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.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Khushwant Singh - Delhi A Novel

Khushwant Singh
+Penguin Books UK

Delhi A novel starts with the protagonist, A Sikh Journalist, returning to Delhi from abroad.  He is loafing around, visiting his cronies in Coffee House, going around the city when he is asked to escort around a woman who has come down from London.  She has to look over the architecture of Delhi.  Our hero almost has an affair with her.

However, his one enduring affair is with Bhagmati, a hijra whom he had once saved when she had fainted by the side of the road. Once on a visit to Shamsi Talab, he comes across a stone inscribed with the name of Musaddi Lal, devotee of Nizamuddin and resident in the era of Balban. In the next chapter, we zoom into the life of Musaddi Lal in 1280 and thereabouts.  Musaddi Lal was a kayasth whose father was a scribe in the court of Balban.  When his father died, he was offered the same job.  He became a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin and hobnobbed with Amir Khusrau as well.  The life in that era is described beautifully with Musaddi Lal as the narrator.

From here the novel takes turns describing successive eras (with big jumps in time - it would have become a huge tome otherwise) and coming back to present time (which is somewhere from 1970's to 1984). From Balban we jump to a first hand account of the massacre led by Taimur.  Then comes the very touching story of Jaitoo, the Mazhabi Sikh who had the sorrowful privilege of carrying the sheesh of Guru Tegh Bahadur to Anandpur Sahib after he was executed by Aurangzeb. Through the eyes of Jaitoo, we learn how life was like amongst the very poor during the reign of Mughals.

After this comes an account from the pen of Aurangzeb Alamgir himself.  How he found himself sidelined by his father who favored Dara Shukoh. How he tricked and killed his brother and landed himself on the throne of Delhi.  Nadir Shah relates how he came to Delhi and was captivated by a concubine.

Mir Taqi Mir lived from 1722 to 1810. He tasted everlasting fame, but had to live in penury for most of his life, like many other great artists did.  The chapter where Mir describes his life and time is one of the best in this novel.  It sheds light not only on the life of Mir, but also the tumultuous times he lived in.

From Mir we go on to the events of 1857 which are described through the eyes of Alice Aldwell.  She was the daughter of a Kashmiri Muslim girl and an Englishman.  She shed her Anglo-Indian identity by marrying a 50 year old Englishman Aldwell.  She has to scrimp and scrounge to crawl up in the English world. Just when she has made it, the mutiny breaks out.  The English identity that she had built up so painstakingly is now shattered. Along with Alice Aldwell's account, we are also treated to the views of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the Mutiny.  We also go on to read about Nihal Singh, the Sikh orderly under the command of Major Hodson.

In the next historical segment we get a glimpse into the building of the Lutyen's Delhi.  For this who can be better than an eyewitness in the author's own family.  His father was at the forefront of action when Delhi was named, for the final time, the Capital of India.  To the author's credit, he spares no criticism, even of his own forebears and gives us a candid account of the way contracts were handed out.  How his father and grandfather maintained contacts, bribed, presented inflated bills and made a lot of money.  He also lauds them for their thrift and hard work that was also necessary.

The last historical chapter is about Ram Rakha, who becomes an RSS activist in Delhi for the lack of any other employment.  He has to instigate violence against Muslims in 1947-48.  He is also required to spy on Mahatma Gandhi as he fasts.

From the dark times of 1947 we jump to 1984.  Starting from Operation Blue Star in June to the Sikh Massacre in November, when humankind showed that it was not civilized yet.

The book does a very good job of traversing through 700 years of history of Delhi.  The best part is, of course, describing the events through the eyes of a contemporary.  I like the accounts of ordinary citizens much better.  In the story of Musaddi Lal, he does not like Amir Khusro initially. Older and mellower years later, they become good friends.  In the later story of Jaitu the untouchable, we are given a piteous account of how they live.  After he carries the head of Guru to Anandpur Sahib he is known as Rangreta Jaita.

The author does a very good job of getting into the skin of the characters and makes the era they lived in come alive. He lets the warts of his characters show, be they Kings, Commoners or Poets.  Bhagmati, the hijra the main protagonist is enamored of, is the emblem of corruption that Delhi has sunk into.  There is even a story in the book, in the form of a joke that foretold that hijras would inherit Hindustan in the year 1947.

Khushwant Singh claims that he spent twenty-five years writing this book.  I can imagine the research it entailed.  I remember reading an extract from the book that was published in a magazine. It was about Nadir Shah and his tryst with Noor, the concubine.  Typically the focus in the press was on the salacious bits of the book.  When I read the book first about a decade ago, I was very impressed.  I liked the juxtaposition of modern and ancient times. I liked the way he does not mince words when indicting the actions of people throughout history, whether they were Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, even Christians.  They were merely frail humans who wronged each other grievously.

In general I am not fond of Khushwant Singh's books.  He claims to be irreverent, and that is a good thing, but the substance of his books was rather thin.  But with Delhi A Novel, he has come up trumps because his subject is so sound.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Carrie Fisher - Shockaholic

+Simon & Schuster Books
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Carrie Fisher was best known for playing Princess Leia in the legendary movie series Star Wars.  She reappeared recently in the episode VII, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and seemed all set to appear in further Star Wars series. Unfortunately she died on 27 December 2016.

For a girl who did not care for fame, Carrie Fisher garnered a sort of an undying fame. Her appearances in the Star War movies ensured that. A movie star may be forgotten after a couple of decades, remembered only when the movies are re-run on television or played on online forums. Not so for Carrie.

Once you achieve the admiration of the Nerd-Herd, you never die.  A couple of generations have passed since the first airing of George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977, but the movie has not been allowed to die.  Despite the less than worthy continuation of the original trilogy and Jar Jar Binks, they have a special place in the hearts of all fans. No wonder even Carrie Fisher's books have her on the cover as Princess Leia.

Carrie Fisher, despite what seems to us as a charmed life, actually had it tough as a celebrity kid. She was the daughter of the beautiful and very successful Debbie Reynolds.  Her father was Eddie Fisher who was later married to Elizabeth Taylor.  Her parents divorced very early and her father was barely present in her life.  Her mother was working all the time and dealing with bad marriages of her own. Carrie had drug related issues and also a big problem with her weight.

However, instead of going under all these problems, which celebrities usually face, she came up again like a tough survivor.  She wrote eight books, three screenplays, did a lot of theater and worked in movies.  She took care of her sick father, mended fences with her mother and always presented a humorous and a positive face to the world.

In Shockaholic, she writes about Shock Therapy, which is now known as ECT, that she had to undergo as the result of her depression.  Despite all the scary references to it in movies like 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest', 'Frances' and such like, she found it was not really bad, and really helped her cope with her problems.  She goes on to mention her relationship with her father, her step-father Karl, Elizabeth Taylor, Micheal Jackson, and one very memorable dinner with Ted Kennedy

She writes with such humor and such deep feelings that the people she is writing about come to life. Her father, despite his numerous failings, springs to life as a charming man who lived life king size. Micheal's need to recreate his childhood and befriend people who will treat him as a human and not take advantage of him is so well depicted.  Elizabeth Taylor's love of jewellery and her superstardom, her fart happy Step-father Karl and the obnoxious Ted will stay in your mind for a long time.

I don't hardly hate ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.
This is the essence of Carrie Fisher and her warm heart springs out of the pages of her book.  She writes fondly of a ring she 'inherited' from her father.  Rumors were that the ring was a real heirloom, an expensive piece of Jewellery until an Opal merchant revealed the truth.  She has such a talent for story telling that it is a pleasure to turn the pages of her book.

I am going to get and read all her books.

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