Monday, November 20, 2017

Alex Garland - The Beach

Penguin Books
The Beach
Alex Garland

I came across the book in a very roundabout way.  I first spotted Leonardo Di Caprio in a wonderful movie called Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann. In my mind it was wonderful to see characters in modern settings mouthing Shakespeare.  Titanic mania swept me as it did the rest of the world which in turn, chasing Leo, brought me to the breathtaking cinematography of The Beach.  It was later that I learnt about the book.

I expect I read the book sometime in early '00. Most times I was just checking the book to see how much the movie matched to it. I loved the book, of course, but for some strange reason failed to absorb it.

It was a remark by my mother that brought the book back to me.  We were staying on Khao San road in Bangkok on a recent visit and mother said that the road became very famous after it was mentioned in the book. I wanted to re-watch the movie and re-read the book as soon as I returned home.

I had spent 12 hours travelling back to Chandigarh and all that staying awake wearied me.  I fell asleep within 2 hours of reaching home. I woke up at 1.30 in the night and started searching for The Beach on my bookshelf.  I read a couple of pages, found myself captivated, and fell asleep again.

I watched the movie, went back to the book and read my eyes out.

The movie is not a patch on the book, this is how most movie-book comparisons end up being described..

The book starts with Richard arriving in Bangkok and making it to a guesthouse on Khao San Road. He describes it to perfection.
The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.
Khao San Road has more foreigners than Thais. The Thais here speak English and know the ways of the tourist perfectly.  Tuk Tuks and Taxis cruise the narrow streets during the day. At night the road is taken over by hawkers and tourists sit and drink or eat al fresco, watching the gaieties. There are live bands and festoons and lights and the street does not seem to sleep.

A little while later Garland describes a Canal with a shanty market beside it which sounds like the thriving market beside the Chao Phraya river.  Soon he gets down to business. There is a crazy guy in the room next to his who gives him  a map to The Beach, a secret getaway no one else knows about. Along with two other backpackers, Richard sets off on the quest of this pristine beach where no one may go.

The book is an amazing piece of work.  Travel here is an extreme adventure, not staying in hotels and travelling to tourist spots.  It is a nod to the itinerant life of  backpackers, who are forever on the move and forever in search of an unspoiled destination, a willingness to live and travel rough. It is also a sort of a coming of age novel as Richard has taken to travel to escape being dumped by his girlfriend. It worked. The minute he sat in a plane, he forgot about the life in England, his imminent heartbreak. He learned to cope with life.

At the start, when Richard and his companions, Etienne and Francoise, reach the beach, and start living with the commune there, it is like 'The Swiss Family Robinson'. A bunch of people devising means to survive away from civilization. It descends into 'The Lord of Flies' soon after.

Garland's description of Richard's time on the beach is both real and psychedelic. It is both believable and a fantasy. It is a travelogue to a place that does not exist. From start to finish it is a gripping book that makes the most mundane of things look interesting.

I especially liked the short chapters, it makes the book succinct, like a terse report of the happenings.

The book is also about the loss of innocence. Richard, Etienne and Francoise have wandered into Eden and soon discovered the serpents.

It is an amazing debut for a writer, to turn out a book like this, about such an off beat topic with such conviction.

I am grateful to the movie for having drawn my attention to the book, and to Leonardo Di Caprio to have drawn my attention to the movie.  But that is about it. The movie does not capture too much of the book.  By its very nature, it is forced to summarize and let go of some characters.  It could not, for fear of attracting censorship, give us the full impact of the madness that is the climax of the book. It serves, with its stunning visuals, a good image for the beach, and to imagine what Richard looks like.

It is particularly off-putting that western movies cannot bear the thought of their protagonist going without sex for a long stretch of time. However, I can forgive Danny Boyle, but I cannot forgive it being shown in Bridget Jones, the Edge of Reason as an airport read.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bae Suah - Nowhere To Be Found

Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Author: Bae Suah
Translator: Sora Kim Russell

The trend in publishing these days is novellas.  Short novels, tad longer than a short story are found to be the best reading for time starved people of today.  In the hands of wrong people such Book Shots (as the novellas are sometimes called) can go horribly wrong.  In the hands of right authors it can become a potent weapon.

I have read two short books today. One was The Vegetarian by Han Kang, not a very long novel. This is my second read, this novella Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah.

The girl in the story is in her early twenties, a college graduate, but a drifter.  She is not able to make any headway in her career by two seeming reasons. One, she does not seem to have any particular ambition; Two, she has to work hard just to put food on the table.  Her brother is a low paid janitor. Her mother is a nurse who cannot work because she is an alcoholic. Her younger sister is in school and her father is in jail.

Even so, while working in mind numbing jobs, she observes everything acutely.  She notices that the people she is in touch with now will not have any memory of her in a few years time, while there are people that she runs into on the subway who will become known to her in future.  This same fluidity is incorporated in the story when she goes to visit a 'sort of' boyfriend at his military base one day.  Due to a mix up at the reception, she is led off on a wild goose chase after her boyfriend through a bleak cold countryside.  All the time, she was carrying a bag of chicken that the boyfriend's mother had prepared.

All through the bad day, she gathers hatred for chicken, and hatred for the kind of life her boyfriend's family leads.  The day becomes a benchmark for all things horrid for her.  A day that she revisits in her mind for a long time.  Yet that day was transitional for her. She is no longer in touch with her boyfriend of the day.  All she has are the feelings she gathered.

Through disjointed narrative, Bae Suah takes us into a journey through a girl's mind.  A girl who is ordinary on the outside, but fiercely independent and strong.

The prose is sharp as knife and does not make any allowances for its readers.  It seeks neither to explain nor describe.

The story was nominated for PEN Translation Prize for the year 2015.  Bae Suah is an acclaimed writer from South Korea.

Han Kang - The Vegetarian

Han Kang
@Changbee Publishers
@Portobello Books

This book won the Man Booker International Prize for the year 2016.

We go through life expecting it to run smoothly and on predictable lines. We are born, we go to school, find a job, marry, have children and in turn, watch our children go through the same cycle. What if the life throws us a curveball? How do we react?

Life throws a curveball at Young-hye and it affects the lives of two families, Young-hye and her husband, her sister In-hye and her husband find themselves shaken by a dream that Young-hye has one night.

Young-hye dreams of a violent massacre of life which suddenly turns her off meat.  She throws out all eggs and meats out of her house and refuses to cook or eat them.  Her husband is immediately affected as he is fond of his non-vegetarian diet.  He feels his wife is being unreasonable and stubborn.  He is supported by Young-hye's parents who try to talk her out of her newfound vegetarianism.

Her parents decide to convince Young-hye again when they meet at a dinner at her sister's place. When their pleas fall on deaf ears, her father loses his temper and tries to force-feed some meat to Young-hye.  This pushes her over the edge and she tries to commit suicide.  This is the watershed moment to which other family members reactin  different ways.

The novella is narrated in three books, representing the varying viewpoints of three people in Young-hye's life.  The first section, The Vegetarian is narrated by Mr. Cheong, Young-hye's husband. The second section, Mongolian Mark is narrated by her brother-in-law, who is an artist and finds a strange fascination for Young-hye after the suicide incident.  The third, and the most intense part, is narrated by In-hye. She cares for Young-hye after her suicide attempt and tries to go deep into the psyche of her sister in an attempt to understand her.

The different voices of the narrators make us feel differently about the affliction of Young-hye. At the end of it we realize that without deep love there can be no understanding.  In-hye has to go to the core of herself to understand what Young-hye is feeling.

The novel left me feeling emotionally wrung out.   It has been translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith.  It is an excellent translation.  The language is spare and evocative. The author does not fear to look deep within the minds of her characters and lay them bare for us. As can be seen from the example here.

This is the first novel I have read by a Korean author. Previous to this, The only Far-Eastern novelists I have read before this are Japanese authors Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto whose works also dabble in the internal workings of the mind.  There is such a connection between these authors and Kafka.  If you get goosebumps from reading about Gregor Samsa, then The Vegetarian should be a mandatory read for you.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Agatha Christie - Death Comes as the End

@Dodd Mead and Company
@Agatha Christie

Death comes as the End was the only historical whodunit that Dame Agatha Christie wrote.  Considering the fact that her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, was an archaeologist in Egypt, it is easy to see what inspired it.  During her stay in Egypt Agatha Christie read some ancient letters (translated by Battiscombe Gunn) by a man who wrote home frequently complaining about the behavior of his family and the mistreatment by them of his concubine.  These letters formed the basis of the plot of this book.

Imhotep is a Ra-priest in charge of a tomb that is to be maintained by a large farmhouse surrounding it.  He is aided in his work by his adviser Hori who has been with his family for a long time and is devoted to them.  Imhotep has three sons, Yahamose, Sobek and Ipy.  His daughter Renisenb is recently widowed and has returned to her father's house.  She is still grieving and wants to find comfort in the well known patterns of her family home.

Things change very soon when her father returns from a business trip with a beautiful young concubine, Nofret, in tow.  The family is unhappy at this new development.  Things take a nasty turn when Nofret is found dead, fallen (or thrown?) from a high path.  Things do not rest here and there are other deaths that cannot be wished away as accidents. Are these deaths the work of some evil spirit or some disgruntled family member or employee?  Suddenly, everyone is a suspect.

From the Wikipedia entry I learn that Agatha Christie had a different ending in mind.  For one wild moment I also thought of an ending that was much darker and involved the main protagonists.  Even so, the ending is satisfactory and is explained well.  Agatha Christie brings out the life in the times of 2000 BC Thebes very well.  The novel is fast paced and you race along, loth to put it down.  You are made to swing between various suspects and wonder who really did it. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Larry McMurtry - The Late Child

+Orion Books
+Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry is a prolific author with many books and screenplays under his belt.  Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize and was converted to a television series.  He co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.

The Late Child is a sequel to The Desert Rose. I was not able to find the book to re-read for a long time.  It was on my wishlist and one day I discovered that a vendor had put up his copy for sale.  It was a delight to re-read this wonderful book once more.

Once more I delved into the life of Harmony Palmer who was once the prettiest showgirl in Vegas. She now works in a recycling factory and lives in Las Vegas with her current boyfriend and her five year old son, Eddie.  The story opens with Harmony getting a letter from a friend (who also claims to have been the lover of) her daughter, Pepper.  She died of AIDS.  Harmony has a hysterical fit which scares her boyfriend off.  He takes to his heels.  The only thing that grounds Harmony is the need to take care of her son.

Her friend, Juliette comes to her aid and helps her call up her sisters in Oklahoma.  Her sisters drop everything and come to help Harmony in this difficult time. One thing leads to another and Harmony finds herself on a road trip.  Her belongings are stuffed into a U-Haul, pulled by a car borrowed from Gary (her best friend), trying to drive to Oklahoma via New York.

She wants to go to New York to meet Laurie, the girl who wrote to Harmony about Pepper's death. Her son, Eddie is keen to go up the statue of Liberty.

Her eventful road trip is punctuated by the pain she feels at the loss of her daughter.  Harmony has to learn how to come to terms with her grief and also decide what she wants to do next.  Should she settle down in Tarwater, Oklahoma with the rest of her family or return to Las Vegas.

She also gets to see the mess her sisters, Neddie and Pat, are in.  Her brother is in the prison for stalking a girl, but seems very happy there.  Her mother has turned into a terrible shrew and her father is ready to walk out on her.  She sees them all facing their troubles and understands that facing troubles is a part of life.

As in The Desert Rose, we are again captivated by Harmony Palmer.  She retains her innate decency no matter what she faces.  She draws comfort from her beautiful and sparkling son, Eddie.  Her close friends, Juliette and Gary, are always around her.  Her kind nature prompts her to be nice to everyone, a trait we see replicated in Eddie.

I loved this portrait of people who live in a glamorous place like Las Vegas, yet are far removed from the glitter.  The ordinary people who are has-been Showgirls, Security Staff, Fashion designers etc. who work in the shadow of bright lights.  Then there is the limited life of a small town like Tar Water in Oklahoma, where kids do not know what to do.

Even in New York, we get to meet people who live in dumpsters and are to scared to move out of there and go any place else.  Eddie and Harmony (accompanied by her sisters), meet up with a trio of drivers Omar, Salah and Abdul who are described as Sikhs masquerading as Muslims.  It struck a bit of a discordant note in me.  If this was true, then just a while later, it must have backfired badly when the USA was rocked by anti-Muslim sentiment post 9/11.

This bit notwithstanding, the book is a rich portrait of ordinary people, happy in their small lives, besieged by sudden troubles and learning to cope, like all people do.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ruskin Bond (Ed) - The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories

+Penguin India
+Amazon India
Ruskin Bond

Indian Railways are a marvel.  They criss-cross across our vast country and take you to nooks and crannies you never thought existed.  They have been transporting people from one point to another ever since 1853, even though the start was a modest run from Bombay to Thane.

I remember traveling with my family from Jamnagar to Delhi during the 60s.  We used to travel unreserved.  Being a large crowd, we would spread durries on the wooden benches and bag a compartment. Our bogie would travel from Jamnagar to Mehsana. At Mehsana we had a longish break and our bogie would go for a shunting and get attached to a train that was traveling to Delhi. We would embark on the train from Jamnagar at around 5 PM, spend two nights in the train and in the morning of the 3rd day, we would be at New Delhi Station.

The steam engine would pump soot into the air and my hair would be coated with it.  There was no chance of a bath, which would come only after we reached my cousin's house in Delhi.  There were high points of the travel we looked forward to. Dahi Bade at Abu Road, Rabri at some other station. We carried water in a small earthenware surahi.  There were no bottles of Bisleri, and we filled up the Surahi at any Railway Station that was handy.

Those days are gone. Now I turn up my nose at stinky poo Railway bathroom, don't drink anything but Bisleri and avoid local food.  If the travel is likely to be more than a day's worth, I look for flights. Yet, on my way to Delhi on the Shatabdi, the train often stops at a small station in Haryana called Diwana, waiting for a signal.  It is not a scheduled stop and I never see a soul there.  It is a single brick building built smack in middle of a farm.  It always brings back memories of sleepy stations that seem almost ghost-like from my childhood train travel.

Being Indians, I am sure almost all of us have traveled by railway, over long distances or short. There are many among us who love the slow chug chug of train travel.

In this collection of Railway stories curated and edited by Ruskin Bond, he brings us the best of the lot.  The first story is culled from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1875 Phileas Fogg passes through India in his quest to cross the world in eighty days.  He is let down badly by the Railways in India, but manages to hire elephants to continue his journey. There are two stories by Rudyard Kipling, one by Flora Annie Steel and some stories by anonymous authors, and one by J.W, Best. These stories are listed under Part I which are stories from the Pre-Independence era.

In the Post-Independence section, we have stories by Jim Corbett, Khuswant Singh, Ruskin Bond himself, Manoj Das, Intizar Husain, Satyajit Ray, Bill Aitkin, R.K. Laxman, Victor Banerjee and Manojit Mitra.

When I completed the Pre-Independence section, I thought, "There goes the best of it. Surely the Post Independence stories will not be as good."  Happily, I was proved wrong.  All the stories, start to finish are delightful.  I had no idea Victor Banerjee wrote such lovely short stories as well.  Bill Aitken's description of the POW (Palace on Wheels) is hilarious.  Khushwant Singh's story, Mano Majra Station is taken from his chilling novel, Train to Pakistan.

Ruskin Bond's preface to the book called Soot Gets in Your Eyes is alone worth the price of the book. At Rs.250/- so much goodness is a steal.  

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