Exit Ghost: Philip Roth

Growing old can be associated with gains, and of course with losses. The passing years leave behind experiences and sometimes these congeal into a philosophical understanding of the process of living itself. But is such a comprehension sufficient to enable you to face the paring off of precious years from your life? Philip Roth’s 'Exit Ghost' ruminates on the melancholy process of aging and also the unavoidable question of mortality.   

Nathan Zuckerman, a seventy one year old writer has returned to New York after a self imposed exile of eleven years. In these years he has stayed out of touch with the world, shutting himself off from the events and the people living in it. But when his friend succumbs to cancer and in his last note to Zuckerman implores him to give up his loneliness, it shifts something inside Zuckerman’s heart. He comes down to New York.

It is 2004 and the world has moved on. Mobile phones ring incessantly, different kinds of authors are worshipped, and unexpected presidents are elected. Zuckerman enters this transformed world and gets quickly drawn into its whirlwind when he meets a young writer and feels attracted to her. There is also another attachment from the past which comes out seeking for him. It is a secret from the past of the renowned author Lonoff who had been a mentor to Zuckerman in his youth. It has been some years since Lonoff has passed away, but a young writer, Kliman, wishes to write his biography and reveal Lonoff’s secret. Zuckerman, infuriated by Kliman’s unsympathetic views, finds himself in something of a duel with the young writer.

Philip Roth leads the reader into the highly intense dilemma of Zuckerman’s life. His sudden entry into the speedy urban world poses severe strain upon him and the desires he has repressed in his lonely life surge up with new vigor. Roth’s writing is very lucid and it powerfully brings to life the complexity of Zuckerman’s predicament. The unhappiness in his life does not remain constrained to the pages of the novel but escapes out and seeps into our own hearts.  

Another important theme at the center of the novel is regarding the distinction of an author’s personal life from his work. The young Kliman interests himself in revealing an unsavory aspect of Lonoff’s past, but Zuckerman holds that such a thing will be of no consequence in understanding the literature that Lonoff has produced. Interestingly, the older characters side with Zuckerman, while the younger ones with Kliman (Zuckerman himself hints of having held similar views when young). These arguments shed light into the various aspects of literature itself and are a very interesting read.

'Exit Ghost' is a rich literary fiction which combines multiple themes. I will recommend this complex novel for its poignant rendition of the process of growing old and for the depth of its characters.  

The novel can be downloaded for Kindle or can be bought from Flipkart in India.
Book source: Self 

The Cavansite Conspiracy: Manjiri Prabhu

A Cavansite is a rare, exotic blue mineral which is highly coveted by collectors. It is often found around Pune, India where Manjiri Prabhu’s thrilling novel ‘The Cavansite Conspiracy’ begins.

A very large Cavansite makes its home in the Crystal Museum of Rare Minerals in Pune and draws large crowds to the museum. But there also many interested parties willing to acquire it in legal or illegal ways. A Thai cult who believes in the spiritual powers of the Cavansite needs it to bring peace and harmony to the world, while there are others who want it for not so noble purposes. The Cavansite is stolen from the museum despite the high security, and what is peculiar is the uncanny resemblance of the theft with the plot of a bestselling novel ‘The Cavansite Conspiracy’.

Koyal Karnik, who works in Hamburg, is visiting Pune to attend her best friend’s wedding and to enjoy a day of happiness. But the day unfolds in a dreary manner when a gruesome murder is committed and Koyal finds herself implicated for the murder and for the theft of the Cavansite. Chased by police, and by the goons of the underworld, Koyal finds only one person she can trust and who will stand by her through this ordeal, her ex-boyfriend, Neel. Together, they must find the missing Cavansite and prove Koyal’s innocence before the worst plans of the enemy are accomplished.   

Manjiri Prabhu has woven a truly exciting plot for her novel. It is great fun to be by Koyal’s side and see the mystery unfolding through its twists and turns. What I liked best was the way the novel ended. The twist at the end was most surprising and completely unpredictable. It is a very cleverly designed novel and is made a page turner by its intricate plot. 

There is also an important message that the novel tries to convey. Koyal Karnik is a left handed person who has suffered in her childhood due to the prejudices held against left handed people in India. It is indeed unfortunate that many cultures still consider left handedness inauspicious or associate it with bad luck. The novel discusses this aspect and shows what harmful effects such misconstrued beliefs can have on the upbringing of a child.

The Cavansite Consipiracy was published recently and is a fun and enjoyable read. I recommend it to readers who like thrillers with a dash of romance. 

The novel can be bought from Flipkart or Rediff in India.
Book source: Self 

Bougainvillea House: Kalpana Swaminathan

Clarice Aranxa is old and terminally ill with the motor neuron disease. She lives with her loyal servant Pauline in the Bougainvillea House at Baga beach in Goa, India. It seems that the days ahead will be uneventful, a slow passage to the biggest event of life – dying. But death turns out to be capricious, impatient, and shows up much before its expected time. And when it does arrive, it is not for the frail Clarice, but for someone else entirely. Kalpana Swaminathan’s 'Bougainvillea House' holds a highly intriguing psychological mystery, one which threatens the existence of all those who are associated with it.  

Clarice is a prim and proper lady, proud of her illustrious Portuguese lineage. She has imbibed all the good virtues in her daughters, made them into proper, well bred ladies themselves. But virtuousness does not necessarily bring along happiness, as Marion her younger daughter finds out. The beautiful, rich and attractive Marion is still unmarried at thirty seven and despite her virtuousness bad luck has always shadowed her everywhere. Her fiancé had committed suicide in front of a speeding train a month before their marriage and now when she had just begun enjoying the company of the young doctor treating her mother, the doctor has chosen to end his life at the bottom of a well. Marion, with her bad luck, Clarice with her righteousness, and Pauline with her fierce devotion are stranded at the Bougainvillea house dreading the next curveball that fate is about to throw at them.

'Bougainvillea House' is a deliciously dark fiction. The characters are beautifully developed and are the real strength of the novel. Clarice Aranxa, the protagonist, is a complicated and multi layered personality. She is introduced as a frail, vulnerable woman, but as we spend more time with her, we begin to uncover the unsavory facets of her personality, which reveal that she is neither vulnerable nor frail. The other characters, Marion, Pauline, Dr. Khan, the neurologist who treats Clarice, are also fleshed out in detail and they appeal to us as their desires and fears become known to us. 

Another remarkable aspect of this novel is its intelligent structure. We are conveyed the events through Clarice’s tape recording in the beginning, and then we are shown pages from the neurologist’s diary and his medical reports, interspersed with the narrative from the points of view of other characters. It is not clear who Clarice is speaking to in the beginning, but when we do come to know we really begin to appreciate the beauty of this design. Swaminathan’s prose is lucid and creates stark visuals in our minds. The serenity of the Baga beach and the evil that lurks in it leave the pages and begin to envelop our minds. And just like Dr. Khan who embarks on the quest to discover the truth we are also infected with curiosity and dread for what we are about to find out. 

'Bougainvillea House' is a psychological mystery and I will highly recommend it for the beautiful prose that manifests through its intriguing characters and intelligently crafted plot.

This novel can be bought through Flipkart or from Amazon. 
Book source: Self 

I met Wilbur Smith today!

I am just back from attending a talk by Wilbur Smith and I now possess a signed copy of his latest novel ‘Those in peril’. How exciting is that! 
Landmark, the fantastic book store chain, had arranged Wilbur Smith’s reading and signing event today at their Pune store. It was a full house with many of his fans eager to hear him speak and get their copies signed. Mr. Smith shared some very interesting anecdotes about how he began his writing career and also talked about his methods of writing. He has a great sense of humor and his speech was full of fun stories.
I am really looking forward to read ‘Those in peril’ and will be posting a review soon!

Wilbur Smith is going to be in Bengaluru tomorrow. Here are the details of his tour.

Pure Dead Magic: Debi Gliori

When I started with ‘Pure Dead Magic’ I had no idea how good the book was going to be or the fact that it was the first of the ‘Pure Dead’ series written by Debi Gliori. I was down with fever over the weekend and feeling quite depressed about it. Then I found ‘Pure Dead Magic’ in my sister-in-law’s book shelf and before I realized my eyes were inextricably glued to its pages, following the smart protagonist duo and their strange pets.

This is a story about the Strega-Borgia family, a set of parents and their three kids Titus, Pandora and baby Damp, who live with their pet fantastical creatures in the StregaSchloss castle. Signor Strega-Borgia walks out of the castle in high temper and after that his family turns wayward and gloomy in his absence. But there is also a ray of hope in the form of Mrs. MacLachlan a new no-nonsense nanny who takes charge of the kids and of frying French fries on special occasions. Things turn ugly when a step uncle undertakes evil business to acquire the fortune which rightfully belongs to Titus. But all has to surely end well when the kids have a teenage dragon, a griffin, a yeti and a crocodile for pets.

Debi Gliori is an awesome writer. The novel is full of fun and eccentric characters who contribute to the events in unexpected ways. A spider surfs the world wide web and finds a lost a baby, while a dangerous goon attacks the castle dressed up as a bunny. Titus and Pandora, the brother – sister duo are the protagonists where Titus is brilliant with computers and Pandora has natural talent at communicating with animals. Technology is interpreted in comical ways and to make it all even droller, magic mixes with technology to bring about hilarious consequences. This book is intended for kids but the story is so good adults can safely read it without any guidance from children. 

‘Pure Dead Magic’ is a totally fun book and I will recommend it to kids and elders alike. The 'Pure Dead' series has two trilogies in it - the 'Pure Dead' and the 'Deep' trilogy, which I expect will be just as ‘pure dead’ good as this first book and am looking forward to getting hold of them.     

You can also read a wonderful interview of Debi Gliori done by Bookwitch and get to know more about the author.

This book can be bought from Flipkart or Landmark in India.

A Fair Maiden: Joyce Carol Oates

I had heard a lot of great things said about Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories and novels. When I turned the first page of ‘A Fair Maiden’ I realized why that was so. The narrative is lush and flows smoothly, the prose is very beautiful and the characters are intriguing.  

The fair maiden of this novel is Katya Spivak, a sixteen year old girl working as a nanny to the kids of the rich Engelhardt family. Katya is herself a child in many ways. She is waiting for the return of her father who had promised many years ago he would be back for her birthday. She fantasizes about his return and at the same time is hoping for some signs of affection from her mother and sisters. But most of all she wishes to be loved. Love crosses her path in the form of 68 year old Marcus Kidder, a rich local who is an artist and a children’s book writer. Katya, vulnerable and too young to understand the dangerous path she is treading on, finds herself attracted to the old man which leads her to disastrous consequences.   

Oates’s writing is engaging. She paints the characters and moods with easy strokes. Katya is a very endearing protagonist and it is easy to perceive the desperation of her feelings and feel concerned for her well being. Marcus Kidder, the other important character, comes through as a dark and complex personality. It is he who weaves a fairy tale like net in which young Katya finds herself entangled. It is power of Oates's prose that he comes through as an intimidating and yet vulnerable person. 

‘A Fair Maiden’ has a fairy tale turn to it and attempts to entwine the fantastic with the realistic. But this is where I was a little less than satisfied with the novel. Though the novel begins promisingly, when it concludes it is not clear whether it intended to be a surreal tale, or a psychological fantasy or a realistic narrative. I think the problem was in the concluding few pages, where characters which had behaved realistically changed their bearing and behaved in a surreal fashion. 

This is a dark tale with a very disturbing subject matter at its heart. Joyce Carol Oates’s writing is very powerful and she gets the reader invested in her characters. Though I was not very happy with this particular novel, I am sure I will be reading more of her work.  

From A Buick 8: Stephen King

Fear comes in different forms. It takes the shape of the scared hollow of our mind, or rings shrilly into our ears. Fear weakens the cartilage of our knees and has a way of sliding into our heart riding on our breath. Stephen King knows all these fears and then some more. In the ‘From a Buick 8’ he delves on the instinctive reactions of the human mind when faced with life forms never seen before, unknown to the perceptions of the mind. This is one of the Stephen King horror novels which has a science fiction angle to it, and which is rendered wonderfully by King’s dexterous pen.

The dark matter at the centre of this novel is a car, a 1953 Buick Roadmaster. This Buick drives into a gas station and waits for its driver to return from a visit to the restroom, while the gas station attendant dutifully fills her up. The driver however never returns and the police from the Troop D have to investigate the disappearance. The first thing the Troopers realize is that the Buick has no logically structured engine, the steering wheel is too large, the battery is not connected to anything, the dashboard props are facades – in short the car is incapable of being driven. The car is towed back to the barracks and becomes a part of the Troop D property, and they stick with it even when it gives out queer ‘lightquakes’ and belches out monstrous entities.

Curiosity is a running theme in this plot. The Buick sits in the mid of the Troopers holding a huge sense of improbability about it, and Curt Wilcox, a young Trooper can’t resist the temptation to prod into its cover to unravel its mysteries. But what begins as his quest to satisfy curiosity soon turns into a hopeless persuasion of the unknown. A senior trooper makes a pertinent observation,
‘While curiosity is a provable fact, satisfaction is more like a rumor.’
Curt and none of the other troopers are quite satisfied with any of the theories they have built about the existence of the Buick. The Buick, in the meantime, conjures up unlikely animals and plants from its trunk and drives the barracks into chaos. There is another theme that King has woven into his narrative and which I think is most interesting. It is about the physicality of our bodies. When the alien life forms show up from the Buick, the natural reaction of the Troopers is that of revulsion and horror. But this horror does not generate from anything that the alien entities have done but it arises through their appearance itself. This also forces us to ponder upon how our own appearance will be received by alien eyes. The evil here lies in simple unfamiliarity and the outcome turns out to be morally catastrophic.

This is a slightly different kind of Stephen King novel. It has its share of horrors and thrills, but compared to some other of his novels, it seems that horror is not as prime a factor of the plot. This novel is also a little slow and predictable at times. This novel might not interest those who expect a regular Stephen King full throttle horror-thriller, but it nevertheless does have interesting ruminations on the workings of the human mind and I will recommend it for these.

This novel can be downloaded from Kindle or can be bought from Flipkart.

The Gods themselves: Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is undoubtedly a master of the science fiction genre. The complexity and delicate intricacy that he can build into his worlds is simply terrific. I began reading Asimov with novels like ‘The big sun of mercury’, ‘Stars like dust’, and ‘The naked sun’ and I fell in love with the science fiction genre and with Asimov. Then later I read the Foundation series and was awestruck by the brilliance of this work. The Foundation series turned into something like a climax to my science fiction reading season, and I did not read much of it after that. Just a few days back I was discussing science fiction books with a friend who also likes this genre, and I felt an impulse to read a good book laden with mysterious universes and unbelievable technologies. Naturally I went to my favorite author Isaac Asimov and picked his Hugo award winner (1973) ‘The Gods Themselves’.

‘The gods themselves’ is a set of three stories bound by an impending calamity, but each taking place on a different world. The calamity in question is nothing short of our arm of the galaxy exploding into a quasar (not surprising since Asimov was always about very exotic disasters and their counteraction). The first part occurs on Earth in the near future where the problem of energy shortage has been ingeniously solved by an ‘Electron pump’ which exchanges material with a para-universe (a parallel universe which obeys different laws of physics). This scheme has liberated the human population from the banalities of working for energy. But unfortunately, as a young scientist discovers, this scheme is not without a dangerous side-effect – the sun will explode and form a supernova. The Pump must be stopped to avert the crisis, but no-one on Earth wishes to believe him, blinded by the advantages of the free energy. 

The second story takes place on a planet in that para-universe which is exchanging energy with Earth. This section is one stunning illustration of Asimov’s great talent. He constructs this alien ecosystem stunningly, complete with the sexuality of the complex entities inhabiting it, and their delicate emotional make up. One of the entities in this world discovers the perils awaiting the unsuspecting earth and thereby faces the morally difficult dilemma between compassion towards an unknown species and survival of its own. This section masterfully rendered is also highly entertaining. The discussion on sexuality of this alien specie and the parallels that can be drawn with ours is indeed very amusing. 

The third part takes place on the moon and brings the problem to a satisfactory conclusion. This part, to me, felt a little like an anti-climax after the second one. But Asimov does provide an interesting solution for the crisis which somewhat makes up for the plainness of this story.

Asimov has created a highly compelling plot for this novel, which keeps our attention captivated. The physics discussed is at times intricate, but this is always followed by simplified explanation which makes it easy to grasp. All the classic elements of Asimov’s writing are present in this novel. The plot is a page-turner and has many interesting ideas pertaining to nuclear forces and laws of physics. It also has some very witty references to present day world and a pertinent commentary on the follies we are committing for the sake of immediate gains. The title of the novel itself is an intelligent observation on this, inspired by a quotation by the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller - "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." 
I will happily recommend this novel to all the fans of Asimov and of the science fiction genre.

This book can be downloaded for Kindle, or can be bought from Flipkart.

The Thing About Thugs : Tabish Khair

What is a story? Does the veracity of a story determine its value, or is it the authenticity of the narrator that decides its usefulness? Or perhaps the truth of the story or its narrator is but immaterial, and its worth in the eyes of the listener is all that matters. How difficult it is to hold a story in words! Tabish Khair's wonderful novel, ‘The thing about thugs’ is immersed in such capricious stories. The thug (member of a band of professional assassins) Amir Ali begins weaving a yarn of stories and what emerges is a slippery tale that threatens to alter his own identity, and the tranquility of the world around him.

The setting of this novel is nineteenth century London, a place thrumming with the tensions between the natives from the different lands that the British colonize, and the natives of the great city itself. Times are changing, the perception that humans hold about their origin are changing, and this new consciousness brings with it an unease, kinks into the fiber of the social life. Lord Batterstone and Captain Meadows, two men engaged in the study of Phrenology – a science pertaining to study of sculls – hold very different opinions on the subject. At the heart of their fight is Amir Ali a thug brought in from India by Captain Meadows for recording the story of his past life as a thug. Amir Ali in the course of relating his story, falls in love, makes loyal friends and becomes a different person altogether.

Tabish Khair has used multiple narrators in this fast paced novel. What I really found impressive was the way Khair builds up each character - each person a superposition of multiple personalities. None of the main characters have lived a simple straightforward life, each lives with an incongruous past, hazy memories of what one had been, and a certain amount of unreality about their present identities. This quality also extends to the cities in question. London which is introduced as a civilized, orderly city eventually shows its face of disheveled, barbaric cruelty. Another city in the novel, Patna (city in northern India), of whose glorious past Amir Ali proudly talks about, also keeps changing its identity, wearing multiple garbs - sometimes of glowing nostalgia and other times of squalor.

'The thing about thugs' is a fascinating novel which ponders upon the identities of humans and places. Here truth and unreality morph and mutate, and we relinquish their quest as we begin to believe Amir Ali’s words of wisdom,
"...truth and credibility might well be beyond reconciliation in our world"

This book can bought from Flipkart in India.

Jamrach’s Menagerie: Carol Birch

A large Bengal tiger escapes from its cage one morning in 19th century London and lands in front of young Jaffy Brown. The little boy, too young to know what a tiger is, simply cannot resist the temptation to touch the large cat’s soft nose. It is something akin to a miracle that Jaffy comes out of this encounter alive. Charles Jamrach, the owner of the menagerie (a collection of wild animals) to which the tiger belongs, saves Jaffy and also employs him as a yard boy. Thus Jaffy begins a happy life at Jamrach's Menagerie taking care of animals and haunting the dirty alleys of London with his friends Tim and Ishbel. Then comes the Lysander, a whaleship bound southwards on a quest to capture a dragon. Jaffy and Tim find the allure of the Lysander impossible to resist, and life which has been a slow placid sea till this time, now sails into unstable weathers, overturning the logic of things in its wake.

Carol Birch has borrowed from two historical incidents for her novel. Charles Jamrach was indeed an animal dealer and naturalist from London, and his menagerie did have a Bengal tiger which coughed out a boy from its jaws. The second incident is the sinking of the American whaleship Essex. A whaleship or a whaler was meant for capturing whales and processing them for extracting oil. Birch has given an additional objective of capturing a dragon (most likely a Komodo dragon) to her whaleship Lysander in the novel. Apart from Jamrach, all the other characters are fictional, deft creations of the author, where she paints them with vivid and endearing qualities.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a very unusual novel in the way its narrative unfolds. Birch introduces her characters and their lives slowly without any indication of what is to come next. While we revel in the beautiful descriptions of 19th century London – its taverns and streets, shacks and houses, we have no inkling of the sea that is waiting for Jaffy. It is as if the author spends time on a port, building it beautifully for us and then just leaves it all behind, embarking a ship and moving on to a new port for a new start. This absence of a thrust, of an over arching goal that can push the narrative ahead can be a little disconcerting. But paradoxically, this is also the strength of the novel, for it closely resembles the way real life unfurls on us, showing only little of what is to come and blurring out the past with the passage of time.

Carol Birch’s prose is truly ravishing. She portrays all the locations in her novel very charmingly – be it the downtrodden parts of London, or the exotic islands of Atlantic. This novel is also very readable for the unusual settings on which it unfolds and the tinge of history that Birch so deftly incorporates into its flow. But the most remarkable quality about the novel is the magic embedded in its words which pulls us into Jaffy Brown’s extraordinary adventure, and makes us experience the same things that he does.

Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlist is out!

The penultimate step of this year’s Man Booker award cycle was completed today, when the shortlist of six books contending for the prize was announced. I am especially glad that Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ has made it into the final six. I had really liked this novel and was hoping it would make it to the shortlist. I am also thrilled that Carol Birch's 'Jamrach’s Menagerie' is also on the list. I started reading this novel a couple of days back and have enjoyed what I have read so far. Hope to post a review soon!

1. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes [My review]
2. Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch [My review]
3. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
4. Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
5. Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman
6. Snowdrops - A.D. Miller

Details of the news can be read at Man Booker’s site here.

‘The Sense of an Ending’: Julian Barnes

Memory – a reward for having lived a life, having lived it with others, having lived it through events of varying consequences – how trustworthy is it? Sometimes we remember only a smell or a posture and forget the face, or when we meet a person on the street we remember the face - even after years - but cannot find a name to match it. But more often what we remember is only our own response to events, feelings of pleasure or distress without being able to recall the events themselves that had caused them. Tony Webster, the protagonist of the novel 'The Sense of an Ending', faces a similar predicament as he tries to reconstruct the past and has only his imperfect memory to assist him.

This short novella begins with four carefree schoolboys philosophizing earnestly on the meaning of existence, love and death. With time, they have to grow up and get on with living their lives, whether it fits into their philosophy or not. Tony Webster, who is one of the four boys, recalls events from his childhood, youth and later old age to provide a window to look at these occurrences. His biases and inaccuracies affect the stories conveyed to the reader making him an unreliable narrator. But in a paradoxical way he also comes through as very trustworthy and open, and we begin concerning ourselves with his well being. Then life throws a few curveballs at him and his friends, and the seemingly straightforward events take on an entirely different tone.

Time and memory couple tightly in this novella just like they do in real life. Time creates, distorts and erases memory while memory has its own way of twisting time. Communication is also an important theme in the novel. Sometimes a piece of communication is an occurrence in the background and sometimes it presents a cliffhanger.

Barnes’ writing is very beautiful and very lucid. A major chunk of the novel is peaceable, uneventful, without the thrust of a suspenseful plotline. The strength of his prose is that he makes this portion very enjoyable and makes you believe that an un-dramatic, modest way of living can be very satisfying too.
What left me slightly dissatisfied was the latter part of the novel. Here Barnes changes the pace of the narration and the suspense in the plotline takes the charge. I would have perhaps been happier with a more muted ending than the startling one that Barnes has presented.

I enjoyed reading this novel immensely. I was completely captured by the writing style and loved the subtle humor that Barnes so adroitly presents in unexpected places. I recommend this novel highly for the beauty and simplicity of its prose, and the depth and sensitivity of its theme.

Here’s the link to the Kindle download. It can also be bought from Flipkart in India.

Who watches the watchmen?

A rioter desperately inscribes this line on the wall while two masked super heroes close in on him. These are desperate times in a world weighed down by the shadow of a looming, nuclear third world war. Crime and destitution are on the rise. This is a time when the world needs super-heroes more than anything else. And there are heroes here, willing to watch over the helpless citizens to save them from the ills of a depraved society. They are the watchmen. But the common citizen has risen against them, against their saviors, preferring the regular cops for law enforcement. Why did this happen? These and a multitude of other questions are dealt with in this highly popular graphic novel ‘Watchmen’.

Alan Moore is the writer of Watchmen. One of the most famous graphic novelist from Britain, he is said to have brought the term ‘Graphic Novel’ into being. He has worked with artist Dave Gibbons to create this wonderfully complex and crisply rendered graphic novel. The art work in this novel is extraordinary, the compositions stunning and the illustrations very forceful. This is not a typical comic book, though the illustrations are in that style. The writing is of a rich literary quality which garnered a lot of respect. This also helped the move from a ‘comic books’ genre to the ‘graphic novel’ one.
‘Watchmen’ was originally published as a 12 issue series in 1986-87 and later as a collection. It received an overwhelming reception, gaining a cult like following and has held a spot in the world’s top graphic novels ever since. After reading this extraordinary novel it is easy to understand why this is the case.

‘Watchmen’ has its own original masked heroes: a ‘Nite Owl’ who can conjure up unimaginable gadgetry, ‘Ozymandias’ the smartest man on earth, the ‘Comedian’ who understands the world well enough to be able to laugh at it, a brutal and single minded ‘Rorschach’ who can’t stand evil, a beautiful female vigilante ‘Silk Spectre’, and a real ‘superhero’ with extraordinary powers born out of an atomic accident, ‘Dr Manhattan’. Each of them is socially misfit, haunted with personality disorders, fighting with himself and also the world. They feel a need to understand the darkness of the human mind, hoping to eliminate its root. Sometimes working together, but mostly alone, they dig into the murky trenches of crime. What they find at the end of their quest is of a most startling nature.

‘Watchmen’ has streaks of science fiction and psychological mystery. It plays with the psyche of the reader, delving into a grey area where it is difficult to discern the good from the evil, virtue from vice, cause from consequence. Time and space seem to warp in the human mind. And Dr. Manhattan for whom all the times exist at once admits unemotionally,
“The morality of my activities escapes me”

Watchmen was also made into a film of the same name in 2009
Watchmen can be bought from Flipkart and Landmark in India.

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife’ is this year’s Orange prize winner book. It is a debut novel by a very talented young author, Téa Obreht. She is the youngest to win the Orange Prize at 25. It is also this knowledge which makes me marvel at the maturity and intricacy of this incredible piece of work, for Téa Obreht discusses many difficult subjects here and very confidently at that.

This is a story of Natalia, a young doctor who travels across the (unspecified but most likely situated across countries in the Balkans) border to treat the orphans on the other side. This is also the story of her grandfather who was born in a very small and isolated (fictional) village called Galina and who also grew up to be a doctor. Galina is up in the mountains, gets snowed upon heavily in winter, and is infrequently visited by hunters, vagabonds and later by the armies. In one such winter the village receives a majestic guest in the form of the tiger - a tiger running away from the bombing in his city zoo, desperately trying to acclimatize to his newly thrust upon freedom. He survives on dead, bloated human bodies and at the same time longs for the company of living humans that he is used to. He does find company, love and friendship in the small village, but there is also the inevitable hatred. The unexpected relationship between humans and animals unhinges the sanity of the tiny village. The surreal encounters do not end for Natalia’s grandfather with his childhood, but haunt him again in his youth and old age when he repeatedly meets the mysterious 'deathless' man. Natalia herself walks into the surrealism of her grandfather’s life in her quest for understanding more about him and his past.

Both the storylines entwine in the narrative and give a face to war - its expectation, its actual arrival in fragmented disasters, and the hopelessness of its conclusion. The most striking depiction of the war comes not through the details of bombings and horrifying disasters, but through the routines of normal days which put forth the unreality of the war, and more strongly the cruelty and unfairness of it. Téa Obreht’s writing is very free-flowing and the narrative is engrossing. At times the novel gets into an oral story-telling like style with many small storylines interspersed with the main plot, some of which are quite engaging and some a little distracting.

The novel received many good reviews and also some criticism, which is to be expected I think after a novel wins a major prize. But these discussions apart, I would really like to recommend this book for it is a very fresh and entertaining read and also provides a glimpse into the exotic lands and customs of the Balkans.

I had downloaded this book from Amazon for my Kindle. It can also be bought from Flipkart or Landmark in India.

Longlist announced for the 'Man Booker Prize' for Fiction 2011

The 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction longlist came out last week. Just like every other year, this year’s longlist has also surprised, elated and disappointed many :) Heavy discussions will now ensue on the books that have missed the list and on those who made it.

In India the Booker Prize has become much well known after several of our authors brought the prestigious prize home. Aravind Adiga won it in 2008, and before him Kiran Desai (2006), Arundhati Roy (1997), and Salman Rushdie (1981) had won it.

This year’s longlist has quite a few debuts alongside veteran writers; also large publishing houses are slated alongside smaller ones. I like that the Booker, many times, brings to notice those books which you might miss otherwise, but which are meritorious nonetheless.

This year’s list does look quite sumptuous, and I hope to dig into it, reading at least a few before the shortlist is announced on 6 September. The winner is going to be named on 18 October. You can find more details on the Man Booker site.
  1. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes [My review]
  2. On Canaan's Side - Sebastian Barry 
  3. Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch [My review]
  4. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
  5. Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
  6. A Cupboard Full of Coats - Yvvette Edwards
  7. The Stranger's Child - Alan Hollinghurst
  8. Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman
  9. The Last Hundred Days - Patrick McGuinness
  10. Snowdrops - A.D. Miller
  11. Far to Go - Alison Pick
  12. The Testament of Jessie Lamb - Jane Rogers
  13. Derby Day - D.J. Taylor

The crock of gold

James Stephens (1882 - 1950) is a remarkable Irish writer and poet well known for his retellings of the Irish fairy tales and myths. He has also written original novels, the most famous of which is ‘The crock of gold’ written in the style of a fairy tale, complete with magical beings and supernatural occurrences. I read this novel through its excellent translation in Marathi (‘Sonyache madake’[सोन्याचे मडके] done by G. A. Kulkarni) and after enjoying its quirkiness and keen humor, I felt reading the original was a must. 

This is a story of two extremely wise philosophers and their shrewish wives who are very wise too – albeit in a very different fashion.  One of the philosophers and his wife commit suicide early on in the novel and then contribute to the events that happen thereafter through their absence. The philosopher left behind, driven through his love of knowledge and of its sharing, cannot stop advising his fellowmen on their troubles. One such fateful advice leads the titular crock of gold from passing through the hands of its rightful owners to Meehawl McMurrachu, a small farmer. The farmer’s tenacity in holding on to the gold causes further perplexing events which need the intervention of the gods themselves to untangle.

The narrative is full of good hearted humor and pleasing unpredictability. Stephens speaks lovingly of all his characters, showing their weaknesses and at the same time showing them repenting and improving their behaviors. The philosopher is driven only by reason and thought in the beginning but with each new encounter with the humans, gods and other fantastical entities he goes through a transformation, finally to comprehend the meaning of feeling and love. His wife, likewise, travels a road of epiphanies and overcomes the hatred in her heart to become attached to her husband. This novel is indeed about transformations and almost all the characters undergo changes. But alongside transformations, this is a novel of innumerable juxtapositions – man against woman, thought against feeling, thin against fat, old against young.  These comparisons make for a very interesting reading especially when they come wrapped in Stephens’ excellent and perceptive humor.

The elements from the fairy tales are very much present in the narrative. Stories and characters float in and out in the true fashion of the fairy tales. Goodness exerts itself in excesses, wickedness is banished, love is found, intellect is freed, and everybody lives happily ever after. And this journey from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’ is indeed an enriching and pleasurable one!

‘The crock of gold’ can be downloaded for free from the Project Gutenberg site or from Amazon for those with Kindles.   

So here goes!

Sometimes after many years have passed since a book was read and an impression was made, we realize that we no longer share the same ideas with our older self. I had first read Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient eight years back and it was the burnt patient’s tragic and tempestuous love story which had made an impact on me. But now when I re-read the novel, the more silent love between the nurse and the Indian soldier created a resonance. This made me think of other novels, other stories, other words that I had read before, and I wondered which of them may have changed colors with time. This activity turned out to be tedious. In fact it was difficult even to recall all the wonderful books that I had enjoyed reading and that had influenced me. In this blog I hope to capture the impressions that the books that I am now reading are creating. I think it will also be a lot of fun to write about books that I love and to bandy ideas with people who are also passionate about reading.
So here goes!