literary fiction

a conditional recommendation

Okay, so I reviewed a recent Nobel laureate and one of the other authors in the running. It’s only fair that I review another.

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Some of her other books have been reviewed here before.

This book is reminiscent of The Bell Jar, in that it is a seemingly semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a young artist. But it is, in fact, not a memoir, which makes it remarkable.

Elaine Risley is a middle-aged artist who travels to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The trip triggers memories of her younger years, and she starts to reminisce. The novel is set up as a series of flashbacks in parallel with the present day. Elaine thinks about how various incidents in her life shaped her, and analyzes her present self critically- her appearance, career and parenting. The stream of consciousness style, with frequent time shifts, is not as complicated as it could be and feels natural. Elaine is brutally honest to the point of being rough.

The plot isn’t particularly eventful, but it is relatable. Elaine struggles with bullying in school, because of her unusual childhood. She has love affairs, healthy and unhealthy. She admires her brother and finds the ways women mysterious. An overarching theme is her relationship with a “frenemy” of her youth, whose rise and fall is the mirror image of her own. Atwood is adept in depicting the interactions of the playground, and I found myself remembering the odd group dynamics of my school’s social circles.

What I look for in literary fiction these days is a deliberate injection of beauty/romance into everyday life and observations. Murakami does this a lot- who else can describe a young man making a sandwich in a more meaningful way?- and that’s part of why I keep turning back to his work. Cat’s Eye was brilliant in that respect. Some gems:

(On the adulting Impostor Syndrome) “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

(On being supported by her spouse) “I could live without it, I have before. But I like it all the same.”

Another thing I liked was the unintentional feminism of the book. It’s feminist simply by virtue of being a book with a female protagonist that mentions her goals and opinions apart from romance and relationships. Ironically, Elaine’s art is labelled feminist despite not being deliberately so. The second quote illustrated what I mean: Elaine can, and does, get by as a single woman and single mother. But she is also happy as a stay-at-home mother to her daughter when in a relationship.

So, as promised:

I highly recommend this book, IF (and only if):

  1. You are female
  2. You are extremely pretentious
  3. You are okay with being a little bored
  4. You appreciate ‘good prose’ (see 2&3 above)

5/5 from me, since I check off all the points on the above list.

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An allegory, shrouded in fog

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the English writer Kazuo Ishiguro a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, I had abandoned The Buried Giant just the previous weekend after nearly a month of trying to struggle through its 300-odd pages.

Here’s a review anyway, because I made it 60% of the way through (and because I need to justify the Did Not Finish tag to myself).

Ishiguro’s other books, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, were terrific reads and when I found a copy of The Buried Giant in the library (giant font, hardback– why America why) it went into my backpack without hesitation. Unfortunately, this book crossed the line from “introspective and subtle” to “uneventful and confusing”.

Axl and Beatrice (who he calls ‘Princess’ in every single sentence- strike one) are an elderly couple living in a medieval British village. They’re a bit isolated from their neighbours, as their advanced age is seen as a liability. Axl has also been noticing strange lapses in the collective memory of their society. A fact that he realizes repeatedly, because he keeps forgetting it. In a moment of clarity, Axl and Beatrice decide to set out on a Quest to visit their son (though they are unsure of his existence and location).

Strike two: Axl is also under the influence of the Fog, and tends to forget and rediscover things frequently. As a weekend/commute reader, I often had to flip back to reread, because I wasn’t sure whether it was my memory or Axl’s that was unreliable.

Then a couple of new characters are introduced– Gawain and Wistan. Axl doesn’t know if they are friend or foe, but seems inclined to trust them. He also finds them vaguely familiar… Argh! Strike three: everything is vague, and at 2/3rds of the way through, I expected at least a hint or two.

As expected from Ishiguro, there is a twist in the end of the story that ties things together in a neat, albeit slightly heartbreaking, way. I did not get that far into the book, but I’ll reveal what I understood of the ending from summaries: the amnesia-inducing fog is caused by the breath of Querig; this is intended to cause the Britons and Saxons to live in peace despite the British massacre of Saxons. Gawain is actually Querig’s protector, and Wistan kills him, and then the dragon, to rescue everyone from memory loss.

This is pretty thought-provoking. We are told that we need to study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But could deliberately avoiding history enable us to live more peacefully in the present by erasing prejudices? Were the amnesiac Britons and Saxons in the story doomed to fight once again?

I don’t regret not finishing this book- it put me in a reading rut for a month. Maybe someday I’ll have the time and energy to give it the patience it deserves. I recommend this book to Ishiguro fans who have some time on their hands. 1.5/5.

Another Murakami Masterpiece

This is my review of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami.

I’m a big fan of Murakami’s. I’ve read a few of his books, and irrespective of whether or not I find the story itself appealing (I’m looking at you, Kafka on the Shore), his prose never fails to carry me to a peaceful place. His books ought to be read on a Sunday afternoon on the balcony, as opposed to a rush hour commute. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his non-fiction book (with a self-explanatory title), reads as though a particularly down-to-earth middle-aged man is sitting next to you on the bus and sharing a story.

The translation of this particular book was released fairly recently- August 2014- but I only got my hands on a copy this month. And I’m glad, it was definitely worth a read.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a man in his early thirties who works in railway construction. He is ridiculously happy with his career, but there’s a hole in his life. He’s a loner, and not by choice. When he was in high school, he had a group of four close friends. Each one of them has a colour in their name, except Tsukuru- hence the ‘colourless’ label. They did everything together… until he moved out of his hometown for university. He visited often, but he was suddenly shunned by the entire group for no apparent reason. This caused him to spiral into a depression (Murakami’s now-familiar lonely college man stereotype now fits) that changed him permanently.

Now he’s dating a sophisticated, beautiful woman, but she finds the whole backstory of his high school friends very strange. She believes that the abandonment he experienced in his youth is affecting all his relationships even a decade later. Some Google-fu, and she has tracked down the four of them. Tsukuru sets off on a trip to visit all of them and find out what went wrong.

The story takes a few turns at this point, which is why I liked it so much. Murakami’s books are generally not burdened with much of a plot, and having an actual storyline really made this book shine. The ending is satisfyingly vague- he drops just enough hints for you to figure out what’s up, without making anything explicit.

4.5/5 from me. Read this if you’re a fan of laid back writing styles and psychological thrillers.

Welcome to Zombieland

So, audiobooks. For those book purists who look down upon eReaders because “I love the FEEL of paper pages!”, this might cause spontaneous combustion. But for people who spend a not-insignificant part of their day in crowded buses, hanging on for dear life, it might not be such a bad idea!

…Unless, like me, you have terrible listening comprehension. Like zero.

I still tried, because I hadn’t read anything in ages. So here is my very vague review of Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.

This book was published in 2015 and got overall good reviews, with someone (I forget who) dubbing it the modern day American Psycho. I loved the satire on modern society in AP, but found it somewhat dated, since it was published in the 90s. I was hoping that YTCHABLM would have more relatable humour.

It did, sorta. There’s some bashing of consumerism, with a mega-supermarket chain called Wally’s (sound familiar?) that uses some strange marketing tactics to suck people in. Also an all-natural junk food called Kandy Kakes with aggressive advertising and an infinite shelf life.

But apart from that, it’s the strange, uber introspective narrative of a girl called A who finds herself being replaced by her roommate B and abandoned by her boyfriend C (such naming. much wow). She has a mindless job and all the charisma and personality of an overripe banana. Her roommate on the other hand is dependent and helpless, and eats only popsicles, because oranges are too hard to peel.

The entire novel is an overly dramatic monologue, with some entertaining observations. The drama is intentional, but tends to get on one’s nerves, because the plot as a whole is not terribly eventful. It’s more about the wit and funny-strange observations on culture than any beginning-to-end storyline. The audiobook version that’s available on Amazon Audible has a narrator that fits the character very well.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel unless you’re a big fan of satire, but I DO recommend using your one month free trial of Audible if you have an Amazon account. It’s a new medium of storytelling that’s worth a try.

3/5

Be Afraid…

This is my review of We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson.

I saw this book online (I spend more time reading about reading than actually reading, if that makes sense). It’s a short read, so I decided to give it a shot, and went in completely blind- I had no idea about the theme, genre, nothing. And I got lucky! This is a very very good story.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (aka Merricat) and her sister Constance live with their ailing Uncle Julian in a large old house. Which seems fairly normal, except for the fact that it isn’t. Merricat is very strange (understatement!) and Constance has not left the house in six years. Eventually, we hear the whole story- all the remaining members of their family were poisoned six years ago, with Constance the main suspect. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but their neighbours are still suspicious.

One fine day, their cousin Charles Blackwood stops by for a visit. He seems to be interested in the family fortune that’s lying around in a safe, and Merricat is upset that her perfect little world is being disrupted.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll stop there. But trust me, this story is super spooky, in a Gothic, insane way. You’ll spot the twist far before it arrives, but it’ll scare you nonetheless.

The book left some things open to interpretation. Witchcraft or harmless superstition? What were cousin Charles’ true intentions? I was curious enough to do a Google search. The beauty of literature is that noone can say anything for sure. But one interesting piece of information I found was that Shirley Jackson herself suffered from severe agoraphobia while she was writing this novel, which probably accounts for the general anti-social behaviours and themes in the book. Unfortunately, this was to be her last published work before her death.

4.5/5 from me, and I can’t wait to read her other books.

Bonus: Shirley Jackson has also written a controversial, famous short story called The Lottery that was first published in The New Yorker. It initially reminded me of the English readers we studied in school- short, simplistic, with vague commentary on society- and then BAM, it gets dark fast. The most inoffensively offensive short story I’ve ever read.

Movie Adaptations, Morals in Children’s Books, etc

Firstly: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility movie.

I haven’t read this classic by Jane Austen, despite liking Pride and Prejudice. But Emma Thompson won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for this one, and I wanted to understand what exactly goes into adapting a screenplay. I mean, Austen did all the work already didn’t she? Plus, it’s Ang Lee’s first English language movie and he is all famous now.

I’ve concluded that there are only a dozen active British actors. You see them once in a while in Hollywood movies, but whenever any big budget Brit movie is made, they congregate into one star-studded lineup. This is no different. Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Kate Winslet (from that sinking ship movie) and Hugh Grant (from all those chick flicks) play the main roles. And Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) is one of the romantic heroes!!

The story has the typical Austen-esque drama- “He talked to me, but he is already engaged!”. But the characters are not as cartoon-y as the book, I think.

All in all, a well made movie especially if you’re a fan of the genre or can appreciate the subtleties of good direction and acting.

Secondly: CS Lewis’s Narnia series, and what he really meant.

The Narnia series is widely accepted to be a Christian allegory, with King Aslan playing the role of Jesus. The question, then, is what does Susan’s situation signify? As a kid, it never bothered me one way or another. She enters the magic kingdom along with her brothers and sisters, and in due turn, is banned from it when she becomes ‘too old’. However, she does not return at the end of the series even though her older brother Peter does. This is attributed to the fact that she has ‘discovered lipstick’ and is interested in socializing. Which is still okay, until you realize that she’s being punished pretty severely for these ‘mistakes’- her entire family dies in a train crash at the end of book seven. Harsh. Reddit has discussed different interpretations here, give it a look if you’re familiar with the series and curious. As always, Reddit’s infamous hive-mind has come up with some amazing stuff.

Why do we fall, Alfred?

This is my review of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I’ve never actually met a butler, or know anyone who has. Still, the stereotypes surrounding the profession are familiar to anyone who reads fiction. The ever elegant Jeeves, the wise Alfred, the impeccably trained Butlers of the Artemis Fowl series, they all fit the dignified, reserved image.

This novel is from the point of view of Stevens, head butler at Darlington Hall. Much to his disappointment, the mansion was bought by an American gentleman after World War II, and is being run with a fraction of its original support staff. He reminisces about the glory days of the Hall, when its influential owner held meetings of international importance under the guise of house parties.

Stevens believes that the foremost responsibility of a butler is to maintain dignity and composure. However, his facade soon cracks as he remembers his father’s death and the loss of a good ”friend”, Miss Kenton, while on a road trip through England. Ishiguro deftly reveals deeper layers of the butler’s character through the course of the novel (like peeling an onion?). Stevens is the definition of an unreliable narrator however, he is reluctant to speak ill of his employers, and rarely indicates his true feelings on any matter.

Kazuo Ishiguro uses a slow, descriptive writing style, similar to his other hit, Never Let Me Go. The voice of Stevens is stilted, formal, and touching, and exactly what one would expect from a butler! It is painful to see him distance himself from Miss Kenton- though whether this is out of professionalism or sheer obliviousness is unclear. At under 200 pages, there is hardly an unnecessary word.

This book was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, proof that it is a true masterpiece. Read this if you appreciate books with subtlety and beautiful prose. This book is sure to become a classic, at least in English Lit classes. 4/5 from me.

Prohibition, Society, and Self-fulfilling Prophecies

This is my review of Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara.

The title of the book comes from an old story, retold by W Somerset Maugham.

“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Julian English is a fairly successful, popular thirty year old living in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. He’s an executive in the automobile industry, is happily married, and has a lively circle of friends. His only vice is drinking- during the Prohibition!- but nobody’s perfect. Despite the ominous beginning, at first the book is a light hearted mockery of American suburban society, with its superficial parties and clubs. Then one day in a fit of drunken annoyance, Julian throws his drink in the face of a business associate. The party is ruined, and so is Julian’s social life. Or is it?

Over the next couple of days Julian, fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, ‘ruins’ his marriage, reputation, and livelihood. And, as promised by the title, it ends in tragedy. I liked this book because it reminded me that so many things in life- misfortune, friendship, social status- are just a matter of perspective. One can never tell for sure whether a decision is right or wrong, or even if there is a right or wrong. Julian’s happiness was stifling and boring, but the alternative was worse. Whether or not it was a self fulfilling prophecy is up to the reader to decide. The narration is fast paced and descriptive, and he plot is well planned.

Read it, if you didn’t like The Great Gatsby. Read it, if you want a book on a serious topic that isn’t pretentious and dull. 4/5.

Pretentious Literary Review

Anyone who has studied a second or third language in school is likely to be familiar with amateur literary reviews. The literature section of the syllabus usually consisted of short stories in a variety of different settings. Watered down stories about child marriage in South India, unemployment in the USA during the Great Depression and Norse mythology provided nuggets of insight into different cultures. Also, the stories invariably had hidden, ‘inner’ meanings that were beyond my limited imagination. And linguistic skills, probably.

After years of writing half-hearted analyses of how lamp light is a metaphor for wisdom and how the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes an escape from social norms (or a loss of social status, depending on the context- why can’t these things be consistent?!), I was glad to embrace a career in engineering. Unambiguity is essential in computer languages, a fact that provides me with much reassurance. I remain firmly convinced that all literary devices- similes, metaphors, personification and whatnot- are concepts cooked up by language teachers to harass gullible students. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

But once in a while, one comes across a piece of work that works clearly and flawlessly on multiple levels.

The other day I came across The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on someone’s to-read list, tagged as a literary classic. A Google search told me it was a psychological thriller in 6000 words, so I abandoned my buggy code for a while and read it then and there.

On the surface it is a commonplace story of a young mother’s descent into madness during a ‘rest cure’ for what is diagnosed as nerves- post partum depression, maybe. Her description of the unpleasant yellow wall paper in her bedroom serves as an indicator of her weakening grip on reality. It begins with a mild irritation with the vivid colour, and ends with hallucinations of a woman trapped behind the garish patterns on the wall.

So why is this review accompanied by a rant about literary analysis? This story has a real life context that gives it a whole new dimension. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffered from depression for several years. A renowned physician, Dr S Weir Mitchell, prescribed what was then known as a rest cure- an extended period of time without any intellectual or physical stimulation. After a couple of months of this, Gilman felt herself sinking further into mental illness and began to work on her writing once more. She intended this story to be a warning to Dr Mitchell and other patients.

Gilman was of the belief that the concept of the rest cure stemmed from the patriarchal structure of society at the time. Men were unwilling to allow women to do anything that might eventually allow them to carve an identity for themselves, so they were actively discouraged from writing and painting. Portraying women as having delicate nerves or fragile mental health was an indirect way of subjugating them.

Whether you view the story as a feminist work, or a public service announcement, or merely a psychological thriller is up to you. It works well at any level and makes a good short read, despite the obvious datedness of the language and setting. It is available in the public domain (legally, for a change) at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952. It’s worth a shot. 3.5/5