Thursday, August 16, 2018

Freshly Minted Workaholic Speaking

I've never taken a break this long from blogging. I still haven't finished this book I started in some time May. Let alone written anything for pleasure in a long time. And yet, I'm on a constant creative high.
- freshly minted workaholic speaking.

There are many half written posts lounging in my drafts, never know when I'll get to them... if ever. And this blog has gone through one too many fake revivals. Yes, it's finally been one too many. There was once a time when I used to 'write like no one was reading' and bask in the anonymity. When this blog became bigger than that, I had to create another one for that purpose. I suppose I want to go back to that kind of messy blogging again. Without the pressure of writing a summary or you know, a disclaimer for not writing a proper review. It's been three months since I blogged. I don't particularly miss the super (un)organized book reviews; and I honest to god don't miss the update plans. But I do miss something about the whole thing. So I will get back to it. This is the first attempt. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Not so much a review as an organised rant.

THE WORLD: Shelved as 'science fantasy', The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is the first installment in the series that is built on the premise that humans have so ravaged the world that Father Earth wants revenge. There is only one continent left now called the Stillness which frequently suffers severe unpredictable climate changes - called the 'fifth season.' Every fifth season wipes out populations and communities. 

The population is also altered now. Alongside humans are beings called orogenes, who have the ability to harness the power of the earth, feel shifts in stone and hear vibrations of the ground. And to control the orogenes from harming humans, we have the Guardians, who have been charged with taking care of the orogenes. The Stillness is a ravaged world, made savage through its suffering. Not unlike our world, it uses blind violence to get what it wants.

THE STORY: The book introduces us to three women, at different points in time. Essun, addressed simply as "you", is the woman of the present day, an orogene who takes us through the latest fifth season that has hit the world. Hiding amongst the humans of a small village, Essun has constructed a lie. She is married and has two children, seemingly happy, except her husband doesn't know that Essun and their children are orogenes.

One day, a giant rift hits the ground, signalling the start of yet another Season, and demolishes many communities in the Stillness. But this is not the greatest of Essun's troubles. For the same day, she comes home to find her husband and daughter missing and her little boy strangled to death. And that can only mean one thing: their secret is out. Essun can sense that her daughter is still alive somewhere, a mother's instinct, and she sets out to find her husband and daughter and avenge her son's death. But Father Earth has other plans for Essun.

The plot is complicated and the timelines could get confusing. But it will keep on the edge of your seat, that's for sure.

THEMES: This book and the rest of the trilogy is very intelligently crafted. I had asked friends to recommend books that were 'unputdownable' and this series was one of the suggestions. I don't usually read series especially when I haven't heard of them, but man, I'm so glad I read this. While I have only spoken about one story here, it is the series I wholeheartedly recommend. It is so well bound together that I cannot think of one book without its companions, an infinity gently split into three narratives. The series is about so many things, it's about everything - family, life, death, love, forgiveness, kindness, race, politics, discrimination, war, survival, hatred, fear - from bare human emotions to grand worldwide conflicts. And it is about time, and how it affects everything in the most epic proportions...

THE CHARACTERS: It is through Essun's eyes that we experience this world throughout the series, told largely in second-person perspective. She is a beautiful character and the best thing about this book for me - many fantasy stories today showcase powerful and flawless heroines that seem to exist to make a stand. (Two years ago, I had many speculative fiction magazines reject my first story, The Dew Eagle, because the main character, a tribal woman, didn't seem strong enough, whatever that means.) Essun is strong. She is also flawed, and not always aware of her shortcomings - her temper, her ideas of motherhood, her selfish pursuits. She is not always in control, of herself or her surroundings. And  the story demands that you relate to her, identify with her, because she is 'you.'

The Broken Earth Trilogy is reminiscent of Earthsea in its conspicuous lack of whitewashing. The characters, spread across different communities in the Stillness, are of different race, colour and sexuality - Jemisin takes great care in describing the characters as both individuals and representatives of their creed. And she tackles the prejudices present in the characters carefully as well - giving us a truly well-rounded believable world, not without its faults, but overall, understandably so. Perhaps the biggest achievement for Jemisin is that you cannot characterize any of her characters as inherently 'good' or 'bad'; that kind of black-and-white judgment absent in her writing. Our characters range from prudent and self important, to impulsive and lacking in faith - and they're all simply trying to survive, one way or the other. This is not a moral story, not a preaching session. It's a lot more complicated than that. Any lessons are for you to deduce.

QUOTES: At this juncture, my own words fail me and I resort to good ol' fashioned quotage:

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine. But this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. For the last time.”

“But human beings, too, are ephemeral things in the planetary scale. The number of things that they do not notice are literally astronomical.”

"Life cannot exist without the Earth.Yet there is a not-unsubstantiated chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth. We’ve come close a few times. That can’t happen. We cannot be permitted to win."

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Phrases #3

A few weeks ago, I decided to post tidbits from my Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable every Friday, in an attempt to keep the blog up and running even during utter shortage of time. I have skipped one Friday already, but I forgive myself for it for it was a week when I was completely sick. 

So, I was surprised to discover that the dictionary actually has a foreword by Pratchett, and he says, "Brewer's is ostensibly a reference book, and an indispensable one. But it is also an idiosyncratic adventure, pulling you in and saying: 'This is, in fact, not what you're looking for; but it's much more interesting.' And, of course, it usually is." Very true.

This week's phrase is -

of course, definitely looks like a sheep, its uncanny..

(Portugese Alcatraz, 'pelican', from Arabic al-ghattas, 'the white-tailed sea-eagle', influenced by Latin albus, 'white'). A large oceanic bird, noted for its powerful gliding flight. It was called the Cape Sheep by sailors from its frequenting the Cape of Good Hope, and it was said to sleep in the air. Sailors have long believed that to shoot one brings bad luck.
In modern usage, the word denotes a constant burden or handicap. This sense is first recorded in the 1930s, but the allusion is to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) in which the Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross, a 'pious bird of good omen'. As a result, the ship is becalmed, all suffer and his companions hang the bird round his neck as a punishment. 
From The Times (13 October 1999): The Victoria and Albert Museum was founded on radical principal, but then got weighed down by its huge collection, which has become like an albatross around its neck.
In golf, the word is used for a score of three strokes under par.

I'm so eager to squeeze in the phrase "an albatross around the neck" somewhere into my writing. That said, I understand nothing of the golf reference. Bye!  

Friday, March 2, 2018

Friday Phrases #2

Last Friday, I decided to make a weekly contribution to the blog in the form of a phrase or word history plucked out of a dictionary I own. This is the giant Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: 17th Edition revised by John Ayto. It's a delightful book which provides you with a list of more than a million words and phrases and their roots, along with stories that may be associated with them.

The idea is to open the book to a random page, and select one eye-catching entry to post about, every Friday. I'll learn something new, the book will do more than sit on my shelf gathering dust and I'll get to post a little something without spending a lot of time and effort on it - I'm suffering from a serious lack of either of those things.

Here goes nothing, today's entry is -

FINGER. The old names for the five fingers are: 
(1) Thuma (Old English), the thumb. 
(2) Towcher (Middle English, 'toucher'), foreman or pointer. This was called the scite-finger ('shooting finger') by the Anglo-Saxons. It is now usually known as the first finger or forefinger, or the index finger because it is used for pointing. 
(3) Long-man, long-finger or middle finger. 
(4) Lec-man or ring-finger. The former means the 'medical finger' (literally 'leech finger') and the latter is the Roman digitus annularis, called by the Anglo-Saxons the gold finger. This finger is used as the ring finger (also annular finger) in the belief that a nerve ran through it to the heart. Hence the Greeks and Romans called it the medical finger, and used it for stirring mixtures under the notion that that it would give instant warning to the heart if it came into contact with anything noxious. It is still a popular superstition that it is bad to rub ointment or scratch the skin with any other finger. 
(5) Little man or little finger: The Anglo-Saxons called it the ear-finger, because it is the one used to poke inside the ear when it tickles or to worm out the wax. It is also known as the auricular finger.

And that's it for today. Have a happy weekend!

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Summary: Yun Ling Teoh is the sole survivor of a secret Japanese concentration camp in Malaysia. From flashbacks, we piece together that Yun Ling escaped the torture with a maimed hand and a damaged psyche, while her sister perished in the camp. Over the years, Yun Ling has tried to find the location of the camp to no avail. Yun Ling's had always been fascinated by Japanese gardens. When they were little, they had visited Japan and been to a wondrous garden, the memories of which had brought them peace and stupor in the camp. Now, Yun Ling wishes to build a Japanese garden as a memorial to her sister.

Yun Ling tracks down an elusive Japanese gardener named Aritomo, rumoured to be the Japanese Emperor's gardener. He resides in the mountains where he has built, unknown to most, the only Japanese garden in Malaya. It is called Yugiri, or the Garden of Evening Mists. It is a struggle to visit him, for Yun Ling is filled with burning, seething hatred for the Japanese for what they did to her family, and her land. Her life after the camp has been devoted to bringing justice to her sister. When Aritomo merely bows to her the Japanese way, she can't stand it. At first, he refuses her request to build a garden, and she is infuriated. But there is something Aritomo sees in her; and it may be her passion, his sympathy or some hint of potential that makes him strike a compromise. Rewriting the course of their lives, intertwining them in each other; he takes her on as an apprentice.

Leap to the present day. Many years have passed, and little makes sense to us - but we know this: Yun Ling has returned to Yugiri after a long time, Aritomo has disappeared, and Yun Ling now suffers from aphasia. In a desperate attempt to hold on to her memories as they slip away, Yun Ling writes this: a chronicle of her life before Yugiri, at and after.

My impression: Recently my sister ransacked (for lack of a better word) my home bookshelf, found this book and was within days, singing praises. I had of course forgotten I had it. But then I remembered buying this book. It was a couple of years ago that I had vowed to myself that I would read more world literature. This book instantly caught my eye - written by a Malaysian author, about a Chinese woman and a Japanese gardener. Barely literate in any of these cultures, I bought the book in the spur of the moment. (And then shelved it away for a better day.)

So, the reason for the back story is, this book gave me exposure to the intricacies of Malaysian history, as a colony, the cultural diversity residing within the country and the Japanese military invasions and expansions in the east long before Pearl Harbor. Not to mention, the terrors of the concentration camps. The book also introduced me to the Japanese art and culture - the Japanese gardens, tattoo making, the precision of rituals, tea houses - and the revered status these arts enjoy. This contrast between the worship of the Japanese culture in the foreground of the treatment of the natives by the army forms the main conflict in the mind of our heroine; and the tragedy of the book.

Yun Ling loves Yugiri, the garden of evening mists. It speaks to her; its utility, its artistic expression. With Aritomo as her mentor, Yun Ling does physical labour in the garden with the other men and studies about the different forms of gardening from books. The more she learns, the more she begins to respect Aritomo - and struggles with her conscience that has so grown to hate anything Japanese. This is reminiscent of any colony-colonizer relationship; in mellower tones, the way Indians think of the English - a combination of exaltation and despise.

I felt this very strongly - it caught me by surprise, even - in London; where I was awed by everything I saw while shuddering to see the remnants of Indian history displayed in museums as "gifts" from my people. Open secret: they were not gifts, just as the martyrs mentioned all around were not volunteers. And yet here I am, I read English, teach English and express adoration at telephone booths, red buses, Discworld and all things BBC. People around here still sometimes call English the colonizer's language; I have heard the media, of course, but also my friends call it that. What a strange dilemma to be in, what a strange hatred to have. Of course, in Yun Ling's case, it is not strange; for she suffered first-hand. And it must take a long time to reconcile with and face the consequences of such suffering. But there is always more than meets the eye, and in Yun Ling's case; it is a combination of injustice and guilt that fuels the rage.

One of my favourite things about the Japanese garden was this technique Aritomo uses called "borrowed scenery." This involves taking into consideration the architecture and scenery that lie around the garden and incorporating them into the design of the garden. Instead of shutting out the outside world, this technique brings it in and the garden is more in tune with its surrounding, creating an enhanced setting. The picture below is an example of this technique, from the garden called Genkyu Garden with the Hikone castle in the background integrated into its design.

[[[Tangent: Looking at the picture, and learning about this form reminded me of our visit to Agra, in India, and the Mehtab Bagh - which is a Mughal garden situated to the north of the Taj Mahal, on the east bank of the Yamuna.  As you enter the garden, gradually moving towards it centre, you notice the white marble structure in the distance. And when you reach the end of the garden, you realize that it is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, which is like a focal point of the garden; though it lies much further away from it. 

Of course, while making a beautiful view, it's not a conscious attempt like these Japanese gardens; the Mehtab Bagh was built long before the Taj came into existence (built by the first Mughal emperor, whereas the Taj Mahal was built by the fifth.) 

Nevertheless, the illusion created by this - that the Taj Mahal is part of the garden - certainly multiplies the beauty of the garden and scaffolds the experience of the visit. Why waste perfectly beautiful structures in the background by hiding them, when you can cleverly use their magnificence to your benefit. Here ends my tangent.]]]

And now it's time for the crowning glory of this book - its prose. The writing brings the book to life. The rich language drips off the page and into your mind and you're transported  right into the heart of Malaysia. Read this description of Yugiri, the garden of evening mists...

The sounds of the world outside faded away, absorbed into the leaves. I stood there, not moving. For a moment I felt that nothing had changed since I was last here, almost thirty-five years before – the scent of pine resin sticking to the air, the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight scattered over the ground.

Guided by memory’s compass, I began to walk into the garden. I made one or two wrong turns, but came eventually to the pond. I stopped, the twisting walk through the tunnel of trees heightening the effect of seeing the open sky over the water. Six tall, narrow stones huddled into a miniature limestone mountain range in the centre of the pond. On the opposite bank stood the pavilion, duplicated in the water so that it appeared like a paper lantern hanging in mid-air. A willow grew a few feet away from the pavilion’s side, its branches sipping from the pond.

In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music. It dropped its leg a second later and speared its beak into the water. Was it a descendant of the one that had made its home here when I first came here? Frederik had told me that there was always one in the garden – an unbroken chain of solitary birds. I knew it could not be the same bird from nearly forty years before but, as I watched it, I hoped that it was; I wanted to believe that by entering this sanctuary the heron had somehow managed to slip through the fingers of time.
I've used this and other parts of this novel as literary analysis tools for students ever since I read the book over a month ago. And it works like magic; all the symbols, the imagery, the figurative language... and the effect created is indisputable. This atmospheric writing is the icing on the cake for the experience that is this book. A must read, if ever!

Check out the book on Amazon

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday Phrases #1

This entire plan to be a regular blog-poster is on the brink of failure yet again. But the other day as I was going through my giant suitcase of books (my room has no place) I found a much beloved tome - the Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: 17th Edition. I had found this at Crossword of all places at a whooping seventy percent discount a couple of years ago. This book is a delight; gives a whole new meaning to the word dictionary. Amazon describes it in this fashion - "Much loved for its wit and wisdom since 1870, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable takes you on a captivating adventure through its trademark blend of language, culture, myth and legend."

So what I've decided now is a very simple ritual. No matter what I read or do every week, I will return to the blog every Friday to post about one word or phrase or word history from my ginormous dictionary of phrase and fable. The idea is to open the book to any random page and post the entry which most catches my fascination.

Today's phrase is this: (Page 285)

CLOSE ENCOUNTER: Journalistic jargon for any meeting, whether personal or professional.
Fair enough, this is how I use it, but then it goes to say...
The phrase was popularized by the title of the science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), itself referring to contact with extraterrestrial beings from a UFO. A 'close encounter of the first kind' is thus simply a sighting of a UFO, while a 'close encounter of the second kind' is evidence of an alien landing. A 'close encounter of the fourth kind' is an abduction by aliens. The categories were proposed by J Allen Hynek's The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry (1972.) 

Further on, Wikipedia says that there have been extensions to Hynek's list, so that there are now fifth and six kinds of close encounters to describe even further varying degrees of UFO contact. Another word I learnt today is ufology - the study of UFOs.