4/5

Anti-romance

This is my review of Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. It is riddled with spoilers, mostly because it is a slice-of-life story, with no clear plot arc when it starts out. Even revealing that it is a tragedy and not a fairytale is a spoiler; so why not go all-out and tell you that one of the main characters dies in the end.

Oscar Wilde once wrote (I think it was in The Importance of Being Earnest, but am too lazy to look it up now): “The very essence of romance is uncertainty”. So what happens when there is no uncertainty? When you’re married, and have two children and a 9-5, and a cookie cutter home in the suburbs? That’s exactly what this story is about. And as Shakespeare has taught us, the story that is not a romance must be a tragedy.

Frank and April Wheeler are the aforementioned middle-class husband and wife. They have two friends, a neighbourhood couple who help babysit once in a while. Frank has developed an unfortunate habit of repeating his stories. Overall, they are far from the adventurous young couple they had been when they first met. April had been an aspiring actress, and Frank had been an intellectual, artistic young man.

In an attempt to reclaim her lost dreams, April and Frank become involved in a local organization’s play. Neither of them know it, but it’s the beginning of a downward spiral. The play is a disaster; the subsequent disappointment and anger make them realize that their marriage is failing. Until they stumble upon a brilliant plan- they would move to Paris! Now that their children were school-aged, April could go back to work. Secretarial work in Europe would pay enough to support them, so Frank could remain unemployed for a while and discover himself.

In the face of uncertainty, their romance is rekindled. Until April discovers that she is pregnant, throwing a spanner into the works and halting their excited preparations. With an infant, April could not go back to work, and their plan would have to be shelved for another 5 years. She doesn’t want the baby, but Frank, in a burst of instinctive masculinity, refuses to consider an abortion. They are at a deadlock, with a countdown timer until the last day for a safe at-home abortion.

I’ll end the summary there, with a cliffhanger to pique your interest. The plotline is aggressively humdrum, but depressing enough that suburbia is now my worst nightmare. It’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong in Frank and April’s lives. They both had to give up their dreams, but neither had very well-defined dreams to begin with.

There’s a very insightful scene in the book, in which they tell their landlady that they wanted to see their house as they would be relocating. They invite her over for coffee, and she is surprised to find them calm and happy, having a relaxed conversation while waiting for her to arrive. Is there an implicit understanding that young parents must be eternally flustered, messy and slightly impatient? Or does it take a certain amount of intrinsic happiness to be able to find joy in waiting for a realtor? There’s a lot of food for thought in this one. 4/5 from me.

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The dutiful daughter

This is a review of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, the French existential feminist who defined many ideas including femininity, and who discounted the very idea of “women” as a chain that binds the female folk to the men, in an unequal relationship.

I read this book by chance. It was a beautiful afternoon when a friend was talking to me, and admonished me for something I said, by saying “don’t be a woman!” I was surprised at the reprimand. That was my introduction to Simone de Beauvoir.

So what made Simone the Simone we know? (we try, at least) She was born into a bourgeois French family, and as every other French family they expected her to be just as feminine as will make her desirable for another man. But, lo, she had her own ambitions. She read voraciously. Her parents encouraged her as well, for good measure. But, over the years, as she blossomed (ew, that feminine word, but I’ll use it anyway, because I like how it sounds, irrespective of social conditioning in my own life) into adulthood, she aspired to be more than just a dutiful daughter.

Into adulthood, she read more (in the book, she discusses what she reads), discussed and fleshed out her principles and ideologies. In politically turbulent times, her questions about what’s right and what isn’t troubled and invigorated her to no end. She fell in love with men, whereas she was previously curious as to how that was ever possible, and then she fell out of love with them just as nonchalantly.

The best part of the book, to me, was when she met Sartre, and he took her under his wing, so to speak (he was older and seemingly better read, and was she impressed or what!). The rest, as they say, is history.

The auto-biography offers invaluable insights into the upbringing and the creation of the pillars of ideals of one of the most important feminist thinkers of this era. What caused Simone the kind of cognitive dissonance that sparks such genius? Why did she think differently if her parenting was as average as it could be in a bourgeoise family? What was the unique circumstance under which her adolescence sculpted her mind?

The first person narration of someone who has offered such seminal ideas to our society is one of the important reasons to indulge in the exercise of reading the book. Also, it’s written very well – perfectly chronological (no hanky-panky flashbacks), grammatical (kudos to the translation!), exact flow of thought (no jarring edges).

No amount of scholarly reading will give you the granular details of what created Simone as this book does. If you’re curious as I was, to know what ticked for this person, give the book a go; and what’s more, it’s a good read. I’d give Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter a 4/5.

My biggest grouse with the book is that it was hard to find a good copy. The copy I read was borrowed from a library, and it was falling apart. The next part was in a worse condition. Can’t we have more such great works in our libraries? Amazon was not too much help either. Who knows, given the emergence of a more conscious feminist conscience, may be Simone’s autobiographies will be revived enough for mass paperback publishers to take note and do the needful.

what’s your favorite period movie?

This is my review of Carrie, by Stephen King. It was on the long, long list of books to be reviewed, and I recently watched the movie.

Carrie is a slim book, but it packs a punch. It is narrated via news clippings and letters, and tells the story of the destruction of a small town in Maine. By a young girl’s menstrual rage (hence the pun-ny title to this review).

Carrie White is a teenager who has lived her whole life in the shadow of her violently religious mother. One unfortunate day, she gets her first period during gym class, AKA the most inopportune time to Become a Woman. Her mother, unfortunately, skipped the SexEd lectures on account of her belief that all women are sinners. She was already an outcast amongst her classmates, and they pounced on the opportunity to mock her.

This could be a horror novel by itself (and was probably my worst nightmare back in high school), but Carrie’s humiliation had an unexpected side effect: it revealed her telekinetic powers. For several weeks after, she experiments with her power and develops her skills.

Then comes the night of the Senior Prom. A beautiful, unforgettable night. Carrie even has a date! But as she walks onstage as Homecoming Queen, someone pours a bucket of chicken blood over her, bringing up the gym class incident again. Carrie loses her cool and destroys half the town. The End.

Both the book and the movie are genuinely frightening. The book does not skimp on the graphic details, and the movie contains nudity and gore. This is not the teen drama that one would expect, given the subject matter. King has done a masterful job of converting an almost simplistic storyline into a memorable classic.

It also made me profoundly grateful for my friendly highschool classmates, who neither poured blood on each other, nor electrocuted each other with the force of their minds. 4/5 from me.

View of View from the Cheap Seats from the Cheap Seats

This is a review of View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. See what I did there?

This book is an assortment of non-fiction writings and speeches delivered by Gaiman over several years. These include, but are not limited to:

1) award acceptance speeches- which are charming, self-deprecating, and sometimes repeat jokes and anecdotes,

2) book introductions- which consist of Gaiman fangirling about the author and how their work inspired him; this is sweet when you know the author, but tedious when you don’t (I ended up skipping these whenever he spoke of a relatively less-famous sci-fi author from the 80s),

3) newspaper columns and obituaries- which are almost always terrific and well-thought-out.

Clearly, they cover a diverse variety of topics, which makes them sometimes hit-or-miss in their execution. They’re largely unrelated, so it’s easy to skip pieces if they are not your cup of tea.

There are several articles that reminded me that Gaiman first became famous as a writer of graphic novels, notably The Sandman. One essay I particularly enjoyed was an open letter to managers of comic book stores, urging them to stop selling graphic to novels to children as ‘collectors’ editions’ or ‘investment pieces’. As an author, he says, collectors’ editions or first prints are as well- or poorly-written as other editions, and they are meant to be read, not placed on the shelf in shrinkwrap. This was touching, because of course marketing to children that way is a scam, but I don’t see any other authors defending kids’ rights to waste their pocket money in more productive ways.

Gaiman comes across as a very humble, knowledgeable, gentle soul. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself, and he makes an excellent narrator as well. 4/5 from me, worth checking out. Read only the pieces that catch your eye!

Shootout

This is my review of Columbine, by Dave Cullen.

This is a factual account of the 1999 mass shooting that took place at the Columbine High School in Colorado. Dave Cullen was one of the journalists that covered the story, starting nearly as soon as the authorities became aware of the situation. The perpetrators were two 12th grade students at the school, who pulled machine guns on their schoolmates and teachers in the enclosed space of the school building before committing suicide in a classroom. At that point, this shooting set the record for maximum number of fatalities in a mass shooting.

There have been many, many mass shootings since then, some of which have eclipsed the body count of the Columbine massacre. However, the particular incident has remained in the public consciousness more than others. I’m not sure why, maybe because the all-American teenagers from good families did not fit the popular perception of what a terrorist should look like? The perpetrators were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two best friends and partners-in-crime, literally.

Some interesting information in this book that may not be readily available from other sources:

  1. The massacre was originally intended to be a bombing, and the perpetrators estimated that 500 people would be injured/killed if things had gone as planned. Their bomb was defective (despite multiple trial runs) and when it failed, the boys took out their machine guns for Plan B.
  2. The narrative that ‘bullied kids fight back’ is not necessarily applicable here; the boys were very popular and did not have trouble finding dates.
  3. Cullen has spent some time going over psychological analyses of the boys, and he concludes that Eric was the true ‘villain’, with a diagnosis of psychopathy, while Dylan went along with the plan as he was severely depressed. This verdict was not completely convincing, but it is difficult to rationalize such irrational behaviour.

This book, of course, led me down the Wikipedia rabbithole of mass shootings in the past couple of decades. What I read was horrific and I was left with some strong opinions on gun regulation. (I am probably not qualified to have such strong opinions; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing)

This book was extremely informative, and clearly Dave Cullen is passionate about revealing the true story behind the incident. However, detailing the ‘story’ of multiple victims and their personal beliefs and their what their families are doing now felt unnecessary. 4/5 for being very informative and clear, but unnecessarily detailed. Related review: a fictional account of a school shooting from the point of view of the mother of the shooter

 

 

Some Literary Theory

This is my review of Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino.

This is not a novel, but a series of lectures by Calvino that have been compiled into a book.

This review has been in my Drafts box for way too long, so it’s going to be a lot less detailed than it could be, sorry!

Each lecture describes in detail a characteristic of literary fiction that adds value to storytelling or technique. Lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity… and, tragically, Calvino died before he was able to deliver the final lecture. The lectures are peppered with specific examples and critique of works by various authors, which really helps understand the value of each characteristic.

As an armchair reader (heh) without any formal education in literature, I’m sure I missed a lot of the subtlety; it’s also not targeted at amateur authors, moreso towards the Nobel laureates among us.

4/5 for giving me a new way to appreciate the fiction I read.

Edgy Children’s Fantasy

Poor, neglected blog.

Well, here’s a good one to make up for months of emptiness.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

Have you read the Chronicles of Narnia? It’s a children’s storybook series in which four children in WWII-era Britain find their way into a magical kingdom with talking animals. And subsequently become rulers of the kingdom and have many adventures. I used to love those stories! It was only recently that I found out that the stories are thinly veiled Christian allegories -who would have expected that giant lion to be a representation of Jesus?- and it’s a little strange to be seeing the series in a new light.[*]

Anyhow, The Magicians features a magical land called Fillory that is reminiscent of Narnia (probably not a coincidence). The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is an oddball young man from New York, who has grown up reading and loving the Fillory series. After high school, he gains admission to the poorly-named Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which he promptly joins because “it’s exclusive”.

Brakebills is the antithesis of Hogwarts. Students are overworked and put through multiple traumatic experiences for the sake of education. And they indulge in copious amounts of casual sex, bullying, and unhealthy competition. Despite this  (or perhaps because of this?) they are successful in learning the intricacies of magic.

Jaded and worldly-wise, Quentin and his fellow graduates move to NYC to pursue a life of irresponsible hedonism. When an ex-classmate reveals that Fillory is real, they decide to travel there. They don’t find what they expected though, and an epic battle ensues.

There are several plot points that seem to be poking fun at the original Narnia series, and these inside jokes made the book worth the read. For instance, the difference in the passage of time between the real world and Fillory means that the Kids wind up there in the dead of winter, but by the time they come back armed with warm clothing, it’s summer again. Unlike the knowledgeable talking animals of Narnia, the animals of Fillory don’t seem to have overcome their natural instincts- a talking bear seems more willing to discuss honey than the politics of the land.

Reviews of this book seemed largely critical of Quentin’s personality, and the negative cast this gives to the narrative. He’s immune to the joys of boarding school, because he gets caught up in academic competition. He fails to be awestruck by Fillory, the land of his childhood dreams, because he is consumed by jealousy and heartbreak after losing his girlfriend. I think, though, that this was part of the author’s mockery of children’s fantasy- they so often forget that the characters are teenagers, and more importantly, human. They have personalities and emotions beyond just being awestruck by magic and being heroic.

4/5 from me. Read this if you like dark, bleak stories and also children’s fantasy. This is probably a strange niche.

 

 

[*] Edit to add: Read an article that mentioned another interpretation of the Narnia-verse. You may remember that the series ends with the Pevensies (and Eustace and Jill and the kids from The Magician’s Nephew), sans Susan, dying in a railway accident and winding up in Narnia permanently. This apparently means that they got to go to Heaven when they died, but Susan did not, because she did not believe in Je-Aslan (AsJesus? As-us? Jes-Lan?) any more.

 

weekend reads

I’ve often noticed that my reading tastes vary based on the intellectual demands of Real Life. Now that I have an adult job complete with crazy bosses and unreasonable expectations, my poor brain finds itself unable to cope with the demands of Literature. (In contrast, I read Sophie’s World– while taking notes- during the winter vacation of my first year in college)

It’s been particularly crazy of late (I notice I’ve been saying that for months. Hmm) and chick-lit is what I’ve turned to in these desperate times. SD already reviewed The Rosie Project, so I’ll review its sequel, The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.

Unlike SD, I liked The Rosie Project enough that I picked up its sequel immediately after finishing it. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s cartoon-y and crude, complete with stereotypes and random fistfights, but it’s entertaining enough.

At the end of The Rosie Project, clueless Don Tillman and the edgy Rosie got together. Now they’re married, and have relocated to NYC for no apparent reason. And guess what, Rosie is pregnant!

The serious themes of this series are overshadowed by silly comedy. Why does Rosie stop taking her birth control without informing her husband? Why does Don have panic attacks and descend into alcoholism when he finds out he’s going to be a father? Also, it is heavily implied that Don has Asperger’s, but this is played off for jokes.

But who cares, because this book is funny in a way that The Big Bang Theory will never be. Consider this quote (in my own words, because Google failed me): “Success! I had rebooted her relationship. Unfortunately, Rosie had rebooted in safe mode. She had some questions.”

4/5 for geeky jokes. I may need to examine why I related so much to Don.

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

In an old house in England…

This is my review of the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.

I was led to this play via a mention of the grouse population problem in another work of fiction. A Google search told me that this is a modern play that has mathematical references. Since I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi, I had to give it a shot.

The last play that I read was the much-maligned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’ve read film scripts before too, out of sheer laziness. What I’ve realized is that scripts are, by necessity, a very crude medium for storytelling. Yes, spells can be cast non-verbally and very destructive spells do exist. But it is far more visually appealing to have duellers dodging blasts of colourful light. On film or stage, visual effects are necessary, even at the expense of a plot hole or two. For more obvious reasons, you also cannot have any trains of thought, or flashbacks, or any other crutches to help a dull audience member understand a character’s motivations.

I tried very hard to keep all these constraints in mind while reading Arcadia, because a lot of the subtler plot points are given away by casting and set design commentary, and a reader loses out on the experience of piecing the clues together on their own.

The first scene shows us a young man with then improbable name ‘Septimus Hodge’ tutoring the young Thomasina. It’s the early nineteenth century, and tutor and tutee(?) engage in some Oscar Wilde-worthy banter. It’s clear that Septimus and Thomasina are both extremely intelligent. The first few scenes are a delight, both for the wordplay and the way that anachronistic science and mathematics is discussed from a perspective that is very different from today.

In the present day, a scholar is studying the architectural style of the house; a scientist plays with data he finds in old hunting records; and a historian tries to uncover the story behind an eccentric genius who lived in the house nearly two centuries before.

These two storylines are interleaved with each other, with many visual parallels- the old house, lookalike characters. It’s set up as a mysterious collision with some revelations at the end. Unfortunately it’s not quite subtle enough on paper, and one doesn’t have the chance to appreciate the set design.

I would recommend this play, but only if you really take the time to sit down and visualize how the story pans out- don’t just follow the (overly simplistic) storyline like I did!

4/5. I’m not great at visualizing narrative, but if you are you’ll probably enjoy this one!