Saturday, November 19, 2011

Challenges for 2012!

I took part in only a couple of challenges this year - but plan on participating in a whole lot in 2012. Here are the ones I have decided to sign up for:

1. The Sir Terry Pratchett Reading Challenge hosted at Once Upon a Time - I absolutely LOVE the Discworld series, of course. But I still have a couple of books from the series, here and there, which I haven't read - including the Tiffany Aching novels. There are a whole bunch of Pratchett's non-Discworld books, that I would love to read as well. Not to mention, re-reads. The challenge runs for the whole year, from January 1st to December 31st 2012. You can set your own goals and read as many books as you want!

2. Back to the Classics Challenge hosted at Sarah Reads Too Much - I stayed away (and I mean far away) from classics of any kind until very recently. I decided to give them a try and turns out they aren't all that bad. Which is why, I decided to participate in this year-long challenge. The categories are:
- any 19th century classic
- any 20th century classic
- a classic re-read
- a classic play
- classic mystery/horror/crime fiction
- classic romance
- a classic translation (from it's original language into your language)
- a classic award winner
- a classic set in a country you would never visit (or never be able to visit!)

3. Dystopia 2012 hosted at Bookish Ardour - I haven't read any dystopian fiction, at least, not lately. So, I am not sure if I will like it. Which is why, I have chosen to participate in the "Asocial" level - which means reading 5 novels throughout the year, right from January 1st to December 31st. Who knows, I might even end up liking the genre!

4. What's in a Name hosted at Beth Fish Reads - Between January 1st and December 31st, read one book with each of the following things in its title:
- a topographical feature
- something you'd see in the sky
- creepy crawly
- type of house
- something you'd carry in your pocket, purse or backpack
- something you'd find on a calendar

I just realized what this means: I have already planned a twenty plus reading list for 2012. Not to mention, the whole stack of books sitting on my shelf! I can't wait for the new year...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hotel Savoy - Joseph Roth (Week III)

It is Week III of the German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy's Literary Life.) I read Hotel Savoy in less than a couple of days - and since I read it in German, that is quite an achievement for me. The book is only a little more than a hundred pages, though. It is a quick and quite pleasant read.

(I didn't manage to find any quote from this book in English - so I translated this on my own; unfortunately putting both the quality and the authenticity at risk.)

"I am a cold person. During the war, I never felt one with the company. We were all lying in the same dirt and waiting for the same death. But all I could think of was my own life and my own death. I walked over dead bodies, and sometimes, it hurt me that I felt no pain."

About the book: Hotel Savoy is a novel written by Austrian writer Joseph Roth. It was first published in 1924.

Summary: Gabriel Dan is a "Heimkehrer", an Austrian soldier and later, POW returning home from a Siberian prison camp. He stays temporarily at a certain Hotel Savoy in an unnamed city in Europe. Situated somewhere between Russia and Europe, Hotel Savoy regularly provides shelter to the refugees of the Great War, both the rich and the poor. Encountering a variety of people, including his presumably rich uncle, an exotic dancer and a rather old and intimidating lift-"boy" - it is in Hotel Savoy that Gabriel Dan, the cold ex-soldier, finally finds his home.

My thoughts: I loved this book for making me realize how unimportant a story line can be, in a well written book. The book has no plot; it is only a series of events stringed wonderfully together. The descriptions are beautiful and vivid. The language is simple, but the ideas are powerful.

The hotel is like a small world on it's own - a microcosm - representative of the entire post-war Europe. The characters, all very realistic, come from all sections of society, and the main theme of the novel is the effect of the war on the people. You can see that Europe will never the be same again. And then there is that tinge of humour and parody that prevents this short book from becoming dull.

The book is unlike anything I have read before. It's a must read!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mein Name Sei Gantenbein by Max Frisch

In my German class, we once studied a page out of Max Frisch's Mein Name sei Gantenbein. A man is returning home after a long time, and on his way, in the airplane he sees the news of his own death in the newspaper. He then goes home to attend his own funeral. On seeing his own family accepting his death, he leaves without letting anyone know he's there.

I was very curious to put this story in context, and I really wanted to read the book ever since. Published in 1964, Mein Name sei Gantenbein is a book by Swiss author Max Frisch. After a failed relationship, the author is trying to put himself and the woman in a number of scenarios, trying to picture what would have worked out. He says, "I try on stories like clothes." (Ich probiere Geschichten an wie Kleider.)

The stories revolve around the two main characters - the man and the woman, Lila. There are three identities of the man - that is, Theo Gantenbein (the narrator himself), Enderlin and Svoboda. The narrator slips into the roles of the characters, each of whom is in some way related to Lila. The stories don't follow a sequence. The narrator says: A man has had an experience. And now he seeks the story of his experience. The underlying themes of the novel are existence, identity and social roles.

The incidents in the novel are all as fascinating as that of the man who attended his own funeral. Like the man who pretends to be blind and sees the world in a different light.. The plot is complicated and inconsistent - so it requires some getting used to. But the book is long, and once you do get used to the curious, slightly confusing writing style, it is quite enjoyable. I think it's a must read - and if not anything else, I did improve my German drastically, while reading this one.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18." (Mark Twain)

About the story: Youth is wasted on the young; isn't that what they say? Inspired by Mark Twain's quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald's amusing and imaginative short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button proves just that. The story was first published in 1922 in Collier's Magazine. Along with ten other stories, it is also a part of Fitzgerald's short story collection titled Tales of the Jazz Age.

Summary: When Mr. Button rushes to the hospital to see his new born baby, he is greeted by an angry doctor, who wishes never to see the Buttons again. Just like the doctor, the nurses inside the hospital seemed to be spooked by Roger Button's child. When Mr. Button insists on seeing his baby, a flustered nurse leads him inside a room. Instead of a baby, however, there appears to be an old man squeezed into the crib.

"Where in God's name did you come from? Who are you?" burst out Mr. Button frantically.

"I can't tell you exactly who I am," replied the querulous whine, "because I've only been born a few hours - but my last name is certainly Button."

"You lie! You're an impostor!"

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. "Nice way to welcome a new-born child," he complained in a weak voice. "Tell him he's wrong, why don't you?"

The Buttons pretend to be oblivious to the fact that their baby is a disgraceful old man. They decide instead, to raise him as a normal little boy called Benjamin Button, send him to school and make him play with the other little boys. Not wanting to disappoint his father, Benjamin Button obliges. As he grows up, he seems to become younger. In his fifties, Benjamin falls in love and marries a certain Hildegarde Moncrief. It is the fact that he is the only such person on the earth, creates problems for the guy. As everyone around him ages, Benjamin goes from a responsible father, to a moody little teenager, to a child who remembers very little of his life.

My thoughts: I saw the movie version (very loosely based on the book) of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett about two years ago when it was released, over-discussed and awarded three Academy Awards. I thought that movie was ridiculous! They took the idea and turned it into a sad, romantic love story. What I actually loved about the book was the humour.

The glaring difference in the book and the movie is that, in the book, an entire fully grown old man is born; over the years, he grows in reverse, that is, he becomes younger physically and mentally. In the movie, what is born is a baby-sized baby with the appearance and features of an old man; he grows in size but becomes physically younger and mentally older... OR something like that. Now, why would you want to complicate such a perfectly good story!?

A young man trying to pass off as an older guy and an old man going to kindergarten gives the book its dark-ish comedy. When made to play with little children, the old man pretends to break neighbours' windows. Later, when Hildegarde believes she is falling in love with a mature man in his fifties, Benjamin has been alive for hardly more than fifteen years.

The story shows the relationships between different generations of men (which may be one reason why there are startlingly few women in the plot; the other being the time when this was written.) The main premise, of course, is how great it would be to age in reverse. After experiencing the drawbacks of old age, Benjamin is able to appreciate his youth that much more. Beyond that, it's a touching story; sad, because, Benjamin is the only one who experiences this strange order of things. The story deals with many themes, of which the most significant are the passage of time and all that is inevitable.

"Roscoe's son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realised that those were things in which he was never to share."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Verbrechen (Crime) - Ferdinand von Schirach (Week II)

The German Literature Month is hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy's Literary Life. The reading theme for the second week is Crime Fiction. I read a volume of short stories titled Verbrechen/Crime by German author Ferdinand von Schirach, in the original German.

About the author: Ferdinand von Schirach is a defense counsel from Munich. He is specialized in handling controversial cases of his high-profile clients. His grandfather - Baldur von Schirach - the Nazi youth leader later convicted of being a war criminal, is not the only reason Ferdinand is world famous. In 2009 Ferdinand von Schirach published his debut book entitled "Verbrechen" or "Crime." The book stayed on the bestsellers' list of Der Spiegel magazine for over forty weeks.

About the book: Verbrechen is a collection of eleven short stories about law and crime. It is a work of fiction; but even if not entirely based on reality, the book certainly draws inspiration from real events.

Summary: A nameless lawyer, the narrator, describes random cases to the reader. From an old man murdering his dominating wife after forty years of marriage to a young girl poisoning her brother to end his difficult life; the stories deal with shocking events, introducing us to everything from drugs, abuse and cannibalism to incest.

My thoughts: The mere thought that these gruesome stories might be rooted in truth can haunt the reader's mind. The book is touching, at times heart-breaking, and a frightening glimpse into the world of law and crime. The author's own vast experience in the field is clear throughout the entire book - from the way he describes crime scenes, to the way he analyses motives.
So much is expressed, without really diving into anything too emotional. The book is frank, it only relates the facts. The reader has to add the dabs of emotion wherever necessary. The writer is impartial. In each case, at the end, the "guilty" is punished; but whether he is rightfully punished is left for us to judge. The stories seem real and believable, as much as the reader wants to convince himself they couldn't possibly be. That, according to me, is what gives the book credibility.
I never liked any short stories quite as much as I loved these eleven. (Do check out Risa's Bread Crumb Reads for Short Stories on Wednesday.)

I'd recommend this book, original or translation, not just to fans of the crime genre, but to just about everyone who cares to listen!!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag - Eduard Mörike (Week I)

For the German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy's Literary Life) Week I, I also read the novella Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag (Mozart's Journey to Prague) by Eduard Mörike. It was short and I enjoyed reading it in the original German; when I read translated versions, I always wonder if there was anything else that got lost in translation...

"Die Erde ist wahrhaftig schoen und keinem zu verdenken, wenn er so lang wie moeglich darauf bleiben will. Gott sei's gedankt, ich fuehle mich so frisch und wohl wie je und waere bald zu tausend Dingen aufgelegt, die denn auch alle nacheinander an die Reihe kommen sollen, wie nur mein neues Werk vollendet und aufgefuehrt sein wird. Wieviel ist draussen in der Welt und wieviel daheim, Merkwuerdiges und Schoenes, das ich noch gar nicht kenne, an Wunderwerken der Natur, an Wissenschaften, Kuensten und nuetzlichen Gewerben! Der schwarze Koehlerbube dort bei seinem Meiler weiss dir von manchen Sachen auf ein Haar so viel Bescheid wie ich, da doch ein Sinn und ein Verlangen in mir waere, auch einen Blick in dies und jens zu tun, das eben nicht zu meinem naechsten Kram gehoert."

English translation (I found this online. Not sure if it is right) : “Truly the earth is beautiful, and we can blame no one for wanting to remain on it as long as possible. Thanks be to God, I feel as young and well as ever and am in the mood to do a thousand things, which will have their turn as soon as my new work is finished and produced. How many remarkable and beautiful things there are – wonders of nature, or science, of the arts and crafts – in the world, both near and far, of which I know nothing yet. I am sure there are many things about which I know as little as the black-faced lad sitting by his charcoal kiln over there; but yet there has always been in me a burning desire to look into this, that and the other, which is not my immediate stock-in-trade.”

Summary: The novella describes a day in Mozart's life, but not just any day. For the opening of Don Giovanni, Mozart is on the way to Prague with his wife. On the way, he is caught trying to steal an orange from a garden of a stately home. When the family finds out that their 'trespasser' is, in fact, the great composer, the delightedly invite him to be the guest of honour at their daughter's wedding.

My thoughts: The book is beautifully written. I love that story has so little to do with music, but tells us so much about Mozart himself. Another thing I love is that it's just a small story, not an attempt at a novel; it has all the right elements in the right amount - a little more would have spoiled the book. The writer never strays from the matter at hand. Mozart's thoughts and views about life, the forest and so on, are definitely worth a read. I mean, really, what could go wrong with a story about Mozart stealing fruits from a farmer!! I'd recommend this novella in a heartbeat.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Perfume - The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind (Week I)

This is the first book I read as part of the German Literature Month 2011 hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy's Literary Life.


There was just such a
fanatical child trapped inside this young man, standing at the table with eyes aglow, having forgotten everything around him, apparently no longer aware that there was anything else in the laboratory but himself and these bottles that he tipped into the funnel with nimble awkwardness to
mix up an insane brew that he would confidently swear - and would truly believe! - to be the exquisite perfume Amor and Psyche. Baldini shuddered as he watched the fellow bustling about in the candlelight, so shockingly absurd and so shockingly self-confident."

Perfume is the story of an unusually talented perfumer named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who has the best sense of smell in the whole of Paris (and, every other place); but who, ironically, has no scent of his own. Though outwardly harmless, people find Grenouille disturbing. Even as a mere baby, he is considered to be possessed by the devil. This strange man is a bad omen for everyone he meets, overturning their fortunes, destroying their lives. As the book proceeds, Grenouille becomes darker and more inhuman; and in the quest of creating the perfect perfume, he turns into a murderer.

My thoughts:
I have never read a plot like this one, nor seen similar characters. I liked Grenouille's character as the ultimate anti-hero, and I loved that we got to know the detailed stories of even the minor characters, even though they weren't always that pleasant. I agree, the book is amazingly unique; in fact, I haven't read a book in my life that focused on the sense of smell. I loved the underlying theme of obsession in the book; and the way it gives a great insight into people through one of our most downplayed senses. It's incredibly creative.

But it's also excruciatingly long. German sentences can pass off being long and complex - that's how they usually are. But Patrick Süskind's writing isn't that suitable for a translation. I don't like English books that have paragraph-length sentences. Nor do I like authors who insist on describing every single thing in every possible way. For the first part of the book, I almost gave up reading several times. I am glad I continued though, because the second part is where things get really wonderful! I suppose I would have liked the book more had it been shorter.

The book is one of a kind, and I'd recommend it to anyone who loves to read. It may be that someone who understands perfumery better than me would appreciate the book more that I could...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why I like to read Horror Fiction

Don't roll your eyes, answer, "...because people like to be scared... it excites us... blah blah." and convince yourself that this is one of those articles. Believe me, I don't like to be scared. In fact, I never dared to read the horror genre until very recently, when I read my first Stephen King book. That too, only because some idiot told me it's not as scary on paper as it is on screen..
For someone who got scared even by the obviously fake white faced, black eyed ghosts in most run-of-the-mill horror movies; and whose only experience with horror fiction involved pathetic childhood encounters with R. L. Stine, King's book was something else. I am, what you call, a classic "scaredy-cat." And this post is about why I love to read horror fiction.
"At last he crept back into bed and pulled the blankets up and watched the shadows thrown by the alien streetlight turn into a sinuous jungle filled with flesheating plants that wanted only to slip around him, squeeze the life out of him, and drag him down into a blackness where one sinister word flashed in red: REDRUM." - Stephen King (The Shining)
It's not like I've ever actually come across the word "Redrum" splattered somewhere in blood, like Danny here. But at night, when I read this, I'll pull the blankets up to my chin and focus my eyes completely on the book, trying to ignore the shadowy trees outside my window. And I'll be just as terrified as Danny is. And you know what I'll tell myself... Such things don't exist? Not really. Something like... "Calm down. It's not like it's happening over here!"
Horror fiction, according to me, anyway, is not about how gory you can be; but, how convincing. The story can star vampires or zombies, spirits and ghouls or just plain crazy people - a horror novel works when the reader believes in it, if only for a second. I mean, I can never be completely sure that there isn't a ghost standing in the next room as I type, wondering what is making the tapping noise. And it's this paranoia that a horror writer gets to play with.

Movies are too definite. When you watch a horror movie, you are watching someone else's nightmare. But yours is always the worst. For instance, spiders or snakes or dark jungle scenes only creep me out - but add a white faced ghost to the equation and bam! I'm scared. In a movie, you'll only see what you're shown. In a book, though, the writer just lays the groundwork; the imagery is up to you. It is up to you to fill in the blanks, and like I said, nothing is scarier than your worst nightmare.

I still maintain, though, that I don't like the fear. But the fear is intriguing. I find it fascinating, that a bunch of words can completely convince me that there is someone standing behind me, watching me read. How they can make me quickly glance back and make sure there isn't. It's horrible, that I can't sleep well for days after I read a particularly scary novel. It's wonderful, that a writer can so effectively do his job.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

German Literature Month

German Literature Month is hosted by Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lissy's Literary Life.

I don't have a whole reading list planned for the entire month. I have decided to go on planning according to the weekly schedule. I had also decided to try to read two books - one in German, one in English. (Let's see how that works out!)

Week 1 starts today, in my part of the world, and it is time for German Literature.

My tentative reading list:
1. Perfume (Das Parfum) - Patrick Süskind
2. Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) - Thoman Mann
3. Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) - Michael Ende

Happy Reading!