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.

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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!

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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 | 1 Comment

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:

NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK CALLED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD THEY SAY HE IS DRUNK WHEN HIS CHILDREN TRY TO SEE HIM BUT GOVERNESS SAYS MOST UNUSUAL LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.

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.

George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris & London

Posted on | April 14, 2013 | No Comments

Let’s defy convention for  a second, and instead of quoting the opening lines of this fantastic classic, below are the closing lines:

I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. This is a beginning.

It’s the last sentence in this vibrant yet bleak book that makes one want to go back and re-read it straight away. This is my second read of the book, and I was as mesmerised with Orwell’s tales residing in the slums of Paris and London now, as I was then, some ten years ago.

It is difficult for me to pen down my thoughts on this book. Maybe start with the cover of my edition – it’s incredibly simple, yet eye-catching. If I were to judge this book by its cover, I would say it’s unpretentious, unapologetic, and is quite “black and white” (literally speaking). The contents are true to the cover – at least of the edition I am lucky enough to have on my shelf.

Paris, the most romantic city in the world, nicknamed the city of lights, unsurprisingly has a dark underbelly. Romanticism is abandoned as Orwell chronicles his time in Paris in the 1920s, spent completely broke in fairly squalid quarters. To get by, for some bread, wine and tobacco, Orwell worked some fairly grim jobs, which introduced him to a multitude of fascinating characters. The restaurant scene was buzzing in the city, and there were jobs available, but nothing to really write home about. Plenty to write a novel about though, littered with introspective and retrospective thoughts.

A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.

Scammers, foreigners, war heroes, and eccentric neighbours all made multiple appearances as Orwell traipsed through Paris, fatigued and sleep-deprived, constantly being conned out of money, with most of his earthly possessions pawned.

It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

When he finally hits rock bottom, he sends a note to a friend in London, trying to see if life in London would improve. The friend suggested a job which seemed as an improvement, but Lady Luck was not smiling down on Orwell at the time, and by the time he got to London, the job was no longer available. History was about to repeat itself, as Orwell tried to navigate a very expensive city with no money, and few friends.

It (London) was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop.

He slept in skipes, cheap skanky lodging houses, and Salvation Army shelters. For some of these places, you had to hand over all your money before you were allowed to enter; at others, you handed over all your tobacco. Unlike Paris, one couldn’t sit on a bench in London lest the police arrested the offender for loafing around. Amidst other things, Orwell joined a bunch of ungrateful tramps in prayer for a cup of tea and a bun, he conversed at length with an amateur artist, and walked through the city waiting for shelters to open. One of the more thought-provoking sentences in the book was, in fact, mentioned by the amateur artist:

The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.

It is an amazing thought – simple yet evocative. Orwell even contemplates on the nature of jobs, and why the world sneers at beggars.

Beggars do not work, it is said; but then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, bronchitis etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course — but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless.

It is hard to dismiss poverty and beggars considering the amount they pay in suffering. Orwell, throughout the book, remains mostly conscientious and honest, as do a lot of the people he interacts with. He does not apologise for his situation, nor does he make any excuses for it. Orwell’s claim to fame wasn’t posthumous like Van Gogh’s. Yet, when one considers how “down and out” Orwell was, and where he got to, and some of the books he churned out, one cannot help but be blown away. I say “one” in an abstract third-person kind-of way, but the previous sentence is meant to reflect what I think. I am absolutely blown away, for the second time, with this fantastic work of non-fiction.

“Don’t Be Evil”

Posted on | April 1, 2013 | No Comments

I’m fast starting to believe that everything in the world is a giant conspiracy theory against me. Okay, that’s me being a tad hyperbolic. Just a tad – not more, not less. There are two pieces of news that I have stumbled upon in the last seventy-two hours, which depress me to no end.

Amazon Purchases GoodReads

There you have it. Amazon suddenly has a lot more power and influence in the book industry. For those of you who like graphs:

The chart is staggering. The rise of Amazon’s dominance is almost unreal, but as we have our beloved bricks-and-mortar stores closing all around us, one has to wonder? How much of this industry is Amazon going to monopolise? Has it already reached the point where there is no competition in this space? At least, not from the other so-called “big players”. The online stores have quite possibly already won this battle. That said, I fully believe there will be indie bookshops that will be survive – as long as there are book-lovers, there is a place for the smaller, more independent bookshops, that’s more about the books, less about the money.

Yet, with Amazon purchasing GoodReads, a site “for book-lovers by book-lovers” (I’m ad-libbing), it almost seems like there will soon be no real e-competition left either. Amazon already owns The Book Depository, Shelfari (the “Shelfari by amazon.com” banner makes me cringe, ever-so-slightly), and Abe Books (by virtue of which, it has a stake in LibraryThing). The one thing we learn in high school economics is, monopolies are detrimental to the economy. It doesn’t take rocket science to work that out. With the purchase of GoodReads, Amazon is one step closer to attaining that monopoly?

GoodReads is fantastic. I use it to maintain lists (boy, I love my lists!), keep track of what I am reading, and to connect with other book lovers who may not be on the blogosphere. I’d browse it for hours, peruse the quotes from a book if the book itself piqued my interest, and read reviews. Also, I spent a fair bit of time browsing through all the various editions and covers of the books, marvelling at how they have evolved through time. Yes, it is entirely possible that I have squandered precious time exploring GoodReads, much like a child in a candy store. The one option I have never used (yet always appreciated) on GoodReads is “Get A Copy” – the immediate option is ‘Kobo’ and then there are a bunch on ‘online stores’ listed in a drop-down. Amazon doesn’t even feature at first glance, such that it is almost refreshing. That’s going to change! It is inevitable.

With this purchase, Amazon now has a great recommendation site, that caters to passionate book-lovers and that’s it. This will add an immense value to Amazon’s “recommendations” (if you liked this…), which for me has been a bit hit-and-miss lately. It also means that one can expect tight integration with the Kindle and GoodReads, for, from what I have read, the Kindle social component is virtually non-existent. GoodReads, on the other hand, very very good.

I am not going to delete my GoodReads account – honestly, I don’t see the point. As long as it continues giving me what it gives me right now, and doesn’t undergo a complete metamorphosis after the takeover, I will carry on using it. However, if it does undergo a complete metamorphosis…

…let’s not worry about that for now.

The Death Of Google Reader

Apparently, a few days ago, as part of it’s spring-cleaning, the “Don’t Be Evil” company that is Google announced that it would be killing Google Reader. Now, I don’t know about you, but I use Google Reader excessively – to keep up with my reading blogs, tech blogs, language blogs, and well, a plethora of other random things that pique my interest at some point or the other. I suppose it is true: Google giveth, and Google taketh away. But seriously – Google Plus stays (is anyone even using it?) but Google Reader goes? I would be quite interested in getting the numbers for both those services, in terms of how actively they are being used.

I’ve been exploring alternatives, and while Feedly seems to be the obvious one, I’m not blown away. It’s not that I am hard to please. However, Feedly doesn’t seem to have:

  1. a web interface – instead it relies on a browser add-on.
  2. search functionality
  3. no “Mark All As Read” feature
  4. the ability to read in the app itself – it means, for each article, I need to visit the site.

This is all second-hand information, but it does make me worry a tad. On the bright side, it remembers the articles I’ve “starred” in Google Reader which is a major plus.

How about you? Are you a big Google Reader user, and if so, what alternative(s) are you leaning towards?

Virginia Woolf – The Waves

Posted on | April 1, 2013 | 1 Comment

The inexplicable fear that surged through me at the very mention of Woolf’s name has alleviated somewhat after my first foray into her works three years ago. Granted it has taken me three years to pick up another book by one of the foremost modernists, but, it was also a book I picked up while trying to return to the world of reading and literature. I expected to struggle, as I did with Mrs. Dalloway; I was prepared to lose myself in the long-windedness, the meanderings; I looked forward to being blown away and challenged, in equal measure. I was not disappointed.

That would be a glorious life, to addict oneself to perfection; to follow the curve of the sentence wherever it might lead, into deserts, under drifts of sand, regardless of lures, of seductions; to be poor always and unkempt; to be ridiculous in Piccadilly.

The Waves is a colloquy of sorts. The interspersed monologues of six characters, through different phases of their lives is essentially the crux of the book. However, none of the words are being said out aloud; instead, it is simply the thoughts fleeting through their minds, in present tense. It starts when the six characters are children – friends – and carries on through the various phases in their life: school; marriage; children; and finally, inevitably, old age.

Let us again pretend that life is a solid substance, shaped like a globe, which we turn about in our fingers. Let us pretend that we can make out a plain and logical story, so that when one matter is despatched—love for instance—we go on, in an orderly manner, to the next.

Yet, can you really call them characters when all that is revealed to you, as a reader, are the thoughts racing in their minds, and nothing more? And nothing less? Merely their voices, distinguishable by subtle inflexions and that’s it?

The nine chapters that make up this book represent two things: the time of the day, and the stage of life the protagonists are in.

The first chapter, abundant with the voices of childhood and playfulness, is prefaced with a beautiful image of the sunrise, with the waves softly splashing. All six characters make an appearance in that first chapter, almost as though they are introducing themselves. The final chapter, carries a lot more weight, and is a lot more reflective; it is prefaced with a stunning image of the sun going down, with the waves crashing, and only has one of the characters – Bernard – reflecting and introspecting, in his old age, with the benefit of hindsight. The book does rise gradually to the crescendo that is the last chapter, for when you turn that last page, the feeling that overcomes you, as a reader, cannot be translated into words. That is the power of Woolf’s writing.

Initially, it is difficult to get accustomed to the writing. The main challenge has nothing to do with the convoluted sentences that Woolf is famous for. In fact, due to the extremely lyrical writing, the temptation is almost to close your eyes, and let the words take over. The emotions evoked by the descriptive writing results in images dancing before your eyes, more overwhelming than expected. Significantly so.

The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.

Instead, the challenge arises from how each character is an extension of the other, such that it is almost impossible to distinguish the soliloquies of one character from the next. The shift in voice is subtle, and easy to miss, unless you take in each word – slowly, patiently.

‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.’

No, the writing does not mimic the way people speak, or the way people think. It is overtly poetic, excessively exaggerated and wonderfully evocative, but that’s what ensures the connection between the reader and the character. Due to the stream-of-consciousness writing, one can be assured of the character’s candour, and this in turn strengthens the bond.

There is, then, a world immune from change. But I am not composed enough, standing on tiptoe on the verge of fire, still scorched by the hot breath, afraid of the door opening and the leap of the tiger, to make even one sentence. What I say is perpetually contradicted. Each time the door opens I am interrupted. I am not yet twenty-one. I am to be broken. I am to be derided all my life. I am to be cast up and down among these men and women, with their twitching faces, with their lying tongues, like a cork on a rough sea. Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.

As a reader, who has undergone similar experiences, it is easy to empathise and sympathise with the characters, while simultaneously berating them or unconsciously nudging them to change their course.

This is Woolf at her most experimental, after the unfortunate demise of her brother at the age of twenty-six. The themes of absence, loss and death are prevalent in the book, with the existence of a seventh character: Percival. At no point do you hear Percival’s voice, or the thoughts running in his head, yet he is a central character in the book, by virtue of the fact that he is constantly referred to by the other characters. Praise is flung at him, and the consensus amidst the six characters that you interact with through the book is that Percival is perfect, and cannot do any wrong. Initially, there are high hopes and aspirations for him, until he dies in his twenties (Percival has died (he died in Egypt; he died in Greece; all deaths are one death)). The other characters try to rationalise his death, to no avail.

And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

I have not dwelled on the six characters whose voices make up this classic. That is almost immaterial, I feel, as I reflect on this book. They all have their place, and their importance, and the lack of even one of them would render this book slightly less impactful. The imagery, the cornucopia of metaphors, the insecurities and the accomplishments of the characters, and the lingering presence of a dear departed friend results in a book that necessitates a re-read. And another read. A single read is not enough to appreciate The Waves the Woolf has woven, at what has to be her best. It’s a bold claim for someone who has simply read just one other book by her, but over the course of this year, I would like to change that. And hopefully, re-read this masterpiece someday soon.

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