Resuming Booksplore with Emma

There was a time in my life when classics bored the heck out of me. Pulp fiction was the way to go (James Rollins, anyone?), and anything that did not have a couple of murders did not go well with me. Wodehouse was perhaps the only “oldie” who entered my sphere of erudition, but that was because he made me laugh, and no one who makes me laugh can stay away from me.

Perhaps age changes people, or life-partnership with superior intellectuals, or a case of Minver-Cheevy-syndrome, or (more likely) menopausal hormone mess-up, my reading habits have, in the past years, steadily moved towards the turn of earlier centuries, and Tolstoy, Nabokov and Dickens bedew my pillow more often than not. (While we are at it, Scott Fitzgerard is way overrated. The Great Gatsby gave me a headache)

I have attempted reading Jane Austin when I was in my teens, and gave it up as a bad job within two pages. I am halfway (48% on my kindle) through it now, and am not surprised why. Jane Austin’s Emma is a mirror of what I was at that age – an impulsive, spoilt brat of a youngster, the kind you want to slap tight across her face, and it probably bothered me to see how irritating I really was.

A beautifully written book, with so many quotable quotes. The only problem is that all events are very predictable – which is not bad, we are not reading a work of mystery, after all, but drama – but it is a little annoying that the protagonist (that prick Emma) does not see what is staring at everyone else’s face. But it makes sense, a narcissistic, self-cetered woman will only choose to believe in her own delusions no matter what screams out. One can easily picture Emma in a selfie-snap, version 1815.

I am reading the book really slowly, because this is one of the books that would make me feel sad about completing.


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Swan Song

A Gervase Fen Mystery by Edmund Crispin, set in the academic setting of Oxford where Fen, the amateur detective is a professor of English Language and Literature.   The mystery is fairly ordinary – there is one man that everybody in a certain opera band hates, this man dies, and everyone has an alibi.  The eccentrically brilliant Fen solves the case that the reader has solved already halfway through the book.

What make the series worth reading are the elegance of prose and the various interesting (if not always familiar) allusions to literary stuff. I read Fen mysteries for the illusion of erudition it gives me, although I can’t really claim to understand all literary references.


Book: Swan Song

Author: Edmond Crispin

Year of (Re)Publication: 2006

Buy at Amazon Flipkart (India)

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Lamb by Christopher Moore has been by far the best read of the year so far.

Lamb is the alternate gospel of Christ, as recorded by His childhood friend Bif, who was blacked out of the conventional Gospel for reasons that I should not be revealing in a review, especially one as brief as this. A very interesting representation of Jesus (or “Joshua” as Biff knows him), bringing out the human side of the messiah without really belittling the divinity associated with him.  I particularly liked the ending where the story merges seamlessly with crucifiction and resurrection of the real Gospel.

A must read for anyone who likes humour, and is not offended by his version of the Messiah’s life.

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Rabbit Run

It is said that books are your best friends.  If “Rabbit, Run” is my best friend, I need no enemies.

Don’t get me wrong.  Updike was a fantastic writer. His descriptions are vivid and detail oriented, if you excuse the slight self-indulgent pretentiousness – but all writers have to be self-indulgent to translate personal experience into a shared event, and he takes a simple story of human misery (and by misery, I mean the I-want-to-tear-my-hair-out-and-howl-to-high-heavens misery) and weaves into it, verbose but engaging and detailed descriptions of things, places, feelings, sex (yes, there is a sex-fixation) and what not, so that the misery is amplified many times over, and the book becomes ripe enough to win one of those literature prizes that are given to books that are infinitely depressing, or deprave, or both.  Thankfully, this book is not as deprave as it is depressing.

[Spoiler Alert] In a nutshell, the story is about chronically befuddled Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who leaves his alcoholic wife who is pregnant with their second child, drives southwards, and then for some reason returns to his home town halfway, falls in love and moves in with a hooker, plays golf with a pastor, leaves her to get back to his wife who has delivered their daughter, flirts with the pastor’s wife, leaves the wife again when she refuses to have sex with him a week after she has delivered, goes back to the hooker’s house, and she is away, so comes back to the wife, who meanwhile has accidentally drowned the baby in drunken stupor (what happened to all the policemen in Brewer, PA?), and he leaves the wife at the baby’s funeral, and comes back to the hooker who is now pregnant with his child (is this why he is called “Rabbit” – because he breeds like one?), and in the last paragraph leaves her too.

Seriously.  That’s the story.  If you don’t believe me, read the book.  I dare you.



Book: Rabbit, Run

Author: John Updike

Year of Publication: 1960

Buy at Amazon | Flipkart (India)

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Blood Music

Blood Music is a SF that starts off fairly simple – a self-absorbed scientist injects himself with genetically engineered cells, which over the course of the book, develop intelligence and collective consciousness. As the story proceeds, it gets not only horrific – where an entire continent, including almost all of its living beings, is transformed into all encompassing, hyper-intelligent protoplasmic goo, capable of even diffusing nuclear bombs hurled at it, but also complicated, as the cells, briefly interact with the vector, the human vehicle who eventually dissolves and integrates into the goo, becoming part of the collective consciousness himself. The end is ambiguous (at least to me) – not satisfied or being incompatible with the macro world, the cells enter quantum dimensions (I am not sure if I got this right) go into space-time continuum (fuzzy about this too), and collapse the physical rules of the world as we know them.  Is this the end of the world?  If so, where do the survivors go?  Inside themselves into that quantum space? Or to outer space? Or are they the same?

The book raised in me the basic question of what really IS consciousness.  Is it a chemical phenomenon distinct from the physical world, or is it part of it?  As human beings, we are an ensemble of various types of cells, but the concept of “I” transcends the components to signify something else.  Or is thought itself merely a collection of individual chemical reactions that happen in each of the billions of tiny components that somehow come together as a single entity? Does the “Me” exist after the components are worm food?  Or not?

A different kind of sci-fi that builds up slowly into a live wire, leaving you high and dry in the end with a feeling of what-the-heck-just-happened?  I suppose that in itself is a mark of success.

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A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley must be the longest book of bland narration I have endured in my life. Yet, I pursued the book doggedly, with the one aim that I must read the book before trashing it here. It limps along for almost 70% of the book with reams and reams of boring narration. And then suddenly like the author just woke up, there is a much contrived pretentious hyperactive melodrama and an abrupt, hurried closure. The feeling is of having trudged all the way to the top of Mt. Everest just to be suddenly pushed off the cliff.

The book revolves around a family that owns a hundred acres of farming land. The family comprises an old widower, his two married daughters and their husbands and the dynamics (i.e. if you look hard enough) of their relationships. The father had sexually abused his two daughters as kids and that has long term consequences in how they see each other. The book ends with the older daughter walking out of her disfunctional family.

I admit that until recently, society has been very patriarchal, unjust towards the woman. Even now, women are victimized solely on account of their sex. But sometimes do we take it too far? The book suggests that all men are evil – the father who crushes his daughters, the husband who wife-beats and later rejects her because of her mastectomy, the husband who worries more of his hog farm than wife, the neighbour who manipulates the two sisters for his own sexual needs, the neighbour who badmouths the sisters …as I think back, I can’t remember a single male character who has been portrayed as normal. They are all fiends, out to get women. The protagonist, Ginny,who gives in to everyone’s whims and fancies througout the book, suddenly walks out on her husband because she has had enough. Are we supposed to sympathise with her? Are we supposed to sympathise with anyone at all in the story? The women have their own agendas (except of course Ginny, who is an angel who has been “pushed” beyond endurance) and the men are evil. A law suit, heartbreaking senility of the father who was once a heartless monster, bankruptcy, a scheming ungrateful sister, extra marital affairs, dishonesty, divorce, miscarriages, deception – all elements to add to the sense of utter hopelessness. For the reader that is. The author must have known the moment she wrote the last sentence that she has pulled a smart one.

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The Little Black Book of Stories

Some read books for entertainment.   Some, for knowledge. Language.  For the story.  For the emotions elicited.  Some like the funnies.  Romance. Sleaze. Tear jerkers.  I read for entertainment.  I like the funnies.  I like books that make me think. Not cry.  I hate books that depress.  And sadly, it seems most award winners are tear-jerkers that more often than not, exploit the misery of others to further their own readership.  Human depravity is their calling card.  The watch word there is “most award winners”.  Sometimes you hit jackpot and come across an award winner, who, despite dealing with dark subject matter that disturbs you at many levels, does not make you despair. The story or stories are beautiful narrations of pragmatic or fantastic ideas and thoughts that, even with the dark background, entertain and excite the reader.

I have never read A.S. Byatt despite having heard much about her,  partly because of my aversion to award winners.  I finally yielded to the temptation to read her collection of short stories titled “Little Black Book of Stories” with much trepidation, because bad enough, the author is an award winner, worse still, the title reads “black”. Yes, the book was vaguely disturbing.  But more by its macabre than anything else.   The stories are scholarly, as is the flow of language.  Each story has many layers to it, the superficial, apparently fantastic, fairy-tale (albeit grim) to the more profound truths the tales symbolise.  The first story (“the thing in the forest”), for example, where two young war-refugee girls, wander into a forest, and see a horrible, smelly creature that gobbles everything in its path, and the vision shapes their entire lives as they split and go their way after the war, seems on the surface to be a chilling, horror story. The symbolism, as I see it, is of war itself as the creature, that obliterates all in its path and alters life in future as well.  Some of us let it consume us and some merely shove the terror into the recess of memory to make entertaining stories of it for later.  Perhaps the symbolism is in my own head and the author never intended it to be anything more than a horror story, but the success of the story is that it fired the reader’s imagination to make connections possibly unintended. “A stone woman” another such story in the collection, is the fable of a mourning woman, slowly turning into stone inside out – literally. This is a fantastically descriptive story, which can be read just for its beauty without bothering about symbolism and alternate meanings.  However, the story does appear encyclopedic in sections, which can put people off by its apparent pretentiousness. Another disturbing, and vaguely comforting story is “The Pink Ribbon” where an aging war veteran finds a way to cope with caring for his Alzheimer-ridden wife Madeleine, by giving life to her alter-ego, Dido, a fall-out of ‘Aeneid’.  “Raw Material” is by far, the least impressive story of the collection in that, the premise is interesting and the descriptions exemplary (the author’s love for the language shows), but the story predictable, exaggerated and lame (especially the climax). “Body Art” is another interesting story of human emotions that science is yet to contend with.

The little black book opened up my window to A.S. Byatt. I am now encouraged to read her other works, including her Booker winner, “Possession, A romance”.  I am hoping that this book will dispel my mental block to award winners.

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The Leftovers

I started reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margeret Atwood some time back but gave up in a few pages because of the sense of utter hopelessness that it conveyed.  I chose The Leftovers by Tom Perotta after reading a friend’s review with much trepidation because the premise of a global inexplicable catastrophe that it talks about seems filled with potential for despair, much like the Handmaid’s tale.  While it was indeed slightly disturbing, it was not of the scale that makes you want to curl up and sob.

What happens when millions of people throughout the world disappear into thin air one day?  The disappearance is indiscriminate and is not confined to any particular religion or belief-system, thus it can’t technically be the Biblical “Rapture”.  What happens to the people left behind -the leftovers?  Do they come to terms with something that cannot be explained?  The mass disappearance of loved ones leads to much emotional trauma and confusion, a fertile ground for all kinds of quirky sects and cults.  Interestingly, the story revolves around the family of Kevin Garvey, the only family in town that did not lose anyone to the “Rapture” directly.  The indirect effect is just as harrowing. Kevin’s wife joins an extremist cult that refuses to let people forget and move on.  Kevin’s adolescent daughter is devastated by what she perceives as her mother’s rejection of her over her friend, who disappeared.  Kevin’s son joins a cult by a pseudo-godman, who is discovered to be a rapist and bogus. Kevin himself tries to woo another woman who lost her entire family to the Rapture.  What becomes of all of them is the plot of the story.

The book, while not racey, is decently paced, with no lags anywhere.  The interesting thing about the story is that the focus is entirely on the “left overs” and not the people who disappeared.    I had one nagging doubt.  When a catastrophe of that scale happens, does not science try to step in to make sense?  There is no mention of science at all.   The story ends on a mixed note – partly hopeful, partly hopeless, but open in the sense that life goes on as best as it can.  A good book to read once.

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Without Feathers

Without Feathers is a collection of 18 eclectic works of Woody Allen. The pieces are humourous and the humour is both wacky and intelligent, a combination only Allen can pull.   The collection includes two plays – Death and God, both of the ROFL variety.  Allen also has the obligatory French painter piece – If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists – where Vincent van Gogh writes to his brother Theo about the travails of being a dentist and concludes that he would have been a lot better had he chosen to be a painter, like their mother wanted !

My favourite piece in the collection is The whore of Mensa, a brilliant short story about a call-girl racket, where the call girls provide “intellectual” escort service.  An excerpt from this story (the story is available online, so I am sure I am not violating any copyright agreements here):

Seconds later, a silky voice answered, and I told her what was on my mind. “I understand you can help me set up an hour of good chat,” I said.

“Sure, honey. What do you have in mind?”

“I’d like to discuss Melville.”

“Moby Dick or shorter novels?”

“What’s the difference?”

“The price. That’s all. Symbolism’s extra.”

“What’ll it run me?”

“Fifty, maybe a hundred for Moby Dick. You want a comparative discussion – Melville and Hawthorne? That could be arranged for a hundred.”

“The dough’s fine,” I told her and gave her the number of a room at the Plaza.

“You want a blonde or a brunette?”

“Surprise me,” I said, and hung up.

Allen’s movies are usually breezy with oodles of the feel-good factor, and his books, enormously entertaining. Woody Allen can be considered the contemporary P.G.Wodehouse.

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Dave Barry Turns 40

Caught in the middle of an agonizing gum inflammation that precluded any sensible activity, and needing something to cheer me up, I picked up “Dave Barry Turns 40”.  What do you know?  The book starts with the following sentences:

Well, its finally happening. I’m talking about the long-predicted Aging Process. I see many signs of it in my own life.  For example, I have become tremendously concerned about my gums.

Considering that I will be hitting the milestone myself in a few months, it was hilarious that I should be reading that concern for gums is a sign of aging.

Nothing helps overcome the adversity of middle age than a good laugh. In 10 chapters, Barry lightens, through his sophomoric humour, the mundane issues that hit you at 40 – the disintegrating body, midlife marriage, parenting, sex after 40 (or sex? after 40?), time management, financial management, politics  etc.  And while you are, as the cliche goes, rollingOFL, one sudden poignant section “Lost in America” tears you up, and it takes a while to get over the constriction at the throat to go on with the rest of the book.

Dave Barry is a welcome read if you are looking for a light book that will make you laugh without thinking too much.  The humour is fairly clean, and what impresses me most is the up-beat-ness of thoughts that makes you laugh in, not laugh at, life.  We have “Dave Barry turns 50” as well, I am debating if I should read it now, or wait a decade longer to laugh out louder through association.

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