Wednesday, September 19, 2018

On fantasy writing, immersive worlds and reading The Belgariad by David Eddings

“But there's a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible?”

There should be a word for that feeling of utter joy and sheer satisfaction that comes with discovering a new fantasy series that is just right. And I have come to realize that "my type of fantasy" lies somewhere on the edge between middle grade and young adult. No Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, thank you very much, but of course, nothing overly childish either - coming-of-age stories, basically. His Dark Materials, Tiffany Aching, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Earthsea... you see my point? The Belgariad fits that requirement perfectly. It also has that epic quality that makes it even more attractive.

In this post, I mostly focus on the first book, Pawn of Prophecy. This is (a) to avoid spoilers (b) because the rest of the series is one continuous story cut into parts; whereas the first book is more or less standalone. At any rate, one book was enough to have me completely head over heels. So here's what it is about. 

Story: Prologue... The world was created by seven gods. One of the gods fashioned an orb which contained a living soul. Another god, Torak, attempted to steal this Orb but ended up being destroyed by it. Belgariad was a mighty sorcerer and a disciple of the God who created the Orb. Belgarath recovered the Orb from the evil Torak and, with his daughter Polgara, Belgarath has been protecting the Orb for centuries. 

In the present day, our protagonist, a young boy named Garion, lives on a farm with his Aunt Pol. He has lost both his parents and is unsure of his family history. One day, a mysterious storyteller called Mister Wolf arrives on their farm and warns Aunt Pol of a strange, important object that has been stolen. Much to Garion's surprise, Mister Wolf whisks them away on a quest to find this stolen object. And as the journey progresses, Garion begins to realize that Aunt Pol may not be who he thinks she is... Family secrets and buried mythologies surface as Garion starts to question his own fate.

Language: This book was written in 1982, which in Fantasy years is not that long ago. Of course, it's much before books like the Bartimaeus trilogy were penned, but around the same time as Ursula K Le Guin or Philip Pullman's writing. Naturally, the writing has a bit of that oldsy style; a little wordy and solemn... slightly dated if you will. The latest trend in coming-of-age fantasy seems to be this informal banter (think Rick Riordan), smug, sarcastic, conversational, school-kid-talk. With The Belgariad, I'm glad to read another children's book that speaks of childhood without trying to sound like a child.

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor's farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.”

World Building: What makes Neil Gaiman's writing so appealing? One reason is how he gives us brief, blurry-around-the-edges glimpses into his worlds. Carefully manicured scenes which give the faintest promise of wonders hidden behind his veils. With every new page you turn, you yearn more and more for those quick looks, begging him for scraps of new detail, which he gleefully provides peppered across the story. In her own way, J.K. Rowling also does that - that's why Pottermore still works or we rush to watch Fantastic Beasts and glow warmly when Hogwarts is mentioned. They let on just enough about their world that we are convinced it's complex, without ever letting on too much. It's an accomplished story telling skill. But it's not world building.

David Eddings does the opposite. While Rowling's world seems to grow even today and she piles more details every passing year - Eddings' world is all ready when he tells us this story. Each character has a story, a motive, a place in the world, or a conflict within himself - from the smallest shadow who passes by on the street to the many kings of the empires in this land, even his gods grieve and think and second guess and love - every character matters and earns your sympathy. The history is written. It is narrated throughout the story. And the detail makes it so that the world couldn't not exist. Incredibly immersive.

Characters: The characters - the hundreds of tonnes of characters - each have a distinct personality, and with it, a voice, which has so much to do with language. Wolf is old, cheeky, wise but has grown weary with age; Pol is a formidable creature but at once also motherly, caring, hence well respected; Garion is curious, innocent and as if on principal, good. Even supporting characters like Silk and Barak ooze their own drama and charm.

Initially, Eddings makes a biased narrator and it is quite clear whom you're expected to like. This is typical in fantasy, so commonplace that they're the norm... one might even consider it wrong to expect more? The characters of The Belgariad do grow over time and by the end of the series, context will turn these caricatures drawn from Book 1 meaningless.

(Bonus:  the book is also endlessly quotable.) 

“Little jobs require little men, and it's the little jobs that keep a kingdom running.”

“Why are the people all so unhappy?" he asked Mister Wolf. "They have a stern and demanding God," Wolf replied. "Which God is that?" Garion asked. "Money," Wolf said.”

“A day in which you learn something isn't a complete loss.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Kashmir in two books Part 2 - A Long Dream of Home by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma and Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita

Over the past few years, I've developed a growing affinity towards memoirs and autobiographies. Non fiction has never been my cup of tea, but these seem to have slipped through the cracks. The last year and a half has seen me grow increasingly interested in the happenings in and around Kashmir. Perhaps it was a year ago that I published the post - Kashmir in two books Part 1 - Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A.S. Dulat. The former gave an average Kashmiri Muslim's perspective, the other provided insight into the Gordion knot that is the Kashmir problem and the parties involved, all from the perspective of an Indian Intelligence agent.

The two books in this post are about the 1990 exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. Hundreds of pandits were forced to flee their land at the time of the insurgency on or after 19th January, 1990 in an ethnic cleansing and Islamisation of Kashmir.

A Long Dream of Home: The persecution, exile and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma

This is a collection of anecdotes from the time of turmoil in Kashmir from 1989-2003, when the Kashmiri pandits were exiled from the region, the years leading up to it and the time that followed. It is divided into four parts: 

1. Nights of Terror - events witnessed in Kashmir at the heart of the exile movement, in the years 1989-91.
2. Summers of Exile - events the horrible decade and a half spent struggling in exile
3. Days of Parting - events leading up to the exodus, including the tribal raiding in 1947 and the long history of the pandits in the Kashmir valley
4. Seasons of Longing - voices of Kashmiri pandits old and young, the former yearning to return home while the latter wanting move on, home a mere fable told by generations past. 

The tone of the book is its defining feature. It has no pretense. It is not a work of literature, it is a nightmare in written form. It takes great effort to read and not turn a blind eye to the things written in the accounts, but it is also difficult to put the book down. Very enlightening. Through the stories is given a brief history of the pandit community and their rich legacy of nearly five thousand years in the valley. Through the myriad anecdotes, Kashmir emerges as a kind of character and her beauty is palpable... the natural beauty of the valley, the close knit communities, the salty tea and houseboats. 

Then, the atrocities of 1989-90 range from bleak to horrific. The chants of creating a place "without the Pandit men, but with their women," people being forced to set their watches back a half an hour to match the Pakistan time, that story about the man who was shot in a tub of rice and how the rice turned red... the ever menacing ever present death. That nonchalance with which each of the writers talks about people dying ("We heard the news that he was shot outside his house," "I learnt later that they had got to him," "That evening they shot him on the street"...) makes you feel ashamed of your safety... the very ability to wake up and leave the house in the morning is a luxury. 

Part 3, Summers of Exile, talks about the years spent by many in camps and apartments across Jammu, suffering the heat and poverty that had been imposed upon them by circumstance. There are families who had put their entire life's savings into the house they were forced to vacate. How do you define the value of material possessions - lost as well as lacking? Anecdotes have also been given of generations who have been brought up entirely in the camps. Whose very postal address reads "Jagti Camp." Children whose futures were cut off even before they started. In the eponymous story, Sushant Dhar writes,

"I became friends with the summer, despite the atrocities it unleashed. But I always dreamt of watching the snowfall. I dreamt of snow, of touching it, walking on it. Whenever I heard reports of snowfall in Kashmir, I would dream of leaving my quarters and going back to the distant land, the land of my birth, just to see the snow. I longed for snow. For many years, before sleeping, I imagined myself walking through a land covered entirely with tress and snow, walking through the fields and reaching the top of a mountain; this helped me sleep in the summers."

"The years that followed brought mere dejection and anguish among the people. The government provided paltry relief and ration, while assuring us of building better shelters. Little did we realise that these were empty and hollow promises. Our condition was being pitied. We were not even a vote-bank. We were merely a liability for the authorities. We didn't matter. We were as good as the dead."

Many of the stories mention the network of the Pandits in Jammu kept alive by their newspaper and radio station - how they keep track of familiar faces in the obituaries on these channels. So many details reappear across stories, so many perspectives mix and mesh. This is not a political book, it will not try to give you insight. It is not unbiased or impartial and it's not analytical. Its beauty lies in a shared narrative and a collective consciousness. It's simply a recollection and a plea... to be remembered. It's a protest and a memorial and an epilogue... an attempt to be unforgettable. 

Our Moon Has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home by Rahul Pandita 

While it seems wrong somehow to talk about either of these books with a critical eye, I had the advantage of reading this right after the first - so I was a bit seasoned (deadened would be a better word) to the atrocities that were sure to follow. Rahul Pandita's book is in fact a political statement, possibly because it is one fleshed-out book, and not a series of glimpses. 

From the beginning there is ample clarity on what he hopes to achieve with this book; he also admits to curating history to make his point. He is open about his one-dimensionality, if you can call it that. He doesn't aim to be objective, he doesn't seem to care enough. In a long book such as this, as opposed to the stories of A Long Dream, it is conspicuous that the simultaneous tragedies suffered by the average Kashmiri Muslims are not treated with any sympathy. 

An interesting example: One of the stories from A Long Dream talks about the general panic among the Muslims during the exodus. A rumour had been doing the rounds with the Muslims that this was an Indian-government initiative to vacate the Hindus from Kashmir before bombing the area. While the Pandits fled for their lives, their Muslim neighbours were afraid that they would be picked clean once the Hindus were gone. A Long Dream uses this fact ironically, to show how both sides were gravely affected with mass hysteria, and how ridiculously suspicious neighbours had suddenly grown of each other. Pandita mentions the same incident - and scoffs and seethes. He cannot, and will not, try to be "fair." This isn't the time, he conveniently feels. 

“Another problem is the apathy of the media and a majority of India’s intellectual class who refuse to even acknowledge the suffering of the Pandits. No campaigns were ever run for us; no fellowships or grants given for research on our exodus. For the media, the Kashmir issue has remained largely black and white—here are a people who were victims of brutalization at the hands of the Indian state. But the media has failed to see, and has largely ignored the fact that the same people also victimized another.”

It's odd how often Pandita criticises others for being black and white, and proceeds to do the same! But his rage is pure and it burns you. Pandita has fashioned a powerful narrative out of his and his family's memories. His mother stands out. Throughout the book, his mother reminisces about their house in Kashmir, how it has twenty one rooms. Never mind the fact that they no longer own it, having been forced to sell it while in exile. Pandita describes a point when a few thugs show up outside their house and point to neighbourhood houses, loudly declaring which one they would like to take. That incident illustrated better than any description, the sudden encroachment upon their lives.e Death is everywhere, yet each loss is an unexpected and searing cut. A slow and steady stripping away of humanity.

It seems wrong to scrutinize it so, yet I must say - this is a brilliant, moving, terrifying story of a boy. One boy, plausibly representing many, who has suffered a great injustice, who is stranded in the unfamiliar, torn away from everything he considers his own. I couldn't stop the tears rolling down my cheeks. I could hardly stop shuddering. Our Moon Has Blood Clots is an intense book. The author's constant struggle, with his identity, his memory, his history is very evident and this makes it a personal, very emotional book. But both Curfewed Night and A Long Dream of Home capture and subsequently transcend the personal, and make better stories of Kashmir as a whole. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

How to Find a Book to Read for Your Kid


(It's way past midnight and a stray thought brought this post on. I'm just going with the flow.)

In my last few years of teaching, I have noticed that parents often ask me to recommend books for their children. I don’t know if they realise how difficult it is to recommend a book to someone you know only on the surface – I do try to get to know my students as well as I can, but it’s hardly possible to remember their every interest and taste. Let’s face it: the parents themselves are more likely to have a deep understanding of what their child likes. So how does the choice go to the English teacher? It’s the assumption that there is something mechanical about choosing a new book.

One of my favourite linguists, Stephen Krashen, oversaw a study on what he called a “home run book.” That is, a single book that makes a reader. In a study titled, “Can one positive reading experience create a reader?” researchers Debra Von Sprecken and Jiyoung Kim along with Stephen Krashen present findings from a survey of over two hundred Grade 4 students in L.A. Students were asked just two questions: 1. Do you like to read? 2. Is there one book or experience that interested you in reading?

The findings were interesting. Nearly all those who said they liked reading admitted that one book had ‘sparked’ their interest. Furthermore, they could name it. However, the book varied across the students, even for those with similar backgrounds. This led the researchers to conclude that while there is such a thing as a home run book, the selection differs for every child. The recommendation the study ended on was this: to spark an interest in reading in children, the sure-shot way is to expose them to many, different kinds of books, hoping to get a home run.

Of course, this answer would not satisfy most demanding parents. And yet, I won’t simply give arbitrary recommendations. I do rant a lot about books in class, and I see children note down the names of books that they think they might like. Children also catch recommendations from peers and usually, once a book is bought by a kid, it doesn’t rest till it has made the rounds through the entire class. Reading spreads faster than wildfire – I quite like that. Apart from word of mouth, though, there are other ways to look for books.

First: Goodreads lists. Goodreads has many faults as a social media platform, but it does offer reading lists curated by thousands of average readers. This makes them far more accessible and reliable than say the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Not to mention, you don’t have to be a Goodreads member to view these lists. It helps that there are Goodreads lists of recommendation for the most ridiculous things. To illustrate this, I went to the Listopia page on Goodreads and searched for the tag, “grass.” Three relevant categories (just to name a few): 1. Books about Plants 2. Meadows and Fields, Savannahs and Steppes 3. Young Adult books with grass on the cover. So, even if you have a weird kid with odd demands on your hands, Goodreads would be your friend.

Second: Movies. This sounds counter-productive. But there are so many great movies out there today which have been adapted from books that are better. Wonder, Life of Pi, IT, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, About  a Boy, To Kill A Mockingbird, Ready Player One – all of these are suitable, if not excellent, reads for your teen or preteen. But the problem is, once you’ve watched the film adaptation; the interest in the book is gone. So if you ever see your kid begging to watch a movie, check if there’s a book version and make them experience it first as a kind of challenge/reward scheme. I’d also suggest scouring the internet for adaptation trailers to find book recommendations.

Third: Bookstores / Libraries. An astounding number of kids in my school have Kindles. The reading rate should then be predictably high. Am I right? Wrong. Kindles are great, amazing even, for readers; handy, convenient, sleek and shiny (are they?)… But, here’s the thing - they probably won’t create great readers. I couldn’t stress this enough, the best way to introduce your kid to a lifelong bookworminess would be to take them to a bookstore or even better, a library. Once a month, at least. These establishments, especially bookstores, go to great lengths to create an attractive ambience. And whether we like it or not, we do judge a book by its cover.

Make a picnic out of it, spend some time together, let them take a stroll through the store and find what they like. Model the behaviour yourself. Read. Your child sees you nose deep in a book often enough, trust me, they’ll want to do it themselves. Don’t tell them they should read to improve their language or expression or writing or thinking. Don’t make a medicine out of it. Tell them it’s FUN. It’s like a mental adventure park. The benefits are simply a by-product. They need not read a Charles Dickens, even a comic book would work, or a picture book! You must always remember: a good book is far more important than great literature. Expose them to a lot of different books and hope that they find that one book that hits the right chord. There’s no stopping them then.

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..

ALBATROSS.
(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!