Friday, February 28, 2014

King's March

King's March. That's right: King's March. How could it have taken me so long to come across something called King's March? It's a month-long event hosted by Wendy and Rory. And the goal is to read some Stephen King. If you know me you know how much of a Stephen King fanatic I am. Just look at all the gushing reviews.

My goals would be two short story collections, Full Dark, No Stars and Different Seasons. I have seriously under-read King's short stories. I may throw in a shorter novel.

I'm excited. Oh, and I love this button. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reading Hector Hugh Munro aka Saki

Last night I noticed this huge monster of a book on the shelf called the World's Great Selected Short Stories. I'd always thought it looked kind of dull, had never opened it and vaguely knew that it had stories by just the kind of renowned writers, whom I have only ever read in text books. But that was then - before I tried and enjoyed Shakespeare, poetry and (a few) love stories. Last night, I finally decided to read the book.

The first section contained stories by H. H. Munro, better known as Saki, whom I had obviously heard a lot about, but I couldn't tell you exactly where I'd heard it all, and whom I hadn't read. I wonder why; having spent most of last night and some of today morning devouring the nineteen short stories by Saki that this book had to offer. I have overused the word 'awesome' to the point where it has little weight, but here it applies in its truest sense.

The great thing about Saki's short stories is that they are really, really short. It was incredible how such a short piece could have it all: plot, evocative writing and as much attention to detail as you could possibly want without affecting the pace. A lot happened, very speedily, and at the same time, I was put right into the atmosphere with the tiniest of descriptions that were so apt they made jump in recognition. And what makes the short short stories even more special is that I won't have to take the effect away from them by giving you a summary - just click on the titles to go read them!

The Background made a perfect start to the collection. I mean, who wouldn't love a story that starts with something like this?

"The woman's art-jargon tired me," said Clovis to his journalist friend, "She's so fond of talking of certain pictures as 'growing on one,' as though they were a sort of fungus."

What followed was the story of Henri Deplis, who has has a work of art tattooed on his back, after which the famous Italian tattoo artist dies, leaving his masterpiece still unpaid-for. Consequently, a worldwide fight ensues over its ownership, with no consideration for Henri, who just happens to be the background.

Along with the first one, the stories Adrian, The Name-Day, The Phantom Luncheon and The Occasional Garden were my favourites. Each was reminiscent of all that I love about Oscar Wilde. And I don't just mean the wicked social satire, but also the wonderfully engaging dialogue and the swift pacing.

By the time I got to The Music on the Hill, I had already got used to a certain style of narration, witty, mischievous, cynical. But this story was darker; more Mark Twain, maybe. The Music on the Hill was a gothic macabre story that left me feeling bitter, uneasy and awed. Along with The Name-Day, this story excelled particularly at creating the tone, bringing scenes to life, transporting me to that strange remote setting, conveying in so few words exactly what the characters felt. That aura made me see the rest of the stories differently - the became my Lovecraft-Poe-obsessed kind of reads!

The next story to really hit me hard was The Open Window. I found it difficult to wrap my head around how even the weirder of the stories stayed perfectly true to human nature. This short scene was absurd, haunting, hilarious and evil all at the same time and I have to say, I quite liked the niece. I'm pretty sure if I forced my sister to read this story (which I will) she'll say I am like the niece. Jokes apart, nothing I say about this story is going to suffice. Just read it already!

Judkin of the Parcels was a little piece, not as much a story as an elaborate character sketch, or really, a life sketch, and a delicate and wise one at that. 

It was in Laura, the eighteenth of the nineteen stories, that the disturbing dark humour returned in the form of a delightful tale of karma and reincarnation. I realized then just how ridiculously amusing and charming the writing was. It occurred to me that having read these stories, I would probably never find any short stories and just stories up to par. 

But this was just the beginning of Saki for me. Stumbling into nineteen stories is hardly anything! I still have a lot to dig through and a lot to re-read and analyse and look up and the thought of what's out there waiting for me makes me very happy. If you are one of those people, like me, crazy enough to not have read this great author, please, I hope my raving has made you want to. And it's easy, just click to read!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nobel Prize Laureates I Have Read

I recently read a really nice short story by Alice Munro. I am currently reading Blindness by José Saramago. What do they have in common? That's right, they were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature: Saramago way back in 1998 and Munro only last year. When someone commented "How often do you get to say you've read a Nobel Prize winner?" at the book club the other day, it got me thinking. I honestly didn't know if I ever had any - the only author I was certain about was William Golding, and only because Lord of the Flies formed a large part of my syllabus last year.
So I found this list of all Nobel Prize Winners in Literature ever and satisfied my curiousity.

I have read the works of twelve Nobel Prize Laureates:
  1. Alice Munro 2013 - Dimension (short story)
  2. V. S. Naipaul 2001 - The Mystic Masseuse
  3. William Golding 1983 - Lord of the Flies, The Hot Gates
  4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1982 - Love in the Time of Cholera
  5. Heinrich Böll 1972 - The Train Was on Time, Clown, And Where Were You, Adam?, Irish Journal
  6. Albert Camus 1957 - The Fall
  7. Ernest Hemingway 1954 - The Sun Also Rises
  8. Bertrand Russell 1950 - The Conquest of Happiness and Why I am Not a Christian (and something else) when I was younger.
  9. Thomas Stearns Eliot 1948 - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Portrait of a Lady, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, On Poetry and Poets
  10. Hermann Hesse 1946 - Siddhartha
  11. George Bernard Shaw 1925 - Pygmalion
  12. Rudyard Kipling 1907 - The Jungle Book (granted, it was probably abridged), The Phantom Rickshaw (short story)
I can't say I've read enough of Kipling or Hemingway to decide whether I liked them. I don't see myself reading anything else by Gabriel Garcia Marquez anytime soon. That leaves seven authors. I love William Golding, Heinrich Böll, Bertrand Russel and Eliot. I liked The Fall and do want to read The Stranger, which Camus is rather more renowned for. I was impressed by Siddhartha, but having read it in German, it was difficult to love it - but I do want to read Steppenwolf, I almost stole it from a shopkeeper once. Pygmalion was beautiful. As for Naipaul, I found The Mystic Masseuse funny, but I would have to read more to really know. And I have already ordered a collection of the best stories by Alice Munro!

Of course, there are many authors I love a lot more, contemporaries of these writers even, who totally deserved the honour (me thinks) and this isn't my judging a book by its Prize. That being said, there is a whole other bunch of books by awardees on my shelves, virtual and real, some read half-way, waiting to be finished. Five! I counted. Should I be worried that I feel all mighty and haughty at having read (soon enough) seventeen Nobel Prize winning writers. Why, how many have you read?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Translator Translated by Anita Desai

I found this little collection of short novellas (long short stories?) at a random bookstore in Hyderabad. Never having read anything by Desai, buying it was just an instinctive leap. I'm so glad I did! Of the three short stories in The Artist of Disappearance, my favourite was Translator Translated. Warning: this is less of a review and more of a rant about translators and translations.

Summary: A lonely English teacher, Prema, who lives a miserable unsatisfied life, is offered a chance to try her hand at translation. The book in question is written by her favourite Oriya author, Suvarna Devi. When she translates the first book - Prema finds herself a purpose in life, she finds her voice and takes her back to a time in her life when was full of curiosity and passion. She begins to identify herself with Suvarna Devi, begins to consider her a friend, even. When the book is released, at a press conference, Prema finally meets Suvarna Devi, only to discover that she's exactly like her - a mousy misfit, with none of the grand qualities Prema has attached to her. The old author hardly seems to care about the translation. But Prema takes on the task of a new book Suvarna Devi going to write, not quite ready to let go of her new career. Leaving her job, Prema becomes a full-time translator. Only this time, Suvarna Devi's work has lost its perfection. Prema begins to spot inconsistencies and erroneous language and repetitive over-done drama, and finds herself wanting to rewrite. Somewhere along the way, Prema finds herself modifying the work, taking it upon herself to help Suvarna Devi improve her language and story.

My thoughts: The most obvious theme of the story is that of a translator finding her own voice in someone else's work. What makes a good translator, and is a translator not an author? Is there a bond between the translator and the author? How much creative license does a translator have?  The story poses some excellent questions and tries to guide us to the answers. I have always been of the opinion that a translator is only a lens, which brings a work into our reach, and when the lens is very clear (carrying the metaphor too far? just go with it.) and powerful, we're grateful for it. But the lens isn't what makes the work beautiful, that is all the author. Isn't it? The story has made me think... if having your own voice hinders a good translation, would authors make bad translators? Or is that just a big generalization...? Personally, I would be a good translator, but only of books I like. Otherwise, burying my judgments would prove difficult. 

Translator Translated is also about art and how it is made. The story makes you wonder if some aspect of a book would always be lost in translation. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? A bunch of days ago, my favourite author declared Ron and Hermione shouldn't have ended up together (dropping bombs is so J.K.Rowling: does staying out of the news make her uneasy?) Which reminded of the Dumbledore revelation and how a re-read of the last couple of Harry Potter books after the news convinced me that she'd had it in her mind all along - once I knew it, Dumbledore seemed gay, too. But then: would he have seemed so in a translation? Do you see what I mean - a translator couldn't know everything going on in the author's head. Does it not affect the book? That means, I'll never be able to read the most authentic version of Anna Karenina. So disappointing. 

But mostly, Translator Translated by Anita Desai is about identity. About how you perceive yourself and how your perception affects how others see you; or how you think others see you (confusing, sorry.) It's a sad, sad story about learning to love yourself and it shows you how simple it would be and how few manage to do it. I wanted to feel sorry for Prema at the very end, but I was convinced that she'd brought it all on herself. Such a character is hard to sympathize with and harder to relate to. Translator Translated, like the other stories in the collection, is well written, honest and hard-hitting. Read it!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte by Milena Michiko Flašar

Ever since I joined that Goethe Institut online library, my English reads have considerably piled up. But like any freshly joined library, it is just too addictive. Ich nannte ihn Krawatte was the first book I randomly selected and it was the start of my non-stop German reading. I hope this has a translation, because you have to read it!

The most fascinating thing about this book is that the author is Austrian with Japanese roots. Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is set in Japan and describes some really intriguing aspects of Japanese society. It's like reading Ishiguro: it has that wistful Japanese tone of writing, without the disconnected, pieced together feel of a translation. The only difference is that this particular original is in German.

Summary: A hikikomori is a young person who has distanced himself from society and reduced contact with family to a minimum; a recluse. The word literally means pulling inward.

In "Ich nannte ihn Krawatte" by Milena Michiko Flašar, our narrator is a hikikomori. The story he tells us is of a friendship that helped bring him out of isolation. He has a lot to say about his unlikely friend, as he waits for him in a Tokyo park: "Ich nannte ihn Krawatte" that is, "I called him Tie". Tetsu is much older than the narrator, a typical salaryman in a suit and tie, who spent his afternoons, like the narrator, on a park bench. What separated the two from the normal park visitors was their obvious boredom with life. A tentative chat developed into a friendship, and our narrator finds himself freely speaking his mind, after years of silence. Through their conversations we discover that their lives are grayer than they appear.

The book does not have a linear plot. It has a string of one- or two-page musings for chapters, and the author has left it up to us to add the connectors. The author has a way with creating characters that makes the chaotic plot cease to matter. There is a realistic contrast between the voices of the younger and the older man. There are two characters, whom you get to hear about through the thoughts of the two men, only to meet them later on in the book and discover that they are flesh-and-blood as the two friends.

The book made me think about people, dealing with loss and how everyone has problems and you never know what those around you are thinking, and you might have it better and easier than them. It is about feeling alone and incomplete in a crowd and wanting people to want you; only to realize that you can only be part of a crowd by inviting them in. It's about the small and big lessons you learn in life, the people who teach you them and how every little action matters. It's about loving someone and not knowing that they love you back. About being afraid and being afraid to admit that you're afraid. The narrator also talks about regrets, about things you should have done, things you wanted to do, but never could and how they have a much lasting effect than all the things you regret doing. The most important details are those that are left out of the story. After all those ruminations, it's at once nice and heart breaking when he seems to understand that it is wholly up to him to restart his life.

There was only thing, according to me, that the story could have done without - the abruptly racing plot in the very last pages, and the meticulous tying up of loose ends. That being said, the book is not too stretched out, only a couple of hundred pages make a nice read.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

This is a scary book; and the more I think about it, the scarier it gets. I like it, now that I've read it: the writing style, the evocative descriptions, the peeking into people's souls: but I'm still not sure I should have read it. It has some freakish stuff in it, which has been crawling around in my mind for two days. I want to not have read this book and I want to not have liked this book, and you may think I'm overreacting (which I probably am) but all my melodrama doesn't make that story any less creepy.

Summary: The back covers says: "Off the easternmost corner of India, in the Bay of Bengal, lies the immense labyrinth of tiny islands known as the Sundarbans, where settlers live in fear of drowning tides and man-eating tigers. Piya Roy, a young American marine biologist of Indian descent, arrives in this lush, treacherous landscape in search of a rare species of river dolphin and enlists the aid of a local fisherman, Fokir, and a translator, Kanai. Together the three of them launch into the elaborate backwaters, drawn unawares into the powerful political undercurrents of this isolated corner of the world that exact a personal toll as fierce as the tides."

Another story runs parallel to this one: that of Kanai's uncle, Nirmal. On finding a diary, addressed to her nephew, belonging to her husband, now dead, whose dream it had been to become a writer; Nilima invites Kanai to her home in Lusibari, where she, as a much loved social activist, runs a local hospital. Kanai, who owns a translation service in Delhi, reluctantly accepts the invitation. The journal reveals to him the darkest secrets of his aunt's marriage, along with a disturbing account of the plight of the settlers.

My thoughts: Sundarbans. Wow. When I bought this book, I had it all planned out in my head. In An Antique Land made me want to jump out of bed and rush to Egypt, The Sea of Poppies convinced me to visit the Ganga-Sagar and with this book, I was already mentally packing my bags, off to a swampy wildlife-filled adventure. Then, a year later, I read The Hungry Tide. Now I wish the trip had already happened in the year between, because I'm not so sure I want to go any more. Too frightening.

The thing that sticks to my mind, predictably, is that thing about wildlife: tigers - protecting them, to be precise, instead of protecting the people they kill. Piya, as an outsider, and a nature researcher and lover finds the way the people of the village talk about tigers uninformed. The superstitions, fear and hatred associated with the animal seem irrelevant to her. Her reaction and his aunt's worry over them venturing into the deeper jungle leads Kanai to pose that haunting question. Who rightfully deserves the earth, a classic man versus the wild; except it's not a matter to debate over coffee but more of a who-kills-off-whom-first and which-death-should-disturb-you-more and what-does-it-say-about-me-that-i-am-more-affected-by-a-dead-tiger-than-a-dead-man.

Like my sister brought up: the story shows that people tend to behave in similar ways, no matter where they're from or how they spent their lives: Kanai immediately identifies with Moyna, the ambitious girl who wants to make something of herself, get an education, get 'ahead' in life; while Fokir and Piya drift automatically closer. Those serene wordless scenes between Piya and Fokir are so aptly portrayed. The relationship between them is fascinating. The striking themes are communication and language. The story is about things left unsaid, and stereotypes and judgments and self-justifications: and understanding each other despite them, which the characters, not unlike us, tend not to.

I've come to love Ghosh's flitting timelines and switching narratives, be it in In An Antique Land or The Calcutta Chromosome - and he is just really good at giving each of his characters a distinct voice. I love Nirmal's conflicted mind, his inner struggle that makes him your typical unreliable narrator. I love the delicate relationship between Kanai's uncle and aunt, her practical dedication contrasted with his poetic, if over-idealized, notions of revolution. And I like her love for Nirmal, which, because it lingered despite everything could be called unconditional, which I would rather call habitual. 

But: Nirmal's voice does get too wordy and there are often furious bursts of information where none would have sufficed. Most of the purple prose occurs when referencing the local legends. While the lore about Bon Bibi intrigued me, it could have done without the exoticizing. The Hungry Tide is inspired and the right atmosphere would have been captured without resorting to those tricks that invariably crowd Indo-Anglian writing.