Monday, January 7, 2019

You Haven't Lived Until You've Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven't lived until you've read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet... it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?

This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I've tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It's been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I'll write a Part 2. For now - 


1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It's the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean... and, a tiger. A survival's tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.

Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 

A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war - the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector's body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.

The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.

4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 

A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He'd sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else's appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Which books would you qualify this way?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On silence and cacophonies, the changing face of horror and watching A Quiet Place

A lot of people are talking about Bird Box being similar to A Quiet Place. Now I haven't Bird Box, but this discussion was my excuse to return to the latter. I unearthed this post that I had written on  A Quiet Place. This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while now, let's drag it to the light of day...

One of the problems of watching a horror movie with friends, for me, has been that whole approach people have these days; of sitting on the edge of your seats, waiting to be scared. It's strange that a horror movie is judged by how many scenes make you jump - I've never heard of people watching a drama-tragedy and saying, "Well it was good, but it didn't make me cry enough." Even comedies are judged by more than the number of laughs they provide. Why then this narrow expectation of a genre that  deals with an intense primal emotion? There is more to fear than that. There has to be! 

Even so, most popular horror in television and cinema is awfully formulaic. Story, character and emotions are beside the point. What matters is how suddenly that chalky white face shows up on the screen or how the slimy hands grip the heroine from inside the mirror or the blood spatters and violence. The essence of the genre is lost in cheap tricks and manufactured thrills.

Horror can be more than ghosts. Think of Carrie. Late 70s, teenage girl, abused and bullied, gets supernatural powers and wreaks revenge...?  Many people would even reject labeling this as horror! But what do you find terrifying - a walking doll? Or how easily we inflict casual pain on fellow humans out of sheer spite? Who can forget that iconic scene from Carrie where the bucket of pig's blood is upturned on a girl's head; who could deny being scared by her disintegration? Carrie is torture, if you give in to the singular demand made by good movies and THINK about it. 




A Quiet Place is like that. It demands that you to think; and look beyond the regular and mundane expectations from a horror movie. It's not a study in jump-scares but rather a slow, psychological torture. The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where alien monsters with hypersensitive hearing have wiped out the society. They attack at the slightest hint of a man-made sound and the only way to survive is to be totally and utterly silent. It is bang in the middle of this invasion that the movie begins. We meet a family, the only survivors in a deserted town; a couple and their three kids. They try to survive in this place while struggling to establish contact with the outside world. 

I'm a generally quiet person, but I can't imagine having to live without sound, without the comfort of my own voice - I realised as I watched this movie that I may not even be able to think properly if I didn't know what I sounded like. A new perspective on the word luxury, and privilege. One of the children in the surviving family in the movie is congenitally deaf and that gives her an excellent chance; the intrinsic formula of the world hasn't changed for her. The family in turn has the advantage of being fluent in sign language and that is one reason they stay connected through the events.  

A Quiet Place is certain of its scope - it's not an action movie or an alien invasion kind of sci-fi story. Where did the creatures come from, why is the Abbott family the only ones alive, what happened to the rest of the world - these are questions the movie will not attempt to answer. It has a narrower scope, in that it doesn't deal with politics or the anthropology of an apocalypse; rather uses that plot device to delve into our psychology. The Quiet Place takes you out of your daily comforts and plants you into a world that has unfair demands and constant threats. It's a movie about confronting the odds and facing fear.  It's about love ties and loyalties being tested. It's about the value of the smallest things we take for granted - simple things really, like a baby's laugh or a favourite piece of music.

Watching A Quiet Place in the cinemas enhanced the haunting effect the movie had on me. I'd never realised before just how noisy cinema halls are. People whooping, laughing, commenting; the odd mobile phone ringing, and god forbid, popcorn. Have you ever noticed how loud popcorn is? Everyone in the audience was utterly silent as we watched A Quiet Place. The movie was stripped of all noise and suddenly, like the characters and creatures of this world, we were also hypersensitive to noise. And that was the biggest show-stopping surprise the movie had to offer! 

Not only did it capture real horror, but it juxtaposed itself against regular thrills by taking away the one thing that the horror genre loves to exploit: sound effects. Horror as we know it now is all about sound. We all know and hate the anxiety-inducing murmur in a suspenseful scene, building up to a bang when a monster appears to scare us. Pennywise the Clown is made tenfold scarier by that raspy voice; I have goosebumps just typing about it. A quick search reveals many web pages about audio tricks  used in horror to scare the daylights out of you. And yet, A Quiet Place had nothing. And somehow, that was freakier than any sound effect. 

Reading Challenges for 2019

I have not been reading as much as I would like to ever since I got a job and got burdened with the pressure of becoming a proper adult. Even so, I made progress this year and forced myself to read not only 48 books, but a wide range of books. However, what I did not manage was to write the reviews for most of these books on the blog. I do want to focus on writing in 2019, among other things. I am not sure how much of that writing would be on the blog.

Even so, I have realised that something like a reading challenge (the Goodreads one in case of 2018) motivate me to make time for my favourite hobby. With this in mind, I've decided to sign up for some interesting reading challenges.

1. The 2019 Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight! The idea is to write at least ten bookish discussion posts on this blog.

2. Books 'n' Tunes Challenge - a fun little idea where you read books which match with songs or song titles.

3. Dancing with Fantasy and Sci-Fi Challenge - This reading challenge consists of 3 sections. Fantasy, Sci-Fi and General for a total of 52 prompts which comes down to about 1 book a week. I'm not sure if I'll attempt all three sections, perhaps only the first.

4. 2019 Retellings Challenge - I'm going for the 'Silent Assassin' category, which is to read 5 books. There's a bingo of course, so it'll be a fun way to introduce myself to books I wouldn't have otherwise read.

Even so, feels nice and comforting to make reading goals; nearly as much as it would to scramble at the last minute to finish them! If I do participate in any more event type of things, I'll add them to the list. Happy New Year!