitchell. It was his book-signing after all. The man believed that Cloud Atlas should have won the Booker Prize in 2004, and we heartily agreed. I couldn’t recall who won the Booker that year, but this guy – he just knew. And then the lady behind us joined in the conversation as well. It is so incredibly invigorating to be surrounded by people who know and love their books. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt happier. Or more at home. Talking about books – that’s all I want.

Sharp at 17:00, David Mitchell was there, and the winner of the competition announced. Yes, one lucky winner received all his books. Nope, it wasn’t me. Maybe it’s the envy talking, but considering the new illustration of Cloud Atlas, I’m almost relieved not to have that on my shelf!

Finally, when it was my turn, I went up, and just stood there grinning like a moron, completely tongue-tied. I didn’t know what to say! Yes, I’m mortified. But I marvel at his patience – he added dedications, signed as many copies as people brought to him, and even signed copies of his older works. It really was amazing. I wish I’d got all his works signed, in hindsight. However, I do have a personalised signed copy of his new book, and for now, that’s good enough for me.

Happy happy days.

Gabriel García Márquez

Posted on | April 18, 2014 | 2 Comments

I had TweetDeck open in the background last night, when I saw the AP’s tweet, “BREAKING: Source close to family says Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez has died.” He was eighty-seven, and had been in the hospital in the past couple of weeks. And yet – yet I was unbearably sad.

I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude when I was eighteen, and fell in love with both, the book and the author. When people would ask me to recommend a book, without batting an eyelid, I would recommend the much-acclaimed novel that won him the Nobel Prize in 1982. Over the course of the last decade, I’ve read one book by him every year, instead of reading his works back-to-back. I want to be able to savour each word, in each sentence, and get lost in the magical world that only he could weave.

Over the years, as I read more of his works, I wanted to read more. Where else could one find magical realism as beautiful as his, with hints of the extraordinary, balanced with touches of verisimilitude? To quote the New York Times:

Mr. García Márquez was a master of the literary genre known as magical realism, in which the miraculous and the real converge. In his novels and stories, storms rage for years, flowers drift from the skies, tyrants survive for centuries, priests levitate and corpses fail to decompose. And, more plausibly, lovers rekindle their passion after a half-century apart.

It’s bizarre, as I mentioned to a friend; I don’t know him, nor his family, and obviously, my sadness was completely selfish, based on the fact that we wouldn’t see any new books by him hit the stand, and I would run out of works by him. I was looking forward to We’ll See Each Other In August, despite the rumours about his ailing health and dementia. I look forward to reading the unread books by him that sit on my bookshelf, and once I finish those, to purchase the remainder of his books, and lap them up. Hungrily.

It would be incredibly clichéd to end with RIP, but what else does one say? Thank you? I feel lucky to have read so many of his works, and I am equally lucky to have a lot of his works still waiting to be read. It is true though, I suppose – even though the artist is dead, the art lives on; that makes us incredibly fortunate.

RIP Gabo, and thank you for leaving behind a wonderful world of magical realism for us.

François Bizot – The Gate

Posted on | February 8, 2014 | No Comments

I visited Cambodia in September 2013, and prior to the trip, I purchased Bizot’s memoir detailing his days in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. While I didn’t have the time to read the book before landing in the Cambodian capital, I did visit the Killing Fields and the Museum of Genocide. Both left me speechless, and sick to my stomach. The tour of the Killing Fields was particularly haunting. Pits were cordoned off, and the audio guides told us what was discovered in each of these pits. Mostly corpses, unsurprisingly. However, the Killing Tree was marked as well – the tree against which the heads of babies and children were smashed, before being tossed into the nearby pit. People do that? Kill innocent babies, who under no circumstance could be CIA agents? The xenophobia and irrational spirit of nationalism resulted in the internal conflict, driven by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Over twenty thousand people died. My camera was clutched in my hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to take any photographs. I just listened to the audio guide, and read the text. Months later, I still remember it all. Months later, I remain despondent that the main perpetrators are still awaiting trial. Pol Pot is dead; I suppose we can all find some solace in that.

This is me, as a visitor, seeing things at the very surface. The audio guides prompted us to put ourselves in the shoes of the prisoners, and it remains something beyond the scope of my imagination. Even my worst nightmare isn’t horrific enough. Bizot’s memoir details him actually living through that nightmare, after a sequence of unreal, unfortunate events. An ethnologist drawn to Cambodia by the mysteries of the Far East, Bizot was imprisoned on suspicion that he was a CIA agent impersonating as an academic. While there was no concrete evidence to even suggest that this was the case, he was kept captive for approximately three months, while the powers that be tried finding the relevant evidence. Duch, an officer in the Khmer hierarchy, responsible for “overseeing the systematic torture of 15,000 prisoners,” questioned (and over the course of the questioning, befriended) Bizot daily, trying to determine his innocence, and subsequent release. During this period, Bizot was given special treatment, compared to the rest of the prisoners, and yet, he witnessed all the atrocities. And yet, years later, at Duch goes on trial, Bizot still empathises with his friend, who ensured Bizot’s freedom.

Eventually, he was released, and found himself as a translator at the French embassy. The scenes that follow depict the pandemonium as people tried to get out of the country, with or without their families, as the massacres increased exponentially. Bizot’s own daughter was safe, but as a reader, we’re never given any insight into what happened to his Cambodian wife. Yet, the hands of the French were tied, as they weren’t allowed to provide asylum to the locals. The Khmer Rule had made that abundantly clear, including storming into the Embassy with guns, and shutting down their communications with France. Even members of Cambodian royalty aren’t exempt from the rules. Nor women with babies, who try to fling their babies over the gates of the embassy, just so that the babies might have a chance at a future.

Through time, people have turned a blind eye to the genocide in Cambodia. The opening chapter of the book, where Bizot describes Cambodia prior to the Khmer era, is poetic. It started as an ode to a beautiful idyll-like country cherishing peace, which one can imagine with a tinge of lament. It’s always a shame when peace and tranquility descends into oppression and hatred, in the hands of dictators like Pol Pot. The title of the book refers to the gate of the French embassy, which once, of such importance, now has a diminutive stature in the eyes of the author, as he looks back in anger upon the events that unfolded.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

Posted on | December 28, 2013 | No Comments

“The horror! The horror!” is one of those phrases that will haunt one, long after the last page of the book is turned. This book, or novella, is a ninety page almost-monologue, where the narrator is Marlow, who recounts his adventures searching for Mr. Kurtz in the darkness of Africa. Honestly, despite some incredible lines, I couldn’t wait for the book to end. Yes, I know it’s a classic, describing the horrors of the ivory trade in the Congo, and is one of those must-reads. However, the emphasis on the allegory of darkness being the heart of the African jungle, or the darkness that pervades the hearts of the European imperialists upon entering here, resulted in me struggling through. For the most part, I like layered narratives, overflowing with metaphors (or any literary device, really), but, to me, this almost came across as forced.

Mr. Kurtz, who Marlow only meets in the last third of the book, dominates the narrative. By all accounts, prior to his arrival in the Congo, Mr. Kurtz was a remarkable man. However, as heard through the grapevine, his adventures in the jungles show him as anything but. Thieving, looting, killing, and other barbaric acts seem to define his time in the Congo, while the primary mission that the Company had sent him on was to civilise this uncivilised world, while sending back ivory. Was his fall from grace a result of his environment, or was it simply his innate self being revealed at an opportune moment?

“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.”

Yet, as Mr. Kurtz lay dying, he acknowledged the futility of his endeavours.

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror–of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision–he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
The horror! The horror!

Marlow’s observations on his milieu were fascinating, and disheartening. It was incredibly bleak, and while one can take solace in the fact that the observations were based on Conrad’s own stay in the Congo which was over a century ago (1890), it still leaves one feeling fairly unsettled.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.

This is probably going to be my shortest review yet, for I don’t really have much else to say. I can see why it’s a classic, but… I really didn’t enjoy it!

Evelyn Waugh – Scoop

Posted on | December 25, 2013 | No Comments

This is the first book by Evelyn Waugh that I read. It also is the first book I’ve read, since I returned to the wonderful world of literature. I purchased this book, along with Brideshead Revisited, because I was drawn to the simplicity of the cover. Also, I have a book-buying problem!

Scoop is a 1930s satire on the wonderful world of journalism, focusing on foreign correspondence. In a novel that reads like a comedy of errors from the very beginning, Waugh describes the adventures of William Boot, a journalist, in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia. The fictional country, it seems, is based on Ethiopia, where Waugh was a war correspondent in 1935. However, where Waugh was a prolific journalist, Boot was considerably out of his depth, and his adventures in the African country were nothing short of serendipitous.

In the first section of the book, John Courtney Boot approaches a friend to put in a good word for him to Lord Cooper who runs a newspaper called Daily Beast. Boot, a well-renowned author, is hoping to be assigned as the foreign correspondent for the Beast in Ishmaelia, in order to escape from some romantic endeavour. Lord Cooper is easily manipulated into thinking John Boot is the right man for the job, and commands his sycophantic foreign editor, Mr. Salter, to make it happen. However, Salter accidentally ends up contacting William Boot, a contributor to the nature supplement of the Beast, who is reluctant to take the job. However, a combination of threats, and the allure of an expense account, sees the bumbling incompetent William Boot head to the remote destination, with little clue as to what the political connotations of the war are, the parties involved, and what the nature of the assignment is. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that not even the journalists in the foreign office are fully aware of the details of the war, or where the countries are on the map.

William Boot arrives in Ishmaelia, and is immediately surrounded by a plethora of journalists, all of whom are looking to outdo the other in search for a story, when not much seems to be going on. Fictional accounts are created, and telegrammed back to the respective Fleet Street offices. A journalist, who previously had a contract with the Daily Beast, concocts a story set in a place which doesn’t really exist. It’a spot on the map is simply a result of a non-local asking a local what that part of the country was, and the local replying in his native tongue with Laku (“I don’t know”), which the cartographer deemed the name of the place.

As Lady Luck would have it, the British Vice-Consul in Ishmaelia is an old schoolfriend of William’s, and he manages to feed William some information. He finds another source in Kätchen, a German girl who is evicted from her room to make place for William. Kätchen is married to a German, who was away on a mission, and due back soon. Invariably, William falls in love with her, despite it being evident that she is a gold-digger, looking for someone to take care of her while her husband is away. However, the twenty-three year old journalist remains unable to pick out newsworthy incidents, even when they are staring him in the face.

Due to lack of news coming from William, the Daily Beast decide to terminate his contract. He gets the message just as he is sending a telegram to them, with the words:


While one could consider the first phrase a litote, other examples speckled through the book indicate otherwise. Upon receiving that telegram though, the Beast decide to reinstate his contract. The naiveté and cluelessness makes him out to be incredibly incompetent, and yet, he remains oblivious to that. And yet, he manages to be the only journalist to capture the story of the fascists and the counterrevolutionaries, and he goes back home an acclaimed journalist.

The vaudeville doesn’t end there though. Lord Cooper wants Boot knighted, but again, a case of mistaken identity results in the knighthood being for John Boot, not William. Mr. Salter goes up to the country-side to visit William, in order to convince him to attend the banquet, and Salter’s interaction with the big family living in the country-side is almost slapstick (as is most of the book). Eventually, William’s uncle attends the banquet… because, obviously, what one needs is another Boot in the mix.

There are racist undertones in the book, and stereotyping people and classes, which is quite reflective of the 1930s. No one is really spared, and Waugh’s pen is generously scathing. The book also drags on in places, and the protagonist (William Boot) does not really have (m)any redeeming qualities. This might be the case with most satires, but occasionally, the book was excruciating to read, when you saw someone so out of his depth in a profession many suitable candidates would revel in, and make the most of, at any cost, as opposed to getting side-tracked, and focusing his energies on other trivialities. And yet –  yet, he got the scoop!

Albert Camus – A Happy Death

Posted on | June 9, 2013 | 1 Comment

The title, a contradiction in terms, was the first novel written by Camus, when he was in his mid-twenties. However, it was only published post-humously, and is considered to be a precursor to Camus’ more widely-acclaimed The Stranger (also known as The Outsider, to obfuscate matters). It has been a long time since I’ve read The Stranger, and the details are a bit sketchy, so I shall refrain from comparing the two books, but instead focus solely on this one, which Camus never intended to publish.

This book does not read in chronological order; in the opening chapter, the protagonist Mersault murders a man in a wheelchair, and steals his fortune. The crime is committed in seemingly cold blood, and as Mersault leaves the man’s house, clinging to his newfound fortunes, the environs is detailed.

Millions of tiny white smiles thronged down from the blue sky. They played over the leaves still cupping the rain, over the damp earth of the paths, soared to the blood-red tile roofs, then back in the lakes of air and light from which they had overflowed. A tiny plane hummed its way across the sky. In this flowering of air, this fertility of the heavens, it seemed as if a man’s one duty was to live and be happy. 

The means justify the end, is the stance that Camus takes. Kant’s deontological premise that the motivation or will behind a person’s action drives whether an action is morally good or not, does open up a plethora of interesting questions. What motivated Mersault to kill Zagreus? While the above verbatim snippet represents sheer hedonism, as one reads on, the conclusion drawn drifts from the original opinion formed. In a philosophical conversation, the victim told the murderer:

“You see, Mersault, for a man who is well born, being happy is never complicated. It’s enough to take up the general fate, only not with the will for renunciation like so many fake great men, but with the will for happiness. Only it takes time to be happy. A lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using our money to gain time.”

It was in that conversation that Zagreus revealed that he was tempted to take his own life, and he had built his fortunes prior to the accident that led to him being a double leg amputee. He conceded that in his present state, he did not have a shot at happiness, but as long as Mersault wasn’t weighed down with monetary obligations and necessities, Mersault should undertake the quest for happiness. Could one almost look at this as a case of assisted suicide? Or, considering Zagreus was physically capable of taking a gun to his own head, but emotionally not, this was plain simple murder. Mersault does walk scott-free though. No ramifications, no repercussions.

Mersault’s quest for happiness is not smooth-sailing though. He travels through Europe, visits old friends, gets married to a woman he does not love, and buys a house in the country. For a long time, through his journey, his conscience pricks him, and he is unable to truly indulge in epicureanism. Yet, eventually, while consciously  attempting to create happiness, it dawns unto him:

He realized now that to be afraid of this death he was staring at with animal terror meant to be afraid of life. Fear of dying justified a limitless attachment to what is alive in man. And all those who had not made the gestures necessary to live their lives, all those who feared and exalted impotence—they were afraid of death because of the sanction it gave to a life in which they had not been involved. They had not lived enough, never having lived at all.

I was intrigued and fascinated by the first half of this extremely short book. While some threads (how Zagreus and Mersault met) came across as far-fetched, the character developments, and the conversations between the two were mind-blowing. Mersault is the antihero who is not really likeable. Through the book, it is impossible to sympathise or empathise with him, and when as the end of the book approaches, as a reader, I almost hoped for an ironic ending, which did not tally with the title.

The second half of the book I struggled through. His friends and his wife were not memorable, and their characters fizzled out as quickly as they emerged. Their lives bordered on mere fatuousness, and were abundant with selfishness (as Comte would define it, not Rand). Existentialism is at the crux of the novel, and yet, the emphasis on living in a meaningless world, and seeking out happiness at any cost, just leaves one contemplating humanity. Not in a good way.

Daphne du Maurier – The Doll: Short Stories

Posted on | April 21, 2013 | 1 Comment

I’ve oft’ made a generic sweeping statement on here about how I am not a big fan of short stories. There have been collections that I’ve enjoyed, and there have been collections that I’ve struggled through. Daphne Du Maurier’s The Doll: Short Stories falls somewhere in-between. All the stories in this collection, but one, were written in between 1926 and 1936, and are amidst Du Maurier’s earliest works. The last story, The Limpet, was written in 1959.

There is a common theme that binds all the stories together; whilst the first two stories would nudge one to think the theme is macabre, it is more about unproportionate(?) love. One character inevitably loves the partner more than the partner loves them. It’s not quite unrequited, because at the very inception of their relationships, the characters are optimistic about the longevity of their propinquity. However, through twists and turns, it turns out that happy endings are just not meant to be.

Du Maurier’s talent lies in creating an atmosphere so real and captivating that the reader is unable to turn away. On that front, this anthology does not disappoint. However, with the opening two stories, East Wind and The Doll, I found the climax leaving much to be desired. I don’t believe that I am worthy of criticising Du Maurier’s work, but simultaneously, this blog is just the idle naïve reflections of me walking in a literary wonderland, and I fully acknowledge that.

In East Wind, Du Maurier narrates the story of a idyll-like island with a population of merely seventy, which some nomadic sailors visit one day, and make merry with the islanders. However, all is not well when one of the inhabitants stumbles into infidelity with one of the newcomers, resulting in a horrific yet inevitable ending. My main gripe with short stories has always been that the ending is not natural, but forced upon the reader, and this story was no exception.

The Doll, on the other hand, had an air of wistfulness to it. The protagonist was called Rebecca, and for half a second, I did wonder if this was a pre-Manderley foray into the world of Rebecca. It wasn’t. I loved how the story was told – just a verbatim recount from pages of a pocket notebook washed ashore. Yes, it is a device used by short-story tellers again and again, and yet, each time, there is a charm to it. The story, itself though, had me baffled, for it was about a man who falls hopelessly in love with a Hungarian girl, Rebecca. However, she is unable to reciprocate the love, and I was unable to make out whether she was holding back, or just did not reciprocate. Yet, it turned out that she had a life-size doll, who she would rather love. Baffling, as I said. I couldn’t quite make out if it was a pathetic fallacy, or well, I’m not quite sure what. 

And Now To God The Father and The Limpet both had protagonists that were holier-than-thou, and manipulated people around them so easily, yet with such little self-awareness or guilt. In the former, the much-loved vicar turned out to be selfish beyond reason, whereas in the latter, the protagonist thought she was helping the people she was manipulating, in a manner so hypocritical that I did wonder whether I should be giving her the benefit of the doubt. I think And Now To God The Father remains my favourite story in the book, simply because it goes to show that redemption is a myth, and people only care about themselves. Such is reality.

A Difference In TemperamentNothing Hurts For Long, And His Letters Grew Colder, and Week-End are all stories tracing disproportionate love. Or rather, the characters unable to express themselves, resulting in them drifting away. The initial sanguineness descends to separation, and at least in the first of the three stories, it is simply because none of the two protagonists are able to express themselves to one another. These stories didn’t really speak to me, and I was left feeling quite indifferent towards the characters and whatever fate had in store for them. If things didn’t quite work out for them, I almost felt as though it’s because they deserved nothing better. Or maybe, well, the characters did actually deserve one another.

Frustration reminded me of O Henry’s The Gift of the MagiA boy, a girl, in love, and trying to make it on their own with no money, but still content as they have one another, and that helps them make the best of a bad situation. Yet, I wonder if it’s the title of this story that reduced its impact significantly. The Gift of the Magi is such a wonderful story, in that the ending is not surprising in the least, but the sweetness that lingers at the end makes it a classic. Yet, one simply cannot say the same thing about Du Maurier’s short story.

Piccadilly and Mazie both follow the same character, Mazie. Now, Alice Munro works wonders providing glimpses into characters at different points in their lives through her short stories, but with these two stories, Du Maurier weaves a magical tale as well. Piccadilly is the story of Mazie before she turns to prostitution as a profession, whereas Mazie is a peephole into her life as a prostitute, and both are incredibly well-written. The last line of Piccadilly had me absolutely dumbstruck, for it was so powerful yet so simple. I’d quote it here, but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone who wants to read this collection. It’s marvellous though, it really is, and just for the subtlety yet impact of that last line, I remain in awe.

Tame Cat had me feel quite queasy, for the character being referred to as the tame cat wasn’t really tame, and… It’s a coming-of-age story of a young girl, who goes back home for Christmas break, to spend the holidays with her mother and “Uncle John” (i.e. Tame Cat). She goes back home, with high aspirations, looking all grown-up, quite sure that her mother would be proud of her, but her mother is not happy with the girl she sees get off the train. Yet, “Uncle John” is. You can tell how this story goes, and well – the naiveté of the girl coupled with the wickedness of “Tame Cat” just… Words do fail me.

And finally, you have The Happy Valleywhich again sets a fantastic scene. The valley, the search for a dream home, a confused young protagonist with a history of illness, and just some surreal visions. Again, there was something Manderlay-esque about this story, but I cannot quite pinpoint what.

The stories were written very early in Du Maurier’s writing career, and they don’t hold a candle to her later works. They are the setting stones for something far more spectacular, but they don’t blow one’s mind as they stand. Perhaps there is a reason why some of these stories were only recently discovered, some seventy years after Du Maurier had written them. I would like to read her later short stories, and compare, but for now, I must finish all her novels. That is essential.

keep looking »
  • upcoming reviews & thoughts

  • going back in time

  • everything bookish

  • Site Admin